I am a big fan of the European Sportif/Gran Fondos and have been lucky enough to have taken part in a few fantastic events over the previous 6 years. My first one being the L’Etape du Tour in 2011, with a short but killer stage over the Galibier and up Alpe d’Huez. Then in 2012, I had the bug, doing both versions, one in the Pyranees and another in the Alps, plus the incredible La Marmotte.
The route for the Etape changes every year and is always a copy of one stage of that years Tour de France, with the exception that it is open for anyone to take part in, but is on closed roads. While it is usually on a really hard stage, there have been a few somewhat easier (but never easy) routes over the previous few years, but the 2017 route was back to looking like a tough one.
After some initial frustration about being gridded miles back at 5712, I managed to get moved up to the front pen. The ASO give “safety and security” as the reasons for only recognising the previous 2 years L’Etape events, but I think time saving and money making has more to do with it.
The 2017 route would be 181 kilometres with 3800 metres of climbing and taking in 2 tough climbs and one easier one. My biggest worry was the long, 40km “downhill” start, thinking that it would be a mad, dangerous rush of racers.
The build up to the race had been pretty awful for me, with 2 weeks off as planned organising The Monster and then the Dragon Duathlon, I hadn’t toughed the bike at all. Then what was planned to be a big training ride at the Velothon ended in disaster after being taken out by an inexperienced rider in the group and the injury that I had as a result kept me off the bike even more. With just one short ride a few days before the 3 day travel down, I didn’t really know how I was going to feel or do.
When we got underway at 7am I was roughly halfway into the front pen of 1000 riders, so even by the time I crossed the start line the front guys were already miles away. The first 10km or so were pretty manic as it was a fast, slightly downhill start and riders were overtaking, undertaking and getting through the pack as quickly as they could, but unlike the Velothon the week before, the standard of riding was much better. Slower riders could hold a line and when it got twisty, people were riding together well and safely.
What the route profile didn’t show so well was all the short but nasty kickers in the first quarter of the route. The massive front group of riders seemed like a big distance away and that they wouldn’t be caught, but to my surprised the short kickers seemed to bring everyone back together and into what must have been a peleton of 300 or so riders. The first major climb was up a 3rd category climb, being 3.9km at 5% average. That isn’t far off the Black Mountain back home, which puts the bigger mountains to follow later into some perspective, given the Black Mountain is one of the longest, highest climbs in Wales.
I had to work hard up the climb and on the flatter section that followed to try and stick with the big group and it had splintered into several smaller groups, with people reluctant to work on the front – myself included!
I think many, like myself were just waiting for the big climbs to start and then see what happens. After 122km, we started up the slopes of the Col de Vars, a Cat 1 climb at 9.3km at 7.5% average. From what was supposed to be a pretty flat and easier first half, we had already done just under 2000m of climbing and I was feeling it and worried that I had put too much in on the earlier stages.
The race all split apart on the bottom slopes with the front runners literally sprinting off on the first steep slope and disappearing away. The big first pack strung out and I was finding myself towards the back to start, but as the climb went on I reeled in quite a few who had pushed too soon. The climb was long, but stayed at similar gradients, making it better for people like myself to find a rhythm and keep spinning.
From the top, I stopped at the feed station to fill up my bottles and headed down what would be the only really long descent of the day. A small group seemed to form together and with a few good descenders among us, it felt good, although a few of the corners were tricky as they tightened up after what I thought was the apex.
Reaching the bottom and through the village was great as the support was incredible with what felt like the whole town coming out to cheer riders on and give encouragement. On the profile the section between the mountain climbs was a long gradual climb, but with a tailwind for some of it, I think it could have been worse. Small groups were forming again and I was doing my best to stay with them and not do too much work as my legs were feeling tired.
As we hit the start of the final climb, the Col d’Izoard I was immediately at the group of 20 or so riders that were together and felt in survival mode. A Hors Category (HC) climb at 14km with an average of 7.3%, but the real tough point would be the final 7km, which were all at 9% average.
The heat was building and there was no shade of the mountain at all, making things even tougher. It wasn’t long before I was starting to pick a few riders off, even though I felt very slow and that my lowest gear of 36/28 was too big I guess others were struggling even more.
Passing through a small village at 7km to go, this is where things really pitched up and from here to the finish at the top was hell. It felt like everyone was crawling up. The heat was intense, even though we were high up and the climb was almost all in the open. People standing on the side of the road were handing out cups of water, which was amazing to see and I took a few as I was running low and drinking lots.
The top seemed in view for a long time, but distance and kilometres were passing slowly and any thoughts or plans for a fast final KM were thrown aside when it came, with survival being the only thought.
Crossing the finish line at 2360m altitude was a massive relief. My legs and body was cooked, but I was also surprised and happy with how I did. I had no expectations of a high finish as I am nowhere near the level of fitness I was at in 2012, a year I was perhaps at my best. Finishing the 181km route with 3800m in 6hrs 1 minute was a big achievement for me and I was 177th of 11,261 starters. Not bad for a has-been racer.
Frustrations with the ASO organisation aside, the route was a good one and tough enough for most I am sure. For me it doesn’t live up to the same epic route or event feel as La Marmotte and although that isn’t on closed roads, it still feels like the better event for me.