I’ve always been a fan of the Tour de France and was aware that each year amateur cyclists get the chance to ride one of the stages a week before the pros in l’Etape du Tour. For 2019 it was to be 20th stage in the Alps from Albertville to a summit finish at Val Thorens, a final day in the mountains for the pros before the following day’s procession to Paris. I was looking for a big challenge for the year and this certainly ticked all the boxes.
And so it was that I entered the Etape, drove down through France and found myself early one Sunday morning in July surrounded by hundreds of other cyclists at the start line. Ahead of me, 135 kilometres away, my wife Tracey was waiting at the finish line with a bottle of Champagne. But first I had to conquer three challenging climbs and two frightening descents, with a total of 4563 metres of climbing.
We started climbing from the off, fairly gentle for the first 20 km followed by a 20 km ascent to the Cormet de Roseland at an average gradient of 6%. It had taken three hours and the air temperature was rising but I was still feeling good as I launched myself from the summit into the descent to the feed station at Bourg Saint Maurice. This was more like it, an exhilarating 30 minutes negotiating a never ending set of switchbacks, accompanied by the screech of brakes and the shouts of riders warning each other of their presence. The temperature was noticeably hotter in the valley as I replenished water bottles and gorged on a typically French menu featuring ham, cheese, bread, madeleines and fruit. I had covered 60 km, roughly half way, and was feeling OK, if a little hot.
After a flattish spin along the valley floor I was on to the 6.5% climb to Cote de Longefoy. It was here that I started feeling the combined effects of 30C temperatures and fatigue. But my fellow riders were suffering too. Any shady spots at the side of the road were full of prone bodies and a few had resorted to pushing their bikes up the hill. Nevertheless I reached the top and was treated to another high speed descent to my next feed station at Moutiers, Here it was like entering a war zone. All around me people were jostling for water and grabbing food. The medical tents were full of riders suffering heat exhaustion, some with saline drips attached. A man in front of me took a swig of something and promptly vomited. There were discussions about how far the broom wagon was behind us (There are cut off times for riders to reach points along the route. If you miss the cut off time, you and your bike are loaded into a van, the broom wagon, and taken to the finish).
I had covered 100 km in six hours and didn’t feel great but now it was time to tackle the final challenge, a 35 km climb to the finish at an average gradient of 5.5%. That’s about the same as Box Hill I thought, so I’ve just got to imagine riding the 2.5 km Box Hill climb thirteen times. However, this simplistic comparison neglected to take account of the fact that I’d already ridden for six hours, that there were no downhill recovery sections and that the temperature was in the thirties. What followed was over four hours of pain as I completely ran out of any reserves of energy. The heat was unbearable and I found it impossible to ride more than 30 minutes without stopping for a rest. Eventually I crossed the finish line, ten and a half hours after I started. Tracey had long since given up waiting to cheer me home and was convinced I was in one of the many siren-wailing ambulances she saw. Luckily, our hotel was close by so I enjoyed my Champagne while relaxing in a well earned bath.
So, would I recommend others to do the Etape? Yes, definitely. It gives an insight into the challenges facing Tour de France riders and is a huge personal challenge. Would I do it again? Unlikely, partly because I’d like it to remain as the toughest bike ride I’ve ever done but also because there are other ‘bucket list’ events to tackle.