Monday, June 29, 2009

What’s an etape ?

The correct definition is “a stage of” so an Etape du Tour is, in simple terms, a Stage of the Tour de France

The Etape du Tour has been running for almost 20 years … each year the organisers select a Stage of the Tour de France and turn it into a mass participation event. No point selecting a flat stage (anyone can ride on the flat!), so they pick something with a few ups & downs.

This year, it’s Stage 20 – 167 km from Montélimar to Mt. Ventoux.

4 climbs along the way – all enough on their own to get a Saturday Cyclist working hard (and bragging about them over a coffee at the end of his ride):

Côte de Citelle 5.2 km at an average of 3.9% gradient
Col d'Ey 6.3 km at an average of 5% gradient
Col de Fontaube 4.7 km at an average of 4.3 % gradient
Col de Notre-Dame des Abeilles 7.8 km at an average of 4% gradient

And then, about 150 km (and 4 solid climbs) after rolling out of Montélimar, the participants are given a final challenge for the day – ride Mt. Ventoux, the Giant of Provence. 21 km of climb at an average gradient of 7.6% (average means some of it isn’t quite that steep, and some is much steeper).

Cyclists love climbs – almost anyone can ride for hours on the flat, but once the road kicks up, you start to separate the real riders from the pretenders. All of a sudden having the latest team kit doesn’t do anything for you; it stops being about how much your bike cost, or where you drink you post ride coffee, and starts being all about riding the bloody thing, and getting to the top with some pace & style.

The Tour de France is usually won & lost on climbs, and as it’s the world’s biggest cycling race, it’s climbs have become some of cycling’s Holy Grails.

There’s L'Alpe d'Huez - 21 hairpin curves leading up a ski resort. Length: 13.9 km. Gradient: 7.9%

There’s Col du Tourmalet. Length 18.4 km. Gradient 7.7%

Or the Col du Galibier – maybe not so steep at an average of 4.5%, but it climbs for 42.8 km to a lung busting altitude of 2,645 m.

A suburban footballer might dream of playing on the MCG, the weekend hacker can fantasise about the Back Nine at Augusta, but cyclists can, and do, ride these hills. They’re all on public roads, and weather permitting, are open (and free) all year round.

Mt. Ventoux is one of the real classics of the Tour climbs – at 1,912 m it’s highest point in Provence. It’s big, it’s mean, and it’s famous. The Tour has finished at the summit just 7 times before.

English cyclist Tom Simpson died just shy of the summit in the 1967 Tour; In 1970, Eddy Merckx (the greatest cyclist ever, bar none) rode himself to the brink of collapse while winning the stage. He received oxygen, recovered, and went on to win the Tour.

This year, the Mt. Ventoux stage of the Tour is the second last, and most commentators are saying it will decide the overall result. I won’t be surprised if the Texan is in the first bunch across the line.

The Etape is happening almost a week earlier, perhaps so they can clean up the mess of collapsed cyclists in time for the race; and I’m going to be lining up with the other 9,499 participants on the start line on early Monday 20 July.

The organisers are expecting that 30 to 40% won't make the finish line.

So maybe Etape really means 9,500 or so lunatics trying to recapture (or create) past glories by pretending they were once Tour de France standard cyclists.

I don’t think it’s a malaise isolated to France - you can scratch the skin of most Aussies and you’ll find someone that reckons they’d be at Olympic standard in their chosen sport with 6 or 8 weeks fairly solid training, and maybe a couple of less stubbies on a Friday night.

Have I been training? Have I what!


  1. "The organisers are expecting that 30 to 40% won't make the finish line."

    Blimey, why so many?

    Saying that I have the Mt Ventoux DVD for the turbo trainer and i've never rode it all in one day.

  2. Apparently that's what happens each year - too many people think they're much better/fitter/stronger on the bike than they really are.