L'Etape du Tour Part Three - Training for LíEtape du Tour
By Doug Hurst
Part One -
L'Etape du Tour: What it is and Why You Should Do It
Part Two -
L'Etape du Tour: Doing LíEtape du Tour
ALERT! Please note that the date for the 2003 LíEtape du Tour has changed
from July 20, 2003 to July 16, 2003. If youíve already booked your vacation, you
may need to change plans a bit. If youíre using the same touring company I used
and described in Part II of this series (Graham
Baxter Sporting Tours), check in at their web site and get the latest
Loose Ends - Readers respond to Part Two of the series
I received an e-mail from a reader who did the Etape in 2002 who passed along
a big piece of advice. If youíre going to try to do the Etape on your own, that
is, without a touring company, try to get accommodations as close to the start
as you possibly can. For this yearís Etape, I would still recommend Lourdes. It
is an absolute mecca for the Pyrenees and itís not all that far from Pau.
Do women do the LíEtape du Tour?
Yes! Jenny Longo, many times womenís Tour de France and Olympic champion,
rode it last year and had the best time in the womenís category. Iím only
guessing, but Iíd say a 100 or so of the 7,000+ were women. Many wives go on the
tour with their husbandsÖ with and without bikes. If they donít ride the Etape,
they often ride on the other days of the trip. From Lourdes, the trips up to
Tarbes and down to Luz St Sauveur are relatively flat. At least you can say you
rode "among" the Pyrenees as they swell up all around you when you ride the
Usual Precaution: See a doctor and get a physical that will clear you for the
kind of effort youíre going to have to make to do this.
Why Bother with These Articles?
So, itís time to do this yearís (2002) Etape. I leave my hotel and walk to
the tour departure point at the Apollo Theatre in central London. I thought I
might be the first one there, but lo and behold, thereís this other American
sitting on the steps with a bunch of gear and what looked to be a bike bag.
Looking at him it was a bit hard for me to believe he was going on the tour. I
introduced myself. I donít want to use his name or say exactly where he was
from, but it was the second largest state in the U.S. and a certain four time
Tour de France champion hails from there.
He confirmed that yes he was there to pick up the Graham Baxter tour bus and
I thought Uh! Oh! Actually, he was built a lot like Lance. I mean he had arms,
legsÖ basically all the same body parts. He had the twang in his voice and the
swagger in his mien. The big problem, which was immediately and visually
evident, was that heíd had way too many Shiner Bock beers as part of his
training regimen. Very likeable though.
So we leave London and arrive at our main destination in France. The first
morning weíre getting ready for the training/registration ride from Motiers to
Aime and this guy shows up in his USPS team kit, beautiful TREK 5900 and his
beer gut. The bike is full Dura Ace with perfectly stock minimum gearing of
Of course, the Brits were all too polite to say a thing and I have sort of an
inward personality until I really get to know someone so I didnít say anything.
He admits to all that he hasnít climbed a hill more than about half a mile long
back there in the second largest state in the U.S. but heís just sure he can gut
So, comes the day of the Etape, and he makes it to the black dot about
halfway up the first col before abandoning. What a waste I think!
And so I thought, if heíd had someone to tell him exactly what he was getting
himself in for, he probably would have done what was necessary to have completed
Where to Start† (My Story)
In preparing to do the Etape, you can only start where you are. On July 21,
2000, I was sitting in my cubicle at America Online, Inc (AOL) listening over
the internet as premiere sports announcers Phil Leggitt and Paul Sherwen called
the last individual time-trail of the 2000 Tour de France (Tour). Lance
Armstrong won the stage from Fribourg-en-Brisgau to Mulhouse that day on his way
to winning the Tour overall that year. At that time, I had heard about Lance's
bout with testicular cancer, but had no idea until I did a good bit of research
just how dramatic his battle for life had been. I didnít have anything as
dramatic as cancer, but I was a physical wreck. I weighed 225 pounds and hadn't
been on my own bike since late 1984. Lance's story became an inspiration to me.
I had no idea what LíEtape du Tour was at that point either.
I went home that day and pulled my beautiful old, circa 1983, Campy
equipped Colnago Super down from its hooks in the ceiling of the garage. A quick
inspection indicated all it needed was a good dusting and it would be ready to
ride. Unfortunately it audibly groaned when I put my full weight on the Brooks
Professional Team saddle. Time to diet.
Fortunately for me, my wife had been on the Atkins diet for a couple of
months and was looking really trim. Two months later, without riding the bike, I
was down to a svelte 195 myself. Not only that, I went in for a physical prior
to setting out on my cycling comeback and found that my cholesterol was lower
than it had been in the last 10 years. I was cleared to ride and took the bike
out the very next day.
First day, ten miles. Five out and five back on the Washington & Old Dominion
trail and I was toast. My pulse was pounding and my skin was beet red. I felt
great, but I realized it was going to be some time before I could call myself a
Definition: roadie - A person stupid enough to ride his bike in Northern
I bought Joel Frielís Training Bible. I tore out and reproduced that page in
the back where you can record your weekly training history. I followed it
religiously for about a monthÖ then threw it away. Look, itís a great book but
it seems to me that Joel forgot that most people have real jobs and families to
work in there also.
The miles started piling up though. I was able to ride almost every day over
my lunch period. I had enough years at AOL that I could go out for an hour and a
half or two hours as long as I got my work done. And the weight kept coming off.
I was at 185 in about another month. As a reward for the weight loss, I promised
myself a new Colnago Master if I made 180. That happened in November and I got
the new Colnago in December. It was also in December that I came across an
advertisement in the back of Bicycling Magazine for Graham Baxter Sporting
Important Point #1: You need to be as light as possible and still be
healthy about it.
The Graham Baxter Sporting Tours ad was talking about an event associated
with the Tour called L'Etape du Tour (Etape). It was a very provocative ad. You
start in England, travel to France and you actually get to ride a stage of the
Tour. Not only that, it's a mountain stage and it traverses some of the most
storied mountain passes in Tour history. I immediately went to their web site,
Most of what I read on the Graham Baxter web site Iíve already passed on to
you in the previous article in this series. Obviously, I was hooked on doing the
Etape. I talked to my wife about it. She was... uh... tepid at best but at least
she didn't cry or go into a rage. So, I took that for agreement and started my
First thing I did was print out and cut the profile for the stage and hang it
in my cube at work. This way I could see it everyday and keep the challenge
fresh in my mind. It was formidable. The stage, stage 14, was 141 km in length
with two category 4 climbs, one category 3 climb, one category 1 climb and two
hors (harder than category 1) category climbs. The most famous climb was to be
the granddaddy of them all, the Col du Tourmalet at 17 km, an average gradient
of 7.4% and an altitude of 2115 meters (6,938 feet). For the sake of the
uneducated, or those not good with numbers, this is a very difficult climb.
Also, the average gradient of 7.4% is deceiving. The first 6 km average only
4.5%. The last 11 km average over 9%. This last fact would cause me great alarm
because I didn't learn about the gradient being uneven until about a week before
I was to leave. And so how was I to train for this climbing?
Northern Virginia has a lot of rolling hills. It also has some very steep
gradients on some of the back roads, but nothing that is consistently uphill for
17km. The answer for me turned out to be Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah
National Park. Up to this point, I guess we're at about April now, I had not
allowed my training to affect my family life much. I trained on my lunch hour
and did my long rides very early on Saturday mornings on the Marine base down at
Quantico. My family sleeps late on Saturdays and by starting while it was still
dark, I was usually back just as they were getting up. As the weather got
warmer, I was also riding to work at AOL near Dulles Airport that is about a 56
mile round-trip from my home in Springfield. But I still needed the time doing
long climbs so I went to my boss. We worked out a deal where I would work 10
hours a day and take Fridays off to go out to ride Skyline Drive.
The ritual became, drive to the Dickey Ridge Visitors Center five miles into
the Shenandoah National Park from the Front Royal, Virginia, entrance station.
This was my base of operation. The first couple of trips, I just rode back down
to the entrance and climbed the first six miles back to Dickey Ridge and a bit
beyond. This was all climbing and although I never measured it, I estimated it
to be at gradients between 5% and 7%. In later trips I went on from Dickey Ridge
to mile marker 30 or so and back. I was really feeling confident now that I
could do this, but again, I had no idea how much difference there would be
between the 5-7% grades I was doing in Virginia versus the up to 10% grades I'd
have to do in France. July was fast approaching. I had a 39/26 as the lowest
gear on my bike, and I was normally using the 39/23 when climbing on Skyline
Drive. I figured the 39/26 would get me through the rest.
As a final tune-up, I did the 6 miles from the entrance station to the 6-mile
marker 6 times. I was relatively strong at the end so I felt I was ready.
Where to Start (Your Story)
You just have to start where you are, thereís no getting around it. Iím sure
there are many readers out there who are far superior to me in all respects.
Maybe this article isnít really for you. If youíre like I was, seriously out of
shape, you need to start on a disciplined program now. I would say you still
have time to get in shape to do this yearís Etape. If youíre already in shape,
been racing or riding seriously for years, then youíll mainly need to do the
mountain training. If youíre only riding about 100 miles a week or so, and only
racing criteriums on relatively flat terrain, I would say youíre going to have
to do a good bit of work alsoÖ even if youíre winning those criteriums. If
youíre a century rider already and do rolling hills or mountains, youíre well on
your way. You probably could gut out a stage.
Important Point #2: Base miles are terribly important. Ride as much as
Usual Precaution: See a doctor and get a physical that will clear you for the
kind of effort youíre going to have to make to do this.
Itís hard to know which to recommend. A couple stand out:
The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling: Build the Strength, Skills,
and Confidence to Ride As Far As You Want by Ed Burke, Ed Pavelka, Edmund R.,
Ph.D. Burke (ISBN: 1579541992)
Cycling Past 50 (Ageless Athlete Series) by Joe Friel (ISBN: 0880117370)
I donít own either one of these books, but Iíve scanned them thoroughly over
several cups of coffee at Borders bookstore. Yes, you may call me cheap. I never
have much cash on me and my wife watches over the credit card bills pretty
Iím not sure how I would have felt heading to Europe without having been able
to have a place to do long steep (fairly) ascents. I think I would have been
filled with trepidation even if I had been riding a century a week on flat
terrain. The angst might even have a further detrimental effect on your physical
I was fortunate to have Shenendoah National Park and Skyline Drive within an
hour of my home. Not only is the scenery beautiful, but there are several long
ascents. The longest stretch of unbroken ascent is the 6 miles of continuous
climbing when you enter the Park at Front Royal, Virginia. These long ascents
are tremendously important and I know theyíre not available to everyone.
If you canít get to steep, long ascents, I recommend a variable resistance
fluid trainer for winter training. If you donít have oneÖ get one! In the spring
and summer hopefully you can find a fairly long climb to use to train on and
measure your progress. Youíll just have to ride it over and over.
Hereís how you can simulate long climbs on your fluid trainer. Raise the
front wheel where the front axle is about 4 inches higher than the rear axle and
put the lever over to full resistance. Then just get on and go. Why 4 inches?
Most bicycles have a wheel base of 40 inches more or less. If you raise the
front wheel 4 inches above the back, it places your bike at about the same
attitude as a 10% gradient. But why bother you say. That 4-inch lift changes the
whole dynamic of the bike. Youíll notice it over several miles I promise. Your
lower back will feel stretched beyond belief. You need to get used to it.
For the spring and summer, youíll want to find as long a stretch as possible
and a gradient of at least 6% and better yet something like 7.5%. How can you
measure the gradient? Hereís how I do it.
I have a carpenterís level that is exactly 30 inches long (the longer the
better). I go out where Iím going to climb and at various points on the climb I
do the following:
Lay the level on the
Leave the uphill end on
the pavement and raise the downhill end up until you get a level
Measure how much you
raised the downhill end.
Divide the raised
distance by the length of the level and multiply by 100. Say you
used my 30 inch level and you lifted it 3 inches to get a level
reading on the bubble. It would be 3 / 30 = .10 * 100 = 10%. If it
was level after lifting it only 2 inches it would be 2 / 30 = .067
* 100 = 6.7%.
The higher the
percentage the steeper the grade.
A 125 mile mountain stage of the Tour de France is not going to be easy. Of
course Iím speaking as a 55 year-old man, but it would have been tough even when
I was in my 30s I think.
When I needed to know if I was going to be able to make the Etape ride this
year I had to try to set up an emulation of the actual ride as best I could. I
knew I needed 36 miles of climbing and about 72 miles of actual riding. Now the
stage was to be 88 miles, so why did I only feel I needed to ride 72? Good
question. The last 25km (16 miles) or so were downhill. Again, I turned to my 6
mile route on Skyline Drive I simply rode it 6 times in succession for 72 total
miles, half of which was climbing. Yes, it got very old by about the third time
up and that last time up was torturous. When I was done though, I knew I could
complete the EtapeÖ maybe. I know the elevation at the entrance station and at
the 6-mile point. Even with the 6 times up and down, It was only about 8,000
feet of climbing, 3,000+ short of what I had computed for the Etape stage.
Obviously this meant I would encounter steeper gradients in France than on my
training fields in the U.S. but I figure, correctly as it turned out, that I
could just gut it out. So can you, even if you canít completely emulate the
Etape ride here in America.
All Iím really qualified to tell you is how I did it. This is not from ego,
but from the fact that Iím not a professional trainer and Iím therefore not
qualified to speak from any theoretical authority.
There are a lot of good books out there. If youíve got self-discipline, get
one you like and follow it, but I would also say be prepared to get a feel for
and adapt to your own individual needs and for the needs of the Etape. Trust
your instincts a bit.
If you donít have a lot of self-discipline and can afford it, I think I would
recommend some kind professional trainer or training program. Sometimes a good
health club will have people who may be qualified. You local bike club may have
someone of stature you can trust and who will help you. Chris Carmichael has
CTS. Iíve included a link.
Finally - Just do it!
[Editor's Note: Many thanks to Doug for his thoughtful hard work on this