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


  1. Christopher Wilkes20 May 2024 at 19:39

    Hello, 2 wheel chick, I came across your blog by googling Fred Whitton vs Etape du tour de France and liked it, so I will share my some relevant experiences.
    I took up cycling on retirement. Starting with gentle club rides I found what I enjoyed most was touring - with panniers or supported - in the mountains of Spain, France and Britain. Then I had the quixotic idea of entering the 2023 Etape. Naturally I was put in the last pen, having no track record. I found a B and B and spent the week beforehand riding up and around the Mont Ventoux, averaging 80 kms and 1500 metres a day.
    I was both pleased and disappointed to manage three quarters of the course (120 kms, 3,200 metres of climbing) before just missing the last cut-off. My initial thought was ah well, the full distance was a bridge too far, age has caught up with me. Then I reflected on how my organising agent had run out of easy to eat food like fruit and cake, which meant I ate very little after halfway. I realised I’d done the bonk and might have beaten the time cut-off and finished otherwise.
    I’m now virtually certain about it. How do I know? Because I’ve just completed the Fred Whitton Challenge, which was definitely harder than the Etape. Yes there were only 3,600 metres of climbing but the hills were much tougher, with six sections of 25%, including one of 30%. Furthermore, the last three descents were so dangerous and tiring (with calliper brakes) that I got off and walked. Also, some of the road surfaces were quite rough and there were several traffic hold-ups in the narrow lanes.
    My conclusions are:
    Anyone who can do the Fred can do the Etape
    I agree with you that it is a good idea to also ride in France and get used to long climbs, smooth descents and heat, and to practice a steady climbing rhythm
    But I’m not sure you need to do 4000 metre climbing days in training
    As for me, I now have the confidence to pre-register for 2025
    But I need to replace my 12 year old bike with one that has disc brakes
    And I must make foolproof feeding arrangements

    Good luck with your own Etape


    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your comment, and great to hear your experience. I was also at Fred Whitton last week, though I did the Lion and Lamb version - i.e. turning back to Keswick at Braithwaite and returning to Grasmere. I agree those Lakeland Hills are good practice. I hope to get back and do my own "not the Fred Whitton Challenge" on the full course in the coming weeks.

  2. Thanks Maria, and good luck again with the remainder of your preparation for the Etape. I also had the Lion and Lamb option in mind last week, but I started quite early and reached Braithwaite half an hour ahead of the cut-off. So I carried on.
    Incidentally I liked your 2020 article in Cycling Weekly: Why is cycling so white? Access to countryside and healthy living is so important, particularly for communities whose health is least good. I’m sure it is best promoted by piecemeal practical initiatives like explicitly diverse cycling groups. Probably all communities would benefit from the availability of more information, education and advice to help people get started with cycling (or hiking) - what to buy, how to plan and navigate, and where to find clubs or likeminded companions.
    I had hoped the Covid enquiry might have included an emphasis on lifestyle as a way of improving the nation’s immunity and mental resilience, but no, not yet anyway.