L’Etape du Tour / Stage 18: Brainçon to Izoard – 181kms D+4000 / July 16th 2017
Race reporter Ross
The France / Hong Kong challenge started in 2015; it’s an annual competition between myself and an old friend of mine, Gareth, taking place somewhere in Europe in summer. After Marseille (2015) and London (2016) triathlons (both times I was soundly beaten) this year the ante was upped and l’Etape du Tour was chosen. Not just any étape though, the twin peaks of Vars and Izoard were to be tackled in a gruelling 181km stage in the Alps, with 4000 metres of positive altitude change. It’ll be fine I told myself. Yes my training left me feeling slightly undercooked but there just aren’t many long hills around Paris that would have prepared me for what was to come. It’s just one day right? You can always dig deep and finish, or so I thought.
The Etape is something really special and the day in question had it all. Firstly it’s a real stage of the Tour de France, stage 18 this year. We had the roads closed just for us, helicopters overhead, people lining the twisting roads in the Alps. There’s the small difference of having 16,000 participants of course, but otherwise what you see the pros ride through on TV is what you get on race day, and the route from Briançon to the top of the Col d’Izoard is truly magnificent.
The day starts early; you set off in waves according to your target completion time, so counter-intuitively the slower you are the later you start, and the more chance you have of being swept up by the broom wagon (voiture balai). This would come back to haunt us later on. I started in wave 13 out of 15, but my friend Gareth started in 15. He had to finish the first 60km at 28km/h average to avoid being swept by the dreaded broom wagon, but luckily the rapid descents and gentle downhills made for a quick start and although I also started well he had made up 15 mins by the 80km mark. It was so easy, beautiful and pleasant for the first while. The atmosphere was awesome, people laughing and chatting along the way. But oh how we were both going to pay so badly for that quick start!
The route takes you south from Briançon to Lake Serre-Poncon, which is a real sight to behold from the descent following the Col des Demoiselles Coiffées. I even stopped to take a photo. The route follows the Ubaye to Barcelonnette, one of the main feeding stations at 100km. It was complete chaos; water was hard to get hold of and the only non-sugar food remaining was a large lump of partially melted cheese. At this stage all was well, we arrived in 3h40, pace was great and just had two big climbs to go.
So from 100km it rose gently at first and then more steeply at 120km and then the last 5km at 9% gradient to get to the summit of Vars. We fought off cramps and tight hamstrings, entered into tractor mode, and ground our way to the summit. It was way harder than I had expected; I had to take a break up the last bit of the climb and the relentless slow grind depleted way too much of my energy levels. It took the best part of 2h to get to the top and I crawled over the timing line and simply lay down right there. My word what had I signed up for, for the worst was still to come.
The next 20km were pure bliss, sweeping downhills, majestic scenery and easy kilometres with time to recover until a feeding station at Guillestre. We left the food station after a quick stop, beating the cut off by five minutes. Now came the hard bit, not only getting to the finish line, but trying to outpace the broom wagon, which we ended up overtaking en route to the base of Col d’Izoard, so I knew what it looked like. This is where it got serious and I was grateful to have a good friend next to me to keep focus and ensure grit levels were at all-time highs.
Once again, the way to the Col is via a gentle climb and then an ever-increasing gradient. By the time I had reached 165km, I was a mess and stopping was becoming more compulsory than ever to keep going. The legs were ok, but the engine was running on fumes and the dashboard light were solid red. I lost Gareth at this stage as he succumbed to cramp, not good for the morale. I started the dreaded 7km ascent to Izoard, with its 8.5% gradient, in a rhythm of walking, lying down and cycling in tractor mode (5km/h). It was by far the most difficult physical exertion I have ever had to make in my life. The last 20km took the best part of 3h and it was nothing short of hell. When I looked up at the last 7km and that colossal climb ahead of me, I thought I would be lucky to get to the fi
nish at any time in the future let alone today. But I didn’t quit, and the ridiculously slow pace I had been reduced to allowed some tiny window of recovery for the end and by the last 1km I was at least able to stay on the bike, which was important for what was to come.
I first noticed the broom wagon catching up to me about 500m from the finish, because I could see it eating up the road on the switchbacks below me. It was going slowly but still much quicker than I was. I heard someone shout the cut-off time, it was going to be tough to make it, even if I pulled some magic out the bag. I kept going, looking downhill at each turn to see how far away the broom wagon was. Then a spectator repeatedly shouted something like “150 metres to go”, but then a sudden urgency in his voice and he started screaming “voiture balai, it’s right behind you”. That was it, I wasn’t cycling 180.9km to be overtaken by no broom wagon. I dug deep, did some spectacularly wavy danseuse climbing, put myself in the middle of the road to make overtaking more difficult, and dug out whatever was left in my body to beat the broom wagon in a sprint finish to the line.
Economical as ever, I collapsed on the tar a couple of yards over the finish line, it was done and I was done. I didn’t want to scream for joy, I wanted to go straight to sleep. Slowly it sunk in and I managed to feel a small moment of pride.
I don’t remember much afterwards except stumbling around looking for salt and Coca Cola. At some stage after Gareth also finished, passed by the broom wagon in the last kms, but who cares we had finished the most terrifying day on a bike in our lives.
It was awesome, it was awful, it was everything in between.
I’d highly recommend doing it, but also training very hard for it.