Inside the 2023 Etape du Tour route - Mike Wilson
Our French cycling rep Mike gives us the lowdown on the 2023 Etape du Tour route.
Having competed in almost all the big name sportive and Gran Fondo events in the Alps including the Etape du Tour, Marmotte and the Time Megève, Mike still likes to push the limits and has had some respectable results in the Etape du Tour and even some recent podium finishes in local races. Mike is a fully qualified French bike guide and mechanic and has spent the last 20 years honing his skills and experience. He is ready to share them with you during your Alpine cycling adventures. His passion for the Tour de France is legendary and his knowledge of the race and its champions goes back to the 1980’s so he can offer great insights and anecdotes about this iconic race.
Can you share the details of the route and what riders can expect?
The 2023 Etape route is a break from previous years in that it does not climb the best known passes in the Alps, with the exception perhaps of the Joux Plane, but instead the route follows the narrow and quiet roads in the Chablais region close to Geneva.
On paper it seems easier than previous years but this is deceptive as whilst the mountain passes are generally short and at low altitude there are in total 5 categorised passes and one non categorised with a total of 4100m climbing over 152km, just short of 100 miles.
From Annemasse to Boege the road climbs almost constantly for 13km before you hit the foot of the first climb, the Col de Saxel, a relatively easy 4,3km climb on well paved roads. There follows a descent on fast narrow roads and 2 passes of 7km and 6km in quick succession which are much more challenging with average gradients of almost 8% and passages in excess of 10%.
To put this into perspective once you have climbed these 2 passes it is as if you have climbed Alpe d’Huez, but the hardest is still to come…
The uncategorised Col de Jambaz is little more than a gentle drag before a fast descent back into the valley. This brings riders back near to the start, where a left turn will take you towards the first major climb : the lesser known but difficult Col de La Ramaz. This climb was cut from the 2016 Etape Megève-Morzine due to a Landslide but at almost 14km and an average gradient of 7,1% it is very challenging, made even more so by the fact that there is little shade and it is south facing.
Just over half way up the climb the road passes several tunnels and the gradient steps up to 11,5% for a punishing kilometre before a flatter section which will allow riders to rest before the final kick to the summit. The descent is fast and technical in some parts and then the riders will have 10 km relatively flat in the valley to prepare for the final climb of the Col de Joux Plane. The Joux Plane is a punishing 11,6km at 8,5% average. After a first tough kilometre out of the village of Samoens with a passage at over 11% the gradient eases off slightly to between 7 and 9% for the next 5km.
The final 5,6km however never dip below 9% gradient with passages in excess of 11%. The climb is also south facing like the Ramaz, so in the afternoon sun it is likely to be very hot, making it even more of a challenge. Once riders have summited the Joux Plane there remains around 12km to the finish in Morzine, not forgetting a small kick back up to the Col de Ranfolly (1km at 2,9%) before the final fast and technical descent to the finish.
Next year’s Etape is extremely challenging but offers amazing scenery and a different experience of climbing through pristine Alpine forests on the first few passes in this beautiful region.
What significance does this area of France have in the history of the Tour de France?
The Chablais region, on the shores of Lac Leman has been little visited by the Tour de France in previous years but is perhaps one of the most picturesque areas in the Alps. Indeed, the first two passes Col de Saxel and Col du Feu have never been climbed in Tour de France history.
The Col de Cou has only been climbed 6 times in the Tour, the last time being in 1984 in the opposite direction half way through an epic 320km stage which finished in a sprint and saw the Belgian Frank Hoste wearing the green jersey edging Sean Kelly into second place in Villefranche.
The Tour was won that year by Laurent Fignon with Greg Lemond taking the white jersey as best young rider : he would go on to win the Tour 2 years later in 1986. The Col de Ramaz takes you out of the Chablais and has only been climbed 5 times in the Tour, but was used more recently in 2003, 2010 and 2016. French favourite Richard Virenque won the stage in 2003 which finished also in Morzine, but the two more recent climbs of the Ramaz have seen Belgian victories with Thomas de Gent winning in 2016 when the stage finish was identical to next year climbing the Joux Plane after the Ramaz.
The better-known Joux Plane has been used 13 times in the Tour de France and in each case it has been the final climb before descending into Morzine to the finish, it is renowned as one of the toughest climbs in the Haute-Savoie region of the Alps and often compared in difficulty to Alpe d’Huez as although it is shorter, the gradient is more sustained.
French rider Thierry Claveyrolat won there in 1991 to take the jersey as best climber, and Marco Pantani was victorious in 1997 in front of Virenque and a young Jan Ullrich. In an infamous 200km stage in 2006 the American Floyd Landis won in a lone break by over 5 minutes.
After climbing 3 major mountain passes before the ‘Hors Catégorie” Joux Plane he finished in Morzine to lay claim to the yellow jersey only to be disqualified for a positive drugs test and have his Tour title handed to the second placed rider Oscar Pereiro a month later.
What items are important to carry on the day ?
Next year’s Etape will be at lower altitude than previous editions so there will be less need for warm clothing, depending on the weather of course. You should always check the weather before travelling and pack warm clothing in your suitcase as the weather can change very quickly in the Alps. All being well, on race day, you should be able to get away with just a short sleeve jersey and shorts, although some riders will prefer to carry a very light jacket for the descents.
The highest point is just shy of 1700m but by the time you get to the Ramaz and Joux Plane it is likely that temperatures at the top will be 15-20°c. The organisers of the Etape lay on feed stations which can sometimes be a bit hit and miss. Our clients with Sportive Breaks have the advantage of private feed stations where we ensure their personal nutrition is ready and waiting for them.
For those going it alone, then you should be sure to carry at least 6-8 gels and 2-4 energy bars. It is important to take on food/gels every 20-30 minutes and hydration will be key to finishing the event in good condition.
I usually recommend starting with 2 full 750ml bottles of a glucose polymer drink like OTE Nutrition, and if possible carry a few sachets of powder to fill up at the feed stations. Always be sure to fill up on water where you see feed stations or fountains and do not make the mistake of starting a climb with half empty bottles. For example there is NO WATER available on the Col de La Ramaz or the Joux Plane so prepare in advance!
What is the best way for a rider to pace themselves on the route?
Any experienced rider will understand that it is essential to prepare adequately for a ride as difficult as this, so winter preparation will be essential with at least one long 3-5 hour ride every week starting in January. There are no hills in the UK which allow you to prepare adequately for the climbing so it is essential to build a strong endurance base during the winter and then start to do some speed work and climbing in spring.
If possible, an early season training camp in the mountains is useful with destinations like Calpe which we have chosen at Sportive Breaks being a great choice offering long climbs similar to those in the Alps.
On the day it is of the utmost importance to ride the first climbs within your comfort zone. I strongly recommend using a heart rate monitor or power meter at all times. If you have done your winter preparation then you will know your maximum heart rate and / or FTP and you should ride at 60-80% of maximum heart rate (Zone 2) or 50-75% of your FTP (Endurance Zone).
This may seem a little frustrating at the start and you are likely to see riders passing you and think “I can follow them”, but don’t make that mistake. Unless you are an elite rider you will be on the bike for 7-10 hours so riding at a pace that is comfortable for you will pay off as you will find yourself passing riders on the last 2 climbs that have pushed it too hard early on. Remember that the first 85km of the race covers 3 mountain passes but remains relatively “easy” : the serious stuff starts at the Col de la Ramaz. Once you hit the Ramaz you can start to test your legs a little but I would not recommend going over 85% HR (Zone 3) or 80% FTP (Tempo Zone), there is still a long way to go and the hardest climb remains between you and the finish.
Use the 10km in the Valley after Taninges to rest and recover and again avoid the temptation to follow the faster groups. On the Joux Plane this is where you can start to push your limits if you are still feeling OK, otherwise keep to your Zone2/Endurance pace if you are struggling. Be aware you will need plenty of water : it is a long climb which is likely to take you at least 1 hour and in the heat of the day it will be tough.
How can riders take advantage of riding in groups?
On the 2023 Etape route there is very little flat so you will not get much benefit from slipstreaming other riders, but riding with a group can nevertheless help morale on condition that the group does not make you ride harder than you would normally do. If you find your heart rate or Power increasing dramatically it is better to drop off the group and wait for a group which rides at a pace you are comfortable with.
Unless you are stronger than the rest of the group I would advise against riding at the front, make the most of the shelter and company. Always stop at feed and water points even if the group doesn’t : running out of water because you were following a group will not help!
Which will be the hardest climbs?
The first climbs are not too hard but will nevertheless take their toll, the hardest climbs are most definitely the Col de Ramaz and Joux Plane. Again, remember there is no water on these climbs and they are south facing with little shelter so riders will be in the sun most of the way up. As they are not very high, temperatures can get very hot from 10am onwards.
Ramaz has some very steep sections in the tunnels, and Joux Plane is consistently steep all the way so both cols will be challenging, but with the right preparation, full water bottles and good pacing during the first part of the race you will enjoy some spectacular scenery on both climbs.
What things should riders look out for?
This should be an amazing ride for you in some of the most spectacular areas in Chablais / Haute Savoie with amazing scenery and beautiful climbs so enjoy and make the most of it. All of the descents are quite technical with narrow roads and sharp hairpins and in particular on the last 2 passes you should be extra careful as you will start to feel the fatigue of the day.
There is also a very long, straight descent after the unclassified Col de Jambaz back to the valley at St Jeoire which will be extremely fast and caution should be taken not to get too close to other riders, but enjoy the closed roads and the the company of the rest of the peloton as you ride the same route the Pros will race only a few days later.
After the first descent you will see the Château Saint Michel d’Avully which dates back to the 14th century and belonged to one of the founding families of the Chablais region. You can clearly see this Château in Sportive Breaks Etape Video and it’s definitely worth a glance to your left as you speed on by.
The next 2 passes are extremely beautiful, make the most of your day as the sinuous road climbs through pristine Alpine forests and enjoy the descent back down to the valley where the historic town of St Jeoire awaits with its 13th Century Chateau de Beauregard. As you approach Mieussy, and on the lower slopes of the Col de La Ramaz, you will be treated to amazing views of the Mont Blanc in the distance at the end of the valley. At the top of the Ramaz you will start to see the ski lifts of the Praz de Lys Ski resort which is also famous for Cross Country Skiing. Once back in the valley you will have views again of the Mont Blanc as you approach the final climb of the day.
Take the time to fuel up at the bottom and enjoy the amazing views at the summit as you pass the Joux Plane Lakeside before your descent into Morzine and the finish
Book your pace at the 2023 Etape!
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