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L'Etape du Tour: Part Two - Doing L’Etape du Tour
 
By Janna Trevisanut
Date: 12/12/2002
L'Etape du Tour: Part Two - Doing L’Etape du Tour
 
L'Etape du Tour: Doing L’Etape du Tour

By Doug Hurst
douglasmhurst@aol.com

Read Part One: What it is and Why You Should Do It here.

 

Special Note: This installment was supposed to be the third of a three-part series. I’m delivering it second because if you decide to do the 2003 L’Etape du Tour, you need to get moving on several logistical items as soon as possible. What you need to do immediately is covered in this installment.

What I intend to do here is act as though you are going to be my bike mate traveling to the 2003 L’Etape du Tour. I will draw on my experience from having done the event in 2001 and 2002, acting very pompous, condescending and superior... not really. I don’t even know what a couple of those words mean. I’m going to assume we’re using the same touring company I’ve used the last two years (I’ve not found any other American or English based touring companies that have specific L’Etape du Tour packages). If you do find a different company that does the Etape I think you’ll find many similarities anyway. At the end of the article, I’ve thrown in a FAQ section that should fill in all the blanks. If you still have questions after reading the article, please feel free to contact me by e-mail.

Preliminaries

We’re going to go for an eight-night coach tour originating in England. I’m presuming you’ve never been to Europe and have about 11 days total for this. Almost everything I’m going to cover will either be asked of you or supplied to you by your tour company. The problem is, the requests of you are often piecemeal, and the information supplied is often received too late. I hope this article will have you totally prepared in advance.

 

The L'Etape du Tour with Seriously Expanded Itinerary

July 15, 2003

We depart the U.S. on a flight that will get us into London early in the morning of July 16, 2003. We could book a flight that gets us into London early in the morning of July 17th, and easily make the Noon departure from the Apollo. But to be safe, we’ll book our flight to arrive on the July 16th, get a cheap B&B near the Apollo Theatre, see a bit of London and get over our jet lag.

July 16, 2003

 

London! TBD. We can do or see whatever you’d like or just rest.
 

July 17, 2003

Ah! A great night’s sleep in London and here we stand at the Apollo Theatre waiting for our coach. It’s a perfect world and coach arrives exactly on time. Let’s not be too anxious to put our bikes on the trailers first. Wait a bit so that ours will be placed on top, crushing those of the overeager tyros. And away we go.

It’s a bit tedious getting out of London but soon we’re on the expressway headed to Dover. The world is still perfect and we arrive precisely on time and drive straight onto the P&O Stenna Lines ferry.

We’re ready to sail. The weather is sunny and the seas calm. Get out your camera and take pictures of the white cliffs, the pier, the other ferries, etc.

 

There’s Calais, France in the distance and in about an hour and a half, we’ll be headed toward the outskirts of Paris. You’ll feel better too because we’re now driving on the right side of the road.

 

We arrive about 10pm at a cheap motel outside Paris and believe it or not, there’s still a bit of light. We switched to Central European Time at Calais by setting our watches one hour ahead of London time. Hopefully, the cheap motel will have Eurosport UK, so you can get highlights of today’s Tour de France stage.

July 18, 2003

8:30am and we’re on our way to our final destination of Lourdes. It’s a long day on the coach, but the countryside is beautiful. We pass by Futuroscope, home to a few of the Tour’s individual time-trials. Then we’ll hit the sunflower fields, which will eventually give way to vineyards. As we approach Pau, we’ll start to see the Pyrenees rising into the sky.

 

About 6:30pm, we will arrive at our base in Lourdes where we’re booked for 6 nights.  While we will spend one night in another hotel room in Biarritz the night after riding the Etape, this hotel will be ours for the other five nights of our stay.  Take my word for it, it’s very nice not to have to do a lot of moving around.

 

July 19, 2003

A great breakfast and we leave for Pau on our combination training ride and registration. We could get in as many as 30-60 miles today. Let’s take it easy. You’ll have been off the bike for several days and there may be a temptation to rev it up. Maybe an even bigger temptation to prove to the others on the tour that you really belong. Give that up.

 

We’ll probably arrive at the L’Etape du Tour Village in Pau about 10:15-10:30am.  If you’ve had any mechanical problems, there will be Mavic mechanics there to assist.  There will also be cycling oriented vendors selling all manner of things.  You will have already received your approved entry certificate and it will have your racing number printed on it.  You will see several lines for registration and you get in the one that includes your racing number in its range.

You’ll surrender your entry certificate to the volunteer and be given a registration packet in exchange. I wouldn’t open it just now, especially the manila envelope containing your numberplates and your transponder. Take that envelope straight to the transponder test station. The volunteers there will place it under a special reader and your number should pop-up on the computer screen.

The next item on the agenda is to find your exact departure point for the Etape in Pau. This is critical. We’ll pressure our touring company representatives to show us exactly where they intend to drop us on the morning of the Etape so we’ll know exactly how to get from there to our departure point.

After that, we’ll have a nice look around the village, then begin our return Lourdes. What will we do upon our return? We’ll get our bikes and our gear completely ready for an early morning departure. This includes affixing your numberplates and setting out your entire kit for the ride. You should make a checklist and go to the bother of checking off every single item (See the FAQ section for a list to get you started). After that, I recommend taking a long nap. Pau is far enough away that they’re probably going to want to get us up very early for breakfast. You will have been preparing for tomorrow’s ride for a long, long time. You might be a bit anxious and find it hard to sleep the night before. A nap is just what you need.

 

July 20, 2003

My guess is breakfast at 5:00am with a 6:00am departure to Pau. The race itself will start at exactly 7:30am. If traffic is thick the touring company may not be able to drop us exactly where they thought they would. We will be innovative and optimistic. We’ll just find another rider with a number near ours that looks like he/she knows where they are going. We’ll follow them to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

 

And they’re off. By the way, what kind of gearing are you using? To keep the dialog moving, we’ll assume for now we’ve both picked the perfect gearing for us (Gearing too, is covered in the FAQ section). It is one of the most important considerations.

 

Consider the following quote:

"You don’t want to be in the lowest gear too often. Really steep climbs are not my forte, so I always dread that lowest gear because I figure, god, I’m doomed." --Juli Furtado

Are we climbers? In 2001, we had about 40 miles of fairly level road before we hit any kind of climb. In 2002, we started up almost immediately. In 2003 we’re going to hit the Côte d'Aubertin early at 10km (6.2 miles). It’s only 2.3km at a 7% average gradient, but it will give us a good feel for what we’re up against later on. After Aubertin, it will be a bit more like 2001with about 50km (30 miles) before we really start up. The 2003 Etape will have less kilometers of climbing than in previous years, but the average gradients are much steeper.

For the flat portions prior to and between climbs, we’ll try to find groups of riders that have banded together and are going a speed that’s comfortable for us. We’ll tuck in with them and save some energy. We’ll need all our reserves on the climbs. If they’re working together well, we’ll make sure to take our pull at the front.

 

The climbing really begins 67.5km (41 miles) into the event with the Col du Soudet. We’ll be climbing continuously for 14.1km (8.8 miles) at an average gradient of 7.5%. You can see that 7.5% average means nothing. There’s one stretch near the bottom where you’ll average 9% for 9km. Then it eases out a bit near the top.

At 98km (61 miles) we’ll hit is the Cote de Larrau. Only 2.4km (1.5 miles) but an average gradient of 10.5%. That’s steep!

 

Finally, we’ll encounter the Col de Bagargui. 8.8km (5.4 miles) at an average 9.2%. This is going to kill us. I don’t know about your climbing rate, but this climb alone might take me an hour or more. But there’s good news. Except for the little blip of the Col de Burdincurutcheta at 118km, it’s downhill after that all the way to Bayonne and our bronze medals.

 

I’m guessing there will be three or four refreshment stations during the Etape.  My advice here is to take advantage of each and every station, but don’t loiter.  If we fall behind and the sag wagon comes up to us, we’ll be forced to put ourselves and our bikes aboard and take the humiliating ride to the finish… and NO MEDAL.

 You can’t cheat on the ride.  When you cross the start line, electronic mats will record your transponder and give you an exact start time.  Somewhere during the ride, my guess is at the summit of Col de Bagargui, you will cross mats again and get a mid-point time.  You’ll cross mats again at the finish.  You’ll only get your bronze medal if you crossed all three mats.  Also, you’ll surrender your transponder to crews working at the arrival in Bayonne and receive a ticket for a box lunch.  It was rather humorous, at least to me, that when I looked in the box, the items contained therein very much resembled the items handed out at the feed stations on the ride.  I guess I was hoping for a McChicken or something a bit more substantial.

When we complete the ride, we’ll be looking around and for a large sign indicating the touring company rallying point.  We’ll report there immediately for instructions on how to proceed.  They’ll likely just direct us to the hotel and we’ll be on our way to the land of hot showers and dreamy dreams… and maybe some real food.

July 21, 2003

We feel great don’t we?  Breakfast early and on the buses to get back to Lourdes.  This is a great day to watch the tour.  The minute we get back to Lourdes, we’ll get right on the bikes and head for Luz St Sauveur.  We’ll ride as far as the Gendarmes or our physical limits will allow us toward the ski station at Luz Ardiden.  We’ll make sure we have plenty of food and drink stored in our little Credit Lyonnais backpack that was contained in our registration packet.  We want to get on the World Cycling Productions video, so we’ll try to get to the 1km to go “kite.”  If we’re really tired from yesterday’s effort, we may stop at the 10km to go marker.

 It will take us quite awhile to get back to Lourdes, but we’ll be glad we came on bikes. Once we get down from the mountain and back to Luz St Sauveur, we will make good time the rest of the way while automobile and bus traffic will be in gridlock.

 July 22, 2003

A Tour rest day.  We’re free to fly.  A great day for climbing and the options are limitless from Lourdes.  How good do you feel?  We could warm up on a ride to Tarbes, and then completely recreate stage 14 of the 2001 Tour or stage 15 of this year’s Tour.  Tarbes to Bagneres de-Bigorre to Arreau, then across the Col d’ Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet, and if you’ve got it in you, the same climb up to the ski station at Luz Ardiden.  That’s about 94 miles.  Sounds easy on paper… it’s not.  Not feeling quite that good?

 If you’d rather have a challenging ride away from the crowds, we could climb Hautacam.  Hautacam is where Lance Armstrong put his signature on the 1999 Tour de France.  Hautacam is very close to Lourdes.  One starts the climb from the pretty little town of Argeles Gazost, about halfway between Lourdes and Luz St Sauveur.

From Argeles Gazost, you could also go west and do the Col de Soulor and Col d’ Aubisque.  Both these cols have been skipped this year, but have been used in the Tour on numerous occasions.

July 23, 2003

We have a decision to make here.  Watch the Tour on some of the same stage we rode for the Etape, or do more riding.  I vote for more riding.

If we decide to ride, we’ll have the same options as yesterday.  We’ll simply pick a ride for today that we didn’t do previously.

July 24, 2003

Reverse July 18, 2003.  Starting the trip head home.

 July 25, 2003

Reverse July 17, 2003.  We’ll get back to London about 4:30pm, too late to get a flight out for the U.S., so again, we’ll have to stay in a cheap B&B and leave about 11:30am the next morning.  Another night in London and we ought to take advantage of it.

 July 26, 2003

Adieu, Cheerio and welcome home!

 

FAQ

How much will it cost?

If you use the touring company I’ve used for the last two years, what I’ve just described can easily be under $2,000 per person.  You can get airfare to Heathrow from about anywhere in the U.S. for $700-900, maybe less.  The 8 Night (Coach) tour will run about $975 if you pick the same company I used.  As I stated earlier, you can arrive the same day as your departure from London and save a nights hotel going over.  You almost have to spend the night in London on the return.  You’ll get back to London about 6pm, and it will probably be hard to get a flight out of Heathrow after that.  I think my flight left the next day about 11:30am and that was very easy to negotiate.  You can a hotel near Victoria Station for maybe 70-90lbs ($105-135) and I’ve included a link to the London Tourist Board below.  Make sure they have Eurosport UK on their television so you can keep up with the progress of the Tour.

Some touring companies, including the one I chose, will allow you to pay the deposit and final payment by credit card.  Often they will add a surcharge for doing so.  Mine did and I paid it because I didn’t want to hassle with international money orders.

All your hotels (3 star or better) while on the trip are on a half-board basis.  This means your morning and evening meals are included.  The food is perfectly adequate in both quantity and quality.  Most days, lunch will not be a problem because you’ll be riding and eating power bars and such.  All food for the Etape will be provided at 3 or 4 designated places along the route. My point here is that the cost of the tour and your airfare are about all you absolutely have to pay.  What else you spend is up to you.

What you need to do NOW!

You’ll need a passport but no special visas.  I’ve included a link to the U. S. Department of State on how to apply.  This can take up to two months to receive after application, so DON’T put it off.

You’ll need a medical certificate.  I received mine from the touring company.  I’m including one at the end of this article so you don’t have to wait.  Don’t actually get it DATED before 60 days prior to the event.  That would mean May 20, 2003.  It will be sent back to you as invalid if it’s signed before that date… and yeah, this is experience speaking.

I’ve been asked for a racing license in the past, but it’s still unclear to me if it’s required any longer.  I don’t believe so.  If you have a USCF or NORDA license, I would forward a copy to the touring company.

What do I need to bring?

CYCLING GEAR AND CLOTHING

You think it’s July in France and it’s going to be hot right?  Don’t count on it, especially in the mountains and more especially in the Pyrenees.  If you saw Lance and the peloton at the summit of the Col du Tourmalet in the 2001 Tour, you saw them bathed in sunshine, their jersey zippers open to the waist and sweating like crazy.  Two days before when we rode the Etape, it was at various times foggy, raining, overcast most of the time, and sleeting on the top of the Tourmalet.  It is quite possible that the temperatures could range from 35o – 100o F.

  • Your normal summer riding clothing

  • Arm and leg/knee warmers

  • A racing cape

  • A thin rain jacket

  • Full-fingered gloves (Just in case!)

  • Thin aero booties (I would wear them regardless, but certainly if it rains)

  • Extra brake and derailleur cables

  • A good combination tool

  • Zip ties of various sizes

  • Safety pins

  • A small hi-pressure pump

  • At least two tubes

  • Small camera (This may be a once in a lifetime deal.  Keep a record.

TRAVEL ITEMS

  • Regular travel and toiletry items

  • Michelin map #85.  You can get this from www.amazon.com

  • Entertainment: CD player, books, puzzles, etc.  A day and a half is a long time to spend on the bus and who knows who you’ll be paired with.  You may love’em or you may hate’em.  The coaches do have TV’s and the Graham Baxter coach hosts will play a cycling video occasionally.

  • Bike bag.  This is very important.  Try to find a well-padded soft bag that lets you put your entire bike in the bag without having to do any adjustments other than removing the wheels.

  • Money.  There are ATMs everywhere but I would get some Euros before leaving or soon after you arrive in France. Carry a few Euros with you on the ride.

  • Passport

What do I need to carry while riding L'Etape du Tour?

This depends on the weather forecast and how much stock you put in it.

ESSENTIAL

  •  Tire pump (Michelin will swap wheels, but not help you fix flats)

  •  Two tubes

  • Michelin map #85 (You can get lost believe it or not).

  • ID and emergency phone# from your registration packet.  Your touring company will probably give you one as well.

  • A little bit of money

POSSIBLE

  • Arm warmers

  • Leg/Knee warmers

  • Lightweight rain jacket

  • Racing cape (to keep chest from getting cold on descents).

  • Small camera

  • Food of your own if you don’t trust what they’ll have at the feeding stations.  Also, you may want to skip the feeding stations.

What kind of support can I expect while riding the Etape?

  • Mavic will be on-hand with the exact same support they offer to the tour riders.  If you crash badly and mess up your bike, they’ll give you a bike to finish the Etape provided you’re physically able to do so.

  • If you have a wheel collapse or several spokes break, they have complete front and real wheels (Campy and Shimano) to loan you to help you finish.

  • They will not do normal maintenance items like fixing flats.  That’s why you MUST carry a pump and tubes with you on the ride.

What kind of gears will I need on the bike?

When I tell you you’ll need a 39/29 minimum and better yet a triple on the front, you may scoff and say you don’t need that kind of gearing to go over any mountain.  I’ll answer by saying Burger King!  Have it your way. You’ll be the one to suffer.

I did both 2001 and 2002 with a 39/26… I’m a fool.  While I did it, it could have almost been enjoyable with a 29 on the back or a triple on the front.  As it was I suffered dramatically in 2001 and only slightly less so in 2002.

Don’t be fooled by the term average gradient.  The incremental gradients in a climb can vary wildly.  The average gradient on the official tour web site is for the entire length of the climb.  A perfect example is the Col du Soudet in the 2003 Tour.  The official web site says it’s 14.1km at 7.5% and it is.  So you go out and train on you local mountain on finely engineered American roads and say hey, I can do 7.5% all day.  But now look at the incremental gradients for the 14km.

Very steep at the bottom at about 9% for the first 9km, then easing out at the top.  There are some sections that are over 11% this year.

Still to Come

The third article in this series will be Training for L’Etape du Tour.  I’m NOT a professional coach and the article will not be a step-by-step on how to do this.  It will impart information that I think will help you have confidence  that you’re going to succeed in your quest.

Links

http://travel.state.gov/passport_easy.html
www.letour.com
www.letapedutour.com
www.sportingtours.co.uk
www.amazon.com
www.cyclingcols.com
www.londontouristboard.com

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