To try and gain some altitude acclimatisation in preparation for the l’Étape du Tour, I’d cycled up to the Col du Galibier (2642m) from La Grave, did a high level ridge walk from the Col de Granon, climbed a ten pitch rock climb that started at 2189m, and finished by sleeping the night at the 2413m high Col de Granon. Could I have done more? Maybe. But that was it now, after starting my training at the end of April the morning of the race had arrived…
The morning started abruptly at 5.10am when the PA system burst into life with loud motivational tunes. We’d set the alarm for 6.30 as our official start time was 8.30. Two hours to get ready should be fine we thought. But as we’d managed to park the van almost opposite the start we got rudely awakened with the earliest starters who would set off at 7am.
The Étape not only follows a mountain stage route of the Tour de France, it is also run under the same conditions as the Tour: closed roads, a rolling gendarme escort, support vehicles, and a Broom wagon. Get overtaken by the Broom and your race is over. This strict timing is to ensure the roads can safely reopen for regular traffic at a reasonable time. However, it seems a bit unfair to me that some people effectively get up to a two-hour head start on the Broom. The start times are allocated based on the information one gives when registering for the event. Likely average speed, ambition to simply finish or compete, if you’ve done the Étape before, etc. But we soon learnt from speaking to people, with more Étape experience, that they had simply lied on their applications to gain an earlier start time and get a crucial advantage on the Broom.
Our answer was more blunt. We took advantage of our position parked alongside an early starting group (each group is 1000 riders, there are 16 groups) and simply leapt over the fencing as that group started. We’d bought ourselves an extra hour and a half buffer on being swept up by the Broom. Our biggest concern of failure to complete the course had been swiftly eliminated. Nice.
The Durance valley was still in the deep shade of the mountains as we cycled off south from Briançon. It was almost cold. But with the first 58km being almost all downhill the speeds were quick, an average of maybe 45kph. Unfortunately I soon lost Steve and Rachel as I latched on to a fast wheel going up the small rise before Argentière-la-Bessée.
I saw Steve again briefly 50km in at Embrun as we both flashed past the first feeding station. We’d agreed to skip this station as part of our strategy to stay ahead of the Broom.
There were massive numbers of people cheering, “Allez Allez”, at the sides of the roads. In these early stages before I got too tired I often shouted back, “Hello”, or “Bonjour”. It was tremendous fun. The French love their cycling and they showed it.
Shortly after Embrun was the first significant climb, up to Côte des Demoiselles Coiffées. With Steve twiddling his energy saving super low gears and me pushing my higher, but never-the-less the lowest gears I could afford to fit to my bike, I left Steve behind on that climb. From here on I was on my own.
This first proper long descent was great fun, and fast!
The next milestone in my mind was the second feeding station at around 100km in Barcelonnette.
Other than the 500m or so, when I had benefited from a wheel to draft before Argentière-la-Bessée, the flat run in to Barcelonnette was the only time I managed to find a group going at my pace. It seemed that maybe most of the people in the early starting groups had told the truth, they were going faster than me and I couldn’t stay with them to work together. A shame, it would have been a good tactic and advantage to work with some other riders and save having to move all that air ahead by myself. However, I took full advantage of this group and made nearly 36kph for 7 or 8km in to Barcelonnette.
The feeding station was best described as organised chaos. Hundreds of cyclists filling water bottles, munching bananas, downing plastic cups of Coke, and stuffing their pockets full of energy products and gels ready for the next section – the first big test, the climb to the Col de Vars (2109m).
The early morning cold was well and truly gone now and the scorching heat of the day was building. I was drenched from head to foot in sweat, I’d taken my glasses off to make wiping the sweat from my brow and eyes easier, and most painfully my feet were on fire.
I arrived at the Col de Vars pretty knackered. I was worried about the fact that the biggest climb, up to the Col d’Izoard (2360m), was still ahead of me. But I decided to roll through the rest and watering tents at the col and enjoy the incredible long and fast descent to Guillestre at around 150km. Downhill is physically restful, but the speed demands intense concentration even with the closed roads, and no risk of oncoming traffic, allowing the racing line to be taken around every super fast corner and hairpin bend. Guillestre was the final feeding station. It was also where I hoped to rendezvous with Laetitia, Sandra, Keith, and Fiona for a break, some motivation, and perhaps an ice-cream!
I didn’t see them so I phoned Laetitia from the feeding station and discovered that the roads out of Briançon around the Étape Village were remaining closed to traffic all day. They were marooned and had had to settle for waiting at the finish in Briançon. This was a little bit of a blow to my morale. But at least I only had the one obstacle ahead of me, the biggest and baddest climb of the day, up to the Col d’Izoard, 32km of relentless up hill cycling. (I didn’t realise that Keith, Fiona, Alison, and Ian were in Guillestre. They saw me – and got some great photos – but I didn’t see them as I cycled past their vantage point and on a few hundred metres to the feeding station.)
Sometime earlier in the baking sunshine I had also realised that in our dash to leap over the fences at the start I had not applied any sun protection. I was worried about getting burnt and hoped to get some lotion from Laetitia here. I supposed in the end I was lucky that my exposed legs and arms were already well tanned so I didn’t burn despite a lack of protection.
The first 16k or so after Guillestre were easy enough with nothing more than a 5% gradient. Then turning towards Arvieux the road steepened alarmingly. With the final 3km in to Arvieux at around 11%. The full heat of the day had arrived too with temperatures of over 30°C (possibly even 40°C in the valley), full sun, little or no shade from roadside trees, and maximum effort I arrived at Arvieux, the last water stop at La Chalp, almost suffering from heat stroke.
I’ve never actually suffered from heat stroke so I can’t say for sure if I was on the cusp of it or not, but I certainly felt queasy, giddy, knackered, and incredibly hot. So I took the safe option and sat down, poured cold water over my head, and waited until my heart rate returned to something near normal. I was in Arvieux for nearly 40 minutes before I left feeling cooler and (kind of) ready to tackle the last and steepest bit of the climbing, just another 9km to go.
Out of Arvieux are 3km of up to 13% gradient road with multiple switchbacks. Still with no shade and intense sunshine it was tough. I passed dozens of people pushing their bikes. Arriving at the Casse Déssert, a weird sun baked scree-slope-desert with massive strange towers of rock bursting through the scree, I enjoyed a short rest before a quick descent to the foot of the final climb to the Col d’Izoard. This final 3km of the climb was billed as being the steepest and toughest of the lot. But thanks to my little rest at the Casse Déssert it went easily and I arrived at the timed finish at the top. Wow! This was easily the toughest cycle ride of my life. What an incredible buzz to complete the challenge. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of cyclists strewn around the col celebrating, resting, and taking in the surroundings. In four days time perhaps the deciding stage of the Tour de France would finish here too.
The only thing left to do was descend to Briançon and the Étape Village finish.
Nearly 200km of riding, 3700m of climbing, and 9 hours 25 minutes after leaving Briançon, Laetitia and Sandra were there at the finish line, cheering, taking photographs, and offering very welcome support. I got my medal, laid on the grass in the shade, drank, ate my finisher’s pasta meal, and waited for Steve and Rachel to finish too. An absolutely amazing day!
Series - l'Etape du Tour
- l’Etape du Tour Training Finally Starts…
- l’Etape du Tour Route
- l’Etape du Tour Training Progress
- Scorchio through the Trough of Bowland and on up Kingsdale and down Dentdale
- Last long training ride … the Fred Whitton Challenge de Staveley
- l’Etape du Tour 2017