Etape du Tour Act 2 REVIEW
One of the biggest and most well-established of the European sportive scene, the Etape du Tour retained its crown by efficiently delivering what must be one of the toughest sportives in recent times. A ride perhaps best described in numbers; 200km, 5000m climbing, 8000 starters and perhaps most tellingly,3961 finishers. The very challenging parcours was added to by some terrible weather which rolled in with metronomic timing for each and every descent. The support from the crowds along the route and in the finish town, and the sheer challenge of completion really made for a special ride.
Distances: 200 km
Entry fee: 87 Euro
Participants: 8000 (Places available)
Feed-stops: Many feed and water stops on route, well supported and stocked with cakes, fruit and gels
Catering: Pasta party on the previous evening. Cakes, fruit and recovery drink at the finish.
Timed: Yes (Number tags, Col climb times logged)
Signs: Well marked closed road route, marshalled throughout
Roads: Finest French tarmac
Swag: Good quality commemorative rucksack
Route: Click Here>>>
The Etape du Tour concept is familiar to most, it’s a chance for amateurs to test their metal against a real stage of the Tour de France close to the professionals coming through. Since last year the event, run by ASO the official tour organisers, has taken place on two of the tour stages. Act II this year was run over the Queen stage of the 2012 tour, regarded by many as one of the hardest stages of recent times, included in the tour this year to perhaps offset the 100+ time trial kilometres and give the grimpeurs a rare chance to shine. A quick glance at the route sent shivers down the spine, 200km from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon taking on the twin Col d’Aubisque and Solour, the legendary Tourmalet, the Col d’Aspin and the finally the Peyresourde totalling just shy of 5000 vertical metres of climbing.
The View Of The Mountains From Bagnere-de-Luchon
This was my second etape but last year’s stage, a mere 110km of alpine climbs really paled in comparison. Previously I had travelled with a tour company and though it was nice to have someone take care of the details I found it a bit frustrating to have such a short trip and not having more freedom to do what I’d wanted so this year I made an effort to do the whole thing independently. The key to this seemed to be getting in early and I managed to sort a self-catering flat for a week in Luchon and two nights in Pau for considerably less than my three day trip last year.
We arrived in Pau late on the Thursday evening after picking up our hire car and driving down from Toulouse airport, so Friday was our first real view of the town. Although we were staying in a more industrial area a short spin to the centre revealed a beautiful old town. The etape is not just a bike ride, it is a vast cycling event and this time it centred on a cycling expo in the centre of Pau. In addition to the ride registration this featured a huge number of cycling stalls selling all the Euro bike exotica a person could wish for, making it difficult to fight the temptation to blow the week’s budget on something you had never previously heard of but clearly can no longer ride another mile without.
The Etape Cycling Expo
The registration itself, like much of the event was undertaken with military precision. You were ushered through a one way system to an area designated by your predefined number where you were issued with your bike number and timing tag in exchange for showing a valid medical certificate. These are essential for participation in French sportives for the event’s insurance purposes, because unlike their British brethren the French Sportive is legally (and otherwise) considered a race, which also serves to make things a little interesting towards the front. Medical certificates can be obtained on line through Cyclosure.
Next stop on the one-way system was to collect the goody bag which this year was a rather impressive looking commemorative rucksack. The next step in the logistics was to transfer our car and the majority of our kit to the finish line in Luchon, leaving our bikes and a small overnight bag for the event in Pau to transfer on the day. We then caught a pre-booked coach laid on by the event back to Pau and the circle was complete. All that was left was to fill up on at one of the many great restaurants in town where my terrible French lead me to order a pasta salad followed by pasta, a happy accident that was probably useful the next day.
A Sea Of Riders Ready At The Start
The morning of the ride dawned and we made our way to the start line in the main square in Pau. With start groups laid out in rows of pens, the sea of 8000 riders all gearing up to start was quite a spectacle. Because of the large number of participants the Etape has seeded start waves separated by 5 minute intervals. The start position is based on results in previous Etapes or other qualifying events, and although it’s not completely clear how they are assigned, and it’s obviously not a perfect system it does help reduce the problem of dangerous amounts of overtaking and clogged roads before the mountains make the selection.
I was in the third start wave this year and they certainly weren’t hanging about, the opening few km were a hair-raising and exhilarating experience as the slight downhill meant we were all hitting 50kmh while trying to settle into a group and shooting through the edge of town.
Being part of a fast peloton like this although quite a nervy experience is a big part of these large sportives for me and together we made light work of the opening 40km despite it being a pretty steady draggy up hill. But it was no surprise that when we started the first real challenge of the day, Col d’Aubisque the group soon splintered. This was my first time on this Hors Categories Col and it was a serious way to start.
I’ve got to admit the course had me nervous and I held back perhaps more than I should have on this early climb though it still felt fairly heavy as it steepened. The first feed station was placed (somewhat strangely I thought) around 4km from the top so I passed it by and held on for the water station at the top. As it drew closer we entered the cloud, the visibility dropped more and a rain built steadily as we climbed until the satisfaction of summiting was severely dampened by heavy rain and a cold wind blowing from the east side. I filled up with water on the well supported station at the summit, wrapped myself in everything I had; gilet, arm warmers and second pair of over gloves and started a very nervy descent into poor visibility, rain and cold.
In hindsight I regret that we didn’t get the views, at the time it was just a relief to get down efficiently and alive. The cold made it a relief to get pedalling again but dropping back to the low valley the weather dried to just overcast and the warmer air and fast pace over undulating terrain quickly got the circulation going and eventually the clothes a little drier.
Some Rare Lower Country Between The Mountains
In the valley we began to pass through villages where people lined the streets to see the riders and cheer us on. This was a big part of what made this ride so special for me as there can be nothing better for a freezing cold and tired cyclist’s soul than a chorus of “Allez Monsiuer!” from the side lines or high fives from rows of school kids who had come out from class to watch. This is a country passionate about cycling and respectful of cyclists (regardless of the standard it seems!) and it was a fantastic thing to see and be a part of.
The spur onwards was much needed as we were all too soon on the lower slopes of the Tourmalet a climb that I’m familiar with and I still can’t decide whether that made it harder or easier. The initial slopes are quite manageable though it kicks up steeply through the town of Bareges. The real climb starts from the car park and ski station which already housed many camper vans pre-tour, in addition to a major feed and water station. The road gives way here to many switch backs which feel rightly or wrongly like they steepen all the way up to the top.The weather followed exactly the same pattern as the Aubisque as when we drew close to the summit the rain and wind from the eastern side started in earnest but this being the Tourmalet everything was a little more amplified.
This made for a very challenging descent, at La Mongie the road was covered in mud that had run off the mountainside and the rain came in so hard it was stinging my uncovered eyes as I tried to strike that balance between getting out of the cold as soon as possible and not ending up in a ravine. At around the half-way point I began to cramp badly and with so long to go a DNF seriously began to cross my mind and all I could do is curse myself for all of the items of clothing I’d left back in the UK or even worse back in the car.
By the time I hit the lower slopes I was involuntarily shaking from the cold and struggling to hold the brakes. It didn’t seem so when first viewing the route, but it was very fortunate that the Tourmalet descent runs almost immediately into the start of the category one Aspin and I couldn’t have been more grateful for getting climbing again. So much so that I began to feel much stronger and seemed to get more energy from I don’t know where. Perhaps it’s just an illusion from suddenly being on what is a much easier mountain.
With my new found pace I was soon at the top and despite more bad weather on the eastern side I was able to descend slightly more comfortably then push on quickly along the next valley, overtaking quite a few riders along the way which is always good for the mind.
The Finishing Straight In Luchon
The road met the final challenge of the Peyresourde and my second wind began to ebb as I reached its upper slopes which again seem to steepen dramatically.
Descending is never usually my strong suit but with slightly improved weather than the previous three and the finish nearly in my grasp I dropped like a stone down the Peyresourde and into the town of Luchon. The finish was electric, the last 2km was the main boulevard through town which was barricaded along both sides with people lining up and grouped outside the cafes to cheering you home.
What an incredible feeling to reach that line. It’s fantastic to get to see the professionals run the same course as you a few days later, though Tommy Voeckler coming in a full three hours ahead of my time was a little hard to swallow but not enough to stop me being at the start line next time around.
The Lanterne Rouge
The Lanterne Rouge was met with the one of the biggest cheers of the day with a motorcade with sirens and horns blowing.
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