L’Etape du Tour

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Yesterday I did one of the most spectacular events of my entire life – L’Etape du Tour.  I’m absolutely spent as I write this but I’ll do my best to capture what it’s all about.

Every year the ASO holds an event that lets you and up to 10,000 other keen cyclists complete a stage of the TdF on closed roads.  This year it was Stage 17, Pau to le Col du Tourmalet.  181km and 3 massive mountain passes to be conquered.  Some people race it, most people are out to challenge themselves to simply complete the grueling stage.  It’s no easy feat and gives you a glimpse of what the athletes of the Tour de France put themselves through for 21 stages.  It’s truly remarkable.

Many people I spoke to began their day by waking up at 4am to make it to the start line for a 7am departure.  I was number 4684 so it was in my best interest to get into the starting pen as early as possible since there was no order as long as you got in the proper staging area.

When the start gun went off there were about 4500 other cyclists that needed to get rolling before I even clipped in.  I was surprised that it only took about 15 minutes before I began riding.   I told myself that I wouldn’t try to smash the whole course.  I just wanted to doddle along, take photos, meet some people, enjoy the scenery and understand what this event was all about.   However, the energy, the excitement and the buzz of having 10,000 other cyclists surrounding you couldn’t hold me back.  I was going as hard as I could politely yelling “Attention, a la gauche!”

I had a few Aussie mates up in the 2000’s and my primary goal was to catch them and then sit in.  Not much different than a typical handicap race.  I’d catch onto the swarms of riders racing past me and hop from one to the next.  The Aussies were well ahead of me and it took me until the sumit of the first climb, Col de Marie-Blanque, to catch them (actually, they were waiting for me at the top, but that’s not as good of a story).  Col de Marie-Blanque is a difficult, narrow, never ending, steep climb where hundreds of riders were forced to walk.  We’ll be sure to witness some good action in a few days when the TdF riders make their ascent.

The descent down the Col de Marie-Blanque was phenominal.  Closed roads, banked switchbacks, newly paved bitchuman.  Every cyclist’s dream!  We saw some nasty crashes though.  There were riders flying past us who were clearly out of their comfort level and paid the price.

After some beautiful rolling terrain we came to le Col du Soulor.  This is a much less demanding climb of only 6-7% but still about 15km long.  The scenery took your mind off the heat and the fatigue.

By the time we got to the Col du Tourmalet many riders were beginning to crack.  It was extremely hot, over 150km and 3000m of climbing to this point.  More than enough to give most people a good lashing.  It was easy to think that there was only one more climb left and trick yourself into thinking it was managable, however that would be severely underestimating the Col du Tourmalet.  This was one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever done – especially with all the climbing behind us that day.  Before the signs that say you’re on the Col du Tourmalet, there’s a heavy slog of a climb approaching the mountain.  At this point the road was littered with spent riders laying in the shade.  Fortunately thousands of spectators lined the roads with freezing cold melt-off water dumping it over us as we rode by.  I’m absolutely gutted that my photos (below) didn’t turn out because of this, but hopefully it gives it the “mood” of the race.  If you squint really hard the pics should become nice and sharp.

I just read in the newspaper this morning that 3000 people didn’t finish yesterday’s L’Etape.  Anyone with enough training and willpower can do this, however it’s not to be taken lightly.  Nearly all of the cyclists I saw were more than competent. There were no mountain bikes, kids, or gorilla costumes in the line-up.  I think anyone who took part deserves a big pat on the back.  If you ever get a chance, don’t hesitate to take the time and the trouble to give it a go. You’ll never regret it.

I wouldn’t have experienced one of the most spectacular cycling days of my life without the help of BMC to get me an entry.  I cannot express my thanks to them enough for this.  The one challenge of many to L’Etape is that people who don’t have a French mailing address need to go through an agent to get an entry.  In Australia, the only agent I’m aware of who can get you an entry is Bike Style Tours.  It’s $450 AUD, but that’s on par with everyone else I’ve asked from other countries.  Expensive yes…but more than worth it for this experience of a lifetime.

Tim from TdFTips has some excellent advice for riding L’Etape as well as making your way around the rest of the Tour.  Tim was there riding his second L’Etape yesterday and I finished along his side.  Click here to read Tim’s experience of the 2010 L’Etape. His photos turned out much better than mine! Be sure to check out his website if you’re planning a trip to the Tour. It’s definitely helped me in my last minute preperations.

If you stay up late to see one stage of the TdF this year, don’t miss stage 17.  I can tell you first-hand how magnificant this stage is and I can guaratee we’ll be seeing some spectacular racing by the PROs up these three mountain passes!

I’m off to catch stage 15 today, but here are some photos of yesterday’s L’Etape du Tour.  I’ll caption them later when I get a chance. Enjoy!

The start of the climb up the Col du Soulor

This is what I rode on for over 100km.  Mavic neutral support came to the rescue just before the ascent to the Col du Tourmolet and made the situation manageable.  There was no way that my day was going to be ruined!

Just before the ascent up the Col du Tourmalet

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