I’ve done the Étape du Tour twice before. Twice I’ve got wet, very wet.
The first time was the infamous Ventoux stage way back in 2000 when it started raining and then hailing at the top of the mountain and the organisers stopped people going up the hill because it was too dangerous. I was right in the middle of that dangerous bit, riding the last couple of kilometres up through sideways hail in too little clothing and then descending down a freezing river of a road through the carnage of walking and crashed riders knowing that if I could just make it through the shivers bad enough to make my bike shimmy uncontrollably down the mountain to Malaucène I’d be okay.
The following year I joined the Étape when it visited the Pyrenees and ended up descending the Tourmalet in skittery drizzle and then climbing Luz Ardiden in heavy rain, tired, bonking my tits off and close to tears. So it’s been a while since I’ve been back.
I haven’t even started my third attempt at an Étape du Tour and I’m already sheltering from the rain. The weather forecast for the actual day hasn’t been looking too promising with thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon and the day before sees a morning ride round Lake Annecy in the rain and now in the afternoon black clouds skulk low overhead and dump their load, but if it wasn’t for this downpour and forgetting to pack a waterproof I wouldn’t be doing the Étape at all.
Pic © Rufus Exton
In order to pick up your ride number, one for the front, one for the back, you need to produce your registration convocation, your passport and a medical certificate to say you’re probably good for it and not going to die. Thanks to my doctor’s surgery not knowing their arse from their elbow, not confidence inspiring for a doctors it has to be said, I haven’t been able to secure the latter but figure my British Cycling race licence will suffice because it has in the past. Not here apparently, where they only recognise a French racing licence. Ah. That’s French bureaucracy for you. Bugger.
Myself and Ollie from Le Coq Sportif, who as well as supplying the official leader’s jerseys for the Tour de France are part sponsors of the Étape and have invited me along for the ride, go in search of a doctor in the Étape finish town of La Toussuire who might furnish us with such an important piece of paper. The doctors is shut, so we venture to the tourist office who tell us there’s another doctors down the valley a few kilometres. That’s Plan A, which is what we’re going to do once that thunderstorm has passed us over. We also have a Plan B and a Plan C just in case. In the meantime we’re hiding in the tourist office lobby alongside other sheltering cyclists, eavesdropping on a conversation some damp English riders are having. One of them needs another medical certificate as the organisers are refusing him entry because his doctor’s note says ‘cycling event’ rather than ‘cycling competition’. The difference means a lot. That’s French bureaucracy for you. They’re on the phone to their doctor friend who has some spare medical certificates they can use. With nothing to lose we ask if we can possibly have one of the spare certificates. More phone conversation ensues, we can. Hello Plan D.
In a series of events that doesn’t in any way feel clandestine we meet the doctor behind the Oakley stand in the Étape trade village, hands are shaken and we adjourn to a nearby apartment. Spare forms are produced from a dark bedroom and details are filled in. I give the doctor all the spare Euros I have and a free Le Coq Sportive t-shirt as thanks. There are more hand-shakes, there is very little eye contact. It feels like a Pro rider visiting a doctor to ensure a remarkable turn of form for the next day’s stage might do. There are nervous moments as I present my correct documentation to the same people that refused me an hour previously and all of a sudden I’m in the Étape. And it’s stopped raining. Thank you the short storm, being in the right place at the right time, the cyclists from Suffolk and Doctor Robert. I owe you some beers.
Pic © Rufus Exton
This 23rd edition of the Étape du Tour follows Stage 19 of the 2015 Tour de France from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to the mountaintop finish of La Toussuire/Les Sybelles. What the stage lacks in distance at an almost desultory 138kms it more than makes up for in attitude, I mean altitude. With the climbs of the Col de Chaussy, Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Mollard and La Toussuire there’s the promise of over 60kms to cover in substantial climbing and about 4,500 metres of elevation gain. A grimpeur’s stage then.
It’s an early early alarm to be in the start pen at 0600 for a 7am start, but worth it for the 14km descent from where we’re staying in Le Corbier on final climb down into the depart town of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. It’s a melee as riders try to find which of the 14 start pens they’re meant to be in as by necessity 12,000+ riders need to be set off in controlled waves. Once off it doesn’t take long, the second corner in fact, before I’m cut up by another rider keen to smash it. Heyho, welcome to group riding. It’s a fast few kilometres along a dual carriageway before the arrows point right and the first climb of the day starts up towards the village of Hermillon and onto the Col de Chaussy. It’s a bit too soon in the morning for cold legs but it is what it is, steady away, there’s a long day ahead, enjoy the morning. Climb for 15 km.
As roads up go it’s not a bad way to start the day, with an average gradient of just over 6% it’s not too much of a struggle and as the sun rises to peek over the peaks to the right there’s no shortage of picturesque to soak in. I pass two amputee riders, one with a carbon fibre calf and another with a very elegant carbon fibre forearm blended into his handlebar, neither are going very slowly, both images are filed under the ‘toughen the f**k up’ part of the brain for possible use later in the day.
A quick pause at the top for a water refill and a bladder empty, even this early in proceedings it’s warm and it’s only going to get hotter so it’s going be vitally important to keep hydrated and fuelled. Have a bite of a munchy bar and start descending. Not long down there are gendarmes directing the endless flow to slow down and filter to the right to avoid the ambulance that’s tending to a crashed rider prone in a ditch. We all slow down apart from one that’s right behind me who’s either not paying attention or has a PB to beat and crashes at high speed into one of the gendarmes parked motorbikes.
I hear the sickening crumping sound of thick plastic and light carbon and soft flesh on sharp metal and hard tarmac and swiftly glance behind me so see a snapshot of ugly and put my head down and keep on pedaling. Jesusfuk. A few corners further on a rider is waking back up the hill with a pretzeled Lightweight wheel. Not a light weight wheel but a Lightweight wheel, one of the posh very expensive ones with the white spokes. I want to get off the mountain quickly and safely now, this is getting silly, it’s only a bike ride. Not much further still there’s the rifle shot of a tyre blow-out a few corners back up the hill. That’ll be interesting. I really want to get down quickly and safely now. Then turning into a hairpin bend a rider cuts right across my bows. Sigh.
After the relief of surviving the descent off the Chaussy and stocking up again at the feed station in La Chambre there’s a long drag up and then down the valley, along the eastern side of the river Arc and the E70 corridor and then down the western side to St Étienne de Cuines where the Col de Glandon begins. Time to find some wheels to hide behind or work with, depending. Easier said than done. I pair up with rider 2727 who is reluctant to share a fair amount of time up front so I take advantage of the fact that I drop him on a slight rise to leapfrog up to another group of riders who are happier to work together. We become an amorphous blob, absorbing some riders as we pass other packs and losing others off the back, and following some universal cycling sign language there’s an attempt at a bit of through-and-off on the southern stretch but that doesn’t work for long as the road undulates up and down the edges of the valley.
The route turns right trough Saint Étienne de Cuines where it feels like the whole town has come out to line the streets to cheer the Étaperists through and for a moment you almost feel like a Tour rider. The whole route has been amazingly spectated with villages clapping for what is probably going to be a very long day and people waiting outside their homes with garden hoses to spray passing riders with cooling water. Stop for another Evian top-up and start the 19km climb of the Glandon, there’s a demoralising long straight drag out of town at a steady 7% gradient before the road enters the trees and it wiggles charmingly up the mountain.
The climb through the forest on the lower slopes is refreshingly shaded and by the time we reach the open fields of the upper half we’re high enough for the air to be cool, so despite the sun and the heat it’s a pleasant climb. Once out in the open pasture it’s a mistake to look up to where the road goes for in the far far distance against the rock face that crowns the mountain you can just make out a small thin strip of silvery-white. That’s the line of motor-homes clinging to a hairpin bend towards the top, already waiting for the Tour. They’re a long way away. Pedal on, wait for the next kilometre marker by the side of the road, look at your speed on the computer, do the sums, pedal on. Gently weave a way through the slower riders sprinkled liberally all over the road.
I occupy my mind with the idiosyncrasies of the riders around me to pass the climb; wonder how that rider can cope with riding that creaking bike that’s annoying for the brief moments it’s in my radar let alone an entire day. The weirdness of the grey-haired man in the pink jersey who’s stood up on the pedals pushing a massive gear, three down from the easiest, crabbed over the bars with an awkward pedaling gait. How he’s kept that going all the way up the mountain I don’t know, especially when he’s got gears to spare, but he seems happy. That jersey. The squeaky cleats riders, the ones with the wobbly knees that do a little Merengue over the top tube each pedal stroke, the rear deraileurs that are gently picking at the spokes like a climbing harp, will they make the final leap to destruction any time soon? The riders with their flashing rear lights on, you’re with thousands of other cyclists on closed roads - you really don’t need that. Really. Unless it’s a ‘Hazard to Navigation’ light.
The owners of those distant camper-vans are being kind to the ceaseless riders and handing up plastic cups of water, all received gratefully, which is handy as it’s at exact point the Glandon steepens up to switchback the last few kilometres. Look up and you’ll see the back ends of more camper-vans right above your head. There’s another welcome feed station at the top of the Glandon and things in the grey shale car-park are starting to look a little desperate with riders scrabbling for food and water. I’m excited to see trays of salted pretzels and snack biscuits alongside dried fruit, so I fill my cheeks with it all to create a messy mash to slowly absorb up the following bit. The way up to the next summit on the list of the Croix de Fer is a gentle drag up the left hand side of the mountain that hardly constitutes a climb and the bagging of another summit, and the actual cross of iron at the top is a lot smaller than you might expect.
I’ve been up here before, climbing up from the west into unwelcoming low cloud and drizzle so it’s nice to drop off the mountain into a sunny view and enjoy the brief free-fall as it’s not long before the Étape goes back up again. Turn right across the bridge and start the almost insignificant in today’s scheme of things Col du Mollard, a mere 5km bump in the day of big mountains. Three pedals strokes into the climb and my Étape unexpectedly and spectacularly falls apart. A sudden thick pain runs the entire length of my right leg, all the way down the inside from thigh to ankle and feeling something between a cramp and muscle spasm. That’s an interesting development and something that’s never happened before. If I gingerly stand up on the pedals it stops, so I climb out of the saddle for a while before attempting to sit again. The pain has briefly disappeared so I take the opportunity to drink half my water bottle in an attempt to hydrate the cramp away. Then I get a similar pain in my left leg. What the…... or words to that effect. Stand up again. Drink more.
The Col du Mollard is a very pretty little climb but I’m in no mood to enjoy it, deep as I am in damage limitation mode. The muscle cramp or whatever it is was a real surprise, I felt fine up the Glandon and Croix de Fer, and I’ve been happily powering down the descents and along the flatter sections, I’ve been eating and hydrating well, or so I thought, but now I’m well on the back foot. I love riding hills, I enjoy riding in the heat, and this is a unique, painful, laborious and worrying experience. I pedal as best I can planning on recouping on the descent and mustering my resources for the final climb. Positive mental attitude.
The descent off the Col du Mollard is nearly three times as long as the ascent, and it’s a beauty. By now riders are well strung out across 140kms of mountainside so the roads are less swarmed with wheels and it’s easier to choose a line down the hill and therefore lots more fun. There’s a fine collection of hairpins and wiggles that never seem to end and getting them just right produces a little tingle in the tummy. This makes me feel a lot better about my situation and as the gradient shallows into the valley and I truck through the thick warm air towards the final feed station before the end-game climb of La Toussuire. Fill up with water once more, scoff more salty goodness, have a climbing wee.
The climb starts with a left onto a narrow short sharp ramp that’s rammed with people cheering riders on and left again onto the wide road of La Toussuire proper. It’s not long before the first yellow and white kilometre marker on the right appears, 19km to go. Just one more hill. The early slopes of La Toussuire are on straight and open sections of road, some of which are that very smooth very black fresh new tarmac that’s usually the dream of most cyclists. Not today where the heat bounces right back off it making the climb really quite oveny. The road is not populated by cyclists skipping up the climb as they dance on the pedals like a plucky Frenchman on a breakaway, instead everyone is slowly silently rotating easiest gears in their own little world of hurt. Some are sitting in the shade trying to cool down before striking out into the sun again, some are having a little lie down, enough are walking, others are by the side, screaming with cramp. It’s a stream of desperate cycling refugees, all trying to escape the very thing they’re on.
Things aren’t happy with me either, this is going to be a struggle. I may have been a little complaisant about today, not cocky, but just not overly worried, I’ve done harder days in the mountains for certain but I’ve totally been given a sharp knee in the chamois by this Étape. Somewhere deep inside there’s a little red light blinking on and off but there are no signals going through to the legs, they’re going round and round as some sort of Pavlovian response to being on a bike but that’s about it. I can’t get my heart-rate up, there’s no impulse to get some heavy breathing and effort going, there is just plod. Slow, belligerent, painful plod. There is no panache, there is no souplesse, there is just getting to the top. Eventually.
I count the kilometre markers down, a mental reassurance not helped by the roadside markers and the Étape countdown to the finish signs being significantly different and some distance apart. Ten kilometres into the climb there’s a flat section, and even a little bit of a downhill, I’m looking forward to that bit of free mileage, but just before then there’s an ugly scrabble round a stone water trough in a village where riders are filling bottles and dunking their heads, a panicked addition to the designated water-stop a kilometre further on.
After this all too brief respite the road climbs again for the final time and my cramps start again, stand up, stretch, sit down, look at people in a worse state than me, carry on. Grind. I always get heartened by the 8kms to go sign on any major alpine climb as that means there’s less than five miles to go. Anyone can ride 5 miles. Then the 3km to go is the next little marker of optimism. Our accommodation is at that three kilometre mark so I have to begrudgingly pass that to the finish only to roll back down again later. Thankfully that extra mileage will bring the day’s total to just over 100 miles if the roll down to the start is included in the day’s total. I’m happy with that. An imperial century is always nice, if my computer had stopped at 99.6 miles I wouldn’t have bothered to ride it up.
Hatefully miserable drudgery of a climb.
The finish kilometre is lined with cheering spectators and as the road tops out in the town and levels off riders pass me in a flurry of bravado smacking it in the big ring and giving it all whilst I cross the finish line with no histrionics, no arms in the air, no punching thesky, kissing a charm or thumping the chest. I did the job, just.
Pic © Rufus Exton
I climb off my bike and shuffle to the pasta party tent for my free finisher’s meal to go with my medal and t-shirt. I’m broken, standing in the queue and have to suppress the burpy urge to vomit whilst feeling a little bit shivery. I’ve never had heatstroke before but I think this might be what it feels like. How was that so hard? I find a place to sit outside far enough away from the rider who’s been put in the recovery position and nibble at my food and drink as much as I can get down. The sausage flopped on my pasta looks a little pink inside, I avoid that and just poke idly at the pasta when I really want to fill my face. I want to fall asleep. I really want a fizzy drink. I want to cry for a variety of reasons. My right calf cramps alarmingly.
Pic © Rufus Exton
At least it didn’t rain.
Thanks to lecoqsportif.com
Additional photography © Rufus Exton
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.