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Ride report: Etape du Tour 2019 – riding further than the pros

Reviews
6 Jan 2020
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Extreme weather meant that for once the amateurs riding the 2019 Etape du Tour did a longer stage than the pros at the Tour de France

Words: Jack Elton-Walters Photography: Dan Glasser and Sportograf

Each year for almost three decades amateur riders have had the chance to ride a full stage of the Tour de France on closed roads and with full event support. The route of L'Etape du Tour is selected when the parcours of the Tour de France is presented in the autumn and one of the stages, usually mountainous, is chosen to be the amateur sportive.

The mass participation event tends to take place around a week before the pros tackle the same course and this year that time gap proved decisive. Extreme weather in the third week of the 2019 Tour de France meant that Stage 20 was shortened from three mountains over 135km down to a 59km ride with only the final mountain and its summit finish.

This came about as a result of heavy rain and landslides that saw parts of the road near the summit of the opening climb, the Cormet de Roseland, washed away and rendered impassable. That incident followed the previous day's stage being cut short while the riders were already racing due to similar circumstances, and effectively ended the race for the yellow jersey.

As a guest of event sponsor Rapha, Cyclist headed to Albertville in the southeast of France to take on the Tour stage and spend a weekend as a Rapha Cycling Club member.

Pen 0, no pressure

I was lucky enough to be allocated a space in the opening wave of the event. Following a conversation the previous evening with some fellow journalists and professional riders Alice Barnes and Alexis Ryan of Canyon-Sram, I'd already decided I'd be riding and not racing – it's a sportive after all – so I didn't feel the need to jostle for position or chase the lead riders as we crossed the start line.

Keeping in mind that I had three mountains to get over with an estimated total elevation of more than 4,000 metres over the 135km distance, I took it relatively easy on the early slopes of the first climb. In hindsight, perhaps too easy but better that than a self-inflicted DNF.

There was another factor with a heavy bearing on my approach to the event: my only other experience of riding in the Alps ended with a berth in the broomwagon, along with most other riders on that day, as I climbed off within 9km of the finish line atop Alpe d'Huez during an Haute Route event.

Back at that event, hot weather and a lack of feed stations saw much of the field retire with some combination of dehydration, exhaustion and heat stroke. The first of the three did for me and so I was careful to stop at every opportunity on L'Etape to replenish my bidons.

Mountain fountains

As well as the well stocked and regularly placed feed station at L'Etape du Tour, the Alps also has a good share of public water fountains (many of which are actually troughs where you could also water your horse, if that's your chosen mode of transport around the mountains).

The most useful one of these impromptu water stops came during the climb to the day's summit finish. The temperature on the lower slopes was hitting the mid-30s and without the extra two bidons to cover the gap between the event's water stops I may have struggled later in the climb.

Noting where these fountains can be found should be part of the planning for anyone heading to France to ride the famous cols and climbs.

Cormet de Roseland

The opening climb of the day, and the one that a week later would be partially washed away in a landslide, was the Cormet de Roseland and it was around this that Rapha had based its creative for the 2019 Etape. The event jersey took its inspiration from the climb – and the event as a whole, with the route profile across the rear pockets.

As above, the full climb actually summits the Col du Meraillet before a short respite is followed by the remainder of the ascent to the peak of the Cormet de Roseland. This comes 21km after the classified climbing started and further still in reality.

The climb isn't too hard, and I actually quite enjoyed it, but having gone uphill for 21km only made me think about the fact I would later need to ascend for around 35km with another climb before that one started.

Keep climbing, lunch awaits

As with the first climb of the day, the middle one was also a double-summit. The second category Cote de Longefoy took us to a height of 1,190m before the route continued to 1,311m and the peak of Notre-Dame-Du-Pre.

From here all that really awaited was the long slog to Val Thorens. The descent was technical in places but nothing too difficult before the feed station in Moutiers provided the water and cheese crackers I hoped would keep me going to the summit.

The mountain fountain and the feed station on the climb both proved necessary but actually the climb wasn't too bad. Thanks to my early start I wasn't at the bottom in the worst of the heat and the temperature decreased on the way up

Looking at my heart rate for the duration of the ascent I clearly wasn't pushing myself too hard, but my legs were being pushed to keep me going at a pace I deemed accpetable. What's more, I knew there was a lunch buffet and a big screen showing the Tour waiting at the top, incentive – and distraction – enough to win the mental battle against gravity and gradient.

The final 0.5km was the hardest part of the day

Around 6km from the summit a large gantry over the road welcomed us to Val Thorens. Cruel really considering the effort needed to cover those closing kilometres, especially for the riders still making their way up in the heat when others are on their way back down.

When I saw the elite end of the field coming back past me I cursed their smug freewheeling. But then later I did the same, without the smugness I hope, passing the late starters who had battled through the worst of the heat and were still climbing late into the afternoon.

To complete the route, riders actually found themselves descending through the Flamme Rouge and it seemed like it was a nice easy way to finish. This was not the case.

With 500 metres to go the road kicked up to over 11% on a gravelly road extension that was smooth tarmac by the time Vincenzo Nibali raced up it to a stage win.

The crowds were three-deep on the barriers cheering the sportivistes to the line but adding extra imperative to keep pedalling and avoid cramping up in sight of the finish.

Over the line, L'Etape du Tour done. Despite its intimidating nature it was enjoyable from start to finish and makes this rider, better suited to the routes of the Cobbled Classics, consider a return to the mountains sooner rather than later.

An amateur sportive with pros on the start line

Chatting to Barnes and Ryan at the Rapha stand after the sportive it was clear that they'd had a great day out on the bike, making the most of their decision to ride rather than race. Even so, Barnes still gave her recently acquired National Champion's jersey an outing and it was well received by those who spotted her.

'People kept asking me, "Are you Alice Barnes?" Someone rode past me and was like, "I’m a big fan!" That was really cool actually,' she explained.

What's more, riding a sportive with 16,000 people of varying levels was in strong contrast to what the Canyon-Sram pros are used to. 'It was just mad busy,' Barnes added. 'There was never a stretch of road without anyone on it, you were always going past people or being passed.

'It was really cool and we didn’t have any massively sketchy moments, just a few wobbles here and there. But yeah it was good.'

For Ryan, one of the day's highlights was the roadside support. 'The crowds really made me smile, everyone on the side of the road yelling, "Allez les filles!" That made me smile so much every single time.'

'There are so many more men than women as well,' Barnes added, before Ryan continued, 'so they see us and think, "Woah, a woman!"

She had some advice for any women wondering about entering next year's Etapte or similar event: 'Just go out and do it! If you can’t do it just get in the broomwagon, it’s not a problem if you can’t make it to the finish line.

'It’s better to start and see what you can do, and test your limits because then if you train for a year, you do it the next year and when you finish you’re going to be proud of yourself.'

The rider's ride

Canyon Ultimate CF SLX Dura-Ace Disc

Thanks to Rapha's relationship with Canyon through the Rapha Cycling Club and Canyon-Sram, I got a lone bike from the German brand for the Etape. I'm not a fan of flying with a bike so this was a very welcome option.

I'd hoped to get a bike with a lowest gear of 34-30 at least but instead had to make do with 36 at the front and 28 at the back. This was actually fine for most of the ride, with only a couple of ramps needing an easier gear - especially that final kick to the finish line.

The bike isn't the lightest, in part due to the disc brakes, but it's far from a heavyweight and certainly didn't hinder my progress on the day. It was comfortable and handled perfectly on the long and fast descents.

The best thing I can say about it is that I wasn't aware of being on an unfamiliar bike, and over such a testing route I think that's a pretty good compliment.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew to Lyon and caught the connecting tram to the main train station. From there it was a train to Chambery and another train to Albertville. The event village and start line were within cycling (and walking) distance of the hotel.

The event lays on coach transfers from the finish line back to the start village – which you must book and pay for in advance, seats will sell out.

Accommodation

We stayed in Hotel Le Roma on the outskirts of Albertville (le-roma.rhonealpeshotels.net). From the outside it looks like a dystopian vision of a dictator's lair. Thankfully the reality of the hotel is quite different with a good restaurant and very inviting swimming pool.

Thanks

Thanks to Rapha for the invite, and in particular Jess Morgan for taking care of all logistics including the loan of a Canyon bike.