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L’Étape du Tour 2018 ride report: A game of two halves

'There are more hyper-steep kilometres than I can think of in any major sportive'

Hannah Troop
16 Jul 2018

Ride report: L'Étape du Tour 2017

With a summit finish atop the imposing Col d’Izoard, this year's Etape was as tough as it was beautiful writes Sam Challis

L'Étape du Tour has long since transcended the genre of one-day event, having become a veritable festival of cycling - a bipedal party spread out over a long weekend in the middle of July.

The host town this year was Briançon - the pretty city is France’s highest, nestled in the Alps at an altitude of 1326m - and the Tour de France stage donating it’s route was stage 18, a gruelling 181km summit finish that follows a circuitous route: south out of Briançon before turning east at Embrun and finally heading north to finish atop the Col d’Izoard, a fearsome climb whose last 10km averages 10%.

I’ve had the privilege to participate in a fair amount of big events on the continent but the atmosphere pre-Etape around Briançon was special.

The Tour was in full swing and relatively close by - knowing the best riders in the world aren’t far away and soon to follow in your tyre treads adds a unique element of something not quite quantifiable - excitement, trepidation, or appreciation?

Whatever it was, there was a frisson in the air and my 7.07am start couldn’t come quick enough.

A hasty espresso at the Rapha van in the event village served as the antidote to an unfeasibly early wake-up, although with the day looking to be a scorcher and the 200km route (181km of it timed) realistically shaping up to take me around 8 hours, I was thankful to get the opportunity to pack in plenty of riding before the day warmed up.

The morning of the ride dawned crystal clear and fresh, with that stereotypical serenity that the majesty of the Alps lends to an environment.

In the start pens though the atmosphere was the antithesis of serene - nervous energy and gallows humour was abundant among the 15,000 starters. Didi, the devilish Tour de France institution, was present at the start line and his infectious enthusiasm drew more than a few laughs and high-fives as anxious cyclists commenced their ride.

The parcours of the first section of the race was mercifully gentle, so that aforementioned nervous energy combined with fresh legs and too much caffiene to create a blisteringly fast first 25km.

Big groups could cruise at 45kmh for prolonged periods as the route wound its way south, tracking the Durance river.

After initially barrelling along main roads, the route gently gained some altitude to move high to the right of the river, moving along the smaller, prettier roads that often flank Alps’ arterial routes.

They tend to allow access to villages nestled on lower mountain slopes, which meant the road became rolling but it was never tough enough to sap momentum from the big groups that were yet to fragment.

By now the sun gained enough height to drench certain areas in light yet keep others in shade. The contrast between gloom and light across the valley meant the views were glorious.

The river was getting wider and quickly the azure waters of Lac de Serre Ponçon flowed onto the horizon. It signalled the first prolonged ascent of the day, the 4km, 5.2% climb of the Côte des Demoiselles Coiffées.

I metered my climb so it was dispatched without issue, but I’d have accepted a harder effort for the views down onto the lake from up on high.

After we were rewarded with our first sinuous Alpine descent of the day, the route turned slightly more serious with some prolonged false flat along through the valley, heading towards Barcelonnette.

It was vital here to find a good group - for a brief time I found myself in between groups and my speed vanished, yet my work rate felt like it doubled.

Thanks to the field being so large at Etape events another group is always approaching, so I was able to find another that shepherded me to the second feed station 100km in.

Until now the road had been tracking rivers - it skirted the base of mountains where possible but occasionally had no option but to burrow straight through.

It was after one such tunnel that the Col de Vars was suddenly thrust upon us. Speed immediately dropped and the peloton condensed; the climb was open on its slower slopes and up ahead hundreds of cyclists could be seen snaking their way up its bends.

I have to admit that upon perusal of the route profile I dismissed the Col du Vars as something to be dispatched quickly, to be rid of efficiently, in order to focus on the day’s real challenge, the Izoard, yet I quickly realised that this was a mountain not to be taken lightly.

I dug far deeper than I wanted to to scale the 9.3km, 7.5% climb. It was late morning by now and the heat and distance covered was already enough to see some riders walking. By the time I summited the climb I was nearly spent.

A brief refuel at the top and 20km of stunning descent saw me reinvigorated though as we shot into Guillestre, where the roadside support was astounding.

By now 150km of the route had been covered and I noticed an ominous sense of familiarity. Once again we were following a river along a valley.

That meant there would be false flat, and Alps would tower over us left and right as repeated warnings that the only way out was a monster climb, just as with the Col de Vars.

That mountain had done its best to scatter participants over the course so groups in which to work now were far more disparate - there was no mass in which to quietly surf the wheels, all that were left were groups of 8-10 riders that all expected the workload to be shared.

So the next 15km were taken in a dogged through-and-off routine. Everyone was hurting by this point, everyone could relate to each other. It kept everyone honest, and you could draw comfort from that.

The river disappeared as the road took a more noticeable upward gradient and the 15km to go sign appeared. The Col d’Izoard’s lower slopes are manageable yet are made immeasurably harder by the promise of the last 10km, which average near 10%.

Roadside support increased once again as we climbed - campers parked up to await the Tour. Many of their inhabitants were on hand to douse you in water as you crawled by.

With the sun now high in the sky and the temperature hovering around 30℃ it was an option I called upon more than once.

The last feed stop came with 10km and it was an absolute godsend - after 172km in my legs and 3000m of climbing, there was no way I could ride the Izoard in one hit.

Sugar and caffeine was the order of the day, followed by some stretching and a stern internal motivational talk.

I remounted and was reduced to the 34-28 immediately, and my inner demons reminded me that I wouldn’t be changing gear now for almost an hour.

The climb switched up amongst the trees and everyone was ascending at a crawl. Plenty of riders were walking, and plenty more were at the roadside with their head in their hands, undone by the heat and distance.

I had to take the climb hairpin by hairpin, savouring the brief respite each bend offered in order to tackle the next stretch.

With 3km to the finish we reached the Casse Déserte - it’s screen slopes are stunningly barren compared to the dense forest below.

Coupled with considerable fatigue it is otherworldly, in the same way as the mythical Mont Ventoux. The atmosphere is ominous and you feel exposed - there’s no shelter on offer until you are over the top now.

A brief descent is almost unwelcome with 2km to go, because having to restart the turning of pedals after some wondrous freewheeling is monstrously difficult.

The final few zigzags to the summit are in plain view, and your suffering is laid bare for hundreds of other riders to see above and below.

The finish line crawled into view and I thought I must be delirious - my inner demon that has been reminding me how far it is, how steep it is, how tired I am, is in front of my eyes on the road, brandishing a pitchfork and blocking the finish.

Seconds later my irrational fears are dispelled - it is Didi once again, welcoming every rider as if they are the first to cross the line.

The difficulty of the route meant I was too tired to feel elated, so while others lingered in the party atmosphere of the summit, I hastened to tackle the final 20km descent into Briancon.

Pedalling back into the hustle and bustle of the city was triumphant - which was a positive feeling only heightened back at the Rapha camp where champagne, a buffet and a massage awaited.

Normally I’d feel spoilt but after that ride, I felt like I’d earned all three.

Head through to page three to see how we prepared for the Etape du Tour

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