The Etape du Tour is the annual stage of the Tour de France – typically a tough mountain one – in which amateurs can compete under the same conditions as the professionals will a few days later. My husband Steve did it this year as his half of the Team Shepherd charity effort for Children with Cancer UK. Here’s how it went in his own words…
It’s ten years since I lined up in Limoges to do my first Etape du Tour. That was a long day in the middle mountains of the Massif Central; this year’s Etape featured two Pyrenean monsters – the Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam; plus a forecast of wind and thunderstorms!
My training for the event started in February with increasingly long and hilly rides in the Yorkshire Wolds and Dales. I’ve done a few Alpine and Pyrenean climbs, so I know you can’t really replicate them in Britain, but you can still improve your climbing and endurance – and you’ll need plenty of that!
At the start of the event in Pau the weather was perfect for riding, but what would it be like in the mountains? 13,000 of us were wondering and hoping the forecast would be wrong and fine weather would prevail. The start was well organised and we rolled out of town in waves of 1,000, a road full of bikes as far as the eye could see. With so many riders there was always someone to chat with and share the experience. A few easy kilometres clicked by, then the climbing started; a perfect warm up of two 3rd category climbs and rolling roads. Getting your feeding and drinking strategy right on a long day is essential for the tough stuff later, so taking on supplies at the early feed stations is a good move. It’s tempting to ride by as you’ve covered so little ground and expended little energy, but it’s a case of get it while you can. The Etape usually has plenty of well-placed and well-stocked feeding points, although they can resemble a road crash between two lorries carrying fruit!
The weather was kind to us for a good distance into the event. The wind, if anything, was generally helpful and the rain held off. That must have helped to ensure we had such fantastic support at the side of the road, and the number of locals cheering for us early on a Sunday morning was amazing. Many villages along the route were already decorated for the Tour stage passing through a few days later, but that morning it was for us amateurs. As we neared the half way mark and the mountains loomed on the horizon to the right the weather deteriorated. It’s hard to say exactly when the rain started; light drizzle just got heavier as the climb to the Col du Tourmalet went on. I ignored it at first and rode on in my short sleeved jersey, but eventually I had to admit it was proper rain and time to stop and put on a jacket.
As expected, the Tourmalet climb was long and tough, and I was soon using some very low gears. With the gradient and the rain it was a case of getting into a rhythm and working away at knocking off the kilometres. There were still Brits to talk to, including one nutcase riding the whole thing on a Raleigh Chopper! The feed station in La Mongie, five kilometres from the top of Col du Tourmalet, was a welcome break, although stopping for too long is best avoided as the legs take some coaxing back into action. The top of the first climb and the sight of the giant steel sculpture of a cyclist marked the end of phase one of the hard work, and I was glad to see it. Although I felt it had gone well so far and I’d passed quite a few riders, my legs were hurting. Whether I was looking forward to the descent was another matter. Normally I’d be more than happy at the thought of a fast 35kms descent, but on slippery wet roads and with pouring rain it wasn’t a great prospect. I started at as easy pace, found it wasn’t too bad and gradually picked up the pace.
20 kms later I pulled in at a feed station, shivering and damp, but happy I’d stayed upright. After a quick hunt for yet another cheese sandwich and some water I continued with another 15 kms of descending into improving weather. By the time I reached the flat road just before the start of the climb to Hautacam the sun was out and any thoughts I had of turning left for home instead of right up the climb soon disappeared. My right knee had been gradually tweaking more and more on the climb and I felt I was doing some damage. I think I’d always have continued, but the reception at the start of the final climb made absolutely certain of it. There were so many people cheering, shouting and waving flags and banners it made the first few kilometres fly by. One van flying a Yorkshire flag had been parked by the road way back and its occupants gave me another big cheer as they recognised a British rider.
Unfortunately the improved weather didn’t last. As we climbed the rain started again and continued all the way to the top, making a hard climb tougher. The gradient went up from around 6% near the bottom to 11% towards the top, but thankfully easing in the last couple of kilometres. The boards announcing the average for the next kilometre seemed to alternate between good news (6%) and bad news (over 10%). By this time in the day, hard as the riding was, I had the finish line in sight, and neither a dodgy knee nor aching legs were going to stop me. There was no sprint finish, just clicking up a gear or two and overtaking a couple of people into the finishing funnel, but the feeling of crossing the line was fantastic!
Once over the timing mat at the top there was chance for one more feed – another cheese sandwich of course – before another wet descent to the finish village to collect my medal, goody bag and a bowl of pasta. Riding back down the mountain while others still toiled upwards was great, even though some of the later starters would have a better overall time than me. I was happy with the 7 hours 38 minutes it took me to complete the course; way longer than the professionals would take four days later, but a grand day out.
The goody bag was great incidentally; not only do you get a really cool rucksack and t-shirt when you sign on, but at the finish there’s also a substantial medal and a souvenir Buff.
Epic events like the Etape provide a challenge, a chance to raise some money for charity (as I did for Children With Cancer UK) and also great stories and memories. Watching the pros on TV on the same roads brings it all back and the possibility of planning for next year’s event!
If you would like to make a donation to the Team Shepherd for Children with Cancer UK charity fund you can do so here.
It’s a long time since I’ve done a run for charity, mainly because I discovered that you can only ask your friends for money so many times before they start to cross the road to avoid you! But as me and Himself are both now in the year of our half century we thought we should do something special to mark it – and make it worthwhile at the same time.
In July Steve will be taking on L’Étape du Tour, the amateur stage of the Tour de France. The 148km route incorporates two huge classic Tour climbs, the Col du Tourmalet and the Hautacam. I like cycling, but rather him than me on this occasion – I’ll be following in the camper van! In September I’ll be doing the Berlin Marathon, which is (happily) completely flat and probably the best shot I’ll ever get at a sub-4 attempt. We thought we’d like to combine our efforts for charity – but which one to choose?
Our local paper, the York Press, has recently featured several stories like this one about young children who’ve sadly died after battling rare forms of cancer. Apparently around 3,600 children are diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK. This touched a chord, so we’ve decided to raise money for Children with Cancer UK, the leading national children’s charity dedicated to the fight against all childhood cancers. CwC aims to help find cures and provide care for young people suffering from cancer. Every year it invests millions of pounds in essential research, welfare and campaigning programmes to save young lives. We think it’s a really worthwhile cause.
Steve’s already well into his training for the Étape, and my training programme for Berlin will begin properly on 9th June. The thought of raising money for Children with Cancer will definitely motivate Team Shepherd to do as well as we possibly can! You can find out more about CwC’s work and read some really inspiring stories about how they’ve helped sick children on their website. If you’d like to support us (and them) by making a donation you can do this on our Virgin Money Giving page.
Thanks for reading and watch this space for training updates!
I’m so obsessed with running these days I sometimes forget that until about four years ago I was, if anything, a cyclist. Didn’t own a pair of running shoes, had never run so much as a 5K and went out on my bike most Sundays. Even managed to bag a couple of Alpine cols over the years! Then I caught the running bug and cycling definitely began to play second fiddle. Apart from anything else, running seemed much quicker and easier to fit into my working day. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I went out on my road bike last year, to the point where my cycling-mad husband threatened to put it on Ebay! My cycling was reduced to popping into town on my mountain bike.
It was only when I began to train for the Manchester Marathon earlier this year that I began to realise how cycling could actually complement my running. The training plan I chose, the Women’s Running Beginner’s Plan, included some aerobic cross-training, so cycling fitted into it really well. Instead of a Monday recovery run after Sunday’s long run I’d go on a 30 minute bike ride; then mid-week there was a longer cycling session, into which I tried to work a few small hills.
It’s easy to think that when you’re training for a marathon that all you should do is just run as many miles as you possibly can. Obviously running is very important! But in fact your heart and lungs can’t tell the difference between running, cycling, swimming or any other aerobic activity, so it all builds extra fitness – and without the impact on your joints of pounding the pavements. What it won’t do, however, is get you used to being on your feet for a long time, so you can’t substitute all running with cross-training!
The training schedule I’ve chosen for the York Marathon is the Women’s Running Improver Plan. It includes some much cross-training, but I’ve also decided to continue to substitute cycling for all the recovery runs as that seemed to work really well last time. The way I see it, recovery runs are about getting your muscles moving gently to aid repair, and cycling can do that just as well as running.
Since the Manchester Marathon at the end of April I’ve been doing less running and more cycling in preparation for the holiday in France I’ve just been on, where cycling through the lovely scenery of Provence was the order of the day. I’m hoping the hilly terrain will have acted kind of like interval training for my heart and lungs… but now the bike must take a back seat again as I need to get my legs back into running mode before my 14-week Yorkshire Marathon training programme starts on 15th July. Can’t wait!
I’d love to know what others think about cross-training. Do you do it?
Well, as we are experiencing our first proper cold snap of the winter, now seems as good a time as any to write something about exercising during the cold weather. I love to exercise outdoors – apart from anything else it’s much cheaper than joining a gym (I’ve definitely lived in Yorkshire for too long now!). I often run along by the river on a lovely day and wonder why people are inside running on treadmills in the nearby Bannatyne’s gym. Of course it’s relatively easy (and pleasurable) to exercise outdoors during the spring, summer and autumn, but in winter it’s so easy to decide it’s too cold to go outside and veg out in front of the telly eating comfort food instead – and so easy to gain a few extra pounds in the process! But not only is it important to keep active to stay fit, it’s also good to take advantage of natural daylight whenever possible in the winter months to keep those vitamin D levels topped up and, for some, avoid the dreaded SAD (seasonal affective disorder) or ‘winter blues’.
As Billy Connolly once said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes”. Perhaps not entirely true, as running or cycling in a deluge isn’t much fun, but it certainly does pay to be well-prepared for exercising in cold weather. A warm, rainproof jacket for running or cycling is a sound investment that should last you for years – preferably one with some light-reflective properties. And a hat or headband works wonders at keeping you warm when running. Gloves are a must – you’ll often see runners out and about at this time of year in the seemingly incongruous combination of vest/shorts and hat/gloves – though not me I hasten to add! Quality wind-proof gloves, overshoes and a warm base layer and tights are also essential for winter cycling. I usually wear two pairs of gloves if I can be persuaded out on the bike – although I much prefer to run than ride in the cold! You might need to experiment a bit to find out which clothing combinations work best for you as everyone is different. Personally I don’t get gilets at all as I’m a warm core, cold hands sort of person, but some people love them. Anyway, once you do get going you’ll soon warm up and I often find that if I go out running wearing a warm top, headband and gloves the whole lot will have come off by the time I get home! If there’s snow on the ground I love my Yaktraks. These fit onto your running shoes and grip really well. It would be hard to do a speed session in them due to the added weight, but you can still get a few miles in safely.
Don’t let winter put you off exercising outside completely. Once you’re out there and moving you’ll feel great and really glad you made the effort.