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Etape du Tour 2017 – route preview

Mike Cotty and Nicolas Roux sees what's awaiting riders on Sunday July 16 for the 2017 Etape du Tour

The Etape du Tour is a sportive like no other, giving amateur riders the opportunity to ride a full mountain stage of the Tour de France just days before the pros, and the 2017 edition will finish atop the 2,360m Col d’Izoard for the first time in the Tour’s history.

Some 15,000 sportive riders are expected to ride the 2017 Etape and, following the announcement of the route back in October, Etape veterans Mike Cotty, who knows a thing or two about riding in the mountains, and Nicolas Roux, a former winner of the event, hot-footed it to the Alps to see what awaits on Sunday July 16.

The 2017 Etape du Tour will see sportive riders tackle a 178km route from Briancon to the Col d’Izoard

While, on paper, the 178km route has two major climbs – the Col du Vars, which tops out at 2,109m after 129km, and the Col d’Izoard – it’s a deceptive course which departs Briançon on fast, wide roads. Position will be key, Roux says, in order to sit in a group and save energy before the climbing starts – and to avoid crashes. “It’s going to be nervous,” Cotty adds, “and you’ll have to have your wits about you.”

The road narrows after 25km and then begins to head uphill. While the towering giants of the Col du Vars and Col d’Izoard give the impression that the road gently rolls from Briançon to the foot of the Vars, riders must first negotiate a succession of uncategorised climbs.

Nicolas Roux and Mike Cotty are veterans of the Etape du Tour, with Roux a former winner (Pic: Mavic)

Roux describes the uncategorised ascent as ‘a small climb, not so hard but a good warm-up for the legs’ before a short, fast descent towards Embrun and the Serre-Ponçon lake. It’s important on these opening climbs to pace yourself, Cotty says. “It’s about not burning too many matches, too soon,” he warns. “Hold everything back… this is just a warm-up climb, don’t push too hard.”

The Côte de Demoiselles Coiffées follows and is the ‘first difficult climb of the day’, according to Roux. It’s a relatively tough climb, he says, with some steeper sections as the road rises to 1024m – though Etape riders will be rewarded with spectacular views back over the Serre-Ponçon lake. “Enjoy the spectacular scenery but be sure to eat and drink enough,” Roux says. “It will be key for what follows.” Cotty agrees, emphasising the importance of staying well fuelled through the early part of the ride.

“You’ve got to keep the food coming in,” Cotty says. “I normally go for every 15 to 20 minutes. We’ve done nearly 900m of climbing already in the first 60km, so although on paper it looks like it’s flat and a bit rolling, it’s actually quite tough.”

The theme continues after the descent of the Côte de Demoiselles Coiffées as the road once again rises, but this time as a 30km drag – getting up to around four to six per cent gradient – to the town of Barcelonnette. Self-preservation is key, Cotty says, and he advises hiding in a group to save as much energy as possible. “It takes a lot of energy,” he says.

Passing through Barcelonnette, the road continues to drag until the town of Jausiers. Still there’s ten kilometres to go until the foot of the Col de Vars and the climb starts for good after the village of Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye.

“[The Col de Vars is] a deceptive climb,” Cotty says. “From Jausiers you’ve got 20km and the average gradient is just over four per cent. But that’s not really telling the whole truth. There’s nine kilometres to go when the climb kicks up and with six to go it gets up to eight-and-a-half per cent. You’ve really got to hold your effort for this last section.” The steepest sections come with five kilometres to go, where the average gradient is 12 per cent, before another kilometre at more than ten per cent with 1,300m to the summit.

Gear selection will be key, according to Roux, and he recommends a lowest gear of 34-28t, to account for the final five kilometre of the Col du Vars.

“You’ve got to make sure you’ve got a low enough gear,” Cotty says as he and Roux ride the Vars. “After all that draginess beforehand, your energy is going to start to get low. When you hit this part it’s really difficult, so pay attention to the gearing – but look at the views. That’s what we’ve come for.”

Etape du Tour 2017 sportive, Col de Vars
Etape du Tour 2017 sportive, Col d'Izoard

The top of the Col de Vars marks 129km on the clock and a 19km descent follows, with riders losing more than 1,000m in elevation before arriving at Guillestre. “You’ve got to be careful [on the descent],” Cotty says. “Some of those bends come up really quick – so pay attention. Try and relax, recover.”

The Col d’Izoard awaits from here but first Etape riders face 16km kilometres in the valley on a false flat, where the gradient hovers at around three or four per cent. “You really need to work in a little group,” Cotty says. “Don’t ride it on your own.” Roux recommends using the valley road to re-fuel ahead of the Col d’Izoard. “Be sure to use this section to eat and drink,” he says.

The barren slopes of the Col d’Izoard provide a dramatic finale to the Etape du Tour (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

As the road swings left out of the valley, the Col d’Izoard – the final challenge of the day – begins, with 14km of climbing at an average gradient of 7.3 per cent. However, it’s a climb of two halves, rising at a relatively gentle gradient to start before steepening significantly, with the road regularly pitching up into double figures over the final seven kilometres.

“The gradient is relentless, ” Cotty says. “As you climb higher, you can just feel your power disappear with the elevation over 2,000m. As you can see, there’s very little shelter, so in the summer sun it could be really hot.”

The Col d’Izoard, which has been used in the Tour de France 35 times to date, is made famous by the Casse Déserte and its barren, weathered and dramatic scree slopes. Etape riders will enter the Casse Déserte with three kilometres remaining.

“It feels like you’re swallowed up with these pinnacles of weathered rock,” Cotty says. “It’s really impossible not to feel humbled in such a landscape. It’s such an amazing way to finish. Then the gradient kicks up again. It hits you hard, nine or nine-and-a-half per cent all the way to the top.”

The final kilometre is the steepest, with the average gradient now up to ten per cent, and with 178km in the legs, it will be a battle of man and machine against the mountains for every Etape rider – but, as they cross the finish line at 2,360m, they are sure to feel the same ‘total and pure joy’ as Roux and Cotty after what is set to be another classic edition of the Etape du Tour.

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