Every year the Étape du Tour sportive offers ordinary cyclists the chance to take on a stage of the Tour de France, and this year it will be Stage 14: Annemasse to Morzine in the Alps.
For pros and punters alike it will mean 152km of riding and 4,100m of ascent over five categorised climbs, the only difference being the amateurs will do it a week ahead of the pros, on 9th July.
If you’ve got that date circled on your calendar, now is the time to start planning your assault. Lucky for you, Cyclist has some experts on hand who can help you get to the start pen perfectly prepped.
You’re riding a Tour stage; it’s going to be tough. George Caines, head of education at Wattbike (wattbike.com), explains how specific training rides will help.
‘It’s a long day in the saddle with lots of climbing, so that’s where your focus should be,’ he says. ‘Some faster-paced interval sessions will also help develop your functional threshold power [FTP], which means the long climbs later in the event will take less toll.’ Handily, you can find out your FTP for yourself here.
‘Longer training rides will also help you adapt – you’re looking at six to ten hours to reach Morzine. Regularly riding for two or 2.5 hours with two or three hills over 1km long is really useful.’
Increase your mileage and the intensity of interval sessions over the coming months, but in both cases by no more than 10% per week. And don’t neglect recovery and tapering.
‘It’s so easy to keep doing lots of training, but don’t be reluctant to lop off mileage and intensity as the event draws close,’ Caines adds.
The perfect training week
Caines suggests doing harder sessions early in the week, then weekend endurance rides.
Monday: 90min ride: 25min warm-up; 3x 10min blocks at 95% FTP with 5min Zone 2 (easy) between; 25min cool-down.
Or 90min ride: 25min warm-up; 3 sets of 10x (30sec at 110% FTP/30sec at 80% FTP) with 5min Zone 2 (easy) between. Alternate between the two each week.
Tuesday: 45min ride Zone 2.Wednesday: Rest.Thursday: 90min ride: 10min warm-up; 7x (5min Zone 3 (tempo)/5min Zone 4 (threshold)); 10min cool-down.Friday: Rest.Saturday: Long ride, building through the weeks. Start at 2hrs; aim for 5hrs near race day.Sunday: Easy 2hr ride.
Pack it in
‘Practise packing your bike; don’t leave it until the night before you travel,’ advises Alex de Waard, director of tour company Sportive Breaks (sportivebreaks.com), which offers complete packages to the Étape.
‘And don’t cram your bike box full of kit. If it goes missing, some insurers will cover only the bike, so travel with your riding kit in your hand luggage.’
As well as spare tubes and a repair kit, gas and or/pump, he also recommends things you might not have considered: ‘A sharpie for marking your top tube sticker is useful, as is a spare rear mech hanger. It’s the component most commonly damaged in transit.’
There are no longer Covid restrictions in France, so that’s one less piece of paperwork to worry about. However, getting your admin in order is crucial.
‘Travel insurance that covers all belongings, plus medical cover, is a must,’ says De Waard. ‘Also, upload your medical certificate to the Étape registration system in advance, and take a paper copy of your registration in case your phone lets you down.’
Don’t have a fuel crisis
Your nutrition strategy is a balancing act, but Caines has some advice. ‘Carbohydrate intake will be the key consideration. Traditionally this means energy gels, bars and drinks, but there’s a fine line between eating enough to fuel you and encountering gastrointestinal issues.’
‘Don’t eat or drink anything new on the day – stick with products you’ve used in training,’ adds De Waard.
Caines continues, ‘The Étape is often hot so pay attention to how much you drink, as well as replacing electrolytes lost through sweat. You need enough fluid to avoid dehydration.
‘Afterwards stretch immediately and get some protein and carbs into you, ideally within two hours of finishing, to replace stores you’ve burned off and to build and repair muscles. This could be a protein shake or even a pizza.’
Exactly the response we were all hoping for.
Know your enemy
The night before the event, lay out all the nutrition and kit you’ll need.
‘The 2023 Étape is at lower altitude than usual, so there’s less need for warmer clothing,’ says Sportive Breaks’ head guide, Mike Wilson, who has already cycled the route. ‘But maybe pack a light jacket for the descents.’
So, exactly what awaits?
‘The start climbs almost constantly for 13km. The uncategorised Col de Jambaz [at 58km] is little more than a gentle drag, but has a very long, straight descent, so watch out for other riders.
The Col de la Ramaz at 86km is almost 14km long at an average gradient of 7.1% – you can test your legs a little here.
After that, there’s 10km of relatively flat valley riding before the final climb of the Col de Joux Plane at 127km.
It’s 11.6km at a punishing 8.5% average. It will take at least an hour and there is no water on this climb, so fill your bottles at the feed station.
‘With the exception of the Col de la Ramaz, all the descents are narrow and technical, particularly the final two,’ Wilson warns.
Perfect your pacing
You’ll find little benefit in following wheels due to the paucity of flat roads, but finding a similar-paced group will help morale. And pacing is crucial on this mountainous route.
‘Ride the first climbs in your comfort zone,’ says Wilson. ‘Probably at 60-80% of maximum heart rate. Once you hit the Col de la Ramaz, I wouldn’t go over 85% – the hardest climb still stands between you and the finish.
‘Avoid following faster groups on the descent from Ramaz, but once on the Joux Plane you can start to push your limits. But in the heat of the day, it’s going to be tough.’
Which, you could argue, is exactly the point.
Photography: Dan Glasser and Sportograf