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A Tale of Two Étapes
This year saw not one but two editions of the Étape du Tour: Acte I, which tackled the final mountain stage of the Tour and Acte II, a monstrous roller in the Massif Central. Rapha rode both and they proved to be worlds apart.
That Damn Mountain
by Kieran Riley
I have ridden up Alpe d’Huez many times. And watched it countless times on TV, either during the Tour de France or the Dauphiné Libéré.
But every time I ride that climb, it never ceases to amaze me what a brutal ascent it always is. You do all you can to leave something in the tank, take it easy so that you can then notch it up a couple of sprockets when you arrive – and then find yourself chewing on your handlebars anyway.
My last visit to the Alpe was a painful one. And this time round, riding it as part of the Etape Acte I, I had far less kilometres in my legs plus an enforced layoff until just two weeks beforehand; the only thing I was aiming to do was get through it.
Staying in Valfréjus, we descended to Modane at 6am to take our place in the pens. Ignoring the official Rapha advice to budding Etapistes, I’d left both my Rapha Gilet and Wind Jacket at home, preferring to stuff my pockets full of food instead.
We had been given a good seeding and stood there chatting away nervously, me even more so as the clouds started to close in and a few drops of rain began to fall. But it was all forgotten as the gun went and we roared off down the valley, adrenalin taking over and making us do stupid things, like jumping from group to group and working at the front.
Left into St-Michel de Maurienne and we hit the first wall of noise, with seemingly the entire town out to support us. And then it started, under the overpass and the beginning of the Col du Télégraphe.
Personally, I prefer not to count the Télégraphe as a climb in its own right. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly steep and long enough, too. And even at that time in the morning, it was already very, very warm. But I prefer to look at it this way; from the bottom of the Télégraphe you’ve got the best part of 35km uphill until you reach the top of the Galibier. The tiny downhill in between just doesn’t count, and makes people forget that they’re going to be climbing for anywhere between two to three and-a-half hours. It’s a monster.
Our group of five stuck together quite well to begin with, at least until the first feed, in Valloire. Then the Galibier began in earnest and we slowly drifted apart. I found myself talking to Jan, a rider from Hannover who I’d met the previous day on the Rapha stand. He proved the perfect riding partner, with both of us chatting away until the last 10km of the Galibier and getting dagger looks from all those who weren’t talking. Which was pretty much everybody else.
Knowing that you have almost an hour-long descent to come helped us to dig in that little bit extra in order master the steeper, final few hairpins of the Galibier. Over the top we rolled and suddenly we were up to 80kph on the smoothly tarmacked descent, a very different experience to the rough surface of last year. It’s quite technical at times, with a couple of tricky corners where the road seems to just disappear but soon we were down to the turn at the top of the Col du Lauteret. From here we descended all the way down the valley, past the reservoirs until Bourg d’Oisans at the base of Alpe d’Huez. A howling headwind had made life difficult during last year’s La Marmotte but fortunately we had no such problems as we flew down the slopes.
Not all were so fortunate on the descent. Riders who had crashed in the dark tunnels just ahead of us were remounting their bikes minus half their shorts and quite a bit of skin. Once we had passed them, a couple more accidents took place in the same tunnels and ravines to the side of them, serious enough to close the road for a while. We wish all those involved a swift recovery.
A couple of false flats later and we arrived at the bottom of the Alpe. The crowds were huge and most of the peloton pulled off for the final feed zone. I kept going, aware that trying to get the legs moving again at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez is a hard task indeed. Besides, I still had a pocketful of food to keep me going.
By now the heat was oppressive – I was told later it touched 37°C. Local residents and supporters sprayed us with water or poured it down our necks and backs. I didn’t see the same carnage as last year – when people were lying over the road or taking showers in the Alpine streams – but apparently it happened later in the day.
For tired riders, Alpe d’Huez offers no respite whatsoever. Not even the hairpins provide relief from the vicious grind up the mountain. You know that the bottom 3km are the steepest but it still doesn’t seem to get any easier after that. And then you see it, the ski station at the top. There’s 5km to go, then 4km. When you think you’re safe and home, in the village, you’ve still got 3km to go. We pedalled past the crowds, drinking beer at the roadside cafes while we were roasting in the sun.
By this point my lower lip was quivering uncontrollably. I was reminded of a recent conversation with a triathlete who had finished an Ironman, and who explained how he had been overcome by emotion at the end. “You’re not going to cry on Alpe d’Huez,” I told myself, “don’t you bloody dare.”
I finally notched it up a few gears, even getting into the big ring over the last rise and unleashing an uphill sprint Philippe Gilbert would have been proud of. Crossing the line, heartbeat pumping in my ears, I somehow managed to control the contents of my stomach, which desperately wanted to say hello to the crowd leaning over the barriers.
Our times ranged from five hours to nine hours – all bar the first four finishers missed the time cut projected for this Tour stage proper on the Alpe (taking place on Friday 22nd July).
Not that we cared. Everyone was rightly proud of themselves for a huge day out in some of the biggest mountains the French Alps have to offer. As for me, I was just proud of not having cried in public on that damn mountain.
by Joe Hall
We knew it was coming, but we didn’t want to accept it until the very last. The weather forecast had predicted rain for the Massif Central and on Saturday, as we watched the pros in the Pyrenees on the Rapha Mobile Cycle Club’s big screen, the clouds casually gathered. But it hadn’t rained. Yet. A bit like Thomas Voeckler losing his yellow jersey; deep down we all knew it would happen, but when?
The answer was the next day, the day of the Etape Acte part II. On Sunday morning, rising at 4.30 am, I stepped onto the hotel balcony and felt the unusually hot atmosphere disperse followed by the inevitable raindrops. Bugger. On went the overshoes, knee warmers and long-fingered gloves.
As we drove towards Issoire it wasn’t looking good and swirls of rain lashed against the windscreen as my embrocation dug its claws in. At least I was prepared. As we got out and clipped in, we found ourselves among a throng of riders in all manner of kit; bin liners, short sleeve jerseys, full tights, see-through rain capes, woolly hats, even football socks. The rain eased up and as we rolled across the start line in minimal drizzle, everyone seemed happy enough.
“Chillin’ it,” said Rapha’s Alex Ceselli, as he rolled past to catch up with fellow Rapha rider Ben Lieberson, who had flown off to latch on to the front group. “Damn right,” came my reply. I had ridden this route earlier in the year and I was saving my legs. I wasn’t about to give in to the adrenaline of the start and push it like so many of the riders who were hurtling along, already on the limit. The first 50km of the route consists of rolling roads, not too much climbing, but it is exposed and has sufficiently voluptuous contours to ensure it will hurt later.
The Vallée d'Allagnon is beautiful and wild, with a river running beneath tall gorge walls; in these conditions it felt more like Wales in October than France in July. The ride along here was OK but as the rain fell steadily the spray from the wheels in front ensured everyone was suitably soggy. As the valley opened out it was clear that the wind had come out to play today and as we approached the first climb, Cote de Massiac, my toes and fingers were beginning to feel decidedly wintery, despite all the kit I had on.
The Massiac climb itself was fine, a steady gradient for about 3km and sheltered from the wind by plenty of tree cover. When I had reached the summit on my previous ride of the route, the climb levelled out to afford some great views out across this verdant region, with vistas of the many extinct volcanoes of the region. On that day I was riding all alone under an azure sky with a gentle breeze. As the road continued to rise on this day, the rain was now falling heavily and the wind was bursting across the road from all angles.
As groups of riders became strung out, trying to ride in some sort of echelon was as difficult as it was pointless. Soon, the sound of ambulance sirens became all too common, as did the sight of riders standing at the side of the road. What a miserable day.
It had, in fact, become like some horrible ride in Belgium, so there was little option but to keep going. Others were riding in the opposite direction. I tried my best to help others by riding on their outside and in front. On one occasion I used my wide shoulders as a windbreaker for a man twice my age and going almost twice as slowly. I soon lost him, he was helpless.
The weather was now ridiculous and as the plateau de Bru took us above 1000m, the rain turned to hailstones, painfully spitting into my face. The wind making my arms tired as I attempted to battle both gradient and weather. It was a fight. Groups struggled alongside and one large Frenchman turned his head towards me and just blew an exasperated raspberry. It was wetter than a trout’s back pocket.
One man, returning to the saddle after stopping next to an ambulance, rode with me for a moment. He looked strong and had the appearance of a decent rouleur; overshoes, rain cape and giant legs. Perhaps we could work together for a bit, I suggested. “C’est trop jolie,” I said sarcastically. “C’est catastrophe,” He replied. Indeed. We rode on in silence, the din of the storm defeating any attempt at conversation.
The road continued to move up in altitude and by now we were at Col du Baladour. Even the cows, huddled together, had expressions on their faces as if to suggest: “What are these people doing?” I knew that the first feed stop, in Allanche, would arrive soon after this and by now my arms and hands were beyond cold, they were just numb.
We began the descent to Allanche, not a long drop down but it was steep and fast. That equals a substantial amount of wind chill and this is what finished the majority of people off. In the conditions, I knew the way I was descending was dangerous but I wanted to get to Allanche and warm up.
When I arrived in the town, I immediately saw coaches and a man shouting through a megaphone advertised the fact there was an option to abandon. That’s when I saw the shivering wreck of Alex Ceselli, now with blue lips. This elegant Scandinavian, so often style on a bike personified, now looked like he’d been rescued from the depths of the North Sea. Other Rapha colleagues were also loitering in front of the coaches. So I followed suit.
But my bail-out was not to be. No seat for me on the coach so off I went, back into the storm. Thankfully Rapha’s Wei-Ho Ng and Jonathan ‘Biff’ Bacon from Rouleur trundled past and I continued with them. Soon, however, I rode away trying to warm up and feeling the need to go at my own pace. I struggled up into the mist of the highest climb of the day, the Pas de Peyrol at 1440m.
More wind and rain, followed by another freezing descent, this one being the scene of the huge pile-up where Wiggins had broke his collarbone and Vinokourov had ended his career a week previously. I found the third “official” climb of the day, the Col de Perthus, to be a tough but welcome warm up and after this the weather was relatively pleasant.
The rain continued to make the occasional appearance but it was now a case of slogging it out to complete the distance. It really couldn’t get any worse, unless I punctured. Thankfully I didn’t and after nearly 10 hours in the saddle, after 210.5km and 3800m of climbing – and after lots of strange internal dialogue – I arrived in St Flour. I felt remarkably good and went straight over to see our friends at La Fuga for a can of coke. Delicious. Their ringer, Wouter, had come fourth and said it was probably the hardest “race” conditions he had ever ridden. I concur.
This stage is a beautiful route and a very charming part of the world. The majority of riders on this day wouldn’t have cared about this in the slightest. The Etape du Tour Acte II of 2011 had the largest number of non-starters yet recorded and the biggest drop-out rate (around 75%). Of around 6,000 entrants, only 1,982 finished.
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