The Etape du Tour is a closed road sportive that follows the route of a Tour de France stage. This year it was stage eighteen, which started in Pau, crossed a couple of third category climbs, then went over the Col du Tourmalet and finished at the top of the Hautacam. Around 13,000 riders (nearly 25% of whom were British) started, but a higher than normal attrition rate saw just 8,500 roll over the finish line.
The event started at 7am, but, as a first timer, I wasn’t due until around 8:30. The start area had been divided into twelve enormous pens where we waited, slowly shuffling forwards as more and more arrived. I remember noticing quite a lot of broken glass, and one poor guy managed to puncture before he’d even crossed the start line.
As a closed road event, the Etape operates a strict minimum speed policy in order to be able to reopen the roads on time. This is enforced by the dreaded broom wagon – in reality a fleet of coaches (for the riders) and trucks (for the bikes). If it catches you, your ride is over. The day before the race I’d talked to a ten-time Etape veteran who’d advised me to ‘bury myself’ for the first few hours in order to build a comfortable gap over the broom, at which point I could, in theory, sit back and enjoy the rest of the ride. So with that in mind, I set off.
If you’ve never ridden a closed road event, you really should. It feels completely liberating. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all; the etiquette is that you ride on the right and pass on the left. I started using fast-moving groups to leapfrog my way up the line, as far as possible from the broom. As I did so, I found myself riding along with an idiot grin as gendarmes blew whistles and groups of riders parted around roundabouts. Bands played, flags waved – most of the villages seemed to be “en fete”, with hundreds coming out to enjoy the spectacle and encourage the riders.
I’d written down all the cut-off times on my crossbar and by the time I got to the Tourmalet the gap up to about two hours. Which meant I should have been laughing, except I wasn’t, because by then it had started to rain heavily. The Tourmalet is a nineteen kilometre climb, so everyone had plenty of time to get properly soaked on the way up. Once at the top, we ran into thick fog and the temperature dropped to four degrees, which made the descent an absolute nightmare. After ten kilometres I was shaking uncontrollably, and had to pull over in a village called Bareges. It seemed like half the race had had the same idea; the place was absolutely rammed with shivering cyclists looking for somewhere to get warm. One woman told me later that a local had taken a look at her and invited her into her house, wrapped her in a blanket and fed her hot soup! I eventually found a bar serving coffee and sat there for well over an hour until I felt able to go on.
Eventually I decided that I probably wasn’t going to die of hypothermia, and that if I wanted to stay in the race I was going to have to get back on the bike. I set off again, and almost immediately punctured. Happily, that was the last setback. All that remained was to climb the Hautacam. Not as high as the Tourmalet, this felt like a much tougher climb as there are a number of very steep ramps. Half way up the sun came out for the first time all day, and I finished smiling, some 9:40 after setting off from Pau.