Wednesday 15 November 2023

Operation Étape du Tour: Understanding the challenge

Now that I have signed up for the 2024 Etape du Tour I need to consider exactly what the main challenge is - how to stay ahead of the broom wagon even when riding up long steep hills. With 138km and 4,600m of climbing it won't be easy!

So I have signed up for the 2024 Etape du Tour, which will be Stage 20 of the men's Tour de France - Nice to Col de la Couiolle. 

Firstly, I need to keep I'm mind exactly what the task is that I have to face.

I need to train so that I can cover the 138km (the official distance of the Etape du Tour, including the descent to Beuil) and 4,600m of climbing over four categorised mountain passes without being caught by the broom wagon. 

Basically the "end-of-the-race" car and broom wagon set off between 20 minutes and half an hour after the last wave of riders cross the start line, and travels at a minimum speed - around 18km/hour and you have to stay ahead of it.

Riders go into start pens with a specific start time or wave. If you're a strong rider who has done the Etape in previous years in the recent past you get set off from one of the earlier pens so you could get a 90-minute headstart on the broom wagon - maybe more, depending on the start time. So those riders will never have an issue with making the time cut. Even if they were caught in a queue at the feed stations or had to deal with a puncture they'd be okay.

As a slower rider who hasn't ridden the Etape recently, I will most likely be set off from one of the last pens - maybe even the pen immediately before the broom wagon. So I will have very little slack for making the time cut, and that could end up being a stressful ride. That was my issue when I was hoping to ride the 2022 edition, particularly because the route went from Briançon up the Col du Lautaret immediately from the gun. I would have had to do the hill climb of my life all the way to the summit of Galibier in order to remain ahead of the broom wagon, and I didn't feel sure I could to do that.

It is possible to change pen - though generally from an early pen to a later pen. It's harder to get moved forward unless you have a specific reason, like proving that you are a top level rider - I wasn't able to do that in 2022, but I did get moved forward by one pen on the basis of being cycling media. But that only bought me an extra 20 minutes.

Past editions of the Etape du Tour, like that one, involved 160km-long (100-mile) stages or longer, so at least the 2024 event is mercifully short on distance, even if the amount of climbing can't be ignored. 

Also, I have done half of the route already, and I know that from Nice city centre the terrain will be flat to false flat, and there's no significant climbing until the approach road to L'Escarène. So I will get roughly a 10km warm-up where I can stay in a bunch and ride quickly without using too much energy.

The proper work will start at km 14 on the 10km Col de Braus.

So I know I need to practice good bunch riding/road racing skills for that early section, which may be the longest section of flat in the whole ride!

Track sessions at Herne Hill Velodrome will help, as well as joining chaingang circuits of Regents Park. Then of course I can sign up and do a local race - something I haven't done in years. I did one for "fun" in 2021 and I was probably the oldest rider in the field, sprinting after youngsters less than half my age. My heart didn't know what had hit it and I needed a week to recover! Hopefully I can ease myself back in by doing a race with other veterans!

As for the rest, it's all about good hill climbing strength. 

Hardknott Pass, a featured climb in the Fred Whitton Challenge 
Living in Crystal Palace, South London we have no shortage of hills. I can't cycle to or from Central London without going up a hill. So I will certainly be keeping up my regular hill rep circuit, and even going extended versions of it.

My weekend rides will go either into the Surrey Hills or the Kent Hills. For a bit more variety I could go further out of London and go further South, into the South Downs, or further North into the Chilterns.

Then if I want to be more adventurous I  an ride in different national parks like the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Lake District, or Head into Wales - Brecon Beacons or Eryri (formerly known as Snowdonia).

The hills in these areas will definitely give me lots of climbing practice, especially as they will be longer than the hills in the London area.

However, the trick is to find an event or route that will give me 4,000m+ of climbing. That's not easy to find. One of the hardest cyclosportives in the UK, the Fred Whitton Challenge, takes in a 180km (112 miles) route over the toughest climbs of the Lake District. It's a hard day in the saddle, though only makes around 3,800m of climbing. 

So a trip to France, Spain or Italy to ride up Alpine climbs definitely beckons - where I can ride over 4,000m in a day, but also ride uphill for 20km+. So my preparation will include at least one trip to do these sorts if rides.

So as you can see, my work is cut out for me. Now I just need to get my bike out!

Related posts

Etape du Tour comes to Nice

Tackling Fred Whitton light - (aka Lion and Lamb Challenge)

Rides on the Cote d'Azur - Col de Turini

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Freewheeling: Alpe d'Huez finale for the 2024 Tour de France Femmes could be spectacular

A spontaneous applause rippled through the audience at the Palais des Congres, Paris as Marion Rousse revealed Alpe d'Huez as the concluding stage of the 2024 Tour de France Femmes.

The auditorium, packed, with a couple of thousand people - a mixture of professional cycle racers, cycling industry executives, sponsors, sports associations, local government representatives, governing body chiefs, and sports media - had come to watch the grand presentation of the 2024 Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes routes. 

Discovering that Alpe d'Huez would feature proved popular. This iconic climb which has been a crowd puller since it was included in the men's Tour de France in 1952 has now been included in what will be the third edition of the women's Grande Boucle event, sponsored by Zwift and organised by ASO.

An iconic stage was also included in the previous Tour de France Femmes when the 2023 event included a stage through the Pyrenees with a finish on the Tourmalet, and the 2022 inaugural renaissance event concluded in the Vosges atop La Superplanche des Belles Filles. 

Having these iconic mountain stages in the women's races is great for the sport as it is bound to increase audience engagement in terms of television viewing and social media interactions. It is also a great endorsement from the organisers and sponsors that they would include such stages in the women's race. When it comes to the Tour de France, racing up Alpe d'Huez doesn't get better. Given the abundance of strong riders from the Netherlands in the women's peloton, Dutch corner will be a massive party for the women too! 

Other interesting points about the Tour de France Femmes are the Grand Départ taking place in Rotterdam - the first time the race is happening outside of French territory. With the initial stages being in the Netherlands and Belgium, the riders won't reach France until Stage 5. Considering that the race only has eight stages it's not so much a Tour de France but a Tour de BeneFrance!

On a positive note the areas covered the Hexagon will be well known roads to the cycling fan. Stages 2 and 3 are done on the same day, in Rotterdam, with Stage 3 being a 6.3km time trial. This is practically the same route as the prologue of the 2010 Tour de France, though slightly shorter. As in 2010 the riders will have mini climbs to do up Erasmus Bridge and Willems Bridge.

Stage 4, from Valkenberg to Liège will feature parts of the Amstel Gold race (the Cauberg), as well parts of Liège-Bastogne-Liege (La Redoute, Côte des Forges, and others).

The 167km Stage 7, from Champagnole to Le Grand Bornand, the longest stage will be an extended version of La Course by the Le Tour de France 2018 and will pass by Lac d'Annecy,  though with a preamble over climbs through the Jura. This stage will be a tasty appetiser before the grand finale, from Le Grand Bornand to Alpe d'Huez, passing via col de la Tamié, Col de Glandon, Barrage de Grand' Maison and then from Le Bourg d'Oisans up the 21 hairpins to the most famous ski resorts in cycling history. 

So the stage is set for some royal battles. We just need the actors to play their part. Without wanting to put a fine point on it I think that there is an onus on the athletes to give the fans a spectacle. It is these stories of rivalry and show-downs on the streets of the Tour de France (and the Netherlands and Belgium) that garner more public interest and capture the imagination of the fans. 

While it's great to see Annemiek Van Vleuten type athlete showing up and demonstrating pure dominance at a few races, doing it at every race or all the way through a stage race is not necessarily what engages spectators. Having one other rival is better, but still not that interesting if the rest of the field is so far behind. We remember how Van Vleuten audaciously snatched victory from Anna van der Breggen in the final metres of the race. But who remembers what the other riders did? Third placed Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio crossed the finish line well over a minute behind the two Dutch women.

What is needed is more depth. It is great to see races where it's not a given that such and such a rider will win, or that the winner will come from this really dominant team. (I'm looking at SD Worx here!)

Of course you can't reproach a rider or a team for being so much stronger than the others. We just need to see more challengers coming through. We got a flavour of that in 2023 Tour de France Femmes when Kasia Nieuwiadoma of Canyon SRAM went for it on the Tourmalet climb, and subsequently won the Queen of the Mountains jersey. We also saw that when some younger riders like Yara Kastelijn (Fenix-Deceuninck) won a stage, and also when a couple of riders (other than Annemiek Van Vleuten) from Team Movistar won stages.

Also, with this year's event starting and passing through countries that harbour an avid cycling fan base there is likely to be greater interest than in previous years especially as there will be many Dutch riders contesting the top spots.

Furthermore, the variety in the profile of races means that there is something for everyone - for the Classics rider, the mountain goat, or the sprinter. Considering that this is only a seven-day race, the organisers have cleverly packed in stages that should leave no shortage of drama for we fans over that week in mid-August. I look forward to seeing who will be wearing the yellow jersey at the summit of Alpe d'Huez after seven days and 946km of racing. 

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Etape du Tour comes to Nice, and I'm riding it (hopefully)!

At the unveiling of the 2024 Tour de France route, Stage 20 - Nice to Col de la Couillole was announced as the route for the Etape du Tour. I have been lucky (or unlucky) enough to get a place to ride the 138km and 4,600m climbing from the Cote d'Azur to the mountains in the Mercantour National Park. I really want to do it before I get too old!

It's exciting to know that the men's 2024 Tour de France will conclude with what could be epic stages in the Nice and Alpes-Maritimes region. The traditional ceremonial finale through Paris is being skipped due to the Olympic Games taking place there at that time. Well, Paris's loss is very much Nice's gain, as the World will focus on the riders as they battle over the col d'Eze during the final time trial between Monaco and the capital of the French Riviera. 

This conclusion to La Grande Boucle has the potential to have the same suspense as the climax in 1989 when Greg Lemond won the Tour de France by 8 seconds from Laurent Fignon, after bettering him in the time trial on the Champs Elysées. That was the last time a Tour de France ended with a time trial. So we wait with baited breath to see how things will pan out between Messrs Vingegaard, Pogacar, and AN Other.

On the subject of stages of the Tour de France, I am very pleased (though also slightly apprehensive) to have bagged a chance to ride in the Etape du Tour event.

This challenge ride offers lesser mortals like you or I to be a pro for the day and ride a designated stage of the current year's Tour. Amaury Sports Organisation, who run the Tour de France have chosen stage 20 (Nice to Col de la Couillole) as the stage. It definitely is quite a challenge. It would have been much easier to just ride something shorter, flatter, and with lots of opportunities to stop for snack and take photos. But something in me just likes a push myself, and I guess it has to be done before I get way to old to put my body through it.

Having taken part in the Etape on previous occasions I know what a great event it is - around 12,000 riders from countries all around the world line up with their road racing bikes to snake over cols and along valley roads, in exactly the same wheel tracks that the pros will ride a few days or weeks later. 

There had been speculation as to whether this really would be the route for the Etape du Tour. Locals with their ear to the ground had suggested that it would be a Nice stage, on the basis that many hotels were already fully booked for the first week of July. Furthermore, Nice were very keen to host the Etape du Tour given that the last time it was due to take place, in 2020, the event was cancelled due to Coronavirus.

However, other folks could not believe that the organisers would choose a stage that finishes right in the middle of the remote Mercantour mountains, leaving thousands of cyclists with either a torturous trip back to Nice, probably in the mother of all traffic jams or riding 110km back to Nice, or maybe even having to bed down in a field if they can't get digs in one of the handful of gites and Bed & Breakfasts in the nearby hamlet of Beuil.  

But it seems the organisers were not put off by that prospect, and have nevertheless chosen this as the stage for we amateurs to ride.

I must say that I am not fazed by the logistics at all, and managed to hit the reserve button for a room in a rather nice hotel at Guillaumes, about 10 miles from the finish line.

That aside, it must be said that the route will be a beauty. Like the original attempt to hold the Etape du Tour in 2020, the feature climb of the day will be Col de Turini - a climb that I got to know very well last year when I visited the Cote d'Azur. The route will go up the climb from L'Escarene village and over the Col de Braus - exactly the route that I took last year (though I had to turn back a few miles after Moulinet because of the fading light).

L'Escarene village

What I have seen of the route is absolutely spectacular. Riding up the 10km of Col de Braus and 20km+ of Col de Turini will have us suitably entertained - which we will need as we round the 101 hairpins!

I know that the descent from Turini to Bollene Vesubie will be a little technical, as I recall from my previous visit. Thereafter, this will be new territory for me - and probably the hardest part psychologically, as I will still only be about half-way through the route and there will be another two long climb to do plus lots of gentle lumps and bumps. The pros will have this stage as a summit finish, while the official Etape du Tour finish will be in the valley at Beuil. I like to think that the descent into the village will be neutralised.

As mentioned, I have ridden the Etape du Tour in the past - the distant past being 20 years ago! I rode a stage from Pau to Bayonne, going via some not-very-well-known Pyrenean climbs. I got through the ride, but it was still touch and go, and the preparation for it became a 24/7 thing.  These events can't be taken lightly. 

Unlike some of these amateur rides along the route of Classics races like Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders, the Etape is treated as a race by the organisers. The winners are garnered with public acclamation and get their 15 minutes of fame in the local media. Others can compete to achieve gold or silver time standards, and unnervingly, there is a minimum speed. If you get caught by the broom wagon/end-of-the-race car you are eliminated from the race. Your timing chip is unceremoniously removed, your bike is put in a truck and a waiting bus drives you and dozens of other failed riders back to the finish where you do a walk of shame past the guys receiving their medals. 

That has also happened to me - when the Etape du Tour was a 250km through the Massive Central over the Puy Mary many years ago. I was not enjoying the ride at all, and after 160km (100 miles) I just got slower and slower like I was half hoping to be caught. The annoying thing is that the point where I got into the broom wagon, unbeknown to me, was about half a mile from a big descent. So I could have just about made an escape if I had had more faith. Instead I endured an interminable, demoralising coach trip through the back roads of the Cantal region to reach Saint-Flour.

After that sorry episode, I vowed never to be caught by a broom wagon, so it is with this in mind that I do my training to ride the 138km and 4,600m of climbing from Nice to Col de la Couillole. Knowing the climbs definitely helps mentally, so I plan to visit the area a couple of times between now and the big day.

I must also mention that this will be Etape du Tour Take 2. I had a place in the event last year when the stage went from Briancon to Alpe d'Huez - another area that I know well. I trained a lot for the event, but in the end I just didn't feel I quite had the fitness. This wasn't helped by the fact that I had been ill during my training. Judging by the results, I now believe that I probably would have made the cut to get through the race, but I think more miles and more Alpine trips in the run-up to the event would have given me more of a can-do attitude. 

I like to think that I will have it on July 7th next year. Keep an eye out for updates on my preparation.

Related posts  

Riding up the Col de Braus

Riding up the Col de Turini

I'm doing a cyclosportive!