So the 2011 Etape du Tour route has been officially announced. For the first time, there will be two Etapes, with most attention focussed on ‘Acte 1’ mirroring Stage 19 of the Tour, crossing the classic Telegraphe and Galibier cols before finishing on the iconic Alpe d’Huez. Tempted to have a go? David Else looks back at some previous Etapes and offers some practical advice.
There are sportives all over Europe, but the Etape du Tour is still regarded as the grand-daddy of them all, and every year thousands of cyclists come to take part. You could do a lot worse than join them. Riding the Etape is a fantastic experience. But if you fancy having a go in 2011, one of the first things you need to assess your current fitness and the amount of training you’ll need to do between now and July. You need to be realistic. There’s no two ways about it: The Etape is hard. Very hard. You can’t get round on a wing and a prayer, and surprising number of people seem to think they can.
When I rode the Etape in 2007, out of the 7500 starters, some 2500 didn’t finish. In ’08 and ‘09 it was a similar proportion. In 2010, there was a record field of 10,000 riders - and about 3600 did not make it to the end. Some had mechanical problems or crashed, but for the majority the Etape simply proved too hard. They fell behind the required minimum speed, or simply couldn’t ride any further and keeled over on their way up the mountain roads of the Solour or Tourmalet.
Broom wagon blues
And if you fall behind the minimum speed, you’re caught by the dreaded broom wagon (in reality a fleet of coaches for the riders and trucks for the bikes), and you’re disqualified. Over and out.
You can’t even resign gracefully, take off your number and at least finish the route at your own pace. Oh no. The group of burly Frenchmen that travel in the truck give little quarter: your bike is grabbed and loaded up while you’re firmly directed towards the coach before you can say sacre bleu.
And believe me, you don’t want to be on that coach. In 2009, I started the Etape but had a major mechanical failure. I was standing helplessly at the side of the road, with a pedal and crank lying in the grass, when broom wagon came along, and I had to climb aboard. Then on we went, following the final riders, picking them off one by one as they found the pace too fast or the hills too steep. As they got on the coach, some people were crying, some swearing, some in a state of shock. I have never experienced such an atmosphere of dejection.
So the morale of the tale: make sure you’re going to be fit enough to do the Etape (and yourself) justice. Not only will you be disappointed if you don’t get to the end, you’ll have thrown a lot of money down the drain as well. But if you do the right amount of training, and complete the route in a time you’re happy with, then riding the Etape could be one of the most memorable cycling days of your life.
Booking a package
Talking of money, let’s have a look at the costs. There are two main ways to enter the Etape. The first option is to buy a package from a specialist tour company. Some packages are basic, including your ride entry, plus maybe a couple of nights in a cheap hotel, and that’s it, for around £300. Other packages offer the full Monty - flights, airport transfers, good quality hotels for a few nights before and after the ride, meals, the services of a tour rep - and for this you’re looking at £800 or more.
The second option is ‘entry only’. This means you buy your place in the Etape (still not cheap, at around £100-150), but then it’s up to you sort out everything else - getting there, accommodation, and so on. For the past few years, ‘entry only’ has not been easy for riders based outside France, but for 2011 the online entry system is open to any rider, wherever they’re based in the world - al though exact details on how this works are still hazy as we go to press. In addition, ‘entry only’ places are limited and likely to be oversubscribed, and so issued on a lottery basis.
If you decide to go for a package, there’s only a handful of tour companies in the UK. Some are big outfits, others are small. We list a few at the end of this article. The bigger outfits can be a bit impersonal, while smaller outfits offer more of a personal service - although you may pay a bit extra for this. Before booking with any company, try to speak to someone who’s travelled with them previously, or look around on the forums for feedback.
When deciding which package to go for, a key item to consider is the position of the hotels. Remember, the Etape start and finish are a long way apart (it’s not a loop). Some packages use the same hotel, roughly equidistant from the start and finish. Other packages use a hotel very near the start, and then another hotel very near the finish, transferring your bags while you’re doing the ride. Obviously, you pay more for this, but compare a short warm-up ride to the start (not to mention an extra hour or two in bed) against a long coach transfer at some ungodly hour of the morning, and decide if it’s worth the money.
It’s about the bike
Next, what to ride? The advice for the Etape is pretty much the same as for any other serious sportive. There are dedicated sportive bikes out there with a slightly longer wheelbase or shallower angles to give the comfort you need on a long ride. But there’s no reason you can’t do it on a racing bike. Just make sure it’ll be comfortable for the duration of the Etape - which could be anything from 7 to 11 hours depending on the course and your own fitness.
Through 2010, I rode several UK sportives and the Etape itself on a Verenti Rhigos, and found it ideal. The slightly more upright position means no aching back, and the relaxed fork-rake means no jarring up through the arms to the shoulders. I’m getting out of my league on the technical front here, but the frame seems to be stiff and responsive in all the right places while still having enough ‘give’ for comfort.
Got any gear?
Having said that, I did make one alteration. The Rhigos came with a compact 50-34 chainset and 10-speed 12-27 cassette. For most riders this will be fine for the Etape, as the climbs in the Alps are often long with gradual inclines at around 10% or less, rather than the short 25% killers we enjoy in the Pennines or Cotswolds. But I like to spin the gears, so I changed the cassette and rear mech to give me a 32-tooth big sprocket. Did the lower gear help? It certainly helped me. On that final climb up the Peyresourde in 2007, and especially on the final bends up the Tourmalet this year, I was using that lowest gear and loving it.
To get a similar lowest gear, you can swap a compact for a triple with a 30-tooth inner. Or consider the new Sram 10-speed Apex cassette which gives 11-32. The Verenti bikes will be fitted with exactly this gear set-up from early 2011, which should make hilly sportives a lot easier for some riders, whether it’s in the UK or the Alps.
Keep it rolling
Other equipment is mainly personal. There’s an argument for keeping things simple, just in case you need to make a running repair, but there again you’ll probably want to use your sexiest gear to give yourself the best chance of getting round. A rider I met on the 2010 Etape deliberately left his carbon Zipps at home in favour of wheels with Mavic Open Pro rims and standard spokes, on the grounds that ‘”if some moron puts a pedal in my wheel, at least I can get it mended.”
Tyres can be on the light side - the Etape road services are usually good. If you fit new tyres, do 100 miles on them before the event, to take off the shine. Fit new inner tubes too, and never use any that have been patched. On the long descents, your rims get hot from the braking and can melt the glue, meaning sudden blow-outs.
Needless to say, give your bike a thorough check-over a week or so before you go. If you don’t have the necessary skills, get it serviced professionally. But don’t fit new parts just before the ride. If something needs replacing, do this at least a month before the Etape, and go for a few test-rides to make sure it all works nicely.
A few other tips
• If you fly to France, be aware of the extra charges levied on bikes by some airlines (more on this topic coming soon - ed). And every year sees horror stories of bikes lost in transit, or being delayed. At the 2008 Etape, some UK riders had their bikes delayed for a couple of days, and not arriving in time, meaning frantic souls running around between local bike shops, trying to hire (or in some cases buy) replacement bikes with less than 24 hours before the start. Several tour companies offer a road transfer service for bikes. Again it costs extra, but the peace of mind is worth it.
• If you take your own car and drive yourself (and your bike) to the Etape, don’t forget to take frequent pit-stops to stretch, and break the journey with at least one overnight if you can. Driving direct in one big hit through France the day before the ride is asking for stiff legs and poor performance.
• On the big day, don’t be fooled by the minimum speed required to avoid the broom wagon. It’s faster on the downhill bits and slower on the up. It’s not a constant average. In 2009 I met a rider who hadn’t realised this. He started near the back, but reckoned he needed to do a steady 14mph to cover the distance within the allotted time. Imagine his surprise, and utter horror, when he was caught by the broom wagon doing 16mph on a downhill section.
• Don’t ride with an iPod or similar device. If you can’t hear what’s going on around you, you’re not safe. You could also ruin your own ride. On a climb in the 2010 Etape, I saw a rider slip a chain and come to a sudden stop. Warnings were shouted, and everyone simply went round him. All except the guy grooving along with both ear-buds in. He didn’t hear the warnings, crashed into the back of the stopped rider, and ended up on the deck with a cut knee and buckled wheel. (This advice applies to any ride, but even more so for the Etape, when the sheer numbers on the road mean you need to be especially alert.)
• Don’t overlook your pedal cleats. If they’re worn, replace them. Again, a month before the event. On that fateful day I spent in the broom wagon, one of the riders we caught had snapped a cleat. Another had his cleat bolts come loose and fall out. Neither finished. To have a ride ruined by such a minor thing was devastating.
And finally, back to the positives. A tip from my old mate Andy Cook, a very experienced rider who’s done the Etape 14 times, and now operates tours for cyclists. Andy says: “Be prepared, respect the route, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Enjoy it too. At the end of the day, it’s just a big bike ride.”
The official Etape site is www.letapedutour.com - available in French and English language versions.
Unofficial sites include www.etape.org.uk - packed with good information, and a possible source of ‘entry only’.
UK-based tour companies running Etape packages include:
• Sports Tours International (www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk),
• French Cycling Holidays (www.frenchcyclingholidays.com)
• Andy Cook Cycling (www.andycookcycling.com).
Others are listed on the Etape website. Some of these companies may also be able to supply ‘entry only’.
The discussion continues at /content/forum/20943-etape-du-tour-2011