ETAPE DU TOUR TACTICS

 

            Soon you will be sitting on the starting line with 8500 others of all nations, ready to cycle over 110 miles over some magnificent mountains!

 

            What next? How do you avoid the broom wagon? If you are ambitious, how do you go about winning a silver or gold medal?

 

            The broom wagon will be following you at 25 kph for the first 50 km – so you won’t want to hang around too much! That translates as 15.535 mph for the first 31 miles. This part of the route is almost flat, though there are a couple of minor hills, so it should not as difficult as it may sound.

 

            Timing starts when you cross the start line – then the fun begins. Up to that point it is usually a case of shuffling forwards! After the start line, initially riders tend to move quite slowly and carefully, but soon the huge peloton should spread out, occasionally slowing when riders nearer the front shout out when there is a hazard such as a traffic island ahead.

            Medium speed riders (16 – 18 mph) tend to ride on the right, while faster riders tend to motor by in chain gangs on the left, thereby following the normal rule of the road in France. It is not a rule in the Etape however – just what tends to happen. People generally ride with care and consideration. Maintaining a constant speed without sudden manoeuvres is a good rule for safe riding in a large bunch. Special care is needed when warnings are shouted from riders in front! The number of riders is such that there is little need to be too close to the wheel of the rider in front – indeed it is a good idea to ride a little to one side I case he suddenly slows down.

 

            Before very long, the huge group tends to thin out, and form smaller bunches. Choose a bunch going at a suitable pace for you, then slot in behind it. If the group is small, you may have to take your turn at the front. It is usually possible to find a bunch going at the right speed for you. There is no problem with leaving your group and hopping on the back of a faster or slower one as you go along. The key thing is to cover the ground at the right speed for you without using too much energy. Following large group saves you up to 40% of your energy – well worth while when there is over 100 miles to go!

 

            If possible it is worth gaining time on the first section, though there is a need to save energy for later. Losses due to wind resistance rise with speed, but riding at around 18 or 19 mph is quite economical when if riding on your own. If you are following a large bunch you may wish to choose a higher speed. Fitter riders will be motoring along at over 20 mph, though some of them may regret it later! If you average around 18mph for the first 30 miles you will gain around 16 minutes on the slowest permitted time before you hit the mountains. In theory you will need to be at the 50km point beginning of the Ichere climb by 9:30 am.

 

Hopefully you will be using a light weight bike with a good range of gears (though a friend did it on an ancient heavy tourer with a lousy range of gears and succeeded!) Ideally your choice of gears will allow you to pedal at a reasonably comfortable cadence when climbing.

 

The descents are to be both feared and enjoyed. Keep an eye on the road surface – the authorities generally resurface the roads before the etape this is not guaranteed. There may also be dropped bottles, pumps etc on the road to avoid. Enjoy your descents but do ride safely!

 

            Hopefully you will have plenty of water or other fluid with you – particularly if the day is hot.  Also, hopefully you will have eaten plenty of carbohydrate (pasta, cakes, chocolate croissants, delightful French pastries, chocolate …. What a chore) in the couple of days leading up to the Etape! That way you will start with a full fuel tank.

 

            When you get to the Ravitaillement, if you decide to stop, the best policy is to leave your bike at the edge of the crowd, which makes it easier to manoeuvre your way to the trestle tables full of free food and drink. There are two refreshment stops before the elimination point, so don’t spend too long at them!

After Ichere comes Marie Blanque. Nearly an hour is officially allowed for this climb, which would mean climbing it at an average of 6.2mph. Beware – it gets progressively steeper near the top! It would not be surprising to loose some time here! After a reasonable descent, followed by the Benou Plateau there is a rather more tricky descent, with long straights and tight bends. Some care will be needed here.

            Fortunately this is followed by an easy stretch with only a slight gradient for the next 8 km – a good place to make up a little bit of time before the elimination point at Laruns. Your arrival time here must theoretically be before 12:15 to avoid elimination. If you crossed the starting line at 7:30 am, this would imply an average speed at this point of just below 20 kph or 12.5 mph.

            This is followed by the real climb of the day – 17.2 km long, with an average gradient of 7.16%. It will simply be a case of sustained constant effort to reach the top.

            When you reach the large building at Gourette, there is less that 5 km to climb before the top of Aubisque!

            The road from Aubisque to Souler is very spectacular, being cut into the side of the mountain. Care is needed, especially in the unlit tunnel with its bend. Sun glasses are not recommended in the tunnel! Occasionally cows take shelter there!

            The climb up Souler is fairly easily achieved, and once you have reached Col de Souler you have virtually made it – there are 35 miles to go, down hill all the way! This descent does have some hazards – the surface is poor in places, and the local cows frequently leave their droppings on the road. In fact the cows themselves are something of a hazard! The remaining small climb, Cote de Pardies-Pietatat 24 miles later should only be a problem if you have really pushed your speed earlier on – but even then it is not a major obstacle.

 

            I’m rather looking forwards to the last 35 miles!