Every summer, France is hit by 200 of the world’s top cyclists; it is a huge spectacle which is becoming more and more popular in the UK. There are always stages in the Pyrenees and the Alps and each year one stage is chosen by the organisers and a week before the pros hit it, they run it as an event for the likes of you and I; l'Etape du Tour.
This year, they chose stage 19 from Saint Jean du Maurienne to La Toussuire. This 138km ride has three climbs over 18km long so it is not an easy day out! It was back in November when the course was revealed and almost immediately, I had calls from locals asking whether I could provide the logisitics for the event i.e accommodation and food. I immediately agreed, on the one condition, that I’d enter the event too.
There was a snowball effect and we ended up with 20 cyclists staying in Orelle, just down the valley from the start. People arrived on the Friday by plane, train and automobile and in time for some sweet potato mash and a bit of a chin wag. Everybody was excited, with good reason; this event was huge with 15,000 spectators signed up!
Saturday was registration day and a chance to walk around the village. It took strong will power to avoid parting with lots of cash on all the stands. I was desperate for a Shimano hat but by the time that I reached their truck, all the caps had been given away. Enrique managed to get one and decided to wear it from that point on – I was jealous!
With all the numbers collected it was time to head back. I went shopping to prepare for the evening’s pasta party whilst others set up their bikes, attached their numbers, went for short cycles up the Col du Telegraphe for a coffee in Valloire and generally faffed about.-tomorrow was going to be a big day!
There were 15 pens to stagger the departure, it meant that we all had different start times but everybody was keen to get down and ready. The car parking and traffic was surprisingly very good! Paul and I started in gate 8 which was very hard to find. We followed 12, 11, 10, 9 and then 7!!! Where the hell was this gate? It turns out that it was tucked, obscurely, down a little side road. By the time that we found it, we were right at the back. However, with a chip for timing, the exact time that we left did not matter.
The atmosphere was fantastic and the people spread out enough so that we did not suffer too much. The only problem we had was, on the first descent where a bottle neck meant that everybody had to get off their bikes. This was annoying but the same for everyone. After the first climb, there was a big boucle, or circuit that went out on the flat and came back to the same place. Just to get the distance up I guess- pretty annoying.! Then it was the Croix de Fer which involves summiting the Col du Glandon on the way up. The last few kilometres of the Glandon are ridiculously steep and being forced into the inside of the bends did not help, resulting in many people walking as it was too tough. The stifling heat did not help.
The pros repeat this for 3 weeks!
As I descended from the Croix de Fer, I looked at our sticker of the course on my top tube. What was this little climb that punctuated the descent? Was it big. I had not taken too much notice of it when studying the route. Well it was 5km and a little bastard of a climb. I am not sure why it was put in, apart from making people suffer! I was very grateful to the locals with their hoses on the final straights- a welcomed refreshment.
Next, it was down to the foot of La Toussuire. which is where Chris Froome infamously attacked Wiggins and was called back on team orders. It starts very steeply and then eases off and is 18km of punishment. I had paced myself pretty well so was still feeling quite fresh at the bottom. I thought, leave it all on this hill. I wish I thought that 5km in, as by the time I had got to 8km to go, boom- my legs went. I was basically going backwards, recognising people that I had already overtaken getting back at me., I knew that I had to dig deep.
The finish could not come soon enough and when I arrived, I slumped over my handlebars in exhaustion. I think that if it hadn’t been so hot then it would have been much easier, but I enjoyed all of it! Especially the fact that there was always somebody cycling with you, the views back down the winding alpine roads, with cyclists resembling worker ants, was truly inspiring- human beings can be pretty impressive!
At the top, it turned out that I was one of the first to arrive in our group so it was a case of waiting for the others. They trickled in, all very happy. It was time to head back for a well- deserved BBQ. It turns out that even with a load of starving cyclists, that I still had plenty of food spare! Guess they needed to work harder!
I wonder where it will be next year?