Updated: Nov 6, 2023
Ha, I hear you scoff, BIGGEST STAGE, It’s not the Olympics pal!
Well, you’re correct, it’s not the Olympics but likewise I’m not an Olympian, I’m your average Joe weekend warrior and in that context this is a big deal. The Etape is huge, 17,000 riders of all abilities all with one mission, to dream of being a Tour de France rider for a day.
I’ve ridden five Marmots, two Maratonas and a whole host of other great events but never an Etape, never the BIG ONE. I always thought it was going to be too much of a faff starting and finishing in a different place, not to mention expensive, so I passed it by. Hitting 50 though I decided it was time to give one a go.
The adventure began one October lunchtime when the route was announced and feeling like the smartest guy in town I went straight to Booking.com and secured a four bed apartment in Annemasse, right near the start line. SORTED. Next up I needed to get four mates to come ride with me but from my posse of cycling buddies all were either away or busy, bar one, the fastest and youngest. We got our entries sorted and from then on all focus was on July 9th 2023, every pedal rev for the next eight months was prep for this one day. Way to put pressure on yourself!
I filled the months with my usual mix of sportives, a few time trials and chasing KOMS. I was WAY over my intended weight but with prep done and plans made, ten days before departure I sent a detailed itinerary to my riding partner. This is when a catalogue of events started to unfold that although trivial in the grand scheme of things had me wondering what I’d done to anger the Gods.
That evening I get a message back.
“I’ve f**ked up, I have a family party, I didn’t check the diary, I have REALLY F**KED UP, I can’t come.”
“WHAT! We’ve had it in planned for eight months, I’ve been sending you messages about it for eight months!”
“I know, I know, I just didn’t put it in the family diary and I’m not allowed to come.”
With my mate’s permission slip torn up I was alone. It’s a long drive to the Alps alone and not just that, going alone sort of takes the joy out of it all. I was excited about the event but more than that about a fun weekend away, experiences are better shared. I rang round but no one was able to fill the place at such short notice, however I then had an idea. What if I could get cover for the kids for the four days and my wife could come with me! After a lot of begging we set in place a network of relatives to take shifts and the trip was back on, now re-branded as a romantic break in the Alps!
Tuesday 4th July.
Three days before we leave and obstacle number two presented its self. I lost my bloody wallet. I looked everywhere, EVERYWHERE. In the end I have no choice, I had to cancel all my cards. I am now three days from going to France and I have no cards and no driving licence. AARRRGGGGHHHHHH!
My wife only has a debit card so this was all we could take, (and a bag of cash) so crossed fingers we would get by.
Drive to Ashford, Kent. No Drama.
We get through the tunnel and then head down to Annemasse and follow the directions to pick the key up for our apartment from an office in town. I walk up and down the street looking for building number 2. I can’t see a number 2. I walk into an estate agent and I ask, “Where is number two?” Then, and you could see the colour drain from my face, she told me, “Sorry, but there was no number 2.” She asked if I was looking for a four person apartment? I said, “yes, how did you know?” She said “You aren’t the first, it does NOT EXIST!”
Excuse me! WHAT!!!!
We have driven nine hours, it’s 30 degrees, we are in a town where in two days 17,000 cyclists will turn up in and we have no where to sleep! If this was the first thing to go wrong I’d have had a melt down, but after the last ten days I almost expected it. OF COURSE THERE IS NO F**KING APARTMENT. HA AH AHHAHHA.
I get back to the car, hit and kick a few things then took a deep breath and looked for somewhere new to stay. I went straight back to Booking.com, (I’ve used it for 10 years and not had a problem until today) to see what if anything there was. The closest place looked like Thonon-les-Bains, right on the lake shore. £300 for three nights, a small apartment, BOOKED. I called to double check they existed, they did, so we had somewhere to sleep. Upon arrival it did have the feel of a bail hostel but the receptionist was lovely and even though the room was no bigger than a shoe box and had no air con, it did have a small kitchenette, a lock on the door and a bed. We had a couple of much needed beers that night in what was a lovely town, full of life. MUCH nicer than Annemasse so at least that had worked in our favour especially as my wife would be stuck here all day Sunday.
I wake up, and, what is that? NO, IT CAN’T BE. FFS! A BLOODY SORE THROAT. I DON NOT BELIEVE IT! I’ve been a hypochondriac long enough to realise what’s going on, this is a virus, it’s bedding in, it’s not going away, it’s just a case of how bad is it going to be. Just a slight niggle or full blown flu? BOLLOCKS. UTTER BOLLOCKS. The preceding hiccups had been an inconvenience, this was proper sh*t. I have definitely angered the Gods.
Do I have a day in bed? Try and sleep it off? How can I, I’m in the mountains for god’s sake. I plotted a short ride on Strava to a nearby peak, just 40 km with a 10 km climb and convinced myself I’d ride it away. I didn’t feel terrible, just under par with an annoying sharp pain when I swallowed. AARRGGHHH. After the ride we went for a nice lunch at the lake side and remarked how much the kids would like it here but also relished the fact that it was just us two. For 17 years we have not been away together like this. Regardless of the other crap going on, we would and did make the most of this unexpected opportunity.
In the afternoon we went to the event village and it’s here that it hits you how big the Etape is. With the sun beating down I signed on and we walked round grabbing free hats and t-shirts like it was a day at the Tour. I was excited now, I LOVE a big event like this, we hung around to watch the end of the stage on the big screen then went back to our tiny 4th floor oven to rest up.
At this point I just had to be realistic about what I could do the next day. If the sore throat and general feeling of malaise was the same or worse I just knew I couldn’t really push it. If it was in fact worse I’m not sure 6 - 7 hours riding over mountains in 30 degree heat was going to be a very clever idea full stop no matter what the speed. I looked at the route and saw that there was a bail out point at 80 kilometres and said If I got there and felt rough I’d turn round, I just had to start though, I HAD TO.
Sunday 9th July.
Up at 4.30. The new hotel had added an hour to the day but when I arrived in Annemasse there was no trouble parking close to the start so I had time to relax before heading to the pens. You’d expect madness with 17,000 riders signed on but no, it was clockwork, what an event this is. I had another hour to kill here such is the schedule so ate some more, had a tiny can of coke and took some pictures. When is was the turn of my pen to be released at 7.22 and thirty seconds we were funnelled through the start, given the most cringe worthy pep talk by the announcer about it being ‘our time’ and we were off.
Normally I’d start like a rocket, chasing wheels, passing riders, push push push, but not today. Again the hypochondriac in me said, take it easy, take care. Instead of forcing the pace I followed, I sat in wheels and got sucked along. The first climb of the Col de Saxel is a gentle one, all big ring and once into a rhythm to be honest I didn’t feel too bad. My watts were pretty much where I would have wanted them, a bit lower, but again I did nothing to push on, I just kept a lid on it. Likewise on the descent and the short transition between climbs I just rolled along and never exerted more energy that absolutely necessary.
Up next where the climbs of the Col de Cou and Col du Feu, both short steep affairs but neither doing any real damage. I was rolling past plenty of riders and a few riders were rolling past me. There was constant flux in the groups I was in and I rarely spent that long riding with the same people all day long. Following the Col du Feu there is the six kilometre climb of the Col de Jambaz which is annoyingly not given a rating in the ride literature then it’s downhill to the place I’d marked as the point of no return. I looked at my computer here and with 80 km ridden at an average speed of 28.5 kph and as I was feeling OK, I made the call. I’m going to push on to the finish. A few kilometres later I made my first and only ‘planned’ feed stop at the base of the Col de la Ramaz and from then on, it got hard.
By now it was hot. REALLY HOT. The climb of the Ramaz is 14.6 kilometres and it’s a climb I’d done once before back in 2017 when it took me 54 minutes. Today it took me an hour and nine minutes. I had no bad memories of my previous ascent, nothing that I remember shocking me but OMG, that middle section, that had me and seemingly everyone around me on their knees. Entering the last four kilometres I restarted to have a bit of a wobble. If I fell apart here then the day could start to turn pretty horrible pretty damn quick, I’ll have to stop again. Thankfully the final push to the summit is much easier and I was able to gain some composure then at the feed stop get more fluid and more bananas and cheese.
Long gone was any ambition to post a respectable time, it was all now about survival. From the top of the Ramaz you get one of the most spectacular views of Mont Blanc and on a perfectly clear day it was so spectacular that I just had to stop and realise how bloody lucky I was to be riding my bike, here, looking at this. Sod performance, sod all of that, just look at where I am, what I am doing, it’s AMAZING.
The descent of the Ramaz was fast, and getting hotter still I made a ‘shock horror’ third stop in Samoëns, took on yet more fluids (half to poor over me, half to drink) and readied myself for the evil that awaited. The dreaded Joux Plane.
I awarded this climb a 9/10 in my book on the 100 Greatest Climbs of the Tour de France after riding up it with fresh legs. In this heat, with fatigued legs it was going to be an 11. The road was carnage, it was littered with riders slumped over their bike or just laying in what ever shade they could find trying to cool down. On and on it goes, consistent ramps of up to 15% until you eventually see the summit come into view, but for an age it just doesn’t get any closer. By now riders are weaving left to right to just keep going forward, then there was this one poor bloke was throwing up as he rode, four times he wretched but he didn’t stop peddling not for one second. HARD CORE.
The last kilometre lasts an eternity and whoever made the sign that says it has an average gradient of 2% is NOT funny, it ISN’T, its still 10%. And when you do reach the top, there is still more climbing to cross the tiny Col du Ranfolly, you could cry. From here though at last it was all down hill, and it’s fast, REALLY FAST. Taking no chances I flowed down but I can imagine when the Tour de France crosses the same course in a week’s time, the speeds reached down here by those searching glory will be quite terrifying.
Huge crowds and associated razzmatazz awaited in Morzine and crossing the line I was just relieved to have got there. My target of sub six hours was long gone so there was no need for a sprint to the line, I was just happy to finish. I dragged myself up the very unnecessary two flights of steps in the sports hall where pasta was served and slowly consumed my bowl of overcooked Penne with a prison size serving of Bolognese blobbed on top, it was AWESOME. I was tired but not broken. My hesitation to hurt myself in case I got ill had saved me but still on this day I couldn’t have pushed harder. Anyway, it’s a good job I wasn’t broken as I now had to get back to my car, 50km away. There was an option to book a place on a bus but looking at the map it was mostly down hill and I’d envisioned a nice ride back with my buddy dissecting the day’s events. Without my wing man though I set off solo into the furnace of the oppressive mountain air, first up to Les Gets then from there all the way down to Annemasse. Half way down the descent the route home is actually the Etape route and some three hours after I’d passed through it was still thick with riders all on their own missions to finish. These riders still had the Joux Plane to ride, it was going to be a VERY long day. Turning off the route and the helping hand that gravity had been giving me up to this point was fading and the next 20 miles were to say the least character building in the intense heat, I was just begging to get back. Setting eyes on my car was one of the great sights of my life, I dropped my bike against a fence, popped the boot, tore open my cool bag and emptied a litre of water over my head. Absolute heaven. What a day, event, two weeks, after everything I’d bloody done it. I was gutted not to be at my best, not to give a true account of myself on the BIGGEST STAGE, but really when are you at your best? I was just happy to make it, to have added an Etape to my list of riding experiences. Now to get back to find my wife in the hope she hadn’t gone full Shirley Valentine on me. Simon P.S. See you on the start line next year.