The 2017 Etape du Tour has a bit of everything.
The start is overlooked by a UNESCO heritage site, there is a long flat section, a stunning Alpine lake to admire, a road cutting through a gorge and two massive HC climbs to get over.
The route is 178km, by our reckoning we made it pretty close to 4,000m elevation.
Briancon is a great base. Not only is it a picturesque town with plenty to do for non riders, but it is also within a short ride of the Galibier, Montgenevre, Col d’Angel & slightly further afield Alpe d’Huez & the Bonette. For those able to spend longer than a weekend at the Etape, there is only a 3 day wait for the Tour to come into town with a stage finish in Serre Chevalier the day before the pros ride our stage.
Our riding team for this recon consisted of Rob, who has ridden the last 5 Etapes and always finishes middle of the pack, and Jon our resident coach who helps top end athletes and us lot. We rode the route over 2 days in mid October after an unseasonal heavy snow dump. The top of the Izoard was shut so we were not able to ride the last 6km, you won’t have that excuse on July 16th.
We are used to climbs of some severity coming quickly into an Etape. Not so in this edition. The first stretch follows the road south to Embrun which is mostly flat or slightly descending. This goes on for 50km so the first hour and half will fly by. After turning off the main road to skirt the stunning Lac de Serre Poncon, the ride gets tougher with some short but telling climbs all set against some incredible scenery.
Leaving the lake, the road continues to climb. The lake is definitely rolling, the road then to Barcalonnette is a long false flat. At this point in the ride it should feel ok on the legs but the softening for the later climbs has definitely started.
Rob – This is the longest section to an Etape without a major climb. The road surface is great and it is mostly descending all the way to the lakes with a couple of small ramps. As soon as we turned onto the lake road, we were climbing and working hard for the first time of the day. The scenery here is amazing so it is a fun part of the route but the legs were definitely working. After crossing a bridge that signified the end of the rolling lake section, the road continued slightly up hill all the way to Barcalonnette.
Jon’s Coaching Points – You’ve been waiting in the start pens and now your off leaving Briancon. You will have a nice gentle start rolling down hill before getting on to the rolling road towards the climbs. This is an important section of the Etape the drags on this road will start to add up over the 60k, getting into a group early will be a great help sharing the work load and help to save the legs for next two sections of the Etape.
Points to consider in this sector:
After a mostly flat first part, from here on in the road is always up or down. The landscape around this part of the Southern Alps is vast and epic, completely different from the narrow valleys further north and more similar to the Canadian Rockies than the French Alps. After a last bit of flat road, a long gentle drag begins not far from Barcelonnette and we are into the heart of this stage.
From Jausiers, the road gently rises to gradients of 2 to 3%, softening the legs slightly. The turn off to the Col de Vars brings a flat section as you travel along the valley floor until the serious part of the climb from the village of Saint Paul sur Ubeye.
From here the climb is tough, regular gradients of 7 to 10% with the last 8km averaging 7.5%. There are 2 tough kilometres where the gradient goes into double digits but there is a slight let off before the finish. Over the top the descent includes a couple of uphill kicks so make sure you save some energy for these before the road steepens for a quick ride into Guillestre.
Rob – The road from Barcelonnette to the start of the climb looks like a slight drag but it felt easy on the legs with no real challenges. The scenery is really nice in this part so is an enjoyable part of the route that should go pretty quick. After the turn off which marks the start of the Col de Vars, the road stays flat for quite a while until we could see the village of Saint Paul sur Ubeye. After that, it is a typical Alpine 6-7% climb until you hit the steep sections. There are two long straights around a hairpin that felt really tough, the hardest part of the ride so far. The gradient dropped for the last part of the climb but the legs were tired so it was a slog to the top. A harder climb than it looked on the profile.
Jon’s Coaching Points – After the rolling section 1 we move into section 2 this is Climb 1 of the day Col de Vars, you are given approximately 14k of drag leading into the climb, being within a group here will help protect your energy levels before getting to foot of the climb, you can be fooled into thinking its flat and start wanting to work hard as your speed will drop. Try and relax and hold back from pushing to increase pace too much.
Once on the climb proper be prepared to settle into an easy gear sit up hands on bar tops to help your breathing keep your back straight, there are no real surprises on the climb until approx 4k from the summit you are greeted by an increase in gradient, take a breath it will pass.
The run up to the summit from 2k is back to an easier gradient allowing you to settle back into your rhythm.
Time to descend, take a breath and relax into a stunning descent, making sure to ride within your ability, be aware of other riders and weather conditions. Make sure you focus on recovery before getting to the last section and the last climb. Again as in section one if you are looking for a fast time, the drag to the climb proper is change to get in a quick group and make some speed/time up. The descent you will be able to get some good speed up on a good road.
Points to consider in this sector:
Straight off the descent, there is a right turn out of town and straight away you are climbing again on the rolling road to the start of the Izoard. This is one of the prettiest parts of the ride, the road cut from the rock with a deep gorge on your left and dramatic views all around. The road from the bottom of the Vars descent to the start of the Izoard is 17km, mostly with gentle uphills gradients. The last 2km before the turn onto the Izoard sees an increase in gradient, in essence the last climb starts here.
The bottom half of the climb is through a number of small towns before the gradient kicks up and the scenery becomes more beautiful. Sadly, this is as far as we could get as a snowstorm had blocked the road.
Rob – We hit this section fresh but on the Etape the drag to the Izoard may be tough, as there are lots to concentrate on here from small ramps to tight tunnels. The climb starts before the turn which marks the official start of the Col d’Izoard. The gradients stayed low which is always unsettling knowing that means tougher parts ahead. There are few hairpins in the bottom half, just lots of long sections connecting the towns. There will probably be a final feed station in one of these. We couldnt do the final 6km but the road had just started to leave the towns and hit the forest with some sharp hairpins. This is definitely a back ended climb so save some energy for those tough last few km of a pretty long, and tough route.
Jon’s Coaching Points – Time to lock yourself into the zone, the end is in sight but with over 130 kilometres all ready under your tyres this will be a tough finish to your day. Off the descent of the Col de Vars you will first have to deal with 15k of rolling and drag to the start of the Col proper, in the 15k are sections of downhill, use this to recover and get fuel onboard.
As we have mentioned a few times a group again will work well on this section to help pull you to the climb. Make sure you are eating and drinking well, you will need this energy for 14k of climb. Having ridden this I would warn that the climb proper starts 2 before the left turn onto the climb, so be aware and ready for that.
Once you turn left you have a nice steady 5k of climbing once at the populated community you will notice the gradient increase and after all the miles it will feel really tough, sit up lock your back straight and deep breaths as now is when you need your focus, the second half of this climb is the harder, but thats it done each pedal stroke is progress so just keep moving.
Congratulations you have made the summit.
Points to consider in this sector:
This is one of the most varied routes in a long time. Briancon / Serre Chevalier is a great base for the weekend and the route takes in some incredible scenery from mountain lakes to gorge roads into the high altitude classic section of the Izoard. It is the longest Etape for a while and only features one proper descent. It promises to be the critical stage of the Tour de France and La Course so all eyes will be on these roads next July.
Good luck to everyone taking part!!
Jon’s overall coaching thoughts: You are in for a treat as ever with the Etape a beautiful start town (Briancon) surrounded by some stunning views. The riding will be a challenge with the hardest parts left to end with two big Cols. Ride steady at the start as some of the rolling roads will be tough on the way to the climbs, keep a little bit back. The roads are in great condition and roll well. It lends itself well to riding in a group so go practice that skill. Keep yourself well feed and watered during the flatter sections you will need that energy at the end.
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