x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Motorcycle takes on bike on Tour de France's famous Alpe d'Huez

Watching the Tour de France, it's jaw-dropping to see how fast those guys can hustle their bikes down a mountain. But could a bicycle ever beat a superbike?

Warren Pole, on a Yamaha R1 motorcycle, and Howie Sylvester on his racing bike, face off on Alpe d'Huez.
Warren Pole, on a Yamaha R1 motorcycle, and Howie Sylvester on his racing bike, face off on Alpe d'Huez.

In the mountains, having already performed superhuman feats of endurance climbing monstrous summits, riders of the Tour de France, which is on now until July 24, pull the pin and hurtle down the other side at incredible speeds, routinely leaving the following television camera motorcycles trailing helplessly in their wake. This leads me to wonder: could a racing bicycle beat a superbike in a race down one of these very mountains?

There is only one way to find out; I armed myself with a Yamaha R1 and headed for the French Alps with former elite cycle racer Howie Sylvester and his scalpel-like, handmade carbon fibre racing bike. Our test track would be Alpe d'Huez, the most famous climb on the tour.

Almost two kilometres high and 13.8km long from top to bottom, Alpe d'Huez is a serious test for any rider and machine. With 21 hairpins and an average gradient of almost eight per cent, it is a narrow and torturously twisty descent loaded with off-camber corners, uneven tarmac and minimal run-off, which often leads directly to a sheer plunge into the valley below.

If there is one road in the world where a bicycle could upset the odds to triumph over a superbike, this is it. Even so, those odds are still long, to say the least.

With 179hp and a top speed of 299kph, the R1 is a brutally fast motorcycle. In full race trim, it recently won the World Superbike championship; in road trim, it is a sublimely fast piece of modern engineering that manages to pack its immense firepower into a refined package that allows a good rider to get closer than ever to exploring the limits of its performance while minimising the risk of ejecting themselves into the passing scenery in the process.

In the world of supremely fast motorcycles, the Yamaha has few equals, so surely taking on a bicycle, even a thoroughbred racing one, should present little problem?

Because with no engine, the bicycle is at a 179hp disadvantage before we even start, while its painfully skinny tyres give it a pair of contact patches little larger than two thumbprints to stick it to the road - and there's not an ounce of suspension to help out, either. Then there are the brakes, or rather the lack of them - forget hydraulic discs, all this machine has to play with are cable brakes on traditional calipers - the same ones you had on your BMX when you were 10.

This isn't to say the bike is unsophisticated - far from it. Made by Serotta, crafters of some of the finest custom-built racing frames in the world, and loaded with the slickest components modern cycling has to offer, this carbon fibre marvel is a flyweight, minimal rolling work of art with just one purpose in mind - maximum speed by minimum resistance. If any bicycle could take the fight to the R1, this is it. At £7,500 (Dh44,000) it's far from cheap, but then racing perfection rarely is.

Two great contenders, one massive mountain and one winner to be decided. It was time to race.

Having arrived in Alpe d'Huez the night before, we began race day fresh and well fed - handy for me, even more so for Sylvester, who was going to need all the energy he could muster today. We headed to the official climb finish line at the top of the mountain, which would be our start line, with almost 14km of hard descent ahead of us.

Lined up alongside Sylvester as we prepared for the first of two warm-up descents to familiarise ourselves with the course, this challenge seemed hugely unfair. Not only did I have all the horsepower and braking, I also had all the protection thanks to full leathers, body armour, boots, leather gloves and a full face helmet. Sylvester, meanwhile, had little more than some tight Lycra and gravity on his side.

Setting off on my first warm-up descent, several things rapidly became clear. Cold tyres would be an issue in the early turns and, with Alpe d'Huez's hairpins being so tight, I would really need to be on the boil - it's not often you try to really get a move on through repeated 180-degree, first-gear corners. Care would be needed.

But the R1 was proving very adept. Where older models of the same bike would have been a handful trying to lay the power down out of such awkwardly slow corners, this version, despite its immense power, was a pussycat.

Even so, this was still one serious physical challenge, even with the benefit of an internal combustion engine. With such a twisty course, there was no room for relaxation - I was either flat on the gas or hard on the brakes. There was no in between. I may have had the horsepower advantage, but there was precious little room to use it.

We definitely had a race on here - more so than I had ever expected.

This was confirmed when Sylvester completed his descent, hammering into view hard on the pedals striking for the finish minutes later and less than a minute slower than the R1. As an opening gambit, the gap was far closer than I liked.

My discomfort grew as Sylvester explained he'd been badly limited on top speed due to the gearing on his bike being too low. In places where he could have pedalled harder, he was simply spinning out.

One gearing change later and a distinctly confident Sylvester set off down the mountain once more, returning to pronounce himself "very, very happy" with his bike setup. Rattled, I set off for a second practice run, ran wide on two hairpins as I overcooked the entries and found myself at the bottom of the mountain even slower than my first attempt. Not good.

I had come here expecting the result to be a formality for the R1, but this was looking uncomfortably close. I was going to have to work for this and accuracy would be every bit as important as outright speed. Sylvester was just too close for me to make a single mistake.

For my official timed run I gave it everything and wound up at the base of the legendary mountain in 10 minutes 44 seconds, with my fastest time of the day by a whisker. I wasn't home and dry yet, though, and it was a nervous time as I paced the roadside waiting for Sylvester to appear.

When he did, he was pouring sweat and blowing hard - he had very obviously pushed this run to the limit - and he had hugely closed the gap. Word from a couple of locals stationed halfway up the course was they had never seen any bicycle descend this mountain so fast.

His time? Eleven minutes and 12 seconds - just 28 seconds slower than the Yamaha. All I can say is thank heavens they're not putting engines on bicycles. Us superbike riders will really be in trouble the day that happens.