Ten Orwell riders took to the start line in this year's l'Étape du Tour. Paul O'Neill tells their story.


L'Étape du Tour 2015

Paul O'Neill

The Tour de France diaries of Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche provide an insight into the rigours of life during a Grand Tour. By definition, though, they tell their story through the eyes of professional cyclists with years of training and many thousands of kilometres in their legs. But a professional's hill can be an amateur's mountain and it's difficult for a leisure rider to get a real understanding of life in the peloton. You know for certain that it has to hurt but you're just not sure how much.

Unless, of course, you're one of the 15,000 or so cyclists who sign up every year to take part in l'Étape du Tour. The event, which allows amateur riders from all over the world to participate in a selected Tour de France stage a few days before the main event, is as close as most will come to the real thing.

L'Étape is based on the actual route of the Tour de France and, consequently, it changes ever year, generally alternating between the Alps and the Pyrenees. The degree of difficulty is variable though it is never easy. The selected route in 2015 was Stage 19, the so-called queen stage and the most testing of the 3-week race. It stretched 138km from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles. But the challenge wasn't the distance. The true test lay in the climbs: a total of 61.5km uphill, more than any other Tour stage and a combined vertical ascent officially calculated at 4,100m (and even more when non-classified lumps and bumps are included).

In a Tour preview, cyclingnews.com summed up the task facing riders somewhat ominously: "Even by the brutal standards of the 2015 Tour route, this stage stands out as a sadistic piece of route planning by the race organisers. Good or bad days for the climbers here will be magnified by the exacting series of climbs, the Col du Chaussy, the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Col du Mollard and La Toussuire, and it will be a crucial day in the general classification".

One of the truisms of cycling is that the greater the difficultly, the more the appetite for it. And the thousands taking to the start line on Sunday, July 19 – five days before the Tour riders tackled the same route last Friday – included 10 Orwell members: Grainne Coghlan, Louise Keane, Kaska Ludwa, John Anslow, Denis Gleeson, Derek Handley, John Lanigan, Gerry O'Connor, John Twomey and myself. Goals and expectations varied but the main shared objective – at all costs – was to avoid the infamous 'broom wagon' which eliminates riders who have not reached specific points along the course within prescribed time limits.

L'Étape is built around a rolling start – from 7am, 1,000 riders are released from start pens every eight minutes (think of a cattle mart and multiply several times over). Start times are distributed on the base of a combination of self-estimated finishing times, past performance and pot luck. On this basis, John L fared best with a 3,000 number and a start time of 7.24. He attacked the task with customary gusto and I didn't see him again until I got back to our bus later that day. The bulk of the Orwell contingent found ourselves in the 8,000s though Kaska and Grainne had higher start numbers (with the broom wagon in close proximity from the off).

A demanding feature of this year's route was that the climbing began just a few hundred meters from the start line: no warming up, no loosening the legs but straight into the Col du Chaussy which hasn't featured previously in the Tour. A category 1 climb, it is 15.4km long with an average gradient of 6.3 per cent and rises to 1,533m. That said, there was comfort in the consistency and we were still conscious of the warning from Sean O'Leary from Trail Seekers (with whom we travelled) to adopt a cautious approach to the early climbs. So it was a case of winding upwards – in one section with the road cut into the cliff and natural rock forming a roof over our heads – and preserving energy levels in so far as possible.

Over the top, it was onto a fast and very technical descent which came to an abrupt halt after just a few bends when a crash caused a human tailback of densely packed cyclists, trailing hundreds of metres back up the hill. After no more than 4 or 5 minutes – though it seemed much more – we were moving again (perhaps a little more cautiously). Then it was downhill for another 15km into a lumpy 20km section, the calm before the storm, where the best advice was to sit in and let others do the work as we rattled along at 40kph towards Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines and the base of the Hors Category (HC) Glandon, leading onto the HC Croix de Fer.

Those who have ridden the traditional Marmotte course will be familiar with this side of the Glandon. It is the section where the organisers turn off the timing clock to try to encourage Marmotte riders to descend more cautiously because it is both steep and technical. But in the Étape, we were approaching from the opposite direction – uphill! The real work had begun and gradients, temperatures and heart rates were rising.

Though the Glandon and the Croix de Fer are categorised as separate HC climbs, they slip seamlessly into each other. The result is a combined 22.4km uphill, the longest climb in this year's Tour. The Glandon is remorseless with the gradient averaging 6.9 per cent but rising to 11 per cent in the 18th kilometre. By this stage, the early shade provided by trees is long gone and the temperature is soaring. Some riders are already off their bikes and walking and (presumably) have no chance of seeing the finish line. A drop in gradient to 10 per cent offers little comfort though the enthusiastic occupants of dozens of camper vans, already in place to see the pros five days later, do their best to keep people moving.

Paul O'Neill atop the Glandon

Over the top of the Glandon and in the mêlée, a carefully crafted home-made Orwell banner appears out of the crowd. John A has been greeted by his wife Dina and kids Aimée, Eoin and Isabelle who have left their French lakeside holiday retreat in favour of a mountain top (now that is commitment!). And they're not empty-handed… a can of Orangina has never tasted quite so good. It's a short stop for me and 200m downhill later, I'm taking a left turn onto the Croix de Fer and a further 3km uphill to the summit at 2,067m.

Over the summit and the road falls away into another highly technical descent where Vincenzo Nibali demonstrated his downhill prowess last Friday after attacking Chris Froome on the Glandon. Though Kaska would surely have been able to hold his wheel: she clocked a maximum speed of 84kph on the same descent. It's 15km downhill with sharp switchbacks but any relief is brief before the road kicks up again for 5km to the top of the Category 2 Col du Mollard. The gradient is more modest though (as ever) it increases close to the summit at 1,638m.

On a day of big ascents and correspondingly big descents, the next 16km proves just as demanding from a concentration perspective as the road dives downwards, ultimately bringing us back to the start town of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. But the start is not the finish and there's a final sting in the tail: an 18km Category 1 climb to the ski station at La Toussuire where, 5 days later, Nibali would win the stage and Nairo Quintana would reduce Chris Froome's lead by 30 seconds.

On a day of extremes for Étape participants, this is the longest summit finish of the 2015 tour. And to compound matters, most of us are now cycling away again from our cars and buses which are parked in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. But Sean O'Leary, his wife Brid and their daughter Tara are at the base of the climb with a precious ingredient: each of the Trail Seekers riders has their bottles refilled, one with water and the other with Coke which has been allowed to go flat (no more than a sip at a time, warns Sean). What more performance enhancement could a cyclist need?!

The road to La Toussuire winds back and forth at a steady gradient (averaging 6 per cent) and a short downhill mid-way up doesn't compensate for 9 per cent in the early kilometres. Coming so late in the day and with so much climbing already in the legs, it's a physical and a mental slog where all those winter nights in Andy Kenny's spinning class and countless rides to the mast at Kippure start to pay off. The temperature is now in the 30s and locals, armed with garden hoses, offer cooling relief to faces etched with pain. Slowly but surely, the crowd density increases and the volume rises. We're back in the territory of the camper van, already in situ for the real thing and, finally, the finishing line comes into view. (And yes it is the same finishing line with the same paraphernalia that will subsequently greet Vincenzo Nibali.) Across the line and, within second, a precious Étape medal is over my head and an Étape ‘finisher' t-shirt is in my jersey the pocket. And it's all over… at last.

Some of Team Orwell

So having ridden the Marmotte, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Étape de Tour, which is best?

In truth, I wouldn't swap any. Each delivers its own challenge and reward. The regular Marmotte route (changed this year because of a tunnel collapse below the Col de Lauteret) guarantees that you will ride in the wheel tracks of cycling history in the shape of the Glandon, Telegraph, Galibier and Alpe d'huez.

As one of the famed ‘Monuments' of classic one-day cycle racing, Liege poses a completely different challenge with 279km of cycling, including some of the sharpest hills in Belgium (think 24 per cent). It is pure cycling heritage.

The Étape is different again. With its closed roads, Tour de France razzamatazz and, most of all, the often idiosyncratic and overwhelming enthusiasm of spectators in villages and mountain with their polka dot jerseys and cow-bells, it undoubtedly offers the closest glimpse of the real thing.

It's very much a matter of personal choice. You do the training and make the call.


Postscript: on a trip with so many silver-linings (and credit in this regard to Trail Seekers and Sean, Brid and Tara O'Leary), an enduring cloud hung over our stay in France. Two Orwell members didn't make the plane. A hand injury ruled Peter Gargan out about 10 days beforehand and then a very serious accident during our final training spin left Stephen Hayden in hospital. The latter was a salutary reminder of the risks associated with the sport that gives us so much fun. Their absence left our group diminished but, fortunately, both are recovering well.