I know this isn’t trail running, but I attempted the Etape du Tour last year and bonked at the bottom of the last climb so was keen to test myself again. Two friends from the UK, Neil and Billy were also keen to try so it gave me an excuse to ease off the running and try something different for a while – I always think its good to avoid running burnout.
This years Etape, or ‘stage’ of the Tour de France started in the historic town of Annecy, just south of Geneva. The course ran clockwise in almost a complete loop, finishing in the ski resort of Annecy-Semnoz, taking in a couple of difficult climbs along the way.
At only 128km, and less than 4,000m of cumulative climbing, this is not a stage that will overly worry the pros when they tackle it on the penultimate day of the Tour de France. However for someone who hadn’t ridden his bike in 51 weeks, it was going to be enough of a challenge.
Neil and Billy flew into Geneva on the Thursday evening and headed down to my place, where we reassembled the bikes on Friday and went out for a 25km spin to make sure we had no mechanical problems – in the process I doubled my yearly training mileage – hopefully the running fitness would see me through.
We headed up to Annecy on Saturday afternoon, and after dropping the bikes at the dodgy apartment we rented in Aix-les-Bains (about 30km south) we went and got our goodie bags. No buffs this year, but another Rapha t-shirt and a handy rucksack. Neil dropped his bike at the Mavic stand to sort out the gears, and despite a long wait in the heat, got them sorted out perfectly – all free.
After bravely finishing off last night’s cold pasta at 5am, we piled the bikes onto the back of the car and headed up the deserted autoroute to Annecy. Unfortunately we were all in separate starting pens – 13,000 riders were taking part so it was necessary to have staggered start times, this meant that all three of us were separated by at least an hour from the others, and the sheer numbers meant meeting up on the route was going to be impossible.
Annecy was a beautiful backdrop to the race and once we finally got moving the pace was fast out along the main road that hugged the edge of the lake. The first proper climb came after about 15km, but really for first 50km, the profile was rolling and lumpy, which although it meant we didn’t struggle on the ascent, also meant it was hard to get into a rhythm.
65km into the race and it was time to tackle the first major climb – Mont Revard was 16km long, but with a feed station at the top I was keen to get going.
A fast descent, luckily in fairly thinned out crowds meant the next 30km were covered fairly quickly. My Garmin GPS battery ran out by this point so I had to record the rest of the ride on my iPhone. Coming into Gruffy, where the last feed stop was located at the foot of the final climb, a bee flew into my helmet and stung me on the head. I got it checked out by medics and while I was waiting another guy came in who had been stung in exactly the same place at the same point!
By this point I was starting to feel sick of gels and sports drink (although I didn’t fancy the red wine on offer at the feed station), but I stocked up and rolled out, and just as I passed through Quintal, got a pyschological boost seeing Amy and some friends from England who had come out to visit. The crowds in general where great at this point, and we really needed it as people were really flagging.
I made it to the summit having only stopped and walk once, for around 200m on the steepest part of the climb. During those 200m I saw two people sat at the side of the road vomiting into a ditch, so I knew I was doing OK.
I made it to the finish before the cutoff, and then had to make it back to Annecy, which meant a hair-raising 20km descent down half the road (other riders were still coming up), and then onto open public roads.
After having suffered hugely in last year’s Acte 1 Etape (Albertville-Les Toussuires), and seen first hand the logistical problems associated with a 50% dropout rate (the broom wagon buses couldn’t keep up with the time limit, and struggled to get into the finish village) I think the organisers made a good choice with this year’s route.
The route was hard, but not unmanageable, and although the freewheeling back to Annecy at the end was hairy and I could have done with a lie down, it made it easy to get home. Having 13,000 riders, rather than splitting into two separate events made things very crowded but it wasn’t too bad, the only problem was not being able to ride with friends.
I’ll be interested to see what route they pick next year and definitely keen to give it another go.