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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

Preparing for L'Étape du Tour

The things Cyclist learnt in the run up to amateur cycling’s main event

L'Étape du Tour, or the Etape, is considered by many as the pinnacle of amateur cycling events. Not only does it follow turn-for-turn the Queen stage of that year’s Tour de France, it occurs within a day or two of the actual race taking it on, so competitors can revel or fear in the knowledge that the best pros in the world will race and suffer on those very roads mere hours after they do.

In 2017, the Etape follows Stage 18 - a 178km route from Briançon to the Col d’Izoard.

The unique atmosphere, severe physical challenge and awe-inspiring environment (have a look at the Col d’Izoard, La Casse Déserte to get an idea of the route backdrop) means that if it isn’t at the top of your event to-do list, it should be.

As such when the opportunity arose earlier this year to complete the event with the support of Rapha, who are back as the official clothing partner at the Etape, I jumped at the chance.

However with mediocre cycling ability, a hyperactive 18-month-old and a general disposition that far too often defaults to lazy, the path of my preparation has been less ‘as the crow flies’, more ‘long and winding road’.

While my lifestyle hasn’t made for the smoothest progress, it has given me a thorough education in the musts and must-nots when preparing for one of amateur cycling’s toughest endurance events.

Please note that the below is definitely not prescriptive, probably not helpful, but hopefully a little relatable.

Lesson 1: You have plenty of time

With Rapha covering the logistics of my trip and entry, my qualification into the event was somewhat non-standard and far later than if I had used the official channel, so time was an ever-present pressure in my lead-up.

Proper registration opens in the October before the event, so all being well a normal time frame to prepare is roughly nine months.

You can grow a baby in nine months, so rest assured that regardless of your fitness level you’ll be able to sufficiently train for the Etape if you schedule your training sensibly.

Nowadays in the era of spin classes and HIIT it is terribly unfashionable to champion winter miles, but if you have the opportunity I’d say there is no better way to start preparing for a long time in the saddle than by spending a long time in the saddle.

Winter will be stretching out in front of you so get out for relaxed rides whenever you can, but to make sure your slow progress doesn’t turn into no progress over a calorie-laden Christmas, perhaps give the Festive 500 a go.

I did it anyway last year before I knew that the Etape was on the cards and it does give you some momentum going into the new year.

Lesson 2: Lose weight

The vertical ascent in this year’s Etape amounts to 3,600m. That is like climbing more than a third of the way up Mount Everest, so ideally you will be carrying little excess weight up those metres.

As tempting as it would be though, I’ve had to constantly remind myself that it’s not an excuse to spend thousands of pounds shedding a hundred grams here or there from your bike.

Unless you look like the pros you are hoping to emulate come race day, you are far better off losing body fat than swapping aluminium for carbon and steel for titanium.

I’ve been sensible, not inflexible, with my diet and limited my alcohol intake, which has helped me shed more weight than I ever could have saved with hardware upgrades.

The recent hot weather, and the obligatory upsurge in frequency of barbequed food, has meant my motivation wavered frequently, but the thought of the Col d’Izoard’s 10km around 10%, 165km into the Etape gave me enough willpower to turn down that second burger.

It was tough, but at least I’ll look passable in my ride kit: Rapha has an L’Etape du Tour collection that I will be testing in the event.

Lesson 3: Find the right kit

This year's Etape will take most riders around eight hours to complete. Eight hours of movement in a garment is enough time for even the tineist fit niggle to become apparent - at best this will annoy you but at worst could it cause a blister or sore.

Thorough research into kit that suits me has been important.

I ride in a reasonably racy position but am far from a racing snake in build, so have found sizing up in race-focused kit to be the best solution for me.

Given the orchestrators of my participation, the brand I spent most of my time in should be of little surprise - Rapha sent its Classic II kit into me to compare against its Pro Team II.

I found the Pro Team suited my riding style better due the shaping of the chamois and the more aggressive cut of the jersey. If your riding style is more upright I’d imagine the more relaxed fit of the Classic II to suit you better.

Fit is only part of the equation however: prospective weather conditions have to be taken into account.

That is what sealed the Pro Team deal for me - the Classic II jersey is that little bit thicker and given the expected hot weather a Pro Team Lightweight jersey should help me regulate my temperature slightly better.

Lesson 4: A bike fit is near-essential

Kit imperfections won’t be the only thing that affects performance over an endurance event; riding position will too.

I spend a good amount of time riding my bike so through convoluted trial and error over the years I thought I had determined an agreeable riding position.

I tended to be comfortable for anything up to 4 hours but after that niggling pain in a few areas started to affect my riding experience.

So at the wise behest of Rapha I paid a visit to fitting specialists Cyclefit in London’s West End. Through saddle pressure-mapping, video analysis and a very well-trained eye, my fitter Jimmy uncovered several technical foibles that were making me less efficient.

Tweaks here and there to my hip angle and pedal stroke, plus a complete change in recommended saddle shape, had a subtle but immediate influence on my riding.

It made me undoubtedly more comfortable on the bike, but more than that put to bed any psychological issues about my riding position.

Confidence cannot fail to be an invaluable attribute when the physical challenge mounts up.

Lesson 5: Ride, lots, but not alone

In certain events you can get by on a wing and a prayer with little preceding work, but an Etape attempt is doomed to failure without proper preparation.

Training intensity and volume must be kept high in the run-up to the event but motivation even in determined riders can wane when faced with a monotonous plan.

I’ve found the best way to keep challenging myself was forgo a numbers-based progressive plan and just ride, ad-hoc, with competitive friends.

The Rapha Cycling Club was a good resource for this - the Soho clubhouse that I joined runs weekly rides - short, sharp hill intervals in North London as well as longer weekend rides out into Hertfordshire.

Socially it was encouraging to chat to like-minded riders and Ride Ambassadors like Will Adams, who I spoke to at length, are on hand to offer sound training advice.

Diverse training stimuli helps your body adapt better than monotonous sessions and in a group no route is ever ridden in the same way - where I might take it easy, others might be pushing on, so I was guaranteed a challenging session that was never the same.

Variety is the spice of life after all.

The 2017 L'Étape du Tour is on 17th July so check back on shortly after that for my ride report.

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