L'Étape du Tour 2016

A group of Kingston Wheelers travelled to the Alps for the L'Étape du Tour, one of the hardest European sportives, which took place on Sunday 10th July in 2016. Etape veteran Luca Pallazo and first-timer Anna Kulka report back on a hot day in the mountains.

Luca Pallazo:

So I embarked on my third Etape in a row. When looking at the profile in November I thought it was a bit uninspiring and the climbs weren't exactly ones you'd be instantly aware of, but since this would be my last one for a while I signed up anyway.

I had been reading rumours from French folk on Facebook that the Col de la Ramaz would be taken out due to landslides and road damage and as expected it indeed was a few days before the event so instead of 4000m+ it was only 2800m which is pretty manageable for most on an extended club run. In view of that my plan was to attack this as much as I can as it was only 122km now.

Arriving into Geneva on the Friday was a bit of a headache as it appears most airlines were seemingly unprepared for the onslaught of bike boxes. A few of the group had their bikes delayed and had to wait around for the next flight.

So I arrived at the Chalet in Montriond (just outside of Morzine) and immediately unpacked the bike to take it for a quick spin. When putting on the rear wheel I noticed some paint damage and under closer inspection that the rear seat stay was cracked! To be honest I nearly started crying. I initially thought the damage wasn't that bad but when tapping carbon with a coin and you hear no noise/a ping on the affected area its not good news, my fears were confirmed a day later when picking up my race number when having it inspected by Trek.

So I had to rush around to get a bike rented, I found a great little shop in Sallanches and managed pick up a fairly decent "Time" bike. It had a compact with a 25 on the back which before the event I thought It would be fine but little did I know how tough it would end up being.

So on the day of the event we set off at around 5am to the start in Megeve which was about an hour away as the five of us had different start times. The weather had been changing constantly and judging by Friday & Saturday, it was going to be hot one again.

There were quite a few Wheelers spread out in different pens but luckily George and his pal were in mine so we stuck together for virtually the whole thing. The first climb was the Col des Aravis which came in at around 20km. It averaged 7% for 6.7km, a fairly tame one to start off with, but with so many on the road it became a bit difficult to navigate through quickly. The descent was navigated fairly easily and the Col de la Colombiere arrived literally 8-10k after the descent off the Aravis, this climb was 11.7km at 5.8%, again a fairly easy climb but by this point the heat was seriously ramping up. On the descent from the Colombiere there were a few nasty spills on the road down so luckily managed to avoid them.

So all that was left was the drag to Joux Plane, the temp was mid 30's by 1pm so the water stops were very much needed as well as the welcome dousing of water by the locals with their hose pipes out. As I reached the town of Samoens, you hit a left and then a bit of a shock to the system of the steep start ramp of Joux Plane, before the event my focus was more on the descent off it to morzine than the climb so I think I underestimated it slightly. It was 11.6km at 8.5% and this is one of the most feared climbs in the Alps so it was going to be very tough, the temp hit a max of 38 going up and it showed... a lot people were walking half way through and had stop where there was tree cover, I don't think I have ever trundled up a climb so slowly as the heat was just too much, on the last 4km it ramped up to between 9-10%, being an impatient climber I always want to get up but I just kept it sensible and stayed seated.

I crested Joux Plane which took me an 1hr 20 mins apparently (the KOM is 40mins). I prepared myself for what would turn out to be a very scary descent, during a section through the trees I hit 54mph and I tried to keep the braking where I needed it. On the last 2km the section was literally ruler straight down into morzine in between houses. I heard a loud pop and I initially thought it was another carbon wheel exploding but in fact it was my rear and I skidded off into a front garden and comically fell into a pile of grass just in front of 3 locals who pretty much laughed at me, so I was very thankful it happened where it did. After letting the wheel cool down after 10 minutes I put another tube in but my tyre had a chunk missing out of it so rolled in to the finish on about 15 psi.

So another Etape over and done with. It wasn't the time I wanted, but I finished which was the main thing.

What I've learnt and can advise:

1. Get in the first 2 pens - a lot of folk in the 12th 13th pen jumped in mine and I was in the 5th.

2. Go tubeless if possible - I had alu rims and even they couldn't handle the heat , again this was just pure luck but tubeless even further eliminates the risk of blowing your tube on descents (especially in extreme heat) Saying that a NL jumbo riders tub blew off his rim in the tour as the glue melted!!

3. Travel early and do some of the climbs and if possible go home later.

4. If you're thinking of staying in the alps I highly recommend Montriond and heading to the lake there, the views and setting are just breathtaking.

5. If anyone hasn't done the Etape before I recommend it purely to ride on mountainous roads traffic free, which is a big draw for most, however the sheer amount of riders can make it rather unnerving. The support is incredible though so full marks to the French as they really do embrace it even for an amateur event.

A big shout out to TY who organised the accommodation and driving , was a bit of mare with what happened with my bike and getting another sorted, thank you again. Also to Ed "pope" Francis (Paceline) for making the coffee and that pretty amazing time of just over four hours, and big congrats also  to Anna for completing her first Etape too.

A notable mention to Andy Leatherbarrow  too for riding up Joux Plane with no helmet and jersy, the burns were pretty evident the next day... Also for his comments about the brits cheering up the climb "well done you're doing well,keep going!" and his response "no i'm not doing well, i'm f*****g suffering" ...quality!

Anna Kulka:

My big event this year and first ever granfondo in Europe was L’Etape du Tour 2016, one of the world’s most famous amateur cycling races. This year, the Etape followed stage 20 which is the queen stage of the Tour, and the last of three that are centered around the iconic Mont Blanc. It takes on several of the Alpine climbs finishing with the fearsome Col de Joux Plane, an hors catégorie summit that stands as the final obstacle before plunging to the Alpine town of Morzine which adds up to a total of 3350m climbing over 146km of distance. Due to safety concerns on the Col de la Ramaz, the route was changed, however this did not dampen spirits as we neared the start. 

Our Wheeler group arrived on the Friday evening after flying into Geneva and driving to Montriond where we were based for the next three days. Our chalet was only 3 km away from Morzine, which meant that once finished it was a short ride back (down the hill!) – A tactic that I would recommend, as going longer distance with depleted adrenaline reserves and mental fatigue has the potential to be dangerous as well as a hassle.

It is safe to say that the L’Etape du Tour is a massive event. Even collecting your number is a day out in itself. An entire village was created in the mountains above Megeve to welcome the thousands of people who had signed up. At the registration we bumped into fellow Wheelers, Steven and Robin. I was so unspeakably happy to see familiar faces in French Alps. After we all registered, had a wander round the registration expo and did some last minute shopping, we drove back to Montriond to go for a warm up ride up one of the Cols in the neighbourhood. The boys went up the Joux Verte (slightly softer version of fearsome Joux Plane), and, as I thought this might be a little too ambitious for me, I stayed at the fabulous Lake Montriond and went for a swim instead. A delicious French dinner was just the thing to carb-load, then an early night for a 4.30 breakfast time pre-start. 

On race day itself we were segregated into pens according to our numbers at the start line in Megeve. Unfortunately I had been allocated the latest start time, 08:30. As Ed was setting off at 07:00 and rest of my group after 07:00, we left all together. 

I loved the feeling in the pens before the Etape. Thousands and thousands of riders itching to get going, but a bit scared of the ride. Checking out the different kit, the ideas on show from others. One man with gels taped to his top tube, people with print outs of the key climbs laminated and taped to their stems. The bikes - from vintage steel to cutting edge carbon aero (for a mountain stage?). The chat as you tried to evaluate who to ride with, who to stick to and who to let go. 

Some of the Wheelers were in the same start pen as me so we formed a group to start with. The race began with a gentle descent from Megeve to Flumet, which allowed the bunch to spread out a bit, but it was still pretty challenging to navigate your way around so many other people. As we climbed up the Col des Aravis, which is a level 2 pass lasting about 12km with an average gradient of 5 percent, groups dispersed, the first sun’s rays hit and I got an idea that the day might not run as smoothly as I would have liked… 

From here we descended down into La Clusaz and the first of 3 food stations. I did not stop here as I had enough water/food and carried on to Le Grand-Bornand which is the base of the Col de la Columbiere, the second climb of the day where the temperature began to rise. I stopped at the top of Columbiere, I filled my water, had a wee, wet my head and my back yet again, and set off. Happily, the descent from Columbiere was amazing. With the breeze in my face I felt almost completely revitalised. However, this was perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the day and unfortunately the hot-spot for accidents. Police lined the road to slow riders down after a number of cyclists lost control on the bends. It was a challenge to ride down safely with so so many people tackling the descent at different speeds. However, it was very well supported with lots of marshalls whistling and flag-waving. At the feed stop in Cluses I bumped into two Wheelers, we refilled bottles, shared a bar and formed a good chain for the long flat ride to Taninges and on to Samoens which is the base of the Col de Joux Plane. I reached the bottom of Joux Place after lunch time. At this stage the temperature was probably in the late 30s to early 40s. I felt ill and tired and was not thinking straight. A rider from Geneva I cycled for a bit with said “Get some food and refill your bottles, you will need water for Joux Plane”. So I did. The feeling when you want food though you are too tired to reach it. I was starring at this beautiful banana bread at the last feed stop for couple of minutes having 100 of thoughts about it and ended up having a gel instead. I set off with the knowledge that the next couple of hours will be both physically and psychologically very very hard. The Joux Plane is relentless. It’s a climb of around 12km but with an average gradient of 9 percent. It’s a very exposed climb with barely any shade, which made it even more difficult in the extreme heat. I crawled up the first little bit of Joux Plane in a baking sun and did not feel great at all. Cyclists were falling off their bikes, stopping on the grass verges, and even throwing up. I rode slowly pouring water into my helmet. 

When I got to 7th km, I pulled up and joined the others, and sat in the shade looking at the sign. I stopped one more time… I said to myself this is the last stop. I pulled myself together and was then able to ride up the rest of the way. At some stage I was talking to myself. 

One of the best parts of the day was the hundreds of people who lined the streets from Megeve all the way to Morzine to cheer us on. Only 5 percent of the riders were women and this was recognised with the consistent cheers of “Allez fille! Allez!” (go girl go!) all along the way! Very encouraging. Many people came out from local houses and farms spraying us with hoses and letting us refill bottles from their taps and hoses. There would have been a lot more casualties if it weren’t for them.

The last 200 metres was something quite special. People lined the edge of the last stretch cheering on friends and family and there was an amazing party atmosphere at the finish line. I have to say - I had expected the Etape to be tough but it was far tougher than I had ever imagined. However it was amazing to ride with so many like-minded people in one of the most beautiful places in the world. A big thank you to the super men, Ed, Luca and T-Y for looking after me, for all the valuable advice and the fun times. I will be back next year!