Have you ever wondered what it’s like to race one of the Etape of Le Tour de France? Well, I did and it became an ever growing thing as the days went by and I could only watch the pros making their way to the Pyrénées this year. But let’s get the whole story back in situation.
As a starting point I got home from Frankfurt and felt a bit down after what happened – yes, I’ll remind you about that for a long time – and my sport buddy Marc dragged me over to his apartment for a beer. It started well but by the end of the second one I promised him I would be his partner for that too. Just like he once took advantage of me and dragged me into a 70.3 Ironman for a first triathlon…
Anyway, the only trouble for me and l’Etape du Tour is actually the fact that it’s what I see as a mountain stage. People will argue this year wasn’t a true one as not as steep as previous ones but still a 135k and +4563m of elevation, that’s surely mountain to me. Yes, I’m more of a flat course type of person so I got a little bit worried as the day came closer.
In terms of training it’s true I’ve benefitted from the 43 weeks of intense endurance I got through for the Ironman distance and of course I did climb quite a bit through those weeks (+58000m) but that included running and X-Country ski as well but altogether it wasn’t anything like practicing any mountain goat skills.
Then the day happened… the course would start from Albertville and end in Val Thorens with a 135k in-between, three climbs but best of all being the last one. From Moutiers it would take 31k at an average of 5.6% to get to Val Thorens and let’s say that the longest climbs I did previous to that were no longer than 12k so you can imagine how I felt. Even if the shorter ones are steeper, it’s quite something to climb for more than two hours when the sun gets out and it gets quite warm with hardly any shadow.
As it happened we started roughly around 7:30 in block No. 3 which basically is the third wave of 13 of them for a total of more than 13k starters! Marc had set the parameters, keep it together as much as we can to climb strongly but not overheat over the first 100k so we get to the last part in good shape. I did sign to that as I believed it would get warmer and very hard with the altitude kicking in later that day.
As we went we passed hundreds and hundreds of other cyclists, we were trying hard to find that little group to keep the pace up but within our needs, this would also help on the flats as we would be able to draft and keep energy as much as we could. It worked fine for the first climb and we got there well. As we stopped for our first aid station and refuel we were to embark on the first downhill.
I love a good downhill ride and I certainly love hitting an apex but as I found out that day, I only love it when I’m in a small group. I was really holding back that day as there were so many of us going very hard around. I just felt I would end up hitting someone or the other way around, I would end on the floor! It’s actually the first time I felt out of my comfort zone that day on the bike and for something I usually truly enjoy.
Keeping it together on the downhill probably saved me some energy and we got back into a pack with Marc in order to get to the second climb that day. Things were looking good, sun was out, plenty of spectators and that felt very good along the course, just like on TV – maybe a little less… – as we got there. I have to say I pushed a little and as we got on the start of those 6k up, Marc certainly was right in saying we were maybe going a little too hard.
Again, it felt good and I just powered up the hill, averaging 80rpm in trying to keep the legs turning on my biggest gear. What really struck to me there was the amount of people we were passing, and as per Marc’s words before, we definitely pushed it… As it followed with another downhill, I took the time to appreciate the scenery while Marc actually got ahead of me. As I said, better late than on the ground!
Getting to Moutiers was the last joyful bit of the day, we pushed and got there with a little stretch of Autoroute right into the town and what a joy it was to be with Marc, drafting like hell and getting passed a group ahead at more than 50km/h, it felt proper. Getting in town we stopped for one of the last aid station, this time I took a bottle full of coke, as much as I could find to eat and we resumed the ride.
I wasn’t feeling particularly strong, I had taken the time to really eat as much as I could during the day and every 20′ minutes as well as keeping the hydration and salt levels up. I thought this would be the best way to get my head around that climb but still, I was kind of lacking confidence as we made the turn and started those last 31k.
Marc made a point on keeping it steady, turning the legs so that we would get up and finish and I did exactly that. As the climb started, I kept it steady, average watts @220-230 and alternating between “en danseuse” and down on the saddle. It got surprisingly good as the kilometers went by, the unfortunate thing being that Marc couldn’t keep up and ordered that I went on my own and which I did.
Altogether I kept motoring through and it took 2h12min to cover those 31k up to Val Thorens and as I went, I just kept passing more and more people. Did I suffer from the altitude? Not really or let’s say I couldn’t feel it during the climb, it only got very hard when I decided to sprint in the last 500m… Oh god I couldn’t breathe and I felt very very bad in fact but I made it up the 135k and +4563m in 6h28min as a finisher on my first Etape. Quite a good result as 952 out of 10158 classified cyclists that day.
Quite an experience and as per the day Marc took me up for Ironman70.3 Switerland back in 2017, I found it a great experience and most certainly something I’ll get back to in the future. It was definitely a stage and a climb but as a steady one, that probably helped for the time and result. Best was of course the beer at the top with Marc and the 60k back to Albertville to get the car back to Geneva… Oh yes, a tiring day but one I loved from start to finish.