YOUR GUIDE: Rob Hayles

DISTANCE: 116 imles (187km)

MAIN CLIMB: Alpe d’Huez, at 1,850 metres

TOTAL CLIMB: You don’t want to know

ACHTUNG!: Crumbling road surfaces

To regular readers, Rob Hayles needs little introduction having spent three seasons riding for Cofidis with David Millar. Rob has been part of the British Olympic squad since Atlanta in 1996, where he met his wife Vicki, and is the cornerstone of the team pursuit, as well as probably being the most experienced track rider in the country.

For this week?s special Rides feature Rob took us around this year?s Etape du Tour stage. A veteran of three previous Etapes, Hayles found time to ride the route following a tough weekend at the National Circuit Race Championships.

The first 56km of the route could well be the making or breaking of your day. With something like 8,000 people heading up the N94 towards Lac de Serre Ponçon and the tranquil town of Embrun it?ll be a seriously busy piece of tarmac. Although the drive into Gap may not give away the gradient, make no mistake that these first miles will be mostly uphill and often deceptively so.

A gently rolling road, you will be battling to control your excitement with no doubt plenty of people going into the red up the slight rises. Do this and it?s going to be a very long day indeed.

Rob makes the point that you don?t want to get a rush of blood to the head when you?ve still got seven, eight or nine hours ahead of you. ?In my previous Etapes,? says Hayles, ?I remember watching people shooting past me at the start, then seeing them five hours later. They were just crawling along.?

TEH REAL DEAL

Once you turn off the main N94 and onto the D902 you start to hit the hills proper. Through the town of Guillestre the road kicks up and will no doubt prove to be a bottleneck if the route goes through the centre of town, as seems likely. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that this is

the first designated feed station.

A short descent with a couple of rough sections and tight corners give you a flavour of what?s to come later in the ride. From here it?s all about trying to find a rhythm as you follow the valley floor, through the Combe du Queyras. It?s hard to believe that within a couple of hours, or less, you?ll be cresting the peaks in the far distance.

Rising up through the town of Arvieux at 1,548m you?ll make out the hairpins taking you toward the summit in front of you. Before you round the first hairpin and head into the wooded lower slopes be sure to take the time to look about and enjoy the pine trees, rocky outcrops and, fingers crossed, blue sky and smell of hot tarmac ? because soon you?ll be wondering why you signed up for it!

Into the woods there is some shade. On the upper slopes the route is much more open but thanks to the altitude gained it feels no hotter than it was lower down. With a short descent preceding your final assault on the Izoard, it?s a matter of grinding your way over the top at 2,360m.

Make sure you take the time to put on your gilet and armwarmers ready for the descent to Briançon. The top has open hairpins you can really get a lean on. As you drop into the trees be sure not to get too close to the edge of the road. The debris from the trees gave the edges a slick, dusty covering making it all too easy to get major understeer and head off the road.

LAUTARET IS HARD

Down a couple of straights we saw speeds of 90kph so you?ll find the downhill ends all too quickly in the town of Briançon. There?s another feed zone and elimination point in the town; it?s well worth stocking up with supplies here too, for the Col du Lautaret isn?t as straightforward as everyone seems to think.

Compared to the other climbs of the day, its 800m gain is small fry but it?s one of those climbs that goes on for ever ? it?s open, somewhat dull and could well have a block headwind for the whole 27 kilometres.

While the top of the Lautaret valley, heading towards Bourg d?Oisans, is quite attractive, the road is in an appalling state. In fact it?s hard to believe that the authorities have left it like this for the Tour de France as normally they resurface anything with even a crack in it. Perhaps Polycell should have been sponsors.

Further down things get no better and there is every opportunity to pick up a puncture here. The tunnels may offer some welcome respite from the heat, or rain, but are dark and dingy places to ride through. Make sure you take on some more food around La Grave to give it a chance to go down before the final climb and the short rises before it. Rob makes an important point here: ?Watch out for riders coming back towards you along the Lautaret. The short climbs see riders coming back towards you very quickly and the zig-zaggers will be a danger.?

Before hitting Bourg you?ll make a right and head across to the most iconic climb in the world, Alpe d?Huez. The cut-off point is 4pm so make sure you get onto the climb by then. Pick up some food too, because those last 15km will take forever if you blow.

Rob?s advice: ?Start the final climb with at least one full bottle.? Don?t be fooled by the hairpins, it?s great that they count down but the distance between them gets greater the nearer the top you get. Just enjoy the climb safe in the knowledge that you?ll have completed one of the toughest mountain stages going and in a time the pros will probably halve!

?It?s an excellent day out, simply amazing. The sheer number of riders on the road still amazes me every time I take part. It?s a brilliant event, make sure you enjoy it,? says Hayles.

WHICH WAY?

GAP, Pont-Sarrazin (LA ROCHETTE), LA BÂTIE-NEUVE (près), MONTGARDIN (près), CHORGES, Carrefour N.94-D.409, SAVINES-LE-LAC, CROTS (près), EMBRUN, CHÂTEAUROUX-LES-ALPES (près), SAINT-CLEMENT-SUR-DURANCE, Carrefour N.94-D.902A, MONT-DAUPHIN, GUILLESTRE (D.902A-D.902), ARVIEUX, Chalp, Brunissard, La Casse Déserte, Col d?Izoard, Le Laus, CERVIERES, BRIANCON (D.902-N.94-N.91), N.91, Chantemerle – Serre-Chevalier (SAINT-CHAFFREY), LA SALLE-LES-ALPES, LE MONÊTIER-LES-BAINS, Le Pont-de-l?Alp, Col du Lautaret, VILLAR D?ARÊNE (près), LA GRAVE – LA MEIJE – ISERE (38) – LE FRENEY-D?OISANS, Le Clapier (AURIS-EN-OISANS), BOURG-D?OISANS (N.91-D.211), LA GARDE-EN-OISANS, Le Ribot-d?en-Bas, Le Ribot, HUEZ-EN-OISANS, L?ALPE-D?HUEZ

(entrée), L?ALPE-D?HUEZ

ROB HAYLES: THE FACTS

* Rob was born in Portsmouth on January 2, 1973

* Rob and Vicki have recently had their first daughter, Madeleine

* Has ridden for a team for the last eight out of 10 years, but this year is going it alone with his own set of sponsors

* Won gold at this year?s Commonwealth Games in the team pursuit and was 2005 world team pursuit and Madison champion

(This article originally appeared in CW June 29, 2006)