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L’Étape du Tour 2024

Report by Claire H

Completing one of the big six sportives before my 50th birthday was on my bucket list. So when registrations opened for L’Etape du Tour 2024 I signed up without much hesitation. Quite a hefty deposit for the full package (registration, hotel, bike transfer and return shuttle) ensured there was no backing out.

Training began in January, 6 months ahead of the big event. Two months of intense turbo sessions to push up my FTP before getting out on the roads once the weather cheered up (a little anyway!). As the weeks passed the effort and expense ramped up. A bike fit, new kit, a cycle coach (who was fab!), bike service and so it went on. Training rides included the Kentish Killer, London to Brighton return, our Waldy club tour in Mallorca and many 10-12hr days in the saddle going up and down as many of the Surrey Hills as I could in daylight hours! I practised nutrition, minimal stops, faster descending and of course countless hill reps. I clocked up 4500km and 45000m over the 6 months of training. And most of it in the last 3 months running up to the event.

The training worked. I felt much stronger. Local climbs that intimated me before felt easy. Long, hilly Sunday club rides felt like a warm up. My confidence going up and down hills grew. I was ready!

Some last minute faff due to the French elections resulted in a race day date change and added yet more cost to move flights and hotels. But after everything I’d put into this I was undeterred.

I arrived in Nice with the luxury of a full day before race day. Registration done, bike checked, warm up ride along the promenade and a good pasta meal. I was all set. Reading through the race briefing properly for the first time that day I noticed the midpoint cut off. I was aware that the race time limit was 10hrs. But assumed you had 10hrs to get as far as you could. I was wrong. They have a cut off midway.

I was in the last start pen - starting over two hours after the race leaders. Which makes sense. Let the fastest go first. I assumed the cut off would be adjusted based on when you actually crossed the line... It wasn’t.

We left Nice slightly late. 13 minutes after our scheduled time, I had the broom wagon for company for the first few kms but tried not to let it worry me and settled into my pace. Which was fairly good.

After a few kms of false flat you hit the Col de Nice. Which is such a ‘small climb’ it doesn’t even feature on the route map. At home it would be a category climb! Anyway it was a good warm up. Short descent and then the first real climb starts. Col de Braus. 10km and over 600m of climbing at over 6%. Nice and steady, I felt pretty good and paced it well. Completed in 1hr. The descents are my least favourite bit. Constant sounds of ambulances signaled the dangers of over cooking it on the hairpins. I was cautious, and overtaken by many, but convinced of my plan to pace the climbs well and make up for my slow descending by avoiding the feed stops.

As soon as you descend Braus you hit Col de Turini. It’s categorised as 20km but it’s actually 24km, They just don’t count the first 4km as it’s only a gentle 3-4%. Turini is the longest climb of the day ascending over 1200m through a beautiful gorge. Hot and humid with little breeze. My challenge on Turini was managing to eat whilst climbing. Not stopping was a good strategy to make the time cut off, but a poor one to eat enough. To be honest I barely remember the climb, I pushed past lots of people on the way up, the heat and constant effort were taking its toll and lots of people were forced to take breaks in the shade. But I was now consumed with making the cut off. If I made the top by 2pm I’d have 30 mins to descend to make the cut off at the bottom. A solid effort I reached the top at 2. Had to quickly stop to refill but then got straight into the descent. Going as fast as I dared. Which still was relatively slow!

Part way down we were brought to almost a standstill. Someone had gone over the side into a ravine. Fire engines and helicopters were part of the rescue. A warning that no time limit was worth descending faster than I felt safe to.

Made it to the bottom at 2:39. Cut off was 2:29. I hoped against hope that the forced stop on the descent and delayed start would be taken into consideration and some allowance would be made. There was none. The organisers were brutal. People who arrived a minute late were refused. No consideration whatsoever for the delays.

Suddenly I felt faint. Really faint. My whole body was shaking and dizzy. I realised I’d worked hard for 5hrs 25 mins. No stops and very little to eat. Partly that effort and partly the realisation my Etape was over just overwhelmed me. Fortunately I had the sense to down a gel. 5 mins later I was fine and arguing with the race organisers to try be allowed to continue. I was told quite bluntly I could carry on the route but the roads would be open and they would give no support whatsoever. If I missed the return bus I’d be stuck in the mountains alone. I did seriously contemplate whether I could carry on. But with the time wasted in ‘negotiations’ I’d have even less chance of making the finish. And I’d have no support if anything happened.

Remembering the race briefing to put ego aside I reluctantly did, and decided to cycle back to Nice. At least I could stop and enjoy the views on the way back, and get something to eat!

A beautiful descent through a spectacular gorge and then about 25km flat into headwinds back to the coast. I had plenty left in the legs and enjoyed the return. Apart from the bit where I was overtaken by the race leaders (who’d completed the Etape and we’re now cycling home!).

My reflections and learnings - I’d prepared meticulously apart from anything on race strategy. I hadn’t realised by starting so late I was basically screwing my chances of making the cut off. I’d trained on fitness, power, heat adaption (I forgot to mention the hot baths as part of my training which were decidedly unpleasant), nutrition, kit. Everything. But I’d not read fully the race briefing and thought about a strategy to make the mid cut off. I assumed my worst case was to be swept up on the last climb, which I was ok with. I wasn’t ok with having my race cut in half.

I’m completely gutted. But still glad I did it. I met some incredible cyclists as part of my training sessions. I’m fitter than I’ve ever been on a bike and a more confident cyclist. And I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about reading everything thoroughly!

Would I do it again? Perhaps. I’m not sure I’d want to start with the very fast riders further up in the start line up. And by starting at the back you are seriously disadvantaged. If there’s another Etape where you can organise some independent support, or accommodation at the end, then I might consider it. I’d love to complete it. But not at the expense of safety. So we’ll see. For now I’m already thinking what’s next. There’s a whole 12 months to fill before another possible Etape. And I like to have a challenge booked in!

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