When the route was initially announced in October, it looked like a slightly easier Etape than previous years with one exception – the last climb. In the week leading up to the race, it was announced that the Col de la Ramaz had been removed from the route due to a danger of falling rocks and all of a sudden one of the year’s hardest sportives was starting to look like a comfortable day in the saddle. How wrong we were…
As per usual, the registration for the Etape was in the most inconvenient spot a few kilometres above Megeve at an airfield used by France’s rich & famous. The views were spectacular, this is a stunning part of the Alps with lush green slopes right next to Mont Blanc and other giant peaks. Out of the shade, the sun was hot, slightly worrying for the next day’s ride.
We were staying by the finish in Morzine so the day started with a 4.15am transfer to Megeve in the dark. On arrival in Megeve, the organisation was excellent. There was a coffee & breakfast stand and lots of volunteers on hand to keep cyclists moving in the right direction. The start is separated into 15 pens of 1,000 riders based on previous years’ finishing times or your estimated finish time when you first register. There is definitely a big advantage starting earlier, the first group head off at around 7am and the last riders go through at around 8.30am.
The Aravis & Colombiere
We crossed the start line to the soundtrack of “Highway to Hell” and a thousand people pressing start on their Garmins. The first 8km was slightly downhill and quick on a nice wide road surface. The Etape attracts riders of a wider mix of ability than most sportives so the main issue here is navigating the crowd. A quick climb and tight hairpinned descent took us onto the Col des Aravis – a 12km climb in two parts which the Etape only recognised as a 7km climb at just under 7%. This is a great first climb, not too long, not too steep but with plenty of time to find a rhythm and get your body used to spinning up a mountain. At this point, the groups were still tight and we were riding three or four abreast the whole way with quicker riders passing on the left. The Aravis is a beautiful climb, weaving through the town of La Giettaz where locals welcomed us with cheering and cowbells, through a small tunnel and then out to some hairpins before reaching the summit. We were climbing early enough that the temperature was perfect, warm enough but not hot and a gentle breeze. The mood in the peloton was good.
Over the top of the Aravis and the first of three phenomenal descents. The Aravis is characterized by long, sweeping bends with plenty of visibility to get your lines right. The descent goes through the town of La Clusaz where the first feed station was located and continues down all the way to Le Grand Bornand for the next climb.
That descent meant the time between climbs was short and we were on the Col de la Colombiere soon after cresting the Aravis. This is a longer but less steep climb but in the short time since the last ascent the heat had cranked up and the sun was just suggesting that it might be less than friendly later in the day. By now the peloton was slowly splitting up and we were now two or three abreast. A welcome drink stop half way up the climb gave us an opportunity to cool down before heading to the most beautiful part of this section. The last few km of the Colombiere takes you over a mountain stream, past cliffs and gives you amazing views back down the valley – definitely one of the highlights of this years route.
Once at the top, it was 50km of downhill and flat until the last climb. The descent of the Colombiere is rapid – steep sections, fairly tight hairpins and even a couple chicanes. Best of all, it is a long descent so even the most inexperienced of descenders can find a rhythm and hit corners bravely. From here we hit the town of Scionzier and then with a slight climb up to Mieussy. It was definitely hot by this point and all thoughts were on the Joux Plane. The last 10km to the climb was straight with some shade given by the trees and riders were now mostly in large groups conserving energy.
The Joux Plane
And so onto the final climb. By this point we had done 100km and about 1800m of climbing – most people still looked pretty fresh and we were feeling good that we had enough energy to get over the 12km of the Joux Plane comfortably and descend into Morzine in no time. Straight onto the climb we realised that was not going to happen. The first drag up the Joux Plane is 10% and tough. There was very little escape from the sun that was now sweltering. The only thing climbing fast was our heart rates – I don’t remember ever seeing a peloton collectively struggle so much up a mountain! Even the 7% sections felt tough in the heat and there were definite moments where it felt that like we were never going to get to the top. Both of us cramped in both legs, we both had to stop in the shade just to try and cool down and get the heartrate down from alarming to fast. Finally we reached the saddle at the top of the climb and could see the end in sight. Cresting the Joux Plane and feeling gravity move your bike on the first descent rather than our weak leg power felt absolutely amazing. We knew not to get too carried away as round the corner was the last short ramp before we could properly start descending down to Morzine.
The final descent was one we had done numerous times and was another great one. With all the exertions of the Joux Plane, the mind and body were both pretty tired so it was not quite as enjoyable as the first two descends but knowing the finish line and our hotel was at the bottom made it all the sweeter. Again the marshalls had done an excellent job highlighting the dangerous sections and advising people to slow into the tighter corners. Out of the last corner we were into Morzine and the final stetch. Riding through the barriers with crowds cheering you on from either side is a great feeling and finally the pain of the Joux Plane started to wash away. We crossed the line together with a some satisfaction of finishing a tough Etape but already looking forward to next year where we will be better prepared for the last climb.
It was always going to be a beautiful Etape with a route over one of the prettiest parts of the Alps. Some of the best bits of the ride were looking back at the thousands of riders climbing in the early morning light up the Aravis & looking up to see riders climbing the last few hairpins of the Colombiere. Everyone wants the Etape du Tour to be difficult – it is the main aim of a lot of peoples training all year. With the removal of the Ramaz it looked on paper to be too easy so it was only right that conditions made the Joux Plane one of the toughest climbs I have ever experienced. Morzine was a great host town for the weekend with lots to do in town and loads of great warm up / cool down climbs nearby. Already we are looking forward to the Tour de France stage and then next year’s Etape – possibly back in the Pyrenees after a two year absence…