Now into its eighteenth year, the Etape du Tour has established itself as the flagship event in the European sportive calendar, annually producing a gruelling Tour de France mountain stage for amateurs to pit themselves against.

This time round is no different, with the 2010 event promising to be a cracker. Celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Pyrenees’s inclusion in the Tour, the 174-kilometre route takes in the tough climbs of the Marie-Blanque and Soulor before a showpiece summit finish on the Tourmalet, the highest road pass in the central Pyrenees. Just two days after the 2010 Tour de France route announcement, CW got on the road in Pau to check out the gruelling parcours.

The expansive Place Verdun felt a lot larger for CW in the dawn October chill than it will for the 9,500 riders rolling out of it this summer. The route quickly heads south onto the poplar-lined Route National, bound for Oloron-Sainte-Marie. Our correspondent opted for the safety of the car on this stretch, rather than risk running the gauntlet among the HGVs. However, for the adrenalin-filled Etape peloton, these first 45 kilometres on dual carriageway promise to be the fastest of the day.

A couple of stiff climbs on the dual carriageway will get the heart pumping. The route stays on the fast main road till turning off at Escot, at the foot of the Marie-Blanque.
After heading through the village, the right turn onto the day’s first climb is a 90-degree right-hander, so bottlenecks in the bunch are possible.

With two tough climbs to come, pacing yourself in the first couple of hours is crucial. This particularly applies to the Etape’s opening climb, as its fluctuating gradients making it difficult to find a rhythm.

After the summit, where the Etape’s first feed stop is rumoured to be, there is a brief section of false flat before a generally quick and safe ten-kilometre dash into the valley at Bielle. Watch out for one or two sharp bends, as well as a couple of minor cattle grids halfway down – they’re called barrières canadiennes.

Though a mere pimple on the route profile, a punchy two-kilometre climb out of Louvie-Juzon, came as a shock to the system after the headlong descent. A fourth-category climb in the Tour de France in the past, this ascent was steep enough to hurt the legs and require the small ring.

From there, it’s a rolling ride on winding roads through sleepy towns in the Pyrenean foothills. The road starts to slowly rise again at Asson, where the route dives right and heads for the start of the Soulor at Ferrières. As you cross the 100-kilometre mark, mountains loom menacingly on the horizon, a sign of things to come.

Safety in numbers

The Etape du Tour is gruelling enough without treating the event as a 100-mile mountain time trial. To achieve the best time, it is sensible to get into groups on the long valley and downhill sections in between the climbs. Any energy saved will get you up the Tourmalet that little bit faster. For example, between Bielle and Ferrières, there are 40-odd rolling kilometres that can be covered faster when sharing the workload.

The Soulor doesn’t mess about, the road quickly pitching up to seven percent and staying around there for the duration of the climb. Its difficulty ensures that it is a more-than-worthy precursor to the Etape’s centrepiece final climb.

From the top, it’s an exhilarating first half of the descent. With several sharp turns, this is where a fluid and confident descender can put time into a more timid counterpart. The stage profile may give the impression of a continuous descent for 20 kilometres, but CW found that a false-flat headwind section through Aucun sapped precious energy before the road dives down again for a 60km/h burn-up into tourist-friendly Argelès-Gazost.

From here, it’s a long way up to the Tourmalet’s lofty summit – about 1,600 vertical metres. The climbing begins on the outskirts of the town, the best part of 35 kilometres from the finish of the Etape. The scenery on the slowly-rising corniche road, hewn into the rock-face, is stunning, with the eye-catching Gorges de Luz on the other side.

CW enjoyed a blessed tailwind for some of the way, but generous gusts could not disguise the road steeping into five and six percent straight stretches for several kilometres before Luz Saint-Sauveur. The town is likely to be the home of the third feed stop; there is also a water fountain in the main square to fill up your bottles.

The Hors-category Tourmalet comes as a daunting prospect after six hours of tough riding. Abnormally long for a Pyrenean climb, its unwavering gradient and mentally draining straight sections will ensure that the legendary climb delivers a stern test to even the hardiest of Etape competitors.

 etape du tour 2010, col du tourmalet, col du marie-blanque, col du soulor

Halfway up the Col du Tourmalet and Andy’s still going well


Col du Marie-Blanque
9.5km at 7.5 per cent
CW time: 56 minutes
Difficulty rating 3/5

Average gradient means nothing, folks. The Marie-Blanque hits practically every gradient in the book, its constantly changing pitch coming as a nasty surprise after the opening 40 kilometres of flattish riding. After a benign start, the climb suddenly kicked up to ten percent, forcing me into heavy breathing and my lowest gears.

Settling down again for the middle section, the bottom half of the Marie-Blanque is well-shaded, providing ample protection from the sun. The scenery is much akin to common Surrey Hills fare.
However, after passing a faded blue milestone, the diabolical gradients – the steepest of the day – rear their ugly heads in the final four kilometres. Even worse, the road stays largely straight for much of the climb’s final third, making it go on for what feels like an age.

The closing nine, twelve and thirteen per cent ramps felt like some of the slowest kilometres I’ve ever ridden. To boot, trees hide the summit until the final 100 metres. Coming so early in the day, I was perhaps a little too relieved to reach the top.

Col du Soulor
13km at 7.1 per cent
CW time: 1-15 hours
Difficulty rating 4/5

The climb isn’t used often from its north side in the Tour de France. The draggy roads leading up to the town of Ferrières already took me up to 500m. Narrow and wooded, deep in the Ouzom valley, they lent to a feeling of quiet isolation.

Sheltered by the dense woodland, the climb’s opening kilometres ease you into things, at a steady six-percent. At the five-kilometre mark in Arbeost, things set serious. From here to the top, the gradient barely fluctuates, averaging eight percent. Though steep, I found the unchanging gradient made it easier to get into a rhythm and tap out a solid – albeit slow – pace.

The second half of the ascent is more exposed to the sunlight. As for most of the day, there are fine mountain vistas to be enjoyed as you climb higher: the tinkle of cowbells and stretching green pastures could easily be mistaken for a Swiss Alpine scene. The Soulor was comfortable if tough, sapping valuable energy and resolve. For me, there was a kind of impatience associated with it – I just wanted to get it out of the way so I could focus on the Tourmalet.

Col du Tourmalet
19km at 7.4 per cent
CW time: 2-08 hours
Difficulty rating 5/5

After the opening three kilometres out of Luz-Saint-Sauvuer, it is an unrelentingly long and steep haul to the top of the Tourmalet, the gradient barely wavering between seven and nine per cent for the duration.

Predictably, I had overdone things earlier in the day and subsequently found the Tourmalet very tough. I broke the climb into three manageable sections: from Luz-Saint-Sauveur to the ski resort at Barèges (11km); Barèges to the five kilometres to go mark where the climb’s summit can first be glimpsed; then the final push to the top.

The rigours of the day began to catch up with me in the climb’s opening kilometres: neck-ache, back-ache and a searing pain in my calves. However, the repetitive mental strain was the most damaging ailment. Psychologically, this climb is very tough to handle. At least the Etape riders will be going through the same, slow torture as thousands of others on the slopes; on this unexpectedly-warm October day, a feeling of loneliness pervaded for me, from the steep road seemingly stretching into the horizon to the empty chair-lifts. Moreover, after Barèges at halfway, there is precious little civilisation. Dredging up the remnants of my energy and confidence, I pushed on.

The views get more impressive higher up, but I barely noticed amid the strain to reach the top. The final kilometre, a metaphorical raspberry-blown-in-the-face, seemed interminable, ramping up to 10 per cent. The huge relief at reaching the top, after two hours of plodding progress, underlined how much the Tourmalet made me suffer.

etape du tour 2010, col du tourmalet, col du marie-blanque, col du soulor

Andy feeling proud of himself at the top of the Tourmalet. And yes, we’ve told him about his ankle warmers.

Sign up for the Etape now!
Entries are already selling fast for the 2010 Etape. It can be a logistical nightmare organising your own Etape, so it’s a good idea to book with one of the several British companies which streamline the process. To make sure you don’t miss out, here are the big companies to contact:

Sports Tours International
016 1703 8161

French Cycling Holidays
020 8861 5888

La Fuga
0208 144 1441

  • Rosebud

    Just home from L’Etape 2010. A fabulous ride and this article was genuinely helpful. My only disaapointment is the p[lug at the end for th etour companies who “streamline the process” — in my case with Sports Tours International nothing coule be further from the truth… a complete shambles.

  • Paul Donnelly

    Having just run a weekend of training on the 2010 Etape du Tour route, I thought it might be enlightening to add a few comments to the cyclingweekly preview. Its probably worth noting that altho’ the pros will ride 174km, the etape is scheduled to be 181km & this may not sound much, but when you find its another 7km further up the Tourmalet, then it becomes significant!
    The extra 7km are most likely due to a different route out of Pau to the one the pros will take. However, the preview states that the 1st 45km will be fast on dual carriage-way. The route listing says otherwise as from Gan, the Etape follows an undulating road, similar to the Surrey countryside, thro’ Lasseube & Goes before entering Oloron with at least 4 significant drags to test the legs before the flat main road to Escot. There’s a link to a video – albeit in French – which shows the main parts of the ride here
    If anyone wants further advice – I live in the counrtyside south of Pau -,they can contact me on this e-mail
    A Bientôt,

  • Herbie

    I agree somewhat with Niall – we did the etape first back in 2002, and really enjoyed it. But by the 2005 Etape the costs were rising and the whole thing felt too popular for its own good. We hit bottlenecks on the early climbs , and some of the feeds were not so well supplied – who wants the leftover peach flavoured water and processed chees slices, when you were hoping for some energy drink and carbs?! So we switched to other events, and by far the best so far has been the Maratona Dles Dolomites – 4,000+m of climbing, in absolutely stunning scenery, 8,500 participants, no bottlenecks, superb organisation that knows what its doing and just gets better year-on-year, and apart from the entry through Cycling Weekly (thanks to Ian Stuart), the rest you can easily organise yourself – accomodation and transport.

    However, if you are doing the Etape this year it does sound a fantastic route. We did the Marie Blanque in 2005, and have done the Soulor climb from the north, which is a little smoother than the Aubisque, and then the Tourmalet is classic. Maybe the 45 Kms of flat at the start will aloow the field to spread out before the climbs, and so there will be no bottlenecks. A great way to train/prepare mentally is using the Etape reconnaisance DVDs, but failing that I’ve found the Rick Kiddle DVDs good, and he has one that happens to tackle the Soulor from the north. These are good for mid-week and bad weather training.

    Hope everyone enjoys it.


  • Niall

    “the Etape du Tour has established itself as the flagship event in the European sportive calendar”. Really? e.g. The Marmotte has been running longer, has more vertical, goes massively higher, is much harder and most significantly is much better logistically. You can organise the whole thing yourself as opposed to it being a “logistical nightmare”. At the very most the Etape is ONE of the flagship events in the European sportive calendar. It’s famous because of its association with the TdF, but it certainly isn’t the only, or the best, or the hardest European sportive. It probably is the most expensive though.

  • p*bongo

    The 2010 route for the etape is very good, having ridden the full course myself in October it is worth keeping an eye on your efforts in the 1st hour with the false flats making it easy to try harder than expected and a critical part is to get enough drinks and food from the start as it is a long day. Also make sure you have a wind proof top for the down hills as it gets cold on the long bits. The ride we completed was recorded on dvd by and will be released early 2010, which will have advice on the course and nutritional advice for the ride.


  • Tim |

    It’s going to be carnage!

    We did it in 2009 (stupidly, I rode the Ventoux as a recce twice in the two preceding days which was VERY silly) and it was epic.