Etape du Tour 2013 Report

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. In my mind’s eye i was going to finish the Etape du Tour arms aloft, having mastered a course that all the Facebook experts had declared to be the easiest Etape of them all. Instead i arrive at the summit of the Semnoz at a limp, legs smashed, jersey and shorts sweatlogged, an unedifying spectacle turning the pedals at a cadence that equated to 4kms per hour. There were riders who finished the course walking their bikes up who were going faster than I was … But as we Easy Riders know, finishing is not something; it is everything. And i finished. Just.

It all seemed so promising at the start. 6.30 am installed in a local cafe for “petit dej” waiting for the first wave of riders – of 13,600 – to scream past at 7 am. Wilson and I numbered in the 9000s were not due at the starting gate until 7.45. Plenty of time to survey the scene, take in the magnificent backdrop at Annecy, as picturesque a spot as one can find in Europe. I turned to a gnarled looking local sitting out on the terrace: “Beautiful day for a bike ride” i say breezily. “Oui, mais Il y aura beaucoup qui vont soufrire” he muttered. Hmm, suffer? with this beautiful weather? On the easiest etape ever …? come off it. Time to get going.

the scene at the start looked like a surreal version of one of those historical reenactments of 19th century battles – thousands of lycra clad Mamils with the odd scattering of females and younger colts lined up across acres of fields and streets. Eventually i bump into Wilson. He mutters about lack of rides in recent weeks. Who doesn’t? But we relax in the early morning sun ready for the off.

Eventually we reach the start gate, and head off at a canter. Disobeying all the sensible advice from ER about starting at a reasonable pace, i find myself tearing along at 30+kph for the first hour. Pretty soon the first of the three cat 3 climbs heave into view. I’m clipping along nicely, though note the HRM is saying “too fast”. Ah bugger it. Good weather, good company. Keep it going. we start in the 9000s but pretty soon we overtake some of the 8000s, 7000s, and 6000s. It’s all pretty encouraging. The last i see of Wilson is on the Col de Leschaux after about 40kms. He looks in great nick, weaving in and out of traffic.

The Col de Revard the cat 1 climb before the serious stuff looms ahead. a nice steady climb of 800m or so, 5-6%. folks lined up on the roads villages en fete. Beautiful ambience. However the nagging in my back reminds me that i should have taken an anti-flammatory before heading out. Oops. Stop for water seems to calm things down. Up and over and into the valley between the Revard and the Semnoz, the final “ball-busting” climb: 11kms at an average of 8.5% with long ramps at 10-11%.

From having been pleasantly warm, it is now hot – something like 30-32 at a guess. Keep drinking. The shorts caked now in salt serve as a useful reminder. So do the first twinges of cramp. I need to slow, take the rest of the course nice and easy. I head into the food station reminding myself that except for a croissant and some bread i haven’t eaten anything “real” for 4-5 hours. All good, i head back out ready for the Semnoz.

The Semnoz is completely unheralded in cycling circles – it’s rarely featured in the TDF, though of course features as the last mountain finish this year. Everyone seemed to think it was “tough” but perfectly manageable. With this in mind, i entered the village at the foot of the climb “nonchalent – pas de probleme”. The villagers knew better: “courage monsieur” – “allez. Il faut y aller maintenant”. hmm, three deep on the barriers, the villagers were out in force to witness “le spectacle”.

Straight out of the village the semnoz ramps at 10% for the first 3kms – in what i thought must be around 34 degree heat now. sultry, humid, sun bearing down. After a couple of kms i feel cramp in the stomach of all places. Have i eaten too much? Or too little? whatever it is, it’s a horrible feeling. The cramp is also getting worse and the back is really twanging in that “i really have to stop” voice. the 10%ers give way to 6-7%. but i’m feeling rough and welcome the next and last water stop. I wander around a bit hoping somehow that the knot in the stomach will give way. It doesn’t. There are 3 or 4 bodies wrapped in silver foil being tended to be the ambos. Sun beating down, sweat dripping, i hear a little voice in my head,¬†unmistakably¬†Norman. It says: “stop being soft”. Alright already. Back on the bike.

The rest of the 7kms is a blur of sensations: elation that i can ride for 300-400m followed by intense bouts of weariness and nausea. By now half the peloton has given up on the 8-9% ramps and is walking up – a lycra clad retreat from Moscow. I get on and off may be another 5 times. I get back on again. The big challenge is to get the mind off the pain, indeed off the ride. If only i had my turbo soundtrack with me … so i just engage the guy riding next to me in small talk. He’s thinking like I am: if we just natter away we can do the last 3kms without thinking. This is 90mins into the climb and the worst is yet to come – the final 3kms average 10%. It’s torture. It’s roasting, and worst of all those who have finished are whizzing down the other side of the road shouting “allez, allez”. If i had had a shotgun i would have taken a few out. However the strategy seems to be working. We talk our way up, up, forever up, until passing the final bend. My arms are not aloft. They are limply clutching the handlebars. I dribble over the line at 4kph. It feels feeble. and it probably looks a lot worse. On the other hand, it’s over. Done. Finished.

A mix of emotions washes over one on these occasions. On the one hand, one should feel proud and happy that one has set out to do what one wanted to do. I didn’t have a finish time in mind, but worked out that 6 hrs 30mins would be par for me. I finished in 7 hr or so riding time – but with nearly 9 hours completed, due to stops. On the other hand, i’m also frustrated, even disappointed. After all the training, including some tough climbs in the weeks previously, i know i could have, should have done better. Now 24 hrs later i realise that this is – well, cycling. This is why we get up earlier and earlier, and ride for longer and harder. It is a sport of the infinitely disappearing horizon. Just when one thinks one is approaching ‘form’, something comes along to knock you back. So you start over. Now all i’m thinking about is the next Etape – such a wonderful event. Brilliantly organised and presided over by literally thousands of cheery French locals only too delighted to help, cheer, sing. Such passion – for the anonymous mamils gliding past. I’ll be back – and next time I’ll do …. better.

I’ll finish there – but whilst I have the mike, big thanks to coachs Browney and Norman for their sage help and advice over recent months. Shout outs too to my regular “training partners” BT, Falsh, and BG for coming out in all weather on sunday mornings – and for the flambies. But its ER itself i have most to thanks – 5 years ago a pal in the UK asked me if i would do the Etape with him. I shook my head “no way – too tough”. Well, that’s not the ER way – “only as fast as the slowest rider”. Too right. Anything to keep the pedals turning …

A bientot.


One thought on “Etape du Tour 2013 Report

  1. Drastique

    Similar experience to Half. I had an ultra taper in June with a couple of OTP’s followed by two weeks of flu. On thurs last week I managed my first ride with a loop the lake Annecy at 36km, so amazeballs. There are signs round the lake mandating 1.5m clearance for cars !

    An inauspicious leadup to the EdT. Sat night tucked up in bed at 10. Midnight Annecy’s annual rave kicked off in the field next to our campsite, banging tunes. But they did not enamour themselves. 3am last bass beat. 2 hours sleep then awake. Quick brek then span in along the 11km bike path. As I reached the town the first 0700 wave were flying out of town. The 9000+ wave had to wait until 0800 to start rolling. It still took a further 30mins to actually cross the start line ! Half joined me at the grid and it was great to see a couple of ER jerseys in the mix of 55 countries and 13,riders.
    Half was off like a rat up a drainpipe and it we lost touch in the traffic, which was stonking along on the flat In the high 30’s. However 10km later we turned right and hit the hills. Now the profile of the ride can’t show the horror, the 2 big climbs normalise the rest of the course. It’s just bobbo on bobbo then you hit the first long (17km) climb. No respite. Caught up with Half again. At top of climb there’s a feed station and my legs were jelly and I could feel the onset of cramps. I didn’t want a repeat of the 3P walk if shane so I decided to wind down the effort.

    Shortly after the first Col (de Revard) There is the most glorious downhill for about 10km+ , we are above the paragliders and the views are spectacular. The roads are closed to traffic and as soon as you release the brakes you drop like a stone. Its just limited by other bike traffic. You soon forget the misery of the climby.

    I was watching the GPS willing the end to approach to make that last climb as short as poss, past the village of gruffy last food stop. They had giant chunks of pineapple, I crammed them in only to discover they were cheese ! Then the last hill. I had 11km to go as the gradient went vertical. Truly awful. I was wondering why anyone would do this. Every K was worse and people were dropping like flies. I was grimmly thinking I didn’t want to cramp and walk so I hung in bottom and ground. Each km up to Semnoz swings back and forth under the chair lift, yes its steep and high. 2km to go, keep cranking. V tight , 2 abreast , 1 row to right walking and those b@starts flying down on the left having done it. 1km. Where’s the end. 300m, groan there it is up there. Truly horrific but over. 7:37 elapsed (from edt) very shaky, tried to cram some food and water.

    Then 45min dash all downhill. To meet family in town for beers. Oh my back. Oh my wrists from the braking. Oh my legs. And it was hot.

    Never again (maybe)


Leave a Reply