I’d signed on to Etape as a last minute decision following a great offer from Sports Tours International. The package I took up would enable me to ride the Marmotte with Sports Tours, then move with them to Megeve to hang out for a week before riding the Etape du Tour; the yearly event where idiots like me ride a stage of the Tour De France.
For me, I was viewing the week in Megeve more as a chance to train in some new mountains, an area which is host to some stunning and varied climbs. So I spent the week in advance riding a lot, and opted to not make Etape a priority – I’d rather use the time to train than sit in my hotel and get bored and taper properly for the race. My focus for July had always been Marmotte and I rested up for that one, so Etape was sort of just a bonus race to see how I managed with a lot of riding in the legs.
And a lot of riding my legs had definitely been done. In the preceding two and a half weeks in France, I’d clocked up around 1,200km and 29,000m of ascent. However, having used Training Peaks to carefully manage and assess my training load, and with the benefit of being able to ride in the mornings then just kick back in beautiful Pyrenean villages and Alpine ski resorts in the afternoons, I’d not ground myself into a state of huge fatigue and overtraining.
However, the day before the Etape I was feeling really tired. Legs felt reasonable, but the head was exhausted. The week in Megeve of 30+ degree scorchers probably wasn’t helping. I was also feeling a little nervous about Etape; not about the nature of the course, but more about safety. I know from having ridden the Tourmalet – Hautacam stage a few years ago that the typical lunacy pace of the first hour of European events was even more intense at Etape, which is treated more as a race than a Marmotte style war of attrition. So, I knew the pace was going to be mental to start. Whatsmore, having ridden the first 60km or so in training, and following a great briefing from Ed (a Sports Tours rep) about the nature of the course, I also knew there were some tight and dangerous descents and chaotic navigations around road furniture and roundabout packed towns in the first few hours.
As always, a super early start was required – I had to be in my pen at 6.30am. Those that were estimated to complete the course fastest were allocated to the earliest pens so as to prevent traffic jams and general chaos. Alex from Sports Tours had awesomely managed to get me into the front pen when I’d explained I’d like to be off early and trying to race a bit. There were fifteen pens; I would have been happy start somewhere in the first three, so being in the real prestigious front group was a great result… but didn’t do much to calm my random jitters of the night before.
So, a 4am alarm, and the well rehearsed breakfast ritual. About three cups of coffee from my aeropress, which travels with me to all bike events. Two eggs. Two big bowls of porridge with fruits. A peanut butter / jam / banana sandwich, bottle of water and some chocolate coated coffee beans to keep me topped up in the pen.
I arrived no stresses in my pen on time, and the heat of the previous week wasn’t abating. Even before the sun was up properly, it was over 20 degrees and even pathetic whippets like me were happily standing about in just jerseys and shorts. No extra layers needed today… But lots of suncream… And lots of water and electrolytes. The forecast was for massive humidity, 35 degrees peak temperature, no couds, no wind. Scorchio!
As with the Marmotte, the waiting about in the pen is always a bit nerve wracking without a buddy to keep you company. Without anything else to do bar listen to some tunes to get my mind in gear, eat my second breakfast, and eye up the competitions’ bikes, muscle tone, and kit in a fruitless attempt to measure strength, I waited for the time to tick down.
Eventually we were off. Not the greatest of starts for me, as my incredibly worn left cleat – which I’d been waiting til my return to England to change for fear of not getting it exactly right then ruining my knees with incorrect positioning – failed to engage properly. Within 200m of the start line, I had to pull up and clear off a load of shite that had stuck to it during my trip toa pre-ride slash bush.
A quick clean of the cleat later, and a big dig on cold legs to jump onto a good train of riders, and I was off. The bunches weren’t as tight and aggressive at Marmotte thankfully. I think this may have been because whilst the Marmotte is on the same roads year after year, the Etape constantly changes. And thus riders don’t know the roads as well and exercise some degree of caution. That’s not to say it wasn’t fast – the first 15km or so were well over 35 kph.
We soon hit the base of the first climb; the Aravis. I breathed a sigh of relief at the point as the group inevitably split, the road opened, and people stopped thinking they were actually in a Tour peloton. I’d climbed the Aravis on Haute Route, and a few times during my week in Megeve, and so knew it well. I was still feeling tired, and whilst the legs felt reasonably supple and comfortable, they didn’t have the zing and fire I’d have liked to have for a competition like this. I resolved to ride within myself – having gone out too hard on the Glandon at the Marmotte, I had wisened to the typical adrenaline fuelled trips into the red on the first climb of big events. So i sagely and sometimes frustratingly let others steam past me, instead tapping away at a power I knew would be sustainable.
The descent was as fast and frantic as the roll out and preceding climb, with many – typically French riders – carving around the bends and hurtling down the mountain. It’s not unusual for me to be dropped on descents, but this was happening even more than usual today. There were some experienced and skilful guys out there.
By the end of the rapid decent down to Gran Bornard, the sun had come up proper, and although it was only 8am, it was already HOT HOT HOT. I looked at my garmin at the start of the second col – the long and relatively sedate Colombier, and it was over 25 degrees already. I’d also ridden the Colombier during the week in Megeve, and wasn’t looking forward to it.
I think the very fact that it’s an ‘easy’ climb; around 12km at 6% I think, means it really doesn’t suit me. I’ve also noticed this odd phenomenon on other climbs of similar profile. The Colombier is straight, pretty steady in gradient, and features some really nasty grippy roads in the middle. I’m not sure why – maybe due to my body shape – I always struggle on lumpy bumpy roads, bouncing about and struggling to get over my gear and get power out, and really benefit from a few hairpins to switch up the rhythm. Fortunately, I knew this was to be the case, and still feeling about 93% of my usual self, I again went steady, like on the preceding climb over the Aravis. Riding at a pace that felt a little too easy, I cruised over, and was able to hold something back for the killer final bends where the climb enters territory that I’m more comfortable on – a set of tight switchbacks interspersed with steep ramps.
The descent off the Colombier was long, very technical, and very very fast. Ed from Sports Tours had warned me about the sudden sets of tight bends towards the middle, and I was glad to be aware of this; after long straight drops where speed easily got over 75kph, tight bends framed by precipitous drops soon followed. Although I’m not the fastest descender, I’m confident and capable of doing so, and safely negated these. Again, there was some real breakneck (not literally I hope) descenders coming whistling 6 feet past me, a slightly unpleasant surprise which made the 30 minutes or so feel pretty hairy at times
At the bottom, my first stop of the day was scheduled. I’d decided the night before where I was going to stop, and this was my first of the two. I had plenty of food on me, but the sun was burning bright and my bidons were dry. Following a super short stop to both get rid of some of my own fluids, chug some coke, and refil the bidons, I was off again, anxious to get myself into a decent group for the 30km or so of false flat through the valley to the base of the infamous Joux Plane. Training peaks tells me the stop took about 120 secs – probably the most efficient thing I did all day!
After a quick solo charge through the town of the feed station, I managed to find myself in the bunch I wished for; about 30 riders with a fair few hefty rouleurs amongst them. For the first half hour or so, the group worked well, with at least 2/3 of us (including a few brief cameos by me) keeping the pace up at around 35-40kph down wide highways. As always, holding the wheels around roundabouts and corners required some massive dips into the red as the group expanded and contracted, but it was definitely worth it.
As we rolled through the valleys, the group grew and grew til there must have been at least 100 of us. This inevitably lead to a quickening of the pace and a tightening of the bunch… the last 10 km or so were super fast and quite aggressive. Holding position in the bunch was quite a mental and physical battle, making sure you stay sharp so as not to cross wheels, remaining aware of the riders around you, and at times, getting your elbows out to prevent touches of handlebars and knuckles. I’m feeling more and more comfortable in these situations now and so was able to use it to try to minimise my effort, drink loads, and keep fuelling up for the Joux Plane, which would be an hour of intense heat and unrelenting effort. The threat of the final climb was sitting a little heavily in my mind due to the general malaise I’d been feeling all day, and I was both pleased to see the kms tick by so as to grab the nettle and get it done.
The majority of the bunch pulled up at the feed station at the base of the climb to fuel up and fill bidons before the ascent kicked off. I carried on however; Sports Tours were laying on their own feed station about 4km up the hill. Having got to know Mick – one of the reps and mechanics who would be manning the station – in the preceeding week, he had kindly offered to hand up some pre-filled bidons and a gel to me at the feed zone after I’d chatted with him about my reluctance to stop on a climb. So, with this in mind, I’d been drinking throughout the valley, ensuring I only left about half a bottle of fluid to get me through the first 20 minutes or so of the ascent.
So, the infamous joux plane had arrived. A sharp left out of Semnoz, the town at it’s base and BOOOM it hit hard straight away – within seconds the gradient was over 10%, and it stayed very close to that for the following 10 minutes. Riders were looking in trouble already, with some very accurate squares being pedalled. Fortunately, my caution earlier in the ride and mindful fuelling in the hour in the valley preceding it had payed off: I felt the best I had all day. If fresh, I always am able to put time into people on these steep and horrible climbs, where my (lack of) weight really helps me out. It was fantastic to finally be feeling decent after 3 or so hours of grottiness, and to be able to slowly work my way through the pack, mentally breaking down the climb into pre and post bidon refill sections to make it more tolerable.
Sure enough, I spied the Sports Tours feed well in advance as they’d found a great location for it on a bend where it would be good and visible. The hand up of the bidons wasn’t the smoothest, and ended up in me having to pause for a few seconds, but who gives…. certainly better than a full stop and dismont. An awesome bonus however, was that Mick had thoughtfully put the pre-filled bottles in an ice bucket! Having cool drink was a godsend. Bidons in cages and gel in hand, I was back off on my (merry?) way.
The climb really is a horror, and I’m glad I felt fresh. I’ve read a lot about it in books such as ‘100 climbs’ and in tales of past racing, such as the time when naughty Lance spectacularly cracked on its slopes. Although it’s only 11km, the gradient never drops from about 8%, and features km after km of over 10% gradient. To add to the torment, the road is cracked and harsh, and there is basically no shade at all. Alpine climbs typically wonder out of forests, whereas this is on unlined back road through open fields. It was around 10-11am by now, and the sun was baking, crisping your neck, arms and thighs from above, and reflecting off the road surface into your face. Kids were out in their gardens spraying hoses over riders. I don’t tend to like the shock of cool water on me when my body temperature is that high as it makes me feel a bit sick, but today I put up with the short wave of nausea in exchange for the blissful moment of cool offered by the hose.
I felt pretty strong the whole way up, and my power data shows that my output didn’t dramatically decline in the middle of the climb, as it tends to on some climbs; a product of careful pacing and fuelling in the day, the effects of a zipvit caffeine gel taken about 10 minutes before the climb (they’re the nutritional equivalent of a motor in your bike and dose of MDMA to your brain), and of course, some good old fashioned grit and adrenaline. Eventually I hit the pseudo summit of the beast. With Ed from Sports Tours brief ringing in my head, I knew there was a brief descent before another cruel kick of 500m or so before the proper summit of the mountain. As such, I didn’t metally or physically ease back yet … after feeling distinctly un-racey all day, a good climb had got the fire in the belly kindled. As others eased off over the plateau I pushed through the short drop and did my best effort at a Pantani style climb in the drops up the final ramp (I’m sure I looked like a twat but….)
And then, wow, the descent. I know i said the Colommbier was hectic, but this was possibly the fastest and most technical I’ve ever done, with speeds up to 80kph for long sections. It’s been reckoned that this descent could well decide the Tour, and I can see why. Dropping down their with real skill and abandon, like Nibali at his best, could win you minutes over the field. I felt confident and able on the way down, but certainly wasn’t taking any risks. After three weeks in the mountains without incident, I wasn’t going to blow it all now.
The mountain dropped us straight into Morzine, and after a few minutes of crit style racing through the twisty streets, I was over the line, medal in hand, coke down gob, and orange segments in hand. Job done.
I finished 628th overall (of 15,000), which isn’t anything to get excited about, but given it was definitely a day for the descenders, that I wasn’t fresh and tapered, and wasn’t really ‘feeling it’ for the first few hours, I’ll take that.
I reckon it will be a great stage to watch. Make sure you keep your diary clear on 23rd July and book a place on the sofa.
TLDR / Final Thoughts
The Etape is a great event, and with all the helicopters filming, outriders supporting, and racey nature of the top end of the field, you really get carried away and think you’re Chris Froome (in my case, i also have the sticky out elbows to match). As to whether i’d ride it again, i’d probably have to consider it carefully dependent on the route. It’s an expensive event, and the fact that you start and finish in different places make it a bit of a faff logistically. Thankfuly, Sports Tours International did a great job sorting this out, but it makes it a bit of a long day.
Whilst I’d definitely say Marmotte was a more beautifuly brutal ride, I’ll certainly never forget my experience of the 2016 Etape du Tour. It was a fun way to end my extended trip to France, and a pretty cool way to spend my birthday (kept that quiet til now didn’t i?!?). It’s not every birthday you spend 55 minutes climbing a 9% average gradient mountain is it? Much more fun that a lie in, fry up, then mind and liver-erasing 10 pints in my opinion. Please message me and i will send you my address so you can send my cakes (preferably cappuccino or carrot please).