What's it like to ride L'Etape du Tour?

By Dave Colley | 6 Minute Read

My 10-year-old Oscar has always showed a small interest in the Tour de France. Each year, he asks me...

    1. How old do you have to be to do the Tour? Apparently he has an eye on winning the white jersey...
    2. Why does Chris Froome look like an octopus?
    3. Who would win in a triathlon between you and Mark Cavendish?
    4. When are you going to do it?

This last question is always met with “I’m too old, too slow and it’s really quite hard. Not to mention how much I would miss you”.

To which Oscar replies, “you’re not old daddy and you’re really fast. You’ve done an Ironman”. I love and cherish his optimism and faith in me!

About 6 months ago one of my coached athletes had asked if I would like to do The Etape du Tour with him. The Etape involves riding a stage of the Tour de France -usually one of the hardest stages - a few days before the pros roll through. Looking at the profile, it looked ok – just 2 mountains to get over. However, when I looked at the distance my opinion changed. 4000m of climbing with the last climb (the Col d’Izoard) lasting for the best part of 16km! 

This was supposed to be the year I retired from racing but nonetheless I found myself sitting with my bike in the car park of the ferry at Portsmouth on a Wednesday evening my athlete to arrive. As I called him to find out where he was, a huge Winnebago rolled into the car park towing a Citroen Berlingo. An epic vehicle for an equally epic challenge... 

The journey was really comfortable and it took the best part of two leisurely days to make our way down to the Alps. Once we got there our driver (an awesome chap called Mick who had once  driven Le Tour with a certain leading British cycling team) set up the RV and we got ready to go for a bit of a potter about on the bikes.

I fancied the Galibier but seeing as it was 7:30 pm and it's 18 and a bit km with a 30 km ride out to it we decided to go for the slightly shorter climb to the ski resort of Risoul. Risoul was used in the 2014 Tour and it's a mere 12.6km climb averaging just under 7%. Just what I wanted the team to do...a nice leg loosener. 

You just don’t get those climbs anywhere else. Smooth roads, sharp corners, “gentle” gradient, amazing views. However, one of the most noticeable things was just how warm it was – even at 8pm. Now, it did get cooler as we climbed but with the forecast being the same over the next 2 days I knew we had to be properly prepared with our nutrition. Hydration and fuelling were under control and I was going to adopt a strategy similar to when I race an Ironman; semi solids and a 1l bottle of PH 1500 every hour and a half, with a stop at each “aid station” for some solid sustenance.

I was a bit nervous about just how many people there was going to be on the route. Anything between 13,000 and 15,000 were being talked about. Having ridden the first 30km or so and with it being downhill I was expecting crowds and potential crashes with people everywhere!

Waiting in the pen, the sun was warming everyone nicely but it was still quite chilly. You could hear the earlier groups being let off and gradually we moved forwards and it was our turn to start... 

A few packs formed initially but didn’t last long as the abilities of riders around us were varied to say the least. We soon turned off the main road and hit some rolling terrain. Nothing compared to what was to come but it was nice to be able to get some purchase into the legs and keep the warmth. The scenery was simply stunning and the roads were so quiet. This really was nothing like any sportive in the U.K. I'd ever done.

A lot of the roads had been resurfaced for the tour and it was amazing to see what it would be like to be in the tour – albeit going a lot slower!

The drinks were going down well and we didn’t have to wait for the feed stations to top up with water as each village had fountains with the most welcome cool and fresh water. We were hydrated and things were going well. 

At around Embrun we had the most amazing down hill section with views overlooking the most picture perfect lake. It was like something out of a movie. My overriding feeling was this was truly the most spectacular scenery on quite possibly the best ride I have ever done.

The first proper climb was a real eye opener! It started about 4 and three quarter hours into the ride. I decided to stretch the legs and see what I could do - but within 400 meters I was met with a wall of bodies – some walking, some riding, some lying down. They had had a relatively easy ride up till now and it was about to get tricky...

I realised that this is where the bottle neck was. Weaving in and out of people was hard, but quite fun – a bit like a game of Asteroids. The climb was tough – about 10km and 45 minutes later I got to the top. 

A quick bottle top up and off I went down the other side – a lovely twisty descent without being too hard or technical.

Once at the bottom there wasn’t much time to relax and the final feed station before the Izoard provided one last chance for some bread and cheese. By now I was riding solo as those around me had tired. It wasn’t the chattiest of rides, which did surprise me to be honest.

I suppose I was riding a bit easier compared to many of the people around me and many were conserving their energy before the last climb. There was however a sense of cameraderie and group achievement. Over 100 miles or so you get to know some of the riders and their little idiosyncrasies. Dave from Italy (via Essex) on his Pinarello F10 who didn’t like to use his rear derailleur. Emma and Jane, wearing matching kit and who were 2 of 50 employees from Nike who had come over from Holland. It was interesting to interact with different riders, even if only briefly. 

As we made our way towards the final climb there was a sense of tiredness hanging around. Cycling beside a river with cliffs too high to see the top provided some welcome shade and the temperature dropped. I felt great, with plenty of energy and so I did my best to encourage people and I’d like to think my humming helped them...

We came out of the shade and the valley opened up. Green fields either side and already there were people waiting for the Tour to arrive 4 days later! The road tipped upwards and again people were walking. With about 20km to go and on slopes with a gradient of about 2-4% part of me felt sorry as it was still a long way to go and it was only going to get harder! Another part of me was angry as people were pushing £12,000 bikes with their shoes in their hand. I didn’t dwell on it though and got on with my own journey. 

It was super hot by now – about 3:30 pm and I found a fountain to cool myself. I had gone through 7 packets of PH 1500 by now and it had helped no end so far. I didn’t particularly want to carry an extra kilo up the final 5km or so, so I only part filled my bottle. 

The last part was hard. Pure and simple. I just kept on keeping on, bit of sitting, bit of standing, smiling, waving, grimacing....and then it was over. I had finished one of the toughest stages of this years’ Tour de France.

My moving time was 7 hours 25 minutes but it wasn’t about my time. The final climb took me 1 hour 10 minutes or so. To put that into perspective Warren Barguil won the stage 4 days later in just 38 minutes...having already raced for 18 days!

And that’s one of the main things I took from this trip – a bit perspective on how hard these Tour riders are. How fast they actually go. How hard those climbs are. 
I was skeptical at first but this is an awesome event and one I would highly recommend and I hear PH have just partnered with Sportive Breaks if you're looking for someone to take care of the boring adminy bit for you so you can spend more time on training and actually enjoying the ride!


Will Newbery is Head Coach at 9 Endurance Coaching and helped David Lloyd Leisure establish their national “Power of Three” triathlon program. As an athlete himself he has won races from sprint to Ironman, and in 2015 he qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona by coming 6th in his Age Group at the very competitive Ironman Nice, France.

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