Matt Blythe on L’Étape du Tour 2017

When the 2017 Tour de France and L’Étape du

Tour routes were revealed last October, with an appealing L’Étape taking place on my birthday, I wasted no time in entering.

Even before considering whether my family would want to join me for a summer holiday in the French Alps! Or if I could afford it. But then we had a great family cycling holiday in the French Alps two years ago, even if we were completely unaware at the time that we would become parents within eight months.

An Étape starting and finishing in the same place, unusual for a Tour de France mountain stage, was logistically more appealing on a ‘do-it-yourself’ trip. The location of Briançon was also attractive to me. The major climbs on the route of the Cols de Vars and Izoard were ones I had minimal experience of. My first taste of cycling in the French Alps was on holiday with my parents and sister Lucy in 1986.

I fell in love with the mountains then and have returned to the Alps many times since, plus a few trips to the Pyrenees, Mont Ventoux area and the Italian mountains. I’d not ridden in the Southern French Alps though, apart from one climb of the Izoard in 2002 during a trip to ride La Marmotte cyclosportif.

That Marmotte experience was a painful one of grovelling over the mountains on a too big bottom gear of 39×25, having not learned my lesson of the previous year’s L’Étape in the Pyrenees when I made the same mistake. By 2011 and my 10th trip to the Alps and with compact gearing now readily available, I finally had a much more suitable 34×27 gear. With good preparation beforehand, including a 160 mile solo ride from Newport to Bala and back, over the Bwlch-y-Groes under my belt, I cruised over the Glandon, Telegraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez to earn a gold medal for my age group. I had planned similarly tough training rides for this years Etape, but things don’t always go to plan…

So at 7.30 am on my 47th birthday I lined up in Briancon, under a cloudless sky, with 15,000 other cyclists. My longest training ride of 120km worryingly short compared to the 178km I was about to attempt, with two monster climbs, significantly coming right at the tail end of the route. I knew that this made it even more important that I ride within myself for the first half of the course.

Riders were held behind barriers in pens of 1000 riders before the start. Each pen was set off at 5 minute intervals. With a start number of 8626 my pen was right in the middle and it was quite a task to reach it via the narrow pavements, with thousands of others trying to do the same. There were plenty of riders ‘cheating’ by lining up in a pen ahead of where they should be. Although this wouldn’t improve their time, as you were timed via a chip in your handlebar mounted number, as you crossed the start and finish lines.

The early part of the course was on a fast wide main road, heading south from Briançon along the Durance valley. It was largely downhill save for a couple of drags and I stayed sheltered in the groups as much as possible to conserve energy for what lay ahead. After 28km there was a 2km climb up to the village of Réotier, although this ‘warm up’ climb wasn’t even categorised for L’Étape or the Tour. Nonetheless it required some effort to maintain position. When I rode Marmotte in 2011 I had spent most of the climbs overtaking hundreds of riders, but I quickly knew that there would be no repeat of that today. I was happy to try and maintain my position riding in groups that I felt comfortable in.

A quick descent with a couple of hairpins brought us back down to the Durance and back onto the main road. We then diverted off the main road and through Châteauroux-les-Alpes where spectators were out in force encouraging every rider, as they were through every town or village we passed through. From children to the elderly, cheering, clapping and blowing horns, it certainly kept your morale up and spurred you on.

After 48km we reached the town of Embrun, famous for it’s ironman triathlon. On leaving the town we arrived at the first feed station, where bottles were filled, a quick snack was eaten and a few morsals stuffed in pockets for later. One mistake I had made in La Marmotte 6 years ago, was consuming too much in the way of energy bars, gels and drinks. This had resulted in nausea and me being unable to stomach anything other than water for the last 70km. To avoid that this time I tried to drink as much water as sports drink and eat as much savoury and real food as I could. Thankfully real food is plentiful at the feed stations on L’Étape. I had just taken a couple of gels with me to use towards the end of the ride.

Back on the road, we were soon alongside the beautiful blue waters of the Lac de Serre-Ponçon and by the 60km point we were onto the first real climb of the day, the 4km ascent of the Côte des Demoiselles Coiffées. Roughly translated the name means ‘Ladies with Hairdos’, after the nearby rock formations, although they weren’t visible from the road. At least not by me anyway. Once over the top there followed a fabulous sweeping descent back down to the lake with superb views of the blue waters below. We then crossed over the narrow end of the lake on a bridge and into the Ubaye valley. I knew that this next section could be critical to the success or otherwise of the ride. It was over 40km of constant gradual uphill along the Ubaye valley before we would reach the first big climb of the Col de Vars (Pictured Below). Push too hard in this valley and you would be certain to pay dearly later.

Thankfully it was a tailwind along the valley, or it could have been even tougher. By now I was starting to feel a little less fresh than I had earlier. So I resisted the temptation to try and go with groups that I might have gone with. Despite erring on the side of caution, at around the 100km mark I felt a twinge of cramp in one of my hamstrings. This had me seriously worried. We hadn’t even got to the serious climbing yet and I was already getting cramp?! I had visions of me walking up the Izoard. Oh the shame! I took it easy for a while and made sure to keep the gear down and cadence up. Thankfully this did the trick and there were no more twinges. There was another feed in Barcelonette and around this point I removed my base layer. Earlier in the ride I had realised that my usual short sleeved under shirt I was wearing was going to be far too warm when the temperature rose to the predicted 30°c on the Izoard. At 6am in the chilly morning mountain air it’s easy to forget that. I was prepared to bin it at the feed station to save myself from roasting, but I found room to stuff it in a rear pocket.

Through Jausiers and we headed straight on towards the Col de Vars. A right turn would have sent us up the highest road cimb in Europe, the Cime de la Bonette, but we’ll save that for another day. Through a tunnel and it wasn’t long before we were on to the first of the two big climbs. I was soon into my bottom gear of 34×27 and wishing that I had something even lower to spin. I was climbing ok though and generally holding my place in the groups. The Col de Vars is a 9km climb with an average gradient of 7.5%. About halfway up there was a little respite as it flattened out, but this was followed by a tough 2km of 10%. Up we climbed around hairpins, giving us fantastic views of the mountains around and the hundreds of riders climbing below us. Up above the 2000 metre mark we climbed. People always say that above 2000m breathing becomes more difficult as you gasp for oxygen in the rarefied air. It’s not something I’ve ever noticed. I always forget to think about it when I get that high, and I’m always gasping from the effort of climbing that I don’t really think about the altitude.

Over the col at 2109m above sea level and just a quick stop to don my gilet and it was a fast plunge down the descent. The first part of the descent was fast with few bends. Through the ski resort of Vars we descended, often the venue for those crazy downhill skiing speed record attempts.

There were many hairpin bends on the lower half of the descent, eventually bringing us to the town of Guillestre at the 150km mark. This was just a few km away from where we’d been at the 28km point . The route of the stage almost making a big figure of 8. There were big crowds in Guillestre as we had a nasty little steep climb to negotiate before we headed to another uphill valley, the Queyras. This is a beautiful gorge where white water rafting is popular on Le Guil river. The road skirted steep rock faces and dipped through tunnels hewn out of the rock. After about 10km of gradual climbing through the gorge, the road kicked up steeply around a couple of hairpins, but I knew the climb of the Izoard hadn’t even begun yet. A little further and the sharp left turn off the valley road took us onto the Izoard proper. Just 14km remained to the finish, but it was at an average gradient of 7.3% with long sections at 10%+ and under the burning afternoon sun.

“Uh-oh! The Col d’Izoard! We can’t go under it, we can’t go through it… Oh no! We’ve got to go over it!”

Some strange things go through your mind on long bike rides and this alternative line from the

book ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ popped into my head as we began the final climb. This book being one of my son Billy’s favourites, I have read it to him so many times I can remember the words off by heart.

The Izoard is one of the most legendary passes in the history of the Tour de France. First featuring in the Tour in 1922 it has been a regular feature since, particularly between the 1920s and 1950s. Bartali, Coppi and Bobet all forged Tour victories on the climb through the dramatic landscape of the Casse Déserte . The barren scree slopes and rock pinnacles of this section, near the summit on the southern ascent, are the same today as they appear on the black and white photographs of old. Only the road surface has changed. The lower slopes of the climb have a very different landscape, suggesting nothing of what lay ahead.

A wide, straight road, with grassy slopes on either side and a gradually increasing gradient that had tired legs begging to stop. Up through the villages of Arvieux, La Chalp and Brunissard with not a hairpin bend in sight, on one of those straight drags that feel much tougher than they should. Bidons were filled up one last time at La Chalp, with the sun beating down on thirsty riders and the temperature now at about 30°c.

Once through Brunissard the character of the climb changes for the first time. The road bends round to the right, steepens and disappears into the trees. The twists and turns of the road ahead were visible above before the first turn was reached. The gradient was now up to 10% and didn’t drop much below this for the next 4km, as the road wound up the mountainside gaining altitude with every painful turn of the pedals. Every spare patch of ground at the side of the road was already taken up with campervans in place for the Tour stage to come, with the occupants giving vocal encouragement for everyone on this the toughest part of L’Étape. At one point the sound of someone wretching loudly came from somewhere up above. A gendarme then did an impressive sprint on foot, overtaking several riders, up around a hairpin bend, to reach the source of the wretching and offer help to the stricken rider kneeling at the side of the road.

With just 3km to the finish the character of the Izoard changes for the second time. As the road reaches a right hand 90° bend, the road flattens out and the turn reveals La Casse   Déserte. Legend has it that in the 1940s the French climber Apo Lazirides on reaching the Casse Déserte alone in the lead, turned round and headed back to the group, afraid that he might get eaten by a bear. I had no such worries but I did break the habit of the day by stopping to take a photo, no longer caring what my finishing time would be. A short descent here, past the memorial to Tour winners Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, and then the road kicked up again. There remained just 2km of climbing at 8% gradient, round the final 4 bends, and there was the long awaited and beautiful sight of the finish line.

Although the line had been crossed, we were at 2360m above sea level and with a 20km descent still to do to get to the official finish back in Briançon. So I just had a snack and quick drink, put my gilet on and set off on this final more relaxed descent. A reminder that you can never take anything for granted and you need to keep your wits about you at all times, came twice on this descent, with two injured riders  being attended to on separate bends.

Finally over the official finish line in Briançon and I could relax with some real food and a beer. My official time turned out thankfully to be 40 seconds inside of 8 hours, otherwise I would probably have regretted stopping to take that photo. That put me 3571st out of 11234 finishers and 636th out of 1878 in my age category. I was happy enough with that considering my lack of preparation.

If you want to ride L’Étape du Tour in 2018 I hope you have entered, as it is full already! I am familiar with almost all the route of next years event, so look out for my post on the 2018 L’Étape coming soon.

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