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L'Etape du Tour 2007: Triumph or folly?

Only the foolish or the wilfully naïve ever believed that the 2007 edition of L’Etape du Tour would be anything other than a brutal day’s racing.

Julian descending the Col du Port
in the Etape 2007

A 199km course, including 50km of climbing over five categorised Pyrenean climbs,
was going to be a tough day in the saddle for the Tour de France professionals,
let alone the weekend warriors and have-a-go-heroes that made up most of the estimated
7,500 starters.

The choice of such an eliminating Tour stage for this year’s Etape was no accident.
Race director Jean-Francois Alcan of Tour organiser A.S.O. had made no secret
of his ambition to restore the Etape to what he felt was its rightful
place as the ‘cyclosportive du reference’ – the benchmark sportive
against which others and all riders should be judged.

For the many thousands of foreign riders who have made the exhausting and expensive
pilgrimage to the Etape in recent years, there has never been any doubt the Tour’s
very own sportive has always been the greatest challenge of the many such rides now promoted each year across Europe.

No others are on quite its scale, no other has fully closed roads, and no other
has such a strong tie to the world’s greatest bike race. Mostly for better,
but sometimes for worse, the Etape has led and others have followed.

Yet for the Tour organisation, that has clearly not been good enough. Stung by
competition from the hundreds of new cyclosportive events which have sprung up
in recent years, and the growing reputation of classics such as La Marmotte,
Quebrantahuesos and the Gran Fondo Campagnolo, A.S.O. believed they needed to
reassert the status of the Etape.

In recent years, the Tour stage picked for the Etape has tended to be hard, but
not the hardest, long, but not the longest, and mountainous, but not the most
mountainous of those available in that particular year. In 2007 that was to be different. For the first time in a decade the Etape ventured
across the key central Pyrenean mountain stage, with a profile like a jagged
saw.

Those riders who lined up early that July morning in the market town of Foix
were in for a long day, crossing the Col de Port (1,249m), Col de Portet d’Aspet
(1,069m), Col de Menté (1,349m), Port de Balès (1, 755m) and the
Col de Peyresourde (1 569m). As the race organizers themselves put it: “After
199 kilometers of pain and joy, the race will end in Loudenvielle.” Sadly
for many, the race was over long before Loudenvielle, having degenerated into
a remorseless grind over col after col.

Unless you’ve ridden and raced in Europe’s mountains it’s
hard to perceive the difference between a day of 160km and two or three cols,
and one of 200km and five cols. Just forty kms and a couple of climbs, the inexperienced
may think. But think again. When the toughest climb of the day, the 19km ‘hors
categorie’ Port du Bales is the fourth, and then the final is the first
cat. Peyresourde in the blazing midday sun, then even strong riders will be in
trouble.

Ironically, in their eagerness to reinforce the reputation of the Etape as
a first class race by picking such a hard stage, A.S.O. ensured that the bulk
of riders could not race but merely hope to survive and just ride the course.

It’s a conundrum that goes to the heart of the current boom in the cyclosportive
movement: race or ride; judge yourself against the pros and peers, or just give
yourself a battering as you struggle through the challenge.

For what it’s worth, I’ve always believed the beauty of sportives
has been in their character as races. Not elitist races, but inclusive races
where everyone has the chance to compete on equal terms. If you’re not
racing then it’s a randonnee, and that’s an issue which British
Cycling amongst others just doesn’t seem to get.

Alexandre Vinokourov’s knee

It was clear at the Etape finish line in Loudenvielle that the course was too
hard for most. Many riders were coming in up to an hour later than they had
expected, not helped by the blistering heat that built during the day. After
12 hours of racing only 4,341 riders had crossed the finish line, although in
an unprecedented show of sympathy the organizers kept the electronic timing
mats running for another 30 minutes or so allowing another 314 riders to post
finishing times.
The scale of the carnage can be seen by comparing to previous years where usually
over 6,000 finish. Even in 2006 between Gap and Alpe d’Huez in the blistering
heat of ‘le chaleur’ some 5,477 competed the course despite many
packing on the lower slopes of the final climb.

Of course, for many of those who crossed the finish line in Loudenvielle after
the classic sweeping descent off the Col du Peyresourde, memories of the day
will last forever. Great weather, classic climbs, roads wide enough to cope
with the flood of riders, and even feed stations able to cope with such numbers,
all marked it out as an event run in the typically efficient manner of A.S.O.

For Nicolas Fritsch it was particularly sweet, winning after a long lone breakaway
in 6 hours 21 minutes and 41 secs. However, just a week later, Alexander Vinokourov
won the Tour stage proper in 5:34:28, and even the sprinters in the ‘autobus’
rolled over the line in 6 hours 10’.

In Paris on Thursday (October 25) at the Palais des Congress the route for the
2008 Tour will be unveiled with cycling’s very own son et lumiere show,
attended by many of the biggest names in the sport. Shortly after, the Etape
takes its own place in the spotlight with the announcement of the stage that will
host next year’s race.

It’s a date eagerly awaited by cyclosportive riders worldwide, and already
the rumours and typically wild speculation about the location of next year’s
Etape have already been flying around the message boards and chat rooms of French
cycling websites.

Among the favourites is a return to the Pyrenees, with a clockwise horseshoe
stage similar to the 2001 Etape, from Pau over the Tourmalet before finishing
up to the ski station of Hautacam, just up the valley from Lourdes, which itself is
celebrating its 150 anniversary next year. The Tour stage details have already
been reported in the local French press, so it could certainly be on the Etape
shortlist.

Another possibility involves the Alpine passes around Albertville. With an anti-clockwise
Tour for 2008 starting in Brittany , an Alpine Etape would fit with keeping
the Tour and the event apart.

One other significant change appears likely. Many bloggers appear convinced
that the Etape 2008 is likely to move from its now traditional date of the Tour’s
first Monday rest day. With that day next year falling on the national Bastille
Day holiday of July 14, the rest day is thought likely to be Sunday 13, leaving
a weekend date clear for the Etape.

Could we have in prospect the opportunity to ride the Etape just a day before
watching the pros ride the same course?
One element does appear fairly certain, however, with the lessons of 2007 having
been learned. The Etape is unlikely repeat its experiment with a five-col suffer-fest.
A much more raceable course crossing three cols in 150km-170km appears more
likely.

If so, then no one should criticize A.S.O. for going soft. In its current form,
with closed roads and its tight bond to each year’s Tour, the L’Etape
du Tour will unquestionably remain the ‘sportive du reference’.

Contador talks to the press post-stage…
As does Rasmussen…
After two hours with the anti-dope
control team, Rasmussen and Vino get a police escort out of Loudenveille.
Just a few days later they’d both be out of the Tour.
Alexandre Vinokourov after winning
the stage proper in the Tour…
Vino’s attack on the big screen
at Loudenvielle…

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