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

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