The start – loads of us
The 2006 Etape was billed as a classic. Finish atop Alpe d’Huez. The appeal is etched into cycling folklore. Pantani took 37 minutes to belt up it. We all wanted to match our abilities to the pros and see how close (read: miles away) we’d be to the angels of the mountains. So we at RCUK were lucky to go to the area to pre ride the legendary hill, what was all the fuss about? we thought initially, it’s only 12% max… then try riding it after 180ks and after the Izoard and so on – you’ll find out how hard it is to be a pro rider. Here’s how we found it…
We wake up with the best news. Italy won. We had slept after all. Sports Tours International had a great hotel in the small town of Ancelle, just 18kms from Gap and downhill all (most of) the way. It was cold, but a suitably short trip to start the day.
The start was the usual hectic through and off challenge to make it into a fast moving group that still felt comfortable. Plenty of French Etapists were happy to roll along and share the work. The wind was helping, the sun was warming us up and the first two hours were spent pretty quickly. iPod Nano on (don’t try this at home, I had it on quietly) I was moving on from Kraftwerk to Motorhead. Overkill.
The water ran out – the top of the Izoard
The lead into the Izoard was good, a high pace meant that we reached there with only a few small pelotons ahead, so I went into ‘easy mode’ and let the fast boys use up their energy in the meadows at the foot of the legendary hill. De la Soul and the Sugar Hill Gang. After pre riding the Izoard I knew that the first section is the toughest and the tree lined switch backs at the start of the really steep section would have people gasping, not just for air but at the view. I looked over into the valley and saw the finest peloton I’ve ever seen snaking away into the distance. Awesome. Compelling and simply moving.
Ticking away in the 26 I was taking on Joe Beer’s mantra (breathe through your nose and that’s just hard enough). Onto HardFi and Randy Crawford (bizzarre choices these). The Casse Desert looked amazing and with the summit only 3kms away I took on some more food and a couple of Go gels ready for the descent. So far so good.
The Izoard descent was fantastic. The switchbacks are some of the best in the High Alps. This didn’t stop a rider in our group ‘doing a Beloki’ and spanking the tarmac hard. I felt a little nervous now and after a crash a few weeks before I eased off a little, my nerve was challenged and I wanted to stay in one piece today. The Stanglers and Public Enemy took me all the way to the foot of the Lauteret but by now things were getting a little lightweight in the peloton, I was isolated on the other side of the Izoard. Seeing as the best Etape advice is to keep in the group that you feel comfortable yet still making progress, I was getting a bit edgy. This lot had decided to go on strike mode. Little effort was made to keep the pace, so I spent most of the Lauteret driving a bunch of grumpy Frenchmen, perhaps they were still mourning Zindane and co?
The finish – loads of pasta
So given the chance again I’d have taken it easier on the Lauteret got into a better group – not spent energy lifting the pace. There was no need to panic though especially as we re grouped with some more willing legs on the descent and I went into the Magic Numbers which helped me catch a faster bunch happy to through and off all the way to Bourg d’Oisans.
Once again the Alpe loomed. Turn 21. I’d just pinched a Go Gel (his last one, thanks Ian!) off Ian O’Hara who had flown past me on the Lauteret. We were now on the lead in and grabbed a last bottle of water. It was 35+ degrees and I was comfortable, if a little sweaty. Turn 13 and I’m steaming. Turn 9 and my feet are on fire. Helmet strapped over the bars and the iPod now removed ‘Ullrich style’ the atmosphere is excellent and I’m covered in freezing cold alpine water by some very enthusiastic spectators. A shock, but still a nice one.
The final few kilometers were unbearable, for everyone. I was alternating between pedalling and stretching, fighting for shade and struggling to hold onto wheels. It was hell. The finish in sight and I’m cooked, I’m thinking of Hinault and LeMond, Marco and Armstrong, Zoetemelk and Kuiper. A pathetic kick for the line from me and one thing is stuck in my mind: How on earth do they race up this?
I am surprised at how many people have said to me that this is the first time that they have done something like this, not ridden in any mountains even and not been prepared for the severity of the stage (we tried to warn you!). Those who didn’t finish will be back I’m sure, but the message is clear: do take the training advice seriously you can’t ride the Etape on a handful of long rides.
The finish – Think of Pantani…
This year the organisation got the stage right (it was the toughest Etape for many years) however they got the fluid department very wrong. To run out of water at the top of the Izoard was inexcuseable – a travesty for those conserving energy and starting ‘slow’ in order to be ready for the Alpe, which was a sensible approach – just as long as you can keep hydrated! Dehydration was therefore inevitable. A warning for Etapes in future years and if you intend having a go yourself.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Etape. I like the fact that I can meet up with friends and ride on closed roads. I like the fact that you can ride the stage that the world’s best ride. I like the idea of it. But I hate the traffic, the early start, the logistics the endless nights of preparing bikes and stuff… and just the whole damn thing… Anyone fancy a Gran Fondo?
But then again it is a stage of the Tour and it’s that which still makes me smile.