Sportive Breaks rider Chris Breckon took on the 2022 Etape du Tour on Sunday 10th July. The 2022 Etape du Tour took place on a tough route between Briancon and Alpe d’Huez.
L’Etape du Tour is probably the most well-known Sportive in Europe. This event is unique for two main reasons: firstly it is a different route every year, and secondly that its route will always be an exact copy of one stage of the Tour de France that the Pros will ride just a few days later.
The 2022 Etape du Tour took place on Sunday 10th July and was won by Austrian Stefan Kirchmair in a time of 05:17:25. 4 days later on Thursday 14th of July, British rider Tom Pidcock of Ineos Grenadiers won Stage 12 of the Tour de France on the same route in a time of 04:55:24.
Every year when the organisers of the Tour de France announce the full route there is excitement about which stage will be the route for us amateurs. So when the route for L’ Etape 2022 was revealed to be a 168km 4700m epic there was a lot of interest…and trepidation. The route was almost an exact copy, in reverse, of another famous amateur cycling event and Sportive Breaks favourite; the Marmotte
The Marmotte is well-known as one of the hardest Sportives in Europe, and coupled with the usual very high temperatures of mid-July on Alpe d’Huez it was going to be a significant challenge, possibly one of the hardest routes for L’ Etape there has ever been?
I was riding as support rider for Sportive Breaks, so I started from Pen 15, almost one of the very last riders to start. The plan was to ride through the first part of the route looking for any Sportive Breaks riders that needed help or assistance. With around 15,000 other riders ahead of me and clear blue skies with temperatures over 30° I knew it was going to be a long hot day……..
Heading out of the start town of Briancon I followed the advice given to the group by the Lead Guide at the Race Briefing on Saturday and maintained a steady 50% to 60% max effort up the Col du Lautaret and the Col du Galibier at 2642m altitude to complete the initial 36km. Its better to start easy and finish fast than it is to start fast and finish passed your limit.
The first Feed Stop at Valloire was a welcome sight, one of the huge advantages of being with Sportive Breaks is that you have a much better and more personal feed stop. Riders are still able to use the official feed stops but with several thousand other riders all grabbing for the same food and drink and regular pushing and shoving they can be a real lottery, it’s much calmer and civilised at the Sportive Breaks feed stop zone. With seating to rest the legs, a drop off bag if you wish, and a great choice of energy based nutrition it was quite hard to prise myself away and get back to the cycling.
After a flat 13km roll through the valley in between St Michel de Maurienne and St Jean de Maurienne, we again remembered the advice from our Race Briefing and kept riding with a group to stay out of wind and save the legs for the tough stuff to follow. A quick left turn through the village and ahead of us was the foot of the fearsome 29km irregular profile of the Croix de Fer topping out at 2067m high. The first 3km section was tough, but nothing like the second 4km section which averaged around 10%, winding it’s way upwards on fresh black tarmac that seemed to reflect the strong sun back on to the riders as the cadence started to slow and the shoulders started to drop. At this stage I started seeing the first pushers, riders deciding that they needed a rest from the saddle, either through exhaustion or heat. The further up the climb almost every Armco had riders sitting on it, some slumped directly on the tarmac in the shade, riders leaning over the barriers, the heat and gradient was now really starting to take its toll.
After a slight decrease of the climb in the lead up to St. Sorlin d’Arves we were again relieved to find the second Sportive Breaks feed zone. With just 6km further to the summit of the Croix de Fer this was a perfect place to take another stop and re-energise, we were beyond half way now but everyone knew the huge challenge of the day was not starting until after the 150km point. “I’m quite happy just sitting here for a while longer” was the regular reply to anyone who I asked if they wanted to join me as I headed onwards?! One significant factor about the high mountains is the temperature does drop as you climb higher, and this was definitely true on Croix de Fer, the top 5km kept at a steady cadence and constant power level. A fantastic descent off the summit saw speeds of well over 80kmh, with most riders remembering to keep to the right hand side of the road to allow faster riders to go down the left hand channel, which was good to see.
A quick pit stop at the official Feed Zone at Bourg d’Oisans showed me personally how busy the official feed stops can be, literally banana skins to avoid on the way to filling up two full bottles and grabbing two energy gels for the following final 13.8km of the day. The atmosphere was actually quite conducive to not remaining very long here, which was probably a good thing as we still had to get to the summit and somewhere behind us the Broom Wagon was rolling slowly our way, sweeping up any riders who were ready to raise the white flag on their Etape challenge for this year.
The initial 2km of Alpe d’Huez was like a furnace in the well above 30°c temps, the high curved stone walls in the first bends seeming to mirror the heat back directly in your face as you slowly push on past them. Staring down to keep the sun off your face just directed the heat from the black tarmac right back at you. Many pushing their bikes right from the first section, a long slow walk was their choice for finishing now. Exhausted riders crowded together in the shade on every corner, some lying on the tarmac with jerseys unzipped and water bottle held as a last resort. It was a welcome relief to see some spectators offering water to run alongside and pour the instant cooling down your neck.
The final few kilometres seemed to drag on but slowly closing down other riders and going past them gives great motivation to keep going. As mentioned at the beginning, “start easy and finish strong” was definitely the right advice from the Race Briefing, and from our test ride on the Saturday I knew that the big ring was going to be needed for the last 500m between the roundabouts at the top. So with one last left-handed bend it was time to deliver whatever was left in the legs for the sprint finish, the fans all banging the boards and cheering the effort, the colours of the Tour de France all around, what a feeling!
It was great to get to ride the event this year, and after catching up with the other riders from our Sportive Breaks group at our “After Party” event in the evening the stories seemed to be similar, a hot and a hugely difficult day, but what a day! And one that we will remember for many years to come, now we will already start the planning to next year’s event!
(Photographs permission from Sportograf.com)