I’ve been to France to watch the the Tour a number of times, and only recently had I heard about the idea of L’Etape. It’s essentially a grand fondo sort of gig, but on the same roads that a tour stage covers. Sign me up! As luck would have it, this year they added a second Etape option which worked much better with my plans to watch the Tour in the Alps. It was a “transitional” stage, but had 7 categorized climbs, 4 non-categorized climbs, and proved pivotal in this years tour as it was the stage where Voeckler nabbed his time gap and yellow jersey. It was also pretty famous because it’s the stage where Hoogerland and Flecha got clipped by the France 2/3 car and got thrown into the barbed wire.
The whole event is a production. Most folks sign up with a support company that handle the logistics of getting you and your bike where you need to be. Team Sky had a pretty healthy contingent, each with their own Sky jersey with their name printed on the side - how cute. Other services were all about providing VIP tents with fancy food and drink. I was doing it on the cheap, so my buddy and I just did it ourselves. Parked the car the night before, took the bus back, and walked to the cheap hotel.
More story after the jump…
The morning of…it was pissing out. I was very glad to have packed my Hincapie eVent rain jacket. The groups are staged by ability. My racing license in the US merited me the first group, my friend in the 2nd, so I waited for him before getting rolling. The first 25mi was as furious as a local race. 30mph with a slight cross wind. After an hour of that I was thinking this was cake, but then we hit the first climb.
Who does Etape du Tour? I’d say on average it’s a 42yo man that’s rail thin and built for climbing. I’m not that old, but I’m not THAT thin either. My buddy - even less so. We sagged a good bit on the climb and got to the top off the pace of the lead group. That’s when the real wind kicked in. 300W, and going 14mph. Then it started hailing. It was a miserable second hour as we limped to the first food zone.
We stopped for a while, found a bar that was PACKED with people stripping off clothes and downing warm drinks. After reading reports the next morning, over 1000 riders bagged the ride at this first town. I bought oil to slather on my our bare legs to buffet the wind and we pressed on. Then the REAL climbing started.
I settled into a rhythm and climbed at my own pace for the rest of the day and we’d regroup at the top of climbs. We slogged through the hours and the rain came and went. It was pretty, and climb of the Puy Mary (highest climb in the Massif Central) saw guys literally falling off their bikes. At the aid station on top there were at least 8 guys on stretchers and blankets being taken off the mountain. We stopped to get warm and start the descent.
I’ve found a new love: Descending on closed roads. Holy hell it’s fun to use the whole road and bomb past other riders. That was the best part. So climbs and descents on great roads through fields of wine grape and sunflowers filled the next few hours. We weren’t racing anymore since my friend was climbing pretty slow, but we had some fun really motoring on the flats picking up lines of riders happy to get a free tow to let the miles fly by. We finally finished 10+ hours after our early morning start. My “ride time” was 8:14 on the bike for the131 miles. It was a long, and dare I say fun, day on the bike.
I’d certainly do an Etape again. If you have the chance it’s worth doing, but you NEED to get in good shape first. I didn’t see a SINGLE beer belly among the finishers. Maybe it’s just Europe.