Detail of Beat Breu’s own model depicting his victory at the Alpe d’Huez on 20 July 1982.
Detail of Beat Breu’s own model depicting his victory at the Alpe d’Huez on 20 July 1982. Museum of the Vélo-Club Fribourg

Beat Breu’s magnificent victory, in miniature

The history of Swiss cycling is full of thrilling stories. One of these is Beat Breu’s historic victory on the Alpe d’Huez in 1982. Much has already been written about this win. What very few people know, though, is that Beat Breu immortalised his victorious ride in meticulous detail in a terrain model.

Guido Balmer

Guido Balmer

Guido Balmer is the communications officer for the department of regional planning, environment, mobility and infrastruture of the canton of Fribourg and a freelance communications professional.

13.8 kilometres, 21 hairpin bends and 1,090 metres of cumulative elevation gain: these are the key features of the ascent from Le Bourg-d’Oisans to Alpe d’Huez. It’s one of the most famous mountain stages of the Tour de France. This year, the Alpe d’Huez ascent was back in the programme on 14 July, France’s national holiday, as the royal stage of the Tour 2022. And in 2013, riders had to battle their way up the Alpe d’Huez twice in the same stage, to celebrate the 100th Tour de France. This is an indication of how important this particular ascent is for France.

Birth of the “Mountain Flea”

The stage to the Alpe d’Huez is also of some significance for the history of Swiss cycling. It’s the scene of one of the greatest of Swiss victories. This is where, 40 years ago, the then 24-year-old Beat Breu rode to triumph in the 16th stage of the Tour de France, a stage that took riders over a total of 123 kilometres from Orcières-Merlette to the Alpe d’Huez. Breu charged ahead right at the start of the climb, and maintained his lead for the remainder of the stage. He suffered “like a dog”, as he always says when asked about his historic victory. But his coach kept shouting at him from the support vehicle: “Keep going! You’ve absolutely got to win today.” Beat Breu’s stage win on the Alpe d’Huez was the first for a Swiss rider – and it remains the only one, even though the Alpe d’Huez has featured on the Tour de France programme a further 23 times since then. What makes Beat Breu’s achievement all the more remarkable is that he was taking part in the Tour de France for the first time – and he had never even seen the famous mountain before. What’s more, four days earlier he had already won a mountain stage in the Pyrenees, the stage from Pau to Pla d’Adet in Saint-Lary-Soulan. The double strike earned Beat Breu the nickname “Mountain Flea”.
Beat Breu’s triumph on the Alpe d’Huez on 20 July 1982, full length version (crossing the finish line is at 48:00). YouTube / ina.ft

Triumph celebrates its 40th anniversary

Much has been written about this historic victory, most recently in the run-up to stage 12 of the Tour 2022, which led to the Alpe d’Huez. In their previews of this particular stage, the Swiss media commented on how this year’s event marks the 40th anniversary of Beat Breu’s remarkable feat. The NZZ devoted nearly a whole page to the triumph. And in Blick, the article on “Switzerland’s sole victory” on the “mythical mountain” extended across two pages. Beat Breu says in Blick: “The incline isn’t the most difficult, but it’s just one of the most important in cycling. I’m proud of that victory.” A visit to the Velomuseum in Fribourg shows just how much that victory means to Beat Breu. The Museum is home to a terrain model featuring seven hairpin bends of the ascent to Alpe d’Huez. The model is about one metre in height, width and depth. It’s crafted in minute detail, with trees, rocks, a dense crush of fans, a convoy of support vehicles and, of course, the cyclists. After the last bend, immediately before the “flamme rouge” that marks the start of the final kilometre, is a rider in the red and white jersey of the Swiss cycling team Cilo-Aufina, framed by a group of fans waving Swiss flags. It’s Beat Breu, of course, on the way to his biggest win.
Model depicting Beat Breu’s victory at the Alpe d’Huez on 20 July 1982, made by Breu himself.
Model depicting Beat Breu’s victory at the Alpe d’Huez on 20 July 1982, made by Breu himself. Museum of the Vélo-Club Fribourg

Terrain model in the Museum of the Vélo-Club Fribourg

It’s also Beat Breu who created this terrain model in meticulous detail, with his own hands. His terrain model is a visible, tangible commemoration of his moment of glory. The miniatures capture those moments of 20 July 1982, when Beat Breu suffered like a dog and wrote himself into the annals of cycling history. And the best part of this story, which very few people know, is that Beat Breu didn’t make the model for himself. He gifted it to Auguste Girard, one of the founders of the Velomuseum Fribourg, to mark the Museum’s fifth anniversary in 2017. Auguste Girard was the coach of the Cilo-Aufina team from 1980 to 1984 – the same man who pushed Beat Breu to victory at the Alpe d’Huez on 20 July 1982.

Wheels, races, glory. Swiss cycling

15.07.2022 16.10.2022 / National Museum Zurich
On the road, in the arena or across country: the exhibition presents the world of Swiss cycling in all its facets. Photographs tell the stories of mountain ascents, cycling acrobatics both highly skilled and unintentional, duels in the arena and out on the roads, and the good old military bicycle.

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