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!


S.A. Sterling said...

What an exciting and challenging endeavor you're embarking on! Tackling the Etape du Tour, especially on such a demanding route from Nice to Col de la Couillole, is a testament to your dedication and passion for cycling. The blend of breathtaking scenery and grueling climbs like Col de Turini and Col de Braus will surely make for an unforgettable experience. Your determination, especially considering your past experiences and the unique circumstances of this year's route, is truly inspiring. I'm looking forward to following your journey and preparation for this epic ride. Best of luck in your training, and may you conquer each climb with strength and enthusiasm! Keep us posted on your progress!

2Wheel Chick said...

Hi S.A. Sterling - thanks for commenting and for your words of encouragement. It's true that this Etape du Tour will be a challenge! I will give updates on how my training is going.:)