2016 Etape du Tour: Race Report
The 2016 Etape du Tour from Megeve to Morzine in the French Alps was my 4th Etape du Tour. In 2013 there were 4 of us, this year there were 11, including 6 first timers. A motley crew of Aussies, Irish, Scottish, French, American, Dutch and English. It was weird being the “seasoned” Etape veteran, one of the go to guys for info and tips. Weird as I still very much consider myself a novice cyclist and weird because, yes I may well have participated in 3 previous Etape du Tour’s but I actually hadn’t set an official time yet! A bloody disgrace if you ask me. How would this year go?
Before I go on, I must digress slightly and explain my 3 previous official DNFs, if only for my own selfish reasons:
2013 DNF: One For All, All For One
Although I finished the course I was passed by the dreaded broom wagon on the last mountain. The day was never about a time, it really was about riding together and helping each other finish our first Etape du Tour. (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it)
2014 DNF: Don’t forget to put your bloody number and timing chip on your bike!
I beat the broom but the history books will tell a different story as I bloody well forgot to put my race number which includes the timing chip on my bike. A long story…..
2015 DNF: The less said about this the better
2015 was a legitimate DNFF. That is I Did Not F’ing Finish. Long and miserable story short I was ill prepared, broom caught me and I chucked in the towel.
Ok, so thats off my chest…onwards with the 2016 report:
The 2016 Etape du Tour route was to follow the queen stage of the 103rd Tour de France. However a week out from the race the course was amended slightly due to rock falls on Col de la Ramaz so there were to be 3 major climbs vs the 4 that the pros would be tackling and the total distance was reduced approximately 20km to 122km.
I must admit I was slightly disappointed to hear of the change. I’d ramped up the training this year; 189 hours vs the far from enough 70 hours of last year, and so I really wanted to test my newly acquired fitness. But hey, silver linings……at least I was odds on to set an “official” time.
This annual trip to France for the Etape has become a bit of a family and friends tradition whereby we rent a house in the south of France, usually in the Provence region for a couple of weeks during which I et al duck off for a few days for the Etape and then back to holiday and recover. Provence works nicely as not only is it one of the nicest places on the planet, it is also roughly equidistant (around a 4 hour drive) from the Alps to the east and the Pyrenees to the west, either of which could be the venue for the Etape du Tour.
This year we stayed at an Airbnb just outside the village of Sarrians. We arrived 6 days before the race so the next few days were all about; relaxing by the pool getting over a rather hectic journey from Philly (flying with 2 young kids ain’t fun), getting a few rides in, and of course indulging in some French food n’ wine.
On the Friday before the Sunday race it was time to head to the Alps to catch up with all the other lads and check in to our Etape accommodation, another Airbnb.
I was up early Saturday morn for my final pre race ride. I thought I’d head in to the race village to check out whats what and soak up some of the excitement. I just love the peace and quiet of early morning rides – It doesn’t get any better than an early morning ride in the mountains.
After my morning ride it was all about registering, stashing the van at the finishing village, getting the bike ready (ensuring my race number was securely attached for starters) and loading up on carbohydrate.
Race Day Morning
Another restless nights sleep and another early start. I never sleep well before these races, a combination of nerves, excitement and worry about sleeping through the alarm, forgetting something etc etc. But at least I didn’t have to get up at ridiculous o’clock as my start time was a very hospitable 8:30am and the start was only a 10 minute roll down the road from the chalet. By the time I got up a lot of the lads who had an earlier starting slot had already headed off leaving just 4 of us to knock back what was left of breakfast, take a quick photo and head in ourselves.
It really was a nice little roll into the start. I couldn’t help but think back to the helter skelter of last year where we all piled into 2 cars and a massive van pre dawn to drive the hour to the start. I cannot stress enough the importance of staying close to the starting town for a stress free and less sleep deprived race morning. As it turns out we were in our starting pen a lot earlier than we could have got there so there was quite a wait, but before we knew it we were off and “racing”.
This race is very well organised and despite around 12,000 cyclists starting before us we were off right on the scheduled time of 8:30am.
The first section of around 7km was slightly downhill and fast except for a 600m climb to warm up the legs. I really belted it out here, no holes barred with my newly acquired confidence from the hours of training under the belt.
Col Des Aravis (Category 2: 6.7km at average 7%)
The first real test was the Col des Aravis. I hit a steady pace, cycling well within myself whilst keeping up with a majority of the other riders. It was fun and contrary to previous Etape climbs I was actually able to take in and appreciate the stunning scenery of mountain side pastures and orchards.
The climb took me 36 minutes. I was feeling strong at the summit and as I still had plenty of water on board I skipped the drink stop and headed off for the rush of the descent.
Col de la Colombière (Category 1: 11.7km at average 5.8%)
32km and 1 hour and 20 minutes in it was time for the second categorized climb of the day, the Category 1 Col de la Colombiere. I was still feeling good and again fell into a steady pace and rhythm. It was starting to get hot though and the last couple of km where the gradient kicked up towards 10% started to hurt although the pain was dulled via conversation. A really nice chap, Adrian was his name who I have since connected with on Strava started up some banter with me about being Australian (the flag of your country of origin is displayed on your race number). He was an Englishman living in New Zealand so an extremely familiar conversation ensued encompassing sporting rivalry and ex-pat life.
This climb took me 64 minutes and as I was keen for the fun of the descent I took my leave of my new mate Adrian who stopped at the summit for a drink and I hurtled off downhill.
Kilometer 65 to Kilometer 95
The 18km decent down Colombiere was a shedload of fun and very fast, in fact I hit 80km/hr for the first time (assuming my Strava data is correct). At 98kg gravity is definitely on my side cycling downhill. By the time I’d reached the bottom I’d been in the saddle for just under 3 hours so I was ready for a brief stop for food and water at the designated rest stop in the town of Scionzier.
The next 30km was rather boring as it incorporated a section of dual carriageway and was frustratingly slightly uphill with a solid head wind. I managed to join a couple of fast moving chain gangs and had enough energy to do my fare share of pulling at the front and occasionally surge to the next one.
This section took me just under an hour. I was going well.
Col de Joux Plane (Hors Categorie: 11.6km at average 8.5%)
The final climb started so well. I stopped briefly at the rest stop at the bottom of the climb to refill my water bottles and whilst there bumped into a mate who had started the race about 45 minutes ahead of me. I felt strong and that I was going ok but this chance encounter provided further validation that this was definitely an improved Etape performance. Thanks DG! Buoyed by this additional confidence I hit the climb woop wooping and high fiving the quite large crowd that had gathered in the town of Samoens.
But…said confidence only lasted a couple of kilometers until the infamous Col de Joux Plane started to bite…..hard! This climb is just relentless. There is nowhere to hide from either the gradient or the early afternoon heat. No wonder it broke a juiced up Lance Armstrong in the 2000 Tour de France where he later described it as “the hardest day of my life – on a bike”.
The fact that one of the lads who started the race after me literally flew past with all the seeming ease in the world with a cheeky “…..going good Mark” didn’t bloody well help.
Anyway, long story short it took me just under 2 hours to complete the 11.6km climb. I wouldnt say I bonked, I just couldnt get in a rythmn and the heat really took its toll. I ended up stopping 4 times just to cool down and get some liquids on board.
The descent down the Joux Plane was a lot of fun if not a little comical. Cresting the summit I was knocking back some water when I started to build up speed and was unable to coordinante myself enough to safely reinsert the water bottle in its cage so I spent a couple of kilometers flying down the mountain with a water bottle hanging out of my mouth….quite a scene! I actually had to stop to sort myself out adding valuable seconds to my time 😉 before cruising into the finishing Village of Morzine.
But did I set an official time?!
Despite blowing up on the Col de Joux Plane and loosing a shedload of time I was still happy with my “official” time of 6 hours 49 minutes…..4th time lucky!
But it was not all about me. Out of the 11 of our crew that started, 9 finished and 10 are pictured in the sensational snap below. An amazing effort, particularly for a couple of gents that up until recently had never even considered participating in such an event. Chapeau!!