The 2018 Etape takes in a fascinating route with some big changes to the norm. Gone are the bucket list climbs and summit finishes. In are super steep, shorter cols & a first ever Etape du Tour gravel section. A lot of the route will be new to Etape riders, so we sent locally based rider Scott to ride the route and share his experience…
This is an Etape that will have you searching for that lowest gear and spinning out down some fast descents. The start point wont be announced for some time so I started the ride right on the lake, the same location as the last Etape in Annecy (it will almost certainly be the same in 2018). The first 40km will be a mere ‘warm up’ along the western shores of Lake Annecy, slightly rolling rather than flat, not dissimilar to the first 40km from this year’s route. Settle into a group early on which suits your pace as the latter gradients are going to challenge the legs. The short and sharp kick up from Talloires will test the climbing legs early on, albeit briefly, as 3 hairpins carry you above the lake before the gradient settles as the road continues to rise up to the Col de Bluffy.
Try to stay in a group on the brief descent off the Col, as it will be a fast ride along the flat, open roads all the way to Thônes and the base of the 1st climb, the 11km Col de la Croix Fry. This Col is more of a gentle introduction, a meander up the mountain compared to other 3 major climbs, with gradients from 6-9% and the occasional kick up to 10%. Reign in the early eagerness though of fresh legs up its steady slopes, save that energy for the more challenging gradients of the other 3 cols! The Croix Fry is a nice climb to settle into a rhythm, and with fresh legs and nice views this will be a really enjoyable part of the route. There are trees along the bottom sections offer some minimal shade, but you’ll be mostly fully exposed to the sun all the way, so manage water intake well, especially at this early stage in the Etape. Don’t forget to admire the views too though as you head into the high mountains!
The road briefly flattens as you ride through Croix Fry, a good opportunity to get in some calories before the sharp, hairpin bends of the descent. The top half of descent is technical, you’ll need your cornering skills to maintain good speed on the tight hairpins, then it’s a high speed drop as as the road straightens up above la Clusaz. You’ll be in that top gear heading into and through town before the road levels out significantly. From the edge of town it’s a pedally descent to St Jean de Sixt. Descending speed will pick up again leaving St Jean, so watch for the sharp left hander direction Entrement. If you can, take time to enjoy the high walled gorge before it is again heads down for a flat 5km run to the now infamous climb up to the Plateau de Glières.
Its gentle start as you turn right after crossing the bridge is a tease. There is nothing steady about this climb as it quickly hits with 11 and 12 % gradients soon after the first left hand turn and past the houses, and it only gets steeper with a sharp sting in its tail, waiting for fatiguing legs near the top. There is nothing consistent about this climb either, gradients ebb and flow from the ‘easier’ 11% to sharp sections of 15% to a leg wincing 18%. It levels off occasionally, only for the road to ramp up again around the next hairpin.
At least the tree lined bottom ⅔ of the climb offers some shade from the sun. A final sharp, steep hairpin takes you onto a flat section, which isn’t the plateau, but a brief, welcome respite before the last section which is consistent at least, consistently steep all the way to the plateau! If you need to take in some food, the flat section is the moment to do so. The refuge on the right is the start line for the steeper top section. Ramping up, it momentarily slackens off before rising to a consistent 16-18%. Reaching the sign for the plateau on the right, it is a bit of misdemeanor, it’s not the plateau quite yet, you’ve got another 400m before the legs can breathe again!
The plateau is a stunning place to be, but you are going to need your full concentration on the gravel track to avoid any trouble. If the weather is hot and dry, wheels will be throwing up clouds of dust and if in a group, it’s not going to be easy to miss potholes and the larger stones as it is fairly narrow. Keep your wits about you. Riding a bit slower and picking your lines is going to be key to making it through with no mishaps. Less likely of course if you are running a tubeless setup!
The first half is rolling, shallow descent and flat sections, pick your lines here as there are numerous potholes and regular water drainage tracks. The 2nd half is a shallow climb, ramping up to a brief 9% and back onto tarmac, where the road quickly drop away, but a km down the road, a short, sharp climb awaits, a 400m sprint, if you have that in the legs, before the descent begins proper.
The descent is technical, tight hairpins all the way down to Thorens-Glières. The little kick before dropping right down to valley direction Bonneville and Cluses, is the minor Col de Fleuries, a steady 5-6% big ring climb. The sweeping descent shares a similar gradient and this is where you’ll want to stay with a group you know that you can work well with as it’s a lengthy flat ride to the base of the Romme. Getting stuck here in no man’s land between groups is going to deprive the legs of precious energy you’ll need for the final 2 climbs!
There’s no gentle introduction to the Col de Romme, it’s straight into an average of 11%, but at least the stunning views might offset the mind focusing too much on the effort! The panoramic views across the valley are pretty spectacular as you quickly gain height. The gradient does level out some to a ‘mere’ 9-10%, but it is at least consistent. .
The Romme is one of many ‘village fleurie’, numerous houses and village areas displaying bright flowers, something to brighten up any grimacing face. It’s a gentle roll down through the village where there is a water fountain at the end, with amazing views of the mountains and a sign. A sign for the final climb, the Col de la Colombière. It’s not far, in overall distance, but far enough with well over 3200m+ in the legs. It’s a brief climb out of the village before a long straight drops you into the sweeping, tree lined switchback descent. There is a momentary sharply drop off with an uneven road surface into a left hander about half way down (indicated by red cones on either side of the road). Watch for this, unless it is smoothed out before Le Tour comes piling through! Dropping out of the trees, it’s a fast, long sweeping road into Reposoir and the 7km sign to the Col de la Colombière.
The views of the valley and the mountain peaks off to your left as you gain height are spectacular. With just under 3km to go, the Col comes clearly into view. The gradient cruelly picks up. It’s subtle, but enough to make the legs wince. With 1km to go, the gradient peaks at an average of 12%.
From the top, the gradient quickly drops off and you’ll be in that top gear within moments, speeding towards the finish at le Grand Bornand. You’ll pick up some high speeds down here, along the lengthy sections in between each sweeping hairpin. Those final kms will fly by and a well deserved rest and feed in Le Grand Bornand.
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