ETAPE 2005 COURSE ANALYSIS

 

THE NORMAL ETAPE!

 

            If there were such a thing as a normal Etape du Tour, this would be it! If this is your first Etape du Tour, you have chosen a classic course!

 

            It is not as desperately long as last year’s route, but it has a set of climbs which improve in splendour as you go on, followed by a descent with a length which rivals most!

 

            From the point of view of logistics, it is one of the most straightforward Etapes ever. The start is around 25km from the finish, so this year there won’t be 150 mile drive between the start and the finish!

 

THE COURSE

 

            This year there is no 20mph dash to beat an elimination point. You should be able to set up a sustainable pace from the word go – if you are able to resist the temptation to start racing the huge peloton of international cyclists from the start line!

 

            After the start at Mourenx, the road climbs steadily, probably almost imperceptibly, to the foot Ichere, which is 400 metres above sea level. The average upward gradient of 0.6% for the first 30 miles will go unnoticed as we are swept along by a peloton of thousands. More noticeable will be any minor hills along the way!

 

            The ascent of Ichere is little known, but it probably does not hold any hidden surprises (except for the whereabouts of the first feeding station!). With an average gradient of 6.5%, it should not be too much of a challenge for those tackling it at a steady pace. After 330 meters of climb, we reach the col, with its altitude of 685 metres (though this may sound more impressive as over 2000 feet!).

 

            The next climb, the ascent of Marie Blanque, is a different story! It gets ever steeper as you climb, the last three kms being the hardest! As it climbs through beautiful woodland, signs spaced at 1km intervals indicate the gradient :- initial gradients of around 5% are followed by slopes of ever increasing steepness, reaching 11% over the last 4 km. Even during this last 4km the slope increases, finally reaching 12.5% to 13%! The total climb, which is around 6 miles long, actually poses more of a psychological challenge than a physical one. Just remember – the steeper it gets, the nearer the top you are! The ascent of Marie Blanque measures 700 meters (around 2300 feet.) When you reach the summit of Marie Blanque your altitude  exceeds 1000 meters for the first time on the ride.

 

            The first section of the descent from Marie Blanque is beautiful – not steep enough to be frightening, and pleasantly winding until we arrive on airy  Plateau of le Benou, which provides a welcome relief. It is here that the second feed station is planned. Don’t settle down too much though – you have not reached the elimination point yet!

 

            After the Plateaux de Benoux, there is a challenging descent, as the road zigzags down a steep hill side on narrow roads with sharp hairpins. A careful descent is recommended!

 

            After a welcome flat section for the next 8km, we will reach Laruns, where the elimination point will probably be (though its exact location has not been decided). Those who have not achieved an average of 19kph (slightly less than 12mph) by this point will be stripped of their transponder and told to board the broom wagon. At least they won’t have to climb Aubisque! This will mean that you need to arrive at this point in less that about four and three quarter hours. This will not be particularly easy as at this point you will have cycled nearly 60 miles, with two 6 mile climbs and a couple of feed stops!

 

These times are and distances are approximate as the exact location of the elimination point has not yet been decided.

 

            Assuming you get there early enough – now for the big one! Aubisque has all that any cyclist who enjoys ascending mountains could wish for. It soars up to over 1700 metres (over 5500 feet!), climbing way above the tree line. With the exception of a short 13% section after the town of Eaux-Bonnes, it is well graded. The views improve as you climb. A prominent building part of the way up makes a good intermediate target as you steadily climb the incredible 18km to the top! The feeding station on top of Aubisque will give you a chance to celebrate your successful ascent (though this may in practice be a few more miles further on top of Souler!)

 

            The stretch between Col de Aubisque and Col de Souler consists of a splendid corniche road, cut into the side of the mountain. After Col de Souler, the descent begins. This descent has a bad reputation for having a poor road surface and of being littered with cow droppings. Fortunately, the Etape du Tour is usually preceded by a road re-surfacing exercise, so hopefully the local highway authority may take the opportunity to improve the road – but the cow droppings may still be there –  (not to mention the cows!)

 

            After the descent, the road from Souler to Pau is quite scenic, with the unusual feature of a dual carriageway with a lake acting as the central reservation on two separate stretches! I won’t attempt to predict hills or lack of them for the last section – I usually get that bit wrong – as even a minor hill becomes a major challenge after 100 miles!

 

            So how easy is it going to be? Judge for yourself! A quick estimate shows that if you average 15 mph for the first “flat” section, climb at 7mph and descend at around 20mph, you will reach the elimination point with less than 5 minutes to spare even if you don’t even stop at the feed stations! Though this estimate is approximate, it gives us a useful basis to work on for setting speed targets during training.

 

            At these speeds, over two hours is spent in on the first “flat “ section, nearly two hours is spent climbing, and less than one hour is spent descending.

The flat section therefore offers the greatest scope for improvement – a 10% speed increase over that section saves you well over 10 minutes. 

The climbs are the next in line – a 10% speed increase here will save you just over 10 minutes.

As relatively little time is spent descending, the descents do not offer so much scope for improvement – a 10% increase in speed will only save you about 5 minutes.

If you tackle all these sections 10% faster than speeds above you will save over 25 minutes – enough time to refuel at the feed stops!

Each of these strategies has dangers if taken to an extreme. Speed improvement on the flat section is the easiest option, though taking the first flat section at a very high speed could result in exhaustion before the climbs. Climbing is the most taxing activity, so climbing too fast is expensive in terms of energy. Descending is the most risky activity, so speeds need to be tempered accurate bike handling and awareness of hazards.

 

Please note that these estimates are necessarily approximate – you may want to do your own calculations to confirm them and adjust them to suit your own fitness level. Though they are not accurate enough to allow you to pace yourself to the nearest minute, they should give you a general idea of the speeds required. I hope to publish more detailed figures as we get closer to the event.          

 

Most of us are going to need a bit of training! With the right training, the Etape du Tour 2005 will be an amazing experience – and an achievement to remember for many years into the future!