ETAPE du TOUR 2006
Why did thousands of people desert the World Cup Final on the television at half time, then go to bed?
Answer: the Etape du Tour!
In the early morning, as we waited with over 7500 cyclists in the starting pens, the sky brightened to an ominously bright blue, and the rising sun glared straight in our eyes. It was going to be a hot one!
English chatter was more common this year, as in addition to the 5000 or so French riders there were 1660 English riders, and others from as far away as Malaysia, Iceland, South Africa, Canada and the USA. Women were in the minority, with less than 200 being present, though they made a good showing.
At 7:00 am precisely, the first group were off! Amongst the VIPs present was Alain Prost, famous for his formula 1 motor racing exploits.
The ride rapidly gained momentum as the riders struggled to put miles between themselves and the broom wagon.
The first 33 miles were relatively flat, though not without small hills. It took 25 minutes for all the competitors to leave the starting pens, and the huge peloton was over a km long, increasing at the first small hills. The descents in this section were surprisingly fast, reaching speeds of more than 30 mph and even reaching 40mph at times.
After 18 miles the race crossed the elegant bridge over the beautiful Lac de Serre Poncon.
At 33 miles we reached the drink station at Guillestre, followed by the first major challenge – Col d’Izoard.
Initially the gradient was gentle, as the road enters a spectacular limestone gorge, complete with Corniche roads, overhangs and tunnels.
The limestone section was followed by more typical Alpine scenery, as we entered the Coombe du Queyras. After the sharp left turn the real climbing began, gradients reaching 12% after the villages of Arvieux and Bruinisard.
More hairpins followed, then the famous and spectacular Casse Deserte, with its rocky pinnacles, marmots and monuments to Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, though these probably went unnoticed by most riders as they struggled with the fierce gradients! It was a very hard climb.
After a further series of hairpins with Spectacular Mountain views we eventually reached the Col d’Izoard, at 2390 metres.
After refreshment at the feed station at the top, we launched ourselves into a delightful descent, with numerous tight bends, gradually straightening out as we descended, easily reaching speeds of 30 mph to 40 mph.
A further refreshment stop was provided at Briancon.
The route out of Briancon started with a gratuitous unexpectedly steep climb, followed by the gentle lower slopes of Lauteret. We then gradually ascended the 2% gradients. It is a long climb, being around 20 miles long, with the gradient rising to an average of 4.5% in the last section.
Those who decided to race this section found it tough going, though it was quite a pleasant climb if one chose a comfortable speed rather than pushing the speed too much. The road gradually rose above the valley floor into the high mountains, decorated with patches of snow.
All but the very keenest took advantage of the many cafes on top of Lauteret to cool off with a cold drink, before enjoying one of the longest descents ever!
Once we had passed the initial sections with their poor road surface, the gradient was such that the descent was very enjoyable following the strenuous climb. The scenery is spectacular, the road following a raging torrent of a river, with occasional waterfalls descending from the mountains high above. The down hill section was an amazing 24 miles long!
As he approached Bourg d’Oisans, Paul suffered his third puncture, but managed to exchange a spare tube for a cold can of Orangina – a fair exchange he thought!
After the feed station at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez ran out of bottled water, the attendants were filling bottles one by one. Those who did not stop for a refill were soon in for a shock, as the temperature as they started to climb reached body temperature – 37 degrees – then continued to increase on the first few bends, exceeding 40 degrees and finally peaking at 44 degrees! Those who ran out of water had no means of cooling themselves.
There was some relief at the bar at bend 17 which was kindly filling up water bottles free of charge. Further up, riders were filling their water bottles from water running down the wall at the side of the road, and were even showering in the water descending from the mountain side to try and cool down.
The climb was littered with riders who were resting in the shade of trees or rocks on each bend, and even lying by the side of the road.
Of those who were staying in our gite, Gordon was the first to arrive at the top, in a time of 8 hrs 20 minutes. Gordon had previously successfully completed the Iron Man Triathlon in Lanzarote (2.5 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling followed by a full marathon!). He found this Etape much harder than the Ironman.
Sue was the first lady in our gite to arrive at the top. On completing bend number one at the top, she was horrified that there were several more bends to go, and after crossing the finishing line in 9 hrs 43 minutes just could not go any further.
Brian rode with 2 water bottles and a camel back – an ideal strategy in such blazing heat.
Stan finished the course with just 5 minutes to spare!
The first rider in the Etape over the finish line was Blaise Sonnery who completed the course in 33 seconds over 6 hours. The first lady Karine completed the course in 6:36:42, arriving in 72nd place overall. Alain Prost arrived at the finishing line in position 249.
Of the 7,548 starters, only 5,477 finished within the time limit.
There were relatively few accidents this year, and the roads were clean and in good condition. Numerous people suffered from the heat, but virtually everyone thought it was the epic ride they had expected from a 117 mile route with around 4000 metres of climb, ending in the ascent of Alpe d’Huez!