Sometimes it doesn’t matter if your “training” has been modest, your lower back has been causing problems, and the longest ride you’ve done all year is just shy of 60 miles. When the opportunity arises to ride l’Étape du Tour – an amateur race run over an exact Tour de France stage each year – you say, “oui!”
The 2014 edition of l’Étape marked the 22nd running of the wildly popular event, drawing more than 10,000 riders from France, Europe, and around the globe. This year’s course followed Tour de France stage 18 from Pau to a summit finish at Hautacam. The Étape was run four days prior to the pros’ final day in the Pyrénées in the “real” Tour de France.
With 92 miles, two Category 3 climbs, and two Hors Catégorie ascents, this race was no casual day out. Adding to the adventure was a healthy dose of rain over the second half of the course, including both climbs. Having spent a week in Provence in May and tackled Mont Ventoux, I was ready for more HC climbing, although facing up to two major mountains in one ride of this length would be new territory for me.
Trek Bicycles was gracious enough to provide a loaner bike for the weekend, simplifying the logistics of my travel. Of course, this was not just any loaner bike, but a brand new Émonda SLR. The ridiculously light frame, complete with Dura-Ace 11 speed mechanical shifting and Bontrager carbon Aeolus 3 wheels, was not only a boon for climbing but was a genuinely comfortable ride. I expected it would be a peppy bike but I was truly surprised and impressed by the ride quality, particularly over such a long day and varied terrain.
The event itself was extremely well-run. Amaury Sport Organization knows a thing or two about major sporting events and turned out in force to ensure riders were taken care of with feed stations, full road closure, neutral support by Mavic, and and army of volunteers along the way. The start in Pau was organized and riders were sent out in waves according to their numbers. ASO estimates that the peloton eventually stretched out over 30 miles of road.
Of course what makes an event like l’Étape special are the little moments along the way. Fans turned out en masse throughout much of the course to cheer on the thousands of brave souls pushing themselves toward the finish. The Tour de France atmosphere was unmistakeable. Signs of encouragement, fans on overpasses, music and festivities in the tiny villages, and curious gazes from onlookers who have no vested interest in cycling but cannot deny themselves an extended view of the rolling circus.
The early part of the course from Pau was perfect. Some rolling hills, a good tempo, and two category three climbs to loosen up the climbing legs. These would feel like mere speed bumps by the time we hit the major mountains, which began to loom on the horizon south of Trébons. Also looming were the rain clouds.
Whereas riders were excited, talkative, and energetic over the first rolling 50 kilometers, things quickly fell silent on the rain-soaked slopes of the Col du Tourmalet. Now the ride was about differences in fitness, climbing ability, and technical preparation. The closest I came to a crash was when an over-geared rider to my right ground to a halt, failed to clip out of his pedals, and toppled next to me while I inched by at barely 6 mph.
Over the misty, cloud-covered summit of the Tourmalet, the real challenge began. The cold descent was problematic for many who either neglected to check the weather forecast or simply didn’t pack a jacket and suitable wet weather gear. I was pleased to be rewarded for my extra layers and pockets stuffed with contingency items and avoid the freezing, shivering speed wobble exhibited by many on the long descent.
My climbing was certainly slow but I was pleased with how my legs responded. I never put myself in trouble or forced my pace beyond my limits. I knew that the second major climb to Hautacam would be the real test; racing up the Tourmalet was not in my game plan. It was reassuring to know that at any given moment I could ride faster, but with a conservative mindset I was not eager to spoil my finish for the sake of near-term bravado. In fact, so light and responsive was the Émonda that one downshift to get out of the saddle would typically give me a quick three bike lengths on the group with which I climbed.
Like any gran fondo (or cyclo-sportif, en français), motivations vary. Some riders show up to compete and win, others to challenge themselves and simply finish, and for many like myself, to put in a strong ride but not worry so much about cumulative time. My finishing time was unspectacular, at best. True to form, I entered into the day telling myself to be listen to my body, don’t do catastrophic damage to my back, and not worry about my time. I was here to ride, enjoy, suffer gallantly, and finish to tell the tale. I was not racing. Of course when I see just how slow I was, I inevitably think about what could have been improved.
Where I suffered most was indeed the descent from the Tourmalet. As much as I loved my borrowed Émonda, the carbon wheels and brake pads presented a challenge in the cold rain. I wasn’t looking to take unnecessary risks, but the effort required to keep my speed under control in the foul weather was a mental and physical challenge, arguably more taxing than either mountain ascent. I couldn’t believe how much I began to look forward to climbing Hautacam.
Finally, turning north from Luz-Saint-Sauveur, I was able to relax and ride through the valley, loosening up before the final challenge of the day. The end was near, at least geographically, even if I knew Hautacam would be a tough climb. I made a final stop to refill one bottle and set off to haul myself up another mountain.
Hautacam was amazing. Aside from the obvious physical challenge, it presented much greater variation in gradient and scenery than the long, steady slog up the Tourmalet. This was good for morale as well as the legs, though there is no doubt that I started to fade on the steeper gradients of 10% and more. All the while, one thought never escaped my mind. This wasn’t just a climb the pros would ride; they would be racing. Full gas. I just wanted to get there.
What also kept the stream of riders moving was the endless passing of riders descending, having completed their rides. The sheer number of competitors was impressive with unending lines inching up and zipping down the entire length of the climb. They just finished and I too will finish soon.
As the trees cleared, the final kilometer approached, and the barriers lined the road, I finally felt what stage winners in the Tour must feel: that sense that whatever the difficulty, anything would be possible at this point. Fatigue was no longer an issue and I felt joy and relief as I crossed under the finish banner.
Among the many events on the cyclo-sportif/gran fondo circuit, the Étape du Tour no doubt holds a special distinction with its close association to the Tour de France. To ride a stage of the Tour, knowing the professionals would follow suit in a few days time, was a special opportunity. The top-notch organization and elements of the Tour extended to we mere mortals only highlighted the experience.
Thanks to Trek and ASO for their support.
Learn more about l’Étape at www.letapedutour.com/ET1/us/homepage.html