On the 19th of July, I completed my 4th Etape du Tour, with this year’s route mirroring the 19th stage from Saint Jean de Maurienne to the ski town of La Toussuire. I thought I’d take a look back at the Etape’s I’ve done and do a little comparison in order to help those considering the event make up their minds.
Here are a few stats from my Etape travels:
It’s worth pointing out that the power figures are Strava’s no doubt dodgy estimations, as are the calorie figures and the climbing features figures. Similarly, my heart rates in 2013 are rather low because of doing the Marmotte the previous day.
Click on the link by the year to go to Strava data.
The first Etape I did, at the ripe old age of 20, was the “perfect for beginners” challenge of 109km from Modane to Alpe d’Huez, a mere 67 miles, although 43.7km (27miles) of that was uphill. And those “hills” weren’t exactly small fry – they included the first category Col du Telegraphe, the monstrous 2,646 metre high Col du Galibier and the legend that is the Alpe d’Huez. I’d never been up an Alpine or Pyrenean climb before, so this was to be a baptism of fire.
The Tour de France stage
When this stage had been announced in 2010, its compact length and massive climbs, as well as its position in the race the day before the final time trial, generated considerable excitement. Back in the ol’ days of 2010, riders still were blase to the concept of *horror* attacking anywhere other than on the final climb, and this short Alpine stage was devised with the idea that it would force riders onto the attack early in a gung ho attempt to build time before the time trial.
And that’s pretty much how it turned out, with a pride-wounded Alberto Contador attacking on the early slopes of the Col du Telegraphe, forcing the second placed man Andy Schleck to chase after his rival. The malliot jaune, Thomas Voeckler, and the Tour winner in waiting, Cadel Evans, who until then had ridden a near perfect race, also chased, but Voeckler was quickly left in no mans land and began a futile pursuit, whilst Evans rather comically kept stopping to spin his rear wheel. Whether he genuinely had a problem or was trying to save some face is uncertain, but he eventually swallowed his pride and dropped back to the peloton, where his BMC squad took up the reigns to chase down the Schleck-Contador duopoly.
Things eventually calmed down, although a bottle throwing Thomas Voeckler didn’t, and everyone bar Ryder Hesjedal and Pierre Rolland had regrouped by the bottom of the Alpe d’Huez. Contador, now trying to win a stage rather than the entire Tour, and Andy Schleck didn’t bother/couldn’t chase him this time around, and he concentrated instead on trying to put time into Evans. The two were pretty much locked to one another however, and the interest was instead in the stage win as Contador was caught by Samuel Sanchez, with the pair catching Rolland, only for the Frenchman to dance away to win the stage. His Europcar team did lose Thomas Voeckler’s yellow jersey, but gained the white jersey and the stage win.
It was quite the stage, a real three hour long drama where the result of the Tour had looked up in the air at various moments. It set the scene for the recent glut of short mountain stages that the Tour has decided are needed (the 2015 Tour was meant to nostalgically follow the same route on its penultimate stage before landslides intervened), but as so often in life, none have been quite as good as the original.
Whilst Pierre Rolland won the stage in 3’13’25 (21.01mph average), and the Gruppetto came in in 3’38’52 (18.6mph, with Bjorn Leukemans the only rider outside the time limit), I was happy just to get to the finish, considering I’d never done anything like this before. Thankfully, despite essentially being told I’d be eliminated by our “helpful” guide (*cough*Sports Tours*cough*), I managed the route in 5’03’25 according to Strava (5’07’50 according to the official ranking). I had hoped, for not other reason then stubbornness, that I would not stop at all if I could (even for drinks/food), as,er , that was what the pros did, I told myself. Because the stage was so short, I got away with it…just.
The experience of riding with alot (10’000) of other cycling nutters is fairly chastening if you’ve never really been in a group that size before, even though you are of course released in waves. The course began with about 10 miles slighty downhill on a multi lane carriage way, and dear lord, you’d think some people thought it was only about those 10 miles, such was the effort they were putting in and the risks they were taking to gain a few metres. Oddly, as soon as they turned onto the Col du Telegraphe, 95% of people basically just seem to stop, click into their lowest gear, and start chatting – I mean seriously, what is the point in killing yourself on anything from 0% down then just giving up once the gradient climbs above that? A common feature on the Etape, it would turn out to be…
So then the next problem, when it turns out you can climb pretty much faster than everyone else there (or want to) is that people just spread across the road, and have little, if any, regard for anyone who might want to get past. Thus, queues form on the left of the road for the right to squeeze by whichever person has decided they are the road block for the day.
Eventually, after the Galibier had shown its teeth and I had managed to struggle up it (“Only one climb to go now!”…) I was treated to my first Alpine descent. Anyone who knows me will know that my descending is like watching a new born lamb trying to ski down a slope on a cereal box, such is my terror and appaling bike control, but I quite liked the Galibier descent, once you got to the Lauteret point anyway. Before that, you had lots of meandering bends and genuinely stunning scenery, with glaciers and vast Alpine meadows arcing their way into view around each corner.
From the Lauteret, the descent is delightful – it is fairly gentle, on a wide, straight road with good sight lines and would be lovely if the early start of the Etape didn’t mean you were descending down from the “cool” of 2600m+ into an infernal valley. Of course, you then had to turn onto Alpe’d Huez at the point where the sun is at it’s Zenith, in mid-July. That plan not to stop for water was starting to look a bit dumb.
I’ll admit to goosebumps as I rounded that famous left hand corner to begin the Alpe, having seen and rewatched repeats of so many of my heroes and legends of the sport begin their ascents to mythical status from there. Needless to say, everyone had pretty much been reduced to a crawl, but the motivation inherent in the challenge of conquering the Alpe is pretty handy. Thankfully, some kind Frenchmen were spraying people with water from hoses, as well as handing out drinks, which made the oppressive heat that bit more bearable, as did those famous hairpins, which aside from giving you something to focus on (although the mind did keep slipping), also meant you could run very wide and, just for a few seconds, sample something slightly less than the otherwise unrelenting 8.1% gradient.
By the summit, it seemed crazy that it had been “only” 70 miles, considering just how knackered you were, but the euphoria of completing the Etape was there, and the bountiful supplies of pasta and bread available at the finish were gorged upon with glee, before, in all honesty, I took the world’s longest and most restful nap.
2013: Annecy – Annecy-Semnoz
Having not done the Etape in 2012 as I had spent most of my time at university in North Carolina, and thus opted to do the “easier” Paris Roubaix CycloSportive instead, I wanted to do the Etape again in the Tour’s centenary year, and was kind of hoping that they would make it up the Mont Ventoux. Instead, the stage chosen was Annecy-Annecy Semnoz, finishing on a climb that the Tour had never finished on (it was meant to be climbed in 1998, but the stage was nullified). Again, the stage was short, at just under 80 miles, and this sounded easy…so I decided to do the Marmotte, riding over the Croix de fer, Telegraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, the day beforehand.
The Tour stage
By the time the Tour arrived in Annecy (which, by the way, is an absolute gem of a town), the race for the yellow jersey was over, which probably annoyed the organisers who, having failed to get the race decided on the 104mile (167km) stage to the Ventoux in 2009, had been trying to get the 2013 race decided on the 125km (78miles) to Semnoz. Ironically, the race had practically been won on the Ventoux a week before hand by Chris Froome, and all that remained was for the podium places to be decided, with 2nd to 5th separated by just 47 seconds before the stage.
After a token Jens Voigt break, the race basically came down to the final climb up the Semnoz, which is an 10.7km climb at an absurd 8.5%. It was quickly clear that the man sitting in second, Alberto Contador, was struggling, and it was the man in 5th, Joaquim Rodriguez, who teamed up with 3rd placed Nairo Quintana and malliot jaune Chris Froome to put his fellow Spaniard to the sword.
When Rodriguez had taken the time to pull himself onto the podium, and in doing so complete his clean sweep of the feat in Grand Tours, the battle for the stage win began, and all three riders attacked until it seemed clear Froome, in keeping with the theme of the final week, was weakening, at which point white jersey Quintana darted away to take Movistar’s third win in five days, as well as securing the King of the Mountains competition and second overall. An exciting stage in beautiful scenery, but one that only really involved the final climb.
Having done the Marmotte the day before, I was tired already, having recorded a Gold standard time and then suffering the ignominy of the organisation I was with (Sports Tours again…notice a theme?) forgetting we might actually need some eat, eventually scrabbling some meals together, then getting us back to Annecy at 12.20am, knowing full well we’d need to be up at 4am to get ready for the Etape. So on very little sleep/recovery, it was good to see that the weather at least was playing ball, and so we assembled in the pens by the lake shore to prepare for what was a fairly up and down ride.
There were three sections to the ride in my head, divided into thirds. The first included one second category and three third category climbs, and little if any flat inbetween. The second was the Mont Revard, a 15.9km climb at a tolerable average of 5.6%, and an equally gentle descent, before the final third consisting of the 20km valley stretch to the foot of the Semnoz, and the grind up its 8.5% slopes. Needless to say, after the Marmotte, the legs felt stiff, throbbed gently with agony, and had no desire to be subjected to more pain. Bad luck, legs.
The first third was a very pleasant rolling spin up and down a load of alpine meadows, which opened up on panoramas of the surrounding hills as well as Annecy’s eponymous lake. Sure, the usual ambulances appeared fairly quickly to rescue those who had been moronic on the descents, but other than that it was good fun. Unlike usually, I wasn’t passing the same swathes of people (I was even *horror* being passed), which I put down to my oh-so-tired legs, and ended up basically yo-yoing back and forth past the same people who I would pass on the short climbs before being dropped on the descents. Luckily for them, there was a big descent after the final of the opening four short climbs, and so they all scooted away towards Mont Revard whilst I trembled like a coward.
Mont Revard itself was a fairly dull climb – it was easy by comparison to other climbs, distinguished only by its length, but it had a nice wide road and lovely views over what was quickly becoming my favorite area in the Alps. Eventually, it was summitted, and I consoled myself with the knowledge that I only had one descent left to survive in my weekend. Well, almost (more on that later).
After a lovely traverse down a very pretty gorge, crossing bridges and so on as the road wound its way towards the base of Semnoz, there was a 20km valley road that felt pretty interminable – my legs were already dying, crying out for energy, the road was melting in the heat of the broiling afternoon sun, and the kilometers just didn’t seem to tick by quickly enough as the road rose and fell, rose and fell…
Eventually though, we reached the bottom of the Semnoz, and by god it was steep. There was good news and bad news however – the good was that the climb was shaded in green foliage, which kept the temperature slightly cooler, but the bad news was that you could only use half the road – as the climb was essentially a one way street, riders who had finished were descending in one lane after about a quarter of the climb, with a line of cones separating the conquerors from the soon to complete. Of course, the usual suspects were being stupid in their descending and hitting the cones/spilling across the lane…
The Semnoz was the one climb on the day I didn’t get passed on, which was due to a mix of the thinning out of the field late in the race, the fact we could only use one lane, and the fact that Semnoz is a damn hard climb. At one point, I passed someone who then suddenly started screaming before grinding to a halt, presumably with cramp. Eventually though, the end was in sight, and I basically just wanted to go to sleep, but it had clouded over on the summit, making it really rather chilly, and I had to bomb back down to Annecy to the pasta party etc. Still, it was a very pleasant ride – it just would have been nicer to do it on the back of a decent nights sleep.
2014: Pau – Hautacam
The Etape had previously visited Hautacam for the 2008 Etape, which had been over a similar route, taking in the Tourmalet. The weather for that Etape had apparently been atrocious, and this was to be my first Etape in the Pyrenees, a mountain range I’d never particularly warmed to when watching the Tour due to the fact it always seemed dull and damp compared to the lush splendor of the Alps. It looked, from the forecast, like history was going to try and repeat itself as well…
I had become a bit anal in my preparation for this, having invested in a pair of scales and getting so absorbed in what my weight was, that I was stopping my self from drinking properly because “that would add 200 grams”. Whilst my weight was very low (61 kilos, and I’m 5’11/6ft), I felt awful most of the time and then my knee became inflamed for some reason, which meant I was basically fed up and had to rest, which didn’t do my new found paranoia over my weight any good. The moral of the story? I now haven’t weighed myself in a year, feel much better for it, and feel just as strong as I did. Essentially, there’s no point being light if you feel terrible, and recovery is very important.
The Tour de France stage
This was about as standard a Tour stage as a template would allow. Nothing of note happened until the final climb, where Vincenzo Nibali, clad in yellow and already clearly the best rider to have started the race, powered away to take a win he had said he wanted to take, after briefly dispatching Chris Horner, the man who beat him at the 2013 Vuelta and hasn’t shut up since.
Alejandro Valverde had attempted to attack the Tourmalet descent in an attempt to pad out his podium advantage, but had been reeled in, and the battle for the podium meant Nibali won by 70 seconds in the end.
The forecast in Pau for the day of the Etape was, in a word, abysmal. Thunderstorms, heavy rain, chilly temperatures…the only thing missing was a gale, and we weren’t going to cross our fingers.
We were lucky in a manner that the predicted all day washout didn’t quite materialise, which meant the start in Pau was under a slate grey sky, but with only the occasional drop of rain rather than the promised monsoon. Everyone was eager to generate some heat in their bodies, and so dropping away from Pau it was a mad scramble to push big gears and attain high speeds.
There were a couple of small climbs on the opening section, and incredibly, as usual, some utter pillocks managed to crash and need an ambulance. How hard can it be to apply some common sense and ride without trying to put yourself and others in danger? Never mind… the opening section to the foot of the Tourmalet was essentially a very long false flat, and oddly, about 10km from the foot of the Tourmalet, it all went very quiet. Gazing up the valley, signs proclaimed the Tourmalet to be open, but the clouds where binding themselves ever thicker and the spots of rain were beginning to turn into globules.
The Tourmalet itself is a bit like the Galibier in that it starts out not all that bad, but just gets steeper and steeper. I hadn’t bothered putting a rain jacket on as I was warm from my efforts (I had taken to riding in the big ring up the bottom third of the climb), so I was gradually getting damper and wetter as I ascended past what I had been told was glorious scenery, but I couldn’t see because the clouds that had now squatted over the mountain meant visibility of more than a few metres was basically impossible.
By La Mongie, where various Tour stages have finished over the years, the gloom had really set in and even the ski resorts tower blocks had been subsumed into the murky horror of the incoming storm. At the summit, where it was frankly lashing it down, I put on everything I had, namely a gillet, a newly bought Sportful Hotpack, and my earlier discarded arm warmers. With about 15 miles of descent in the pouring rain to come, I put my glasses back on and tentatively tipped myself over the precipice.
Within a few hundred metres, the shivering had begun. “Dangerous descent” warned a sign – yeah, no kidding. Water was running in streams down the road and within seconds, my brakes had been rendered essentially useless. I had to jam them on hard just to keep the bike at around 20-25mph, and even the briefest of releases on a straight was met with an acceleration that took many, many minutes to slow down. Of course, this meant I wasn’t pedalling, and the rain was still hammering down, so I was getting colder and colder.
I can honestly say I’ve never been that cold (on a bike) before on my life. Every corner seemed to take minutes, and my hands where shaking with both the strain of holding my brakes on and the shivering from the fact they were blue with the cold. I began looking for a shelter, a bus stop (crazy, I know) a van, a tree, anything that I could stop under and try and warm my self up. If the opportunity had presented itself, I would happily have abandoned the Etape, such was the awfulness of that descent.
Eventually, the descent flattenned out enough to allow me to actual start to pedal, and cruelly, my legs had frozen stiff from the cold and had to basically be pushed with my hands to get them going again. The temperature was rising, however slowly, however, and the rain was no longer falling in sheets. By the foot of Hautacam, I had warmed up a little, and the rain seemed to have stopped, so I stripped off again and began hauling myself up Hautacam as quickly as my frozen limbs would allow.
Hautacam is the perfect example as to why average gradients are essentially pointless, as its gradient varies so much that there is little if any point categorizing it as having an average. It never seems to let you settle down, and has some furiously steep (13-14% pitches that really make you struggle when you’re cold and miserable.) There is even the briefest of descents, but all in all, it’s a fairly horrible climb (especially when the weather means you cant see much of it!) that sits around the 9-10% mark for most of the time.
Like Annecy the year before, the road was split, as Hautacam is a road to nowhere, so again there was a bit of trouble trying to pass people in the single lane. It was split from the very bottom as well, but the road was wide enough for this not to be too much trouble. By the summit, the rain had begun again, and the finish was in a distinctly uninspiring car park full of slate and rocks. Happy to be done, I realised I was going to have to make another joyous descent in the rain, and basically stuffed the towns circulations of newspapers down my kit, smothered in layers of bin liner.
The descent was actually ok, taken much slower by everyone, and the sun even began to peek out. It was much nicer to be able to see the suffering of those coming up, and indeed the sheer numbers, and its always nice to be able to appreciate the height you’ve gained when you stare down into the valley below. At the end, it was time for hot food, dry clothes, and copious amount of cake..and a promise to myself not to come back to the Pyrennees for a while!
When the 19th stage of the 2015 Tour was unveiled as the Etape, it was pointed out that it was pretty close to the 2012 stage, which I hadn’t done, so this seemed a nice way to fill that gap. With the Col de Chaussy, Croix de Fer, Mollard and La Toussuire on the menu (one tour operator – *cough*Sports Tours*cough* tried to argue that you were actually conquering the Col du Glandon as well, even though it is essentially a false flat tagged onto the end of the Croix de Fer. Originally marketed as an “easy” Etape, that quickly changed as everyone actually paid attention to the route and realised it was actually rather tricky.
I’d actually gone a week earlier to try and sample the climbs of the area such as Alpe d’Huez and the Galibier, having been promised by the aformentioned Tour operator that this would not only be possible but supported by a vehicle, but as usual with them, promises meant little, and once they had our money and us there, they said we had to “recee” the Etape route rather than do anything interesting. Hmm.
The Tour de France Stage
Another all action rampage across the Alps, and the second time in as many years that the stage of the Etape has been won by Vincenzo Nibali. Attacks went on the Col du Chaussy, but the Movistar/Tinkoff onslaught was reeled in by the Croix de Fer, although Chris Froome’s Sky team had been decimated. It was then the turn of Vincenzo Nibali to attack, at about the time Chris Froome suffered from a braking issue, which was then the scene of much debate over the sporting legitimacy of such a move.
Nibali was off though, chasing down the early breaks and trying his hardest, it seemed, to extricate himself from life with his dare devil descending down the Croix de Fer and onto the Mollard, where he caught the last man ahead, Pierre Rolland, and cajoled the Frenchmen into descending with him. Quite why was odd, as Nibali danced away on the descent then attacked at the base of La Toussuirre, desperate for some lone redemption from a Tour where little had gone his way.
Behind him, Nairo Quintana finally managed to put a sticking attack into Chris Froome, although the nature of La Toussuire, with a slight downhill for a couple of kilometres before the final 6km, meant he only had that distance to work with. For a while, it looked as though Nibali would be caught by the charging, albeit cool looking, Colombian, but the Italian held him off by 44 seconds to take the stage, whilst Quintana put 30 seconds into Froome.
Like the previous year, the forecast for this stage had been abysmal, but the night before the thunderstorms had burnt themselves out, and we were left with a bright, sunny, is slightly cloudly sky that was considerably cooler than the 37 degrees it had been in the week.
I had hoped that starting on a climb immediately would mean that the usual nutters would be discouraged from being, well, nutty, given that they would have to put some effort in from the off. But no, it was service as usual – the climb was blocked pretty much from the get go, and any attempt to pass someone was usually foiled by them weaving inexplicably into your path or some other idiot trying to pass you on the inside from behind to get through themselves. I had done the climb earlier in the week, and ended up doing it 6 minutes slower on the Etape, which was meant to be faster…
Needless to say, the descent off the Chaussy was carnage – there were already three ambulances on it by the time I was going down, and given it wasn’t very wide, gendarmes were out further up the road to alert riders to slow down. Of course, some people were too full of their own bloated egos to care about others, which is why I later learnt that the race had to be halted on the Chaussy because some idiot had ridden into the back of a parked medical motorbike, and another had (rather more poetically) broad sided a parked ambulance, with the effect of causing huge pile ups that required and air ambulance. You wonder if these people actually have a concept of cause and effect.
Anyway, after getting safely off the Chaussy, the next trip was down a long valley finger that doubled back on itself, which was basically there to put some distance into the stage between the Chaussy and the Croix de Fer. A new feature in the Etape this year was a “Sprint point”, which timed you over a 200m section, but to be honest it was too near the beginning of the ride, and thus too crowded, for anyone (well, me) to have a decent stab at it. Groups formed to tow people along until a slight uphill, whereupon everyone would break up again and form a new group, and this forming and reforming like some organic globule continued up and down the valley until the base of the Glandon.
In previous Etapes, the King of the Mountains classification had been calculated by timing you over every classified climb and summing that time, but in 2015, presumably to cut costs, and perhaps as part of a deal with Strava, the KOM was just one climb, albeit the 22.4km, 6.9% average Col de la Croix Fer. I wanted to do well on this (I’d come 74th the previous year) so even though I didn’t know the climb (I had been down the same way on the Marmotte mind), I tried to give the pace a bit of a lift.
The Croix de Fer was a lovely valley, full of lush vegetation and rock formations, which opened out into a scenic vista snaking its way up the side of a steep outcrop. There was a quite windy, steep and technical section in the middle, where the gradient signs just kept returning 10% to your weary eyes, before the final kick in the teeth – the last two kilometers. I’m convinced road builders often run out of space and end up trying to get the road done as quickly as possible, which means building the road up the steepest part of the mountain. 11%-12%-13%-14%-the last few kilometer kept kicking up and up until the summit, where there was a scrum for the food before a small drag up to the Glandon, where the descent began.
The views down into the valley were stunning, as was the road that was draped down across the flank of the mountain. Thankfully, the initially twisty opening part was over fairly quickly, although there was a very fast, very steep straight road down near the bottom, where it again later transpired that there had been a huge pile up which had caused a neutralisation. The descent actually became fairly shallow and pleasant after that, meandering down by a river before popping up the Mollard, which was nothing to shout about. The descent off the Mollard was technical, and I was amazed that some guy came within a whisker of hitting me despite having the whole road to aim at. Novely, two bends later I saw him, covered in a film of dust (and likely blood), stumbling out of the rocks on the side of the road with his front wheel at a right angle.
Finally, we arrived at the foot of La Toussuire. This is a lovely climb, in that it is hardest at the bottom, and has two short descents in it that make it possible to recover on. The pay back for this is that it isn’t an “average” of 6.1% as it claims, with the final 6km in particular a nightmarish grind up a buckled surface that seems a bit like a grave yard, and sort of is, given it is where Chris Froome dropped Bradley Wiggins and where Floyd Landis lost 10 minutes in 2006. However, the climb is otherwise quite placid, with no kicks and pleasant views, and the last two kilometers dramatically level off, which let you soak in the views and achievement.
The only disappointment on finishing was that costs seemed to have been cut on the finishing food – there wasn’t anywhere near as much on offer, which meant shooting off to find some filling bread to soak into tired muscles. But the weather had held, so all was good.
General Etape Advice
Will I make the time cut?
From the graph at the top of the page, you’ll see that the number of people and the percentage of those who haven’t finished the Etape has been increasing to the massive 21% that didn’t finish in 2015. However, these figures could do with qualification. For instance, the 2014 figure was no doubt affected by the rain and horrendous weather, whilst in 2015, various neutralisations due to crashes ruined things as the organisers didn’t adjust the time cut offs, even after holding people for significant lengths of time, resulting in the sight of many, many buses bringing people back to the finish. Thus, the 2013 Etape is probably a good indication of the typical number that get “DNFed”.
Won’t everyone be much better than me?
Arriving at the Etape can be a scary experience – lots of lean, tawny skinned men and women on bikes that cost more than your car, all talking the talk. It’s worth remembering that cyclists are quite egotistical, and that we as a group often talk an awful lot of bullshit about what they’ve done and how good they supposedly are. Don’t be intimidated by people – you often find that many are powerful on the flat but not particularly good going uphill. At the same time, there was once a guy who turned up in trainers who ended up completing the route, so all abilities can manage the Etape.
Do I need a different gear?
Everyone has their own opinion on what gear is required for the Etape, and that’s frankly what it should be – personal. The most common set up you’ll see is a compact chainset, then there’s idiots like me who use 53/39. But it’s completely dependent on what you prefer cadence wise – I like quite a slow cadence, so I have 39/27 as a last resort, and I’ve used it on the top couple of kilometres of Alpe d’Huez, for instance. But obviously if a high cadence is your thing, there’s no plenty of options available.
Do I need to go with a Tour operator?
When you consider the logistics of hotels, transfers and the like, it does make sense to go with a Tour operator. They remove the stress of having to sort these things yourselves, plus their official capacities mean they often have accomodation booked where you need it, ie at the start and end of the stage, rather than 60 miles away (and good look trying to park anywhere near the start on the day). This is also useful given the very early starts the Etape requires. Unfortunately, for the cost, you get very little in return, but it is perhaps worth it rather than stressing yourself about how you’re going to manage everything.
Descending is the thing to be most wary of in the Etape. I am the self declared worst descender in the world, so perhaps I’m just being a coward, but there seem to be an awful lot of people who come to the Etape with their only intention being to go downhills as fast as they can, without any regard for anyone else. Considering there are in excess of 10,000 people on the course, this is frankly narcissistic madness, and as happened this year, can indirectly cause people to be stopped due to the time limit. I have yet to down a major descent on an Etape without seeing numerous ambulances tending to people, so if you are going to go, use the descents to enjoy the scenery and recover, and assume everyone is less capable than you think they are, as it’s copiously preferable to being in a ditch.
Alpine and Pyrenees climbs are, in contrast to short and sharp British climbs, long and (relatively) gentle. That’s not to say they aren’t hard – gradients usually range in the 6-8% area – but the fact it is a steady effort rather than a manic one means you can set a pace rather than having to fight just to get over. Many climbs arent all that constant either, which means there’s always a flatter or steeper section to recover/throttle back on, which makes things more interesting. The main challenge is simply to find a rhythm and not try and follow people who are blasting by, and certainly not to do the common British mistake of blasting into the bottom to carry “momentum” – this isn’t going to happen on a ten mile long mountain.