By John Thomas 22nd July 2019
Albertville to Val Thorens – 135kms – 4500m climbing
This was to be my 14th consecutive Etape du Tour having first discovered this event in 2006. Like every year that I’ve participated in this amazing event I was nervous, excited and so looking forward to getting my teeth into this unique event. Every year the venue is different, borrowing a classic mountain stage from the Tour de France and giving all keen amateurs a chance to ride the course, on closed roads, just like the pros. Every year’s course is different with it’s own character and memories but the one thing that’s always ever present is that it’s tough. A proper challenge for every level of cyclist.
This year’s course was a moderate length at 135kms but with nearly 4500m of climbing included it was destined to be one of the toughest Etapes in recent years. Starting in Albertville we would first scale the beautiful Cormet de Roselend, then the Cote de Longefoy followed by the huge final climb from Moutiers to the finish in Val Thorens at an altitude of 2360m.
I arrived in Albertville at 5.45am with other riders enjoying our Alpine Cadence support. The race would start at 7.00am. An early arrival was important to get a decent, forward placing in your start pen. The usual nervous toilet visit done it was time to enter the pen or sas as the French call it. Sas 0 was reserved for the faster riders, those that had proved themselves in previous editions of the event. Entry to each sas was strictly controlled this year to ensure that no one sneaked into a different one to that which they were assigned. Sas 0 was like Fort Knox! High fences making it impossible to escape or enter from anywhere but the controlled front and back.
I was frustrated at having not arrived quite early enough to be at the very front. I was about 300 riders back from the front meaning I’d probably need to put some big early efforts in to get where I wanted to be. Much of the first 20kms of the race was going to be pretty flat and I wanted every opportunity to be towed along that section by the strongest riders.
The atmosphere was fantastic as is always the case in this event. Bernard Hinault, the ‘Badger’ was chatting away with riders at the front and Didi the Devil was certainly getting everyone revved up
6.45am, I just want to get on with it. Nervously looking for things to do to fill the time, I must have untied and retied my shoe laces half a dozen times. 4 energy bars and 3 gels in my back pockets, I’ll munch on one bar now and the rest would get me through the ride. Two 500ml bottles of energy drink on the bike with my friend Nick ready to dispense 2 fresh ones to me mid course.
7.00am and we are all go, ACDC’s Thunderstruck is blasting out out as we cross the start line, what an atmosphere, I’m so happy to be getting on with it after all the anticipation. The first 2kms is flat and very fast. I need to be nearer the front. Plenty of other riders have the same idea though so those first 2kms are more frantic than I would like. In a ideal world I’d be ‘sitting in’ from the start and conserving energy, or at least trying not to go over my power ‘threshold’ too much. The necessity to get to the front meant a few big efforts as I glanced at the alarmingly high numbers on my power meter. After 2kms we hit a 3kms uphill section to the village of Venthon. It was crucial to be in a good position at the top of that where the leading riders might form a group and start to ride away from the rest of the field. I hit that section with at least 200 riders still up ahead creating the spectacular sight of a peloton, a swarm of riders rising up the road in front of me. The road was wide enough for me to keep passing riders and move up the road. That 3km section was fast. 7 minutes of effort at around 330 watts output. Early on in a race those numbers feel easy for me but it’s over my sustainable threshold of nearer 300 watts so those 7 minutes had already put a dent in my resources for the day that could come back to bite me later.
We crested after Venthon and then the road was fast and flatter all the way to Beaufort. I found myself in a big group. I looked ahead anxiously to try to spot the red commissaire’s car ahead to indicate that I was in the lead group. I glimpsed it ahead through the forest of riders. That was good news. My efforts had got me where I needed to be. I’d earned my easy ride for while. So much of cycling is like that, big efforts at the right time so that you are rewarded with rest and speedy transportation.
Then there are shouts, there’s a rider down. We safely negotiate him and his bike. Turns out it’s Richard Scales, who I was battling with in Alpe d’Huez last week. He’s ok and he would re join the group again, a little battered but intact. We arrive in Beaufort as a big group of about 300. We’re ahead of my estimated schedule, we’ve averaged about 33km/h from the start and climbed about 500m. It’s going fast. I’m slightly annoyed at the size of the group I’m in. Slower riders on that 3km climb out of Albertville have managed to catch me and the others. Maybe I needn’t have put those early efforts in after all? Anyway, what’s done is done, I’m in a good place right now.
Beaufort was the start of the first ‘proper’ climb of the day. Cormet de Roselend is more or less 20kms long, all up apart from a flat 3 km section that starts about 9kms from the summit. Our 300 strong group disintegrates on the lower slopes as the top contenders push the pace on and slower climbers fall back. This suits me fine, I find myself somewhere in the middle of things. I’m on a climb I know intimately and I can dictate my pace on my terms. I ride up keeping an eye on my power meter to ‘cap’ my efforts and ensure I don’t go too far into the red.
At this point I was finding myself surrounded by familiar faces. Hervé Gebel tapped me on the shoulder to let me know he was there. Hervé and I have had lots of friendly battles on the roads of France in the last couple of years. I eased past the slight figure of Gilles Lacrampe, another local friend and rider. Cormet de Roselend went totally to plan for me. A good firm effort all the way, just under threshold power all the time. I found a strong, broad shouldered rider to hide behind on the flat bit too which was a bonus.
In readiness for the Tour coming through I’d daubed the road with giant ‘Alpine Cadence’ slogans on the Cormet a few days before so that felt pretty cool riding over those. I topped out at the top of the Cormet in good shape and really looking forward to the descent.
The descent of Cormet de Roselend down to Bourg St Maurice is one of my absolute favourites. 19kms that incorporates everything you want from a great descent. Open and fast at the top, tight and technical in the middle. In the final metres of climbing the Cormet I’d surged a few metres ahead of my sub group. I wanted this descent to myself, I knew it so well and didn’t want the complication of unpredictable riders taking dodgy lines in front of me.
It was fantastic, so good to be able to ride a road like that knowing it’s closed just for you. Every inch of the road available for the best lines ever. That’s a fantastic feature of the Etape, properly closed roads, it feels wonderful. The technical hairpin section half way down slowed down riders ahead of me who were probably doing it for the first time. Passing them needed care and a bit of shouting to let them know you were there but all went well. Coming into Bourg St Maurice was fabulous, great crowd support and so weird to be able to fly through my home town without waiting for traffic lights to change, brilliant.
The next 10 kms or so was undulating but enough flat to lend itself to getting into a group and working together. Before long there were about 15 of us making really good progress through a chain of villages. Past my little village of Bellentre seeing familiar faces cheering us on was great. Doing a race on home turf is pretty special. So many people recognised me during the day and cheered me on. No idea who you were sometimes while I was concentrating in the ‘zone’ but thank you anyway!
Next climb on the agenda was Cote de Longefoy. 10kms long with the first 6kms the most challenging followed by a fast an undulating 4kms to the top. My friend Nick along with my daughter Matilda were stationed near the bottom of the climb to provide new bottles for me and other friends and family in the race. Nick efficiently got me sorted with full bottles and I was on my way without having to stop. I got into a good rhythm on the first half of that climb. I was relatively comfortable and my power numbers were all ok. A few minutes before this climb I’d felt the first twinges of cramp. I was worried that I’d maybe gone too hard early in the ride and was starting to pay. But no, legs were back on track and Cote de Longefoy passed quickly and uneventfully.
The descent down the other side was a tricky one, very technical, very rough in some places and one to reward the rider with local knowledge. As per the Cormet de Roselend I accelerated near the top so that I had no traffic immediately in front of me. The first couple of kilometres down the other side is tight and rough. Even knowing the road was closed I couldn’t help the odd safety dab on the brakes through the village at the top. Cats and dogs don’t always know the road is closed. You still need to be ready and alert.
Further down the descent the road is good, many of the corners recently resurfaced. I was happy on there. I heard some noisy brakes from a rider behind me who was clearly a very confident descender. I made it easy for him to pass me, I was happy with my speed and I didn’t want pressure from behind. Les Plaines, the village at the bottom was full of atmosphere and support. Perfect new tarmac and a feeling of threading a needle through the narrow gaps between the houses. Closed roads really are the best!
That 10km descent was rudely followed by an uphill dig of about 600m. A nasty reminder that the legs would have to work again. Richard Scales was at the side of the road. He’d overtaken me at some point after his crash but now he was cramping as well as nursing a broken handlebar from the crash meaning he could only ride on the ‘hoods’ and not on his ‘drops’. He was having a hard day. I chased down 2 other riders to ride the next 3 or 4kms with which were downhill and flat. We were about to begin the main event.
To this point we’d ridden 100kms with 2400m of climbing under a belts. Only 33km remained, but 2000m of climbing all the way up to Val Thorens. For my level I had 2 hours of managed pain remaining. Many of the later riders would spend upwards of 4 hours enduring this single climb.
The first 11kms of the climb are fairly sustained, averaging about 7% with a few steep ramps thrown in to keep you awake. This forested road would provide some welcome shade as the day warmed up to it’s forecast maximum of 33°. That 11kms went well for me. Another rider held my wheel for a while without ever taking his turn in front and started to irritate me. I wasn’t in the mood for giving someone a free ride and on one of the steeper ramps I squeezed up the power a little so as to detach him. He was like a fly that I needed to swat and I was happier without him.
All the time up those early kilometres of the final climb I was reminding myself of how far there was to go. This day was all about not ‘blowing up’. Staying disciplined and saving yourself for what’s to come. I was ‘chugging’ my way up at around 250 watts and everything seemed under control.
A short descent followed before the climb resumed on the approach up to the village of St Martin. We were now 20kms from the finish with about 1300m of altitude gain still to look forward to. The next stretch was exposed and straight. No hairpin bends to look forward to just a straightish drag that appeared to have no ending. Hard on the mind and the body.
I’m good a dealing with heat, I never at any point on the ride felt too hot or uncomfortable in any way. Saying that I was getting low on water. A ride of this length would usually only need one bottle change for me so about 2 litres for the whole thing. As I approached St Martin I had to make a big decision. There was a feed station there where I could get water or whatever I needed but it would cost me time. Could I maybe get to the finish with the dribble of water I had left and just deal with it? I did the maths. Still 17.5kms to go, about an hour on the road. I need to stop a get water.
I loosened the tops of my bottles before I got to the feed station to make it easier for filling. I pulled up at the table and the people there were incredibly helpful and efficient with getting me replenished. Fresh water in one bottle, coke in the other. Perfect, on my way again. Probably only about 30-45 seconds spent getting sorted but then a frustrating forced detour to rejoin the course meant the whole process of stopping probably cost me the better part of 2 minutes. In retrospect though, a good decision, that coke was good! Nothing better in my world for getting me to the finish line of an event than coke.
I trudged on. I was annoyed at the lost time and losing touch with the riders I’d been with but knew I’d made the right decision. The next few kilometres up to Les Menuires ae not particularly steep but they are, quite frankly, boring. It’s a drag. More straightish roads that just go up. Give me hairpins any time to break up the journey. I soldiered on. Sure, I was getting tired but I was overtaking a lot more people than were getting me. I was getting the feeling that I’d paced things well and that I would gain places in the final few kilometres.
Les Menuires was great. So many people out to cheer. I loved cresting there and flying down the short descent afterwards in front of all the crowds. After Les Menuires it was all up. 10 kms left and 700m of altitude to find. I saw flags blowing and in the right direction. We were getting blown all the way up the final valley. When you get a tailwind you don’t notice it until you look at the trees and flags to see which way they bend and fly. If that wind had been the other way around we would all have been out on that final hill for a lot longer. Most riders’ anecdotes of this day will talk of terrible heat with little appreciation of how helpful that wind was. I noticed it anyway!
6 kms to go and I’m ok. My power is going right down, struggling to maintain more than about 230 watts but, I’m still passing people and clearly there are plenty of folks in more trouble than me. Reaching 2000m now so power outputs start to get affected by that too so all in all nothing to worry about with the numbers. 4kms to go and I know I’m not going to blow up. This thing is in the bag. I can start thinking about emptying the tank a bit. I can see Hervé Gebel just ahead and I’m gaining on him fast. I head past him and invite him to follow but I think he’s spent. Someone at the side of the road shouts ‘quatre vingts neuf!’ confirming to me that I’m safely in the top 100 riders. A good feeling as a top 100 ride in this event is always a good target for me. 3kms to go, at last hairpins! A few stretches back into the wind to let us know that it’s there. Through the tunnel and into Val Thorens itself.
Almost at the ‘Flamme Rouge’. The final kilometre banner. The finish was 1km out of town and up an unsealed road with a steep final 500m to do it’s best to finish us off. Through the Flamme Rouge and then a short descent before the gravel finish. The finish line is in sight and so are more riders who I can potentially pick off and beat to the end.
That last 500m was hard but I reeled in a couple of more riders to finish happy and strong. I didn’t get a chance to fully appreciate it but I think putting the finish where they did was a great decision. A proper, tough characterful finale to an otherwise bland and monotonous climb. I can’t wait to see all the official photos so I can enjoy the memories.
I crossed the line and was pushed away from the finish just like the pros on a steep finish and got a medal looped around my neck. I was very content and relieved. A well paced effort, well finished and most importantly I was safe and well. I had a few moments to myself to ponder over what I’d done and then I spotted another friend and rival, Robert Alpen. We often finished these sorts of things in very similar times and had joked at the start about seeing each other somewhere on the final climb. He’d had a fantastic ride and finished 6 minutes ahead of me. We had a cold beer together at the finish (superb that there was a bar with free beer at the finish) and I was really pleased for him that he’d done so well. Neither of us at that point knew our result for sure but Robert reckoned he was close to top 50 which would be incredible.
After grabbing our post race meal I had a chance to check the results on my phone. All I could see was the first 10 riders scratch plus a list of the age category winners and I was one of them! That was a big surprise, I’ve been in to the top 5 a few times in the Etape for my age group but this was my first time winning it. Very proud to be on a list of category winners with the likes of Nicolas Ougier and Cedrick Dubois. I finished 87th overall in a time of 5 hours 26 minutes.
So a very content John Thomas started heading back down to Moutiers to start the process of organising vehicles for the other riders in our party to get back home. I was able to ride down the same road we’d raced up and able to witness the procession of riders still on the course. Not too far down the road I spotted my other half Carolyn making good progress. She was looking comfortable and relatively happy and I could see that she was on a good ride and would have no problem completing her 10th Etape du Tour. She was was one of the few cheerful faces that I saw on that descent. The level of suffering and distress from all the riders I saw grew greater as I descended further. The look on people’s faces as I rode past was a common anguish. I felt guilty riding past them only having had to do 5 hours and 26 minutes of work when all these people I was seeing were destined for lots more time in the heat of the day. It’s a brutal sport and event in many ways. Those of us who finish nearer the front finish before the worst heat, we are better trained and accustomed to the whole thing and although it’s a tough day for me I can only begin to empathise with how hard it must be to be out there for up to 12 hours in an environment that is so alien and beyond what those poor bodies and minds have probably ever experienced. Hats off to every single person who even attempted this or any other Etape du Tour. Cedrick Dubois was the official winner of this race but the real winners are the vast majority of the field who have achieved their personal goals by simply finishing.
That ride down really was an eye opener to see what thousands of human beings are prepared to put themselves through for the sake of a bike race.
I’m lucky to have completed my 14 Etapes and many other cycling events in recent years. The Etape du Tour retains something really special. It’s totally unique. A very exciting experience in so many ways. Like each one I’ve done, the crowd support is incredible and so uplifting. The organisation of the event is fantastic and seems to get better still every year. Well done Etape du Tour and I can’t wait to do you again!
If you fancy a crack at this incredible event in the future and any advice on doing so than please contact me on email@example.com.