Riding the 2016 Etape du Tour: pain and suffering in the Alps

Ashley Quinlan takes on stage 20 of the Tour de France

The Etape du Tour sportive is one of the great challenges for any road cyclist wanting to follow in the footsteps of their Tour de France heroes – a gruelling sportive which each year sees thousands of riders flock to take in their own slice of cycling’s greatest race.

The stage selected for the 24th edition of the sportive was the epic Megève-Morzine ski station point-to-point, taking in four Alpine cols: the Col des Aravis (category two), Col de la Colombière (category one), Col de la Ramaz (another cat one) and Col de Joux Plane (hors categorie), in what promises to create an incredibly exciting finale to this year’s race.

Except, of course, things rarely pan out exactly as you plan, as organisers ASO have found out previously this year at the Paris-Nice Challenge. On that occasion, the showpiece Col d’Eze was sacrificed from the sportive accompanying the race due to road works. This time, owing to a rock fall, the Ramaz wouldn’t be visited. As a result, the 146km stage was shortened, taking the valley road from the base of the Colombière descent, direct to the Joux Plane – totaling 122km with 2,800-odd metres of climbing, as opposed to the 146km, 4,000m extravaganza originally planned.

Still, I thought as I entered the starting pen on Sunday – pen four, with the time-chasers, in case you’re interested – at least now I had the chance to attack the course…

Almost 16,000 riders entered the 2016 Etape du Tour

Hitting out hard on the Aravis

Much like the Tour’s general classification and polka dot jersey hopefuls, who will in likelihood use the stage to try a final attack to advance their positions, I chose to go hard, early – against most sportive advice. My rationale? The weather had become very warm over the days leading up to the event, with temperatures in the low-thirties, and that, teamed with the higher-than-usual humidity experienced by much of France this summer, meant being on the course in the middle of the afternoon didn’t appeal. Any advantage gained by saving myself for the tough Joux Plane would be undone by the extra time spent in the sun, I thought.

And so it was; rolling out with the rest of the pen at 7:35 in the morning, I focused on warming myself up for the first climb of the day, spinning my legs under the early morning blue sky. 16km down the road, and we hit the climb like a train. At seven per cent, and 6.7km in length. the Aravis is by no means easy, but on this course much more a hors d’oeuvre than anything else. So I ride at a steady tempo, making the most of the cool morning air as the pack bunches up.

Slower riders on the right, overtakers on the left – I stick to the left, getting sucked along by the inertia of the 3,000-odd riders ahead of me all forging a path over the mountain. As I’m sure most found, you can’t really go for it at this stage – the closed roads are chocker with cyclists this early in the day, before it’s really begun to string out; you just make the best of the space you have. Still, the road winds up to the summit, past towns with boulangeries baking the morning’s baguettes and croissants, and I try my hardest to ignore the wafting smells as we roll by.

Forty five minutes later we’re at the top, ready for the first descent of the day. It’s always a slightly helter skelter experience, descending a closed road alp with hundreds of surrounding cyclists, all with a variety of different experience, bike handling skills and downright bravery. Still, if you don’t get stuck in, you fall back, losing confidence as other riders push you out of the best line. It’s time to buckle in and let loose.

The descent of the Aravis down its northern side isn’t a technical challenge, with smooth paving and only a couple of switchbacks interrupting the flow. As a result, even relatively poor descenders like myself can get acclimatised, building speed without too many inputs necessary to interrupt your rhythm and dent your confidence. It’s been a challenging, yet accessible start to the Etape.

A fraught Colombiere

A small trek across the valley floor, via the first feed stop of the day, and it’s up again for the Colombière. This famous climb, starting at the Grand Bornand, has been visited by the Tour on no less than 20 previous occasions, and is on the wish list of many cyclist holidaymakers from around the world. Who doesn’t want to summit the same climb as legends like Hoban, Herrera and Pantani?

Like the Aravis, it’s not particularly steep at an average of 5.8 per cent, but it is longer at 11.7km, earning its first category rating in the road book. On paper, it’s really just a longer Aravis, and well within my capabilities as a rider. So, powered on the mystique of the climb, I hit it with the same gusto as the opening pass.

What strikes you, more than anything, is the scenery. Still in mid-morning, winding up the Colombière, shadows are cast by the surrounding peaks. We’re right in Haute-Savoie region, so those peaks are tall, steep and jagged, intimidating as they create a natural wall around the roadway. It’s stunning, and actually helps pass the time as your gaze gets caught first left, then right as the road curves its way up the mountainside.

Montee du Col des Aravis
Etape du Tour

It seems I’m not the only one with an idea to push on. As one of the timed segments, the Colombière becomes a frantic scramble for space, as riders try to push on while others try to keep their pace. You need to keep your wits about you, and it’s a real challenge as a select few aim for gaps that really don’t exist. Time to get my elbows out!

Down the other side, and the dangerous side of road cycling rears it’s head. It’s a wonderful descent: sweeping, technical, and fast. But, there are always those who take corners simply too hot and overestimate their talent, hitting the ground at over 60km/h. In the event, I count four ambulances, including one poor soul being airlifted to hospital. It’s a stark reminder of the hazards the mountains can present.

Into the valley ride the thousands

Down in the valley, post-feed stop outside the local church in Scionzier, groups of 30-40 riders form, seeking shelter to make the upcoming task of Joux Plane easier. At the lower altitude, with the sun beating down, the heat of the day has truly arrived, reaching well over 30 degrees on the road – I seem to be hung out to dry at the front, setting a steady pace as the lure of a potentially fast average speed for Strava begins to motivate.

At the base of the Joux Plane in Samoëns, with an average speed of 25.7km/h seen on my Garmin, another feed stop is well-attended by all the riders in anticipation of the tough challenge still ahead. And, with suncream reapplied, I roll out ready for the final test of the day: the Joux Plane.

The Col du Joux Plane offered an almighty sting in the tail, averaging 8.5 per cent for 11.6km

That average speed, that I’d worked harder than I should to establish, doesn’t last long, however. A left turn at the base of the climb, and the gradient hits hard. Immediately, I’m in my smallest gear (36-28t), grinding up as the 100km previously covered hits home. Hard.

Rising up to the highest point of the route (1,691m altitude), the steepest climb of the day, averaging a thigh-stinging 8.5 per cent, is an unrelenting challenge. It never gives up, constantly pitching up and allowing precious little respite. Many rest by the roadside in one of the very few patches of shade, paying not only for their optimistic efforts earlier in the day, but also faltering in the stifling, still midday heat. Spectators are dotted along the route, too, some with hosepipes on tap, spraying riders in cool, refreshing elixir as they struggle by. I wonder if official ‘shower zones’ should be a thing?

The summit becomes a virtual finish line for me, gradually getting nearer as I focus my determined gaze on the road in front. No-one’s racing now, despite the climb being timed. It’s about survival; about making it to the finish in one piece.

With the virtual finish line at the top of the final climb, the descent into Morzine offered the chance to enjoy the ride

And eventually, that line arrives – with a most welcome water stop to boot. But, horror of horrors, that’s not the end. In a fitting demonstration of ASO’s sense of humour, there’s another uncategorised rise to go – the summit of the Col du Ranfolly. It’s not long, barely a kilometre after a quick dip, but it’s a final test for legs that cried enough long ago.

Over the top, and the phrase “it’s all downhill from here” is completely apt. Ironically, the energy comes back in floods – where was that when I needed it – rising out out of the saddle to accelerate out of bends as the road winds down to the ski town of Morzine. It’s here that the final race for the Tour’s yellow jersey will be on ahead of the finale in Paris, but I can really enjoy the sensations, knowing that the day’s real efforts are done. The finish beckons – as well as the real reward: a pasta party and a cold shower.

Merci, ASO, I’ll see you next year.

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