Here’s a rundown of my Etape experience.
It was my first time in France cycling let alone anywhere in Europe, you would think Scotland’s not that far away! 2 to 3 hours on the plane and bang you’re in the heart of the Alpes but in 12 years of let’s say social cycling I’d never been! Well, things have changed! I actually loved France the heat, the climbs everything about it, don’t know if it’s something to do with having the sun on my back and the change of scenery, but I just fell in love with France on the trip. Don’t get me wrong this was the “Queen’s Stage” the toughest climbing stage of the whole tour, and if you saw it on the TV it was everything they said it was going to be. My prep and focus was pretty good for someone who doesn’t really climb well, I knew I had to keep a lid on my efforts on the long climbs or risk blowing up, The bike was setup well…well I had my doubts but they turned out not to be unfounded, I rode a 39×30, and it just felt comfy the whole day despite the grades of these climbs and the steeper parts of them, I kind of put that down to what we get here in Scotland no long climbs but shorter more savage grades that you have to attack (well it feels like that to me) to get over them and usually a good stiff headwind no matter where you go.
The day started off with the Col Du Chaussy an 18km/10 mile 1000m/3500f climb at about 6.something %, nice climb with a false flat about halfway up, I was down in pen 11 of 15, yes there were nearly 16,000 people riding it, I knew the first climb would be slower as you had to string a route up through the slower riders but in hindsight it didn’t seem to be so bad, there’s one thing that’s so weird! You’re in amongst thousands of other cyclists, and it’s eerily quiet, very few people talking to each other, maybe making such an effort that they couldn’t talk or their concentration was so focused they didn’t want to be interrupted, I’m a bit of a chatter box so I was looking for UK flags on the race numbers and saying hello to folks and encouraging them (my French is well rubbish :-))
The descents we tricky with a lot of tight switchbacks you have to concentrate, one of the coolest things are there as some many locals lining the route shouting “courage” “Alez” all the time it’s amazing!
There was then a nice flattish 30k where I got working with a group pulling each other along before the monument climb of the day, It’s actually called the “Croix de fer” the “Iron Cross” but its 2 climbs tagged into 1, 22k all in all and some 2000m of climbing, the first part being the Col Du Glandon, @ 7% average for 20km’s I’d just never seen anything like this before! The first 10k climbs up through the trees sheltering us from the 30 odd degree sun, again I settled into a nice rhythm that I could hold and well I passed most folks I saw but also kept in touch with a small group that helped my focus, at 10k though I had to stop to fill the bottles, Although there was a feed stop half way up it was mobbed, luckily and one of the endearing things about every little French village seems that they have a local water fountain or even just a tap to get some nice cold water from. Next part I knew would be harder 3km’s @ 10% and out exposed to the sun, then the good old French locals had another great idea, some would simply be filling bottles with cold water from a local stream and if you cycled towards them they would pour it over you, others had garden hoses “ A Douche” and a nice cold shower to cool off the heat of the day. From the end of the 10% section you can see the end of the climb towering above you and still quite a distance away and this multi-coloured string of ants or riders slowing heading for the summit, I was still feeling good and coping well, the last 2kms of the Glandon are brutal up over 10% in places and it’s here you started to see many folks walking, still feeling good I made the top and continued to the final summit of the Croix de Fer, a lovely welcoming downhill section to begin with then about 1.5k’s to the top, you kind of feel like you’re on top of the world at this point 6000 odd feet above sea level you can see for miles, but I was literally only half way at this point so on we go.
You would think the next climb would be straight forward after climbing a cat 1 and then an HC the cat 2 Col du Mollard seemed tame! Seemed! 5km @ 6% it was the hardest climb of the day in my head and my legs! in the beginning I felt like I was pedalling squares but I eventually found a good cadence again, and it was not so long before the summit came up, I knew though I needed a good feed and some water so decided to stop for a rest and have a good stock-up as the last climb would start at the bottom of the descent of the Mollard.
The last climb is the La Toussuire another picturesque climb from where we it all began some 6 hours ago in St Jean De Maurienne, another 18k 6% cat 1 climb with over 1000m of climbing, at the bottom there were thousands of spectators and I have to admit I got a lift from the cheering and clapping before the first 3k’s bite @ 10%, legs are tired now and to be honest I’m getting a bit emotional perhaps the effort of the day or the thoughts of past relatives in my head spurring me on. I knew I was nearly there and had to finish, by now I’ve drunk about 8 750ml bottles of water, eaten all but my last homemade flapjack’s my wife’s made me and I’m into the caffeine gels and caffeine tablets for my bottle, I had climbed this same climb 2 days before, so I knew what to expect, the grade never feels so hard you can’t get over it or that you might need to stop, but it’s relentless now with the effort that you have made wearing on you every KM, Oh and I forgot to point out that all these climbs have a little reminder from past tours that have climbed them, a yellow topped white painted concrete marker post telling what km you are on, how many km to go and the average % for the next k just to help you remember “Don’t cook it”, at km12 there is a lovely wee 1.5km flat even downhill for a little bit and is very welcome, you can’t really see what’s coming next as a slab of granite hides the climb to the first lower ski area village, this part feels tough and it is, it throws another 7% k at you at about km14, and you just have to tough it out as the finish becomes apparent in the distance it started to feel very far away, I worried I might get “the knock” but I told myself you’ve eaten and drank correctly you can finish this, the final 2k has another little flat section that on the Friday I had even managed to get into the big ring, but today there’s a headwind and my legs are spent, then finally the finish is in sight, again a good crowd lines the barrier area and I even managed an out of the saddle sprint for the line……Epic!
To top off the day, there’s my mate Billy Russell waiting at the finish for another club mate who somewhere down the valley.
To celebrate and recover, I buy us both an XL large hot dog (good French hot dogs!) and a pint of cold lager it doesn’t get much better than that! What a day!