The Etape du Tour is the annual stage of the Tour de France – typically a tough mountain one – in which amateurs can compete under the same conditions as the professionals will a few days later. My husband Steve did it this year as his half of the Team Shepherd charity effort for Children with Cancer UK. Here’s how it went in his own words…
It’s ten years since I lined up in Limoges to do my first Etape du Tour. That was a long day in the middle mountains of the Massif Central; this year’s Etape featured two Pyrenean monsters – the Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam; plus a forecast of wind and thunderstorms!
My training for the event started in February with increasingly long and hilly rides in the Yorkshire Wolds and Dales. I’ve done a few Alpine and Pyrenean climbs, so I know you can’t really replicate them in Britain, but you can still improve your climbing and endurance – and you’ll need plenty of that!
At the start of the event in Pau the weather was perfect for riding, but what would it be like in the mountains? 13,000 of us were wondering and hoping the forecast would be wrong and fine weather would prevail. The start was well organised and we rolled out of town in waves of 1,000, a road full of bikes as far as the eye could see. With so many riders there was always someone to chat with and share the experience. A few easy kilometres clicked by, then the climbing started; a perfect warm up of two 3rd category climbs and rolling roads. Getting your feeding and drinking strategy right on a long day is essential for the tough stuff later, so taking on supplies at the early feed stations is a good move. It’s tempting to ride by as you’ve covered so little ground and expended little energy, but it’s a case of get it while you can. The Etape usually has plenty of well-placed and well-stocked feeding points, although they can resemble a road crash between two lorries carrying fruit!
The weather was kind to us for a good distance into the event. The wind, if anything, was generally helpful and the rain held off. That must have helped to ensure we had such fantastic support at the side of the road, and the number of locals cheering for us early on a Sunday morning was amazing. Many villages along the route were already decorated for the Tour stage passing through a few days later, but that morning it was for us amateurs. As we neared the half way mark and the mountains loomed on the horizon to the right the weather deteriorated. It’s hard to say exactly when the rain started; light drizzle just got heavier as the climb to the Col du Tourmalet went on. I ignored it at first and rode on in my short sleeved jersey, but eventually I had to admit it was proper rain and time to stop and put on a jacket.
As expected, the Tourmalet climb was long and tough, and I was soon using some very low gears. With the gradient and the rain it was a case of getting into a rhythm and working away at knocking off the kilometres. There were still Brits to talk to, including one nutcase riding the whole thing on a Raleigh Chopper! The feed station in La Mongie, five kilometres from the top of Col du Tourmalet, was a welcome break, although stopping for too long is best avoided as the legs take some coaxing back into action. The top of the first climb and the sight of the giant steel sculpture of a cyclist marked the end of phase one of the hard work, and I was glad to see it. Although I felt it had gone well so far and I’d passed quite a few riders, my legs were hurting. Whether I was looking forward to the descent was another matter. Normally I’d be more than happy at the thought of a fast 35kms descent, but on slippery wet roads and with pouring rain it wasn’t a great prospect. I started at as easy pace, found it wasn’t too bad and gradually picked up the pace.
20 kms later I pulled in at a feed station, shivering and damp, but happy I’d stayed upright. After a quick hunt for yet another cheese sandwich and some water I continued with another 15 kms of descending into improving weather. By the time I reached the flat road just before the start of the climb to Hautacam the sun was out and any thoughts I had of turning left for home instead of right up the climb soon disappeared. My right knee had been gradually tweaking more and more on the climb and I felt I was doing some damage. I think I’d always have continued, but the reception at the start of the final climb made absolutely certain of it. There were so many people cheering, shouting and waving flags and banners it made the first few kilometres fly by. One van flying a Yorkshire flag had been parked by the road way back and its occupants gave me another big cheer as they recognised a British rider.
Unfortunately the improved weather didn’t last. As we climbed the rain started again and continued all the way to the top, making a hard climb tougher. The gradient went up from around 6% near the bottom to 11% towards the top, but thankfully easing in the last couple of kilometres. The boards announcing the average for the next kilometre seemed to alternate between good news (6%) and bad news (over 10%). By this time in the day, hard as the riding was, I had the finish line in sight, and neither a dodgy knee nor aching legs were going to stop me. There was no sprint finish, just clicking up a gear or two and overtaking a couple of people into the finishing funnel, but the feeling of crossing the line was fantastic!
Once over the timing mat at the top there was chance for one more feed – another cheese sandwich of course – before another wet descent to the finish village to collect my medal, goody bag and a bowl of pasta. Riding back down the mountain while others still toiled upwards was great, even though some of the later starters would have a better overall time than me. I was happy with the 7 hours 38 minutes it took me to complete the course; way longer than the professionals would take four days later, but a grand day out.
The goody bag was great incidentally; not only do you get a really cool rucksack and t-shirt when you sign on, but at the finish there’s also a substantial medal and a souvenir Buff.
Epic events like the Etape provide a challenge, a chance to raise some money for charity (as I did for Children With Cancer UK) and also great stories and memories. Watching the pros on TV on the same roads brings it all back and the possibility of planning for next year’s event!
If you would like to make a donation to the Team Shepherd for Children with Cancer UK charity fund you can do so here.