L'Etapé du Tour 2015 - The Mountains Were Calling...

My eyes flit open from a light nap/food-induced coma, to the sight of three things that make me incredibly happy: mountains, smooth tarmac roads and a fast flowing glacial river valley… and more mountains!

Having spent the last 24 hours in the beautiful surroundings of Lake Annecy, including a brief spin around the picturesque lake, we’re now heading deep into the Alps on our transfer vehicle. I'm with Team Le Coq Sportif, and we are making our way to La Toussuire and the start of the 2015 L'Etapé du Tour.

It's been too long since I've been in the Alps. I'm not sure exactly, but I think the last time I rode a bike here was during our mammoth 2011 France and Spain Tour. I've missed it. I hadn't realised how much I've missed it. When Le Coq Sportif asked if I'd like to join them for this year's Etapé, I jumped at the chance; not only would it involve a trip to the Alps, it would also tick an event off my ever growing Bucket List. Let’s get climbing some mountains.

I gave a few details of the route of this year's Etapé in my lead-in blog; as a succinct summary though, it's a beast. With 4,500 meters of climbing packed into its 140 km length, it was always set to be a hard day on the bike. I'm a sucker for a challenge though, right?

The Main Event

Following a fantastic evening meal, in the new Le Coq Sportif base in Le Corbier, we had an early night on Saturday; ready for the 5am wake up call and obligatory carb-shovelling breakfast, before the main event.

Despite ominous thunderstorms featuring heavily in the forecast, Sunday dawn broke with welcome clear blue skies over the Alps. A quick descent down from Le Corbier, and we were penned with the other 12,000+ riders in Saint Jean de Maurienne. Ready for the off.

There wasn't much warm-up once we had rolled out of town. After just 9 km we reached Montvernier, and the start of the Col du Chaussy; a 1st category climb, topping out at 1,533 metres.

The Le Coq Sportif team had been penned in the second start area, which meant 2,000 riders had already started before us, plus those that were ahead of us in the pen. As a result, the Col du Chaussy mostly composed of a fair bit of “a la gauche” as I tried to move up the places!

The scenery was already starting to impress though, and as we climbed off the valley floor, the early morning sun on the slopes provided a welcome distraction from the challenge of the first climb of the day.

Chaussy done, it was a fast descent, leading to a quick out-and-back along the valley floor. The valley section was included in this stage so that there could actually be an intermediate sprint (there aren't any other flat sections)!

The first descent of any mountainous sportive is always interesting. With so many riders on the road, some of which were super twitchy, it was quite a tense atmosphere (and there were some inevitable crashes). I also unfortunately discovered on this first descent that I had a very dodgy free hub which wouldn't engage immediately, and made sprinting out of hairpins near-on impossible! The combination of these two factors meant I took it easy on this first downhill. Not to worry, I thought, still 115 kilometres to go!

The valley floor stretch of the route was relatively uneventful; although somehow I found myself between groups, which meant a lot of pushing-on alone. Soon enough though, I reached the real challenge of the day: the Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer double-whammy.

The Glandon is effectively a false-peak, and after a small descent, the road ramps up again to crest at 2,067 meters above sea level at the Croix de Fer. The full ascent up to the top of the Croix de Fer has more climbing in it than any other ascent during this year's Tour de France, and it didn't fail to live up to its pre-event hype…

Starting in the river valley, the lower slopes were deceptively peaceful, shaded and gentle. By 10 km in though, the shade had abated and the late morning sun was beginning to beat down. The gradient was ramping up too, and my legs were starting to feel a bit of lactic build-up. Realising I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, I wolfed down an energy bar, clicked up into the 28 sprocket and began spinning.

It was during the last five kilometres of the Glandon that I discovered why this stage had earned its mark as the “Queen’s Stage” of the 2015 Tour. This climb is a stinger! Towards the top, the gradient sharpens and the hairpins are frequent, whilst the shade is almost non-existent. With the temperature now pushing 30 degrees, I was milking the last bit of moisture from my water bottles, as I counted down the milestone markers to the summit.

By the time I rolled over the Glandon's crest, I realised that I'd made a mistake. I should have eaten more early on, and I definitely should have drunk more. I rolled into the feed station and binged on coke, oranges and dried fruit; desperately trying to rectify my error, and replenish my depleted stores.

Feeling a bit more human, and with a mouthful of figs and banana, I rolled down the short descent from the Glandon's summit and spun my way to the top of the Croix de Fer. From there, it was a fast and flowing descent back down to the valley floor; marred only slightly by my continued intermittent freehub problems… who knew how disorientating it is not being able to have a solid drive to push on as you come out of the corners!

Next up was the Col du Mollard. This climb only holds a 2nd category certificate, unlike the hors categorie classification of the Croix de Fer, or the 1st category of the Toussuire. This by no means implies it is a walk in the park, though; especially when the temperature is up at 34 Celsius and you have well over 100 km in the legs already!

My ascent of the Mollard could be likened to a roller-coaster ride through an oven. Probably as a result of my CocaCola overdose at the top of the Glandon, my blood sugar seemed to be yo-yo’ing something rotten! I’d go from feeling on a high and picking up places rapidly, to barely being able to turn the 36-28 gear. Unfortunately, as the climb emerged from the trees and progressed into sharp switchbacks, I was in the latter state of depletion. I sumitted the climb and rolled into the drinks station, swearing I’d stick to isotonic tablets and flapjack on my next long distance ride!

One final descent was then all that stood between me and the La Toussuire climb, which represented the final (substantial) hurdle of the day. Again, I lost time on this descent quite significantly; easing up because I was conscious of my weariness. I had to remind myself of the phrase "races are rarely won on descents, but they can definitely be lost". I didn't take any risks.

Heading into Saint Jean de Maurienne again, represented the completion of our loop, and the start of the ascent to La Toussuire. Only 15 km of climbing to a height of 1705 meters to go. Almost there…

At least that's what went through my mind as we initially hit the climb; but then I started to do the maths. My speed had dropped to a meagre 14 kph, so that meant this was going to be at least an hour of climbing. With the temperature up at 35 Celsius, and the new asphalt emitting a heat that was stifling, it was going to be a long hour.

The final climb all blurred into one in all honesty. It wasn't until I did it again the following morning, before flying home, that I realised what a great climb this is. It is twisty, interesting and varied. During the event, it was more of an out-and-out struggle.

I eventually crossed the finish line in a time of 6 hours, 14 minutes. That placed me 381st out of 12,000+ participants. I collapsed into a pile, and shovelled pasta, Toulouse sausage and water into my dry and gaping mouth. That was quite a day out!

As I was gingerly rolling back down the hill to Le Corbier, I began to take in what had just happened.

On paper, this didn't look like more of a challenge than many other Endurance Rides I've done; it had less climbing and less distance than either last year's Dragon Ride or the Mallorca312. Yet, it was without doubt one of my hardest days in the saddle.

As I removed a crusty and salt stained Le Coq Sportif Pro Jersey from my shoulders, back at the hotel, I realised the amount of fluid I must have perspired through its high-tech lightweight fabric. I was grateful it had been a comfortable and well fitted minimalist race jersey!

As I removed my Etapé casquette, shorts and socks, they revealed stark tan lines. I realised that it was the combination of the heat, some nutritional mishaps, and the far longer climbs than I've endured in other events, which had made this such a challenge.

I'm a sucker for a challenge though, and whilst this day out was definitely up there as one of my hardest, it was also one of the best. The scenery of the Alpine landscape takes your breath away, almost as much as the climbs themselves; whilst the feeling of riding on completely closed roads, with 12,000 other cyclists, is something truly fantastic.

As the Le Coq Sportif team relaxed with beers and a BBQ in the ski-resort restaurant that evening, we recounted our individual challenges and victories. It seems that whether you're a bike-courier from Paris, a journalist from Spain, or a British blogger; the Etapé presents a great challenge and a great event for all.

I might have ticked it off my Bucket List for now, but I fully intend this year's event will not be my last.

Until next year!

With Thanks 

A huge thanks goes to Le Coq Sportif for hosting me at the event, and providing me with kit and company that made this such a special experience. Their range of cycling kit is good enough for the Maillot Jaune, and it was definitely good enough for the Etapé. Full blog reviews coming soon!

A special thanks also to Rufus Exton, who provided the stunning photographs in this blog post; they really showcase what a fantastic event and weekend this was.


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