My Ride: A preview of the 2009 Etape du Tour route
Challenge: Completing it without heart failure
October 22, and as the route for the 2009 Tour de France is unveiled to the world below, a crackling voice saying “cabin crew, cross check and doors to manual”, breaks my slumber as we begin our descent to the city of Lyon.
I was already on my way to France before the official announcement had been made about the 17th edition of the Etape du Tour. Russian route-reconnaissance-roulette was being played and I was about to find out if the gamble had paid off, following rumours that had been circulating about a possible finish at the iconic 1,912-metre summit of Mont Ventoux in the Vaucluse region of France.
As I collected my baggage I was once again back in connection with the real world where news quickly came through that the 2009 Etape was a 172km queen stage from the Provence city of Montélimar to Mont Ventoux — providing over 8,000 cyclists the opportunity to ride stage 20 of the Tour de France next July 20.
Finally I could relax — up until that point it had seemed like I was on a random flight to nowhere. Things were starting to make sense, although reality hit home pretty quickly as the prospect of a one-to-one fist fight with the windy mountain was now just hours away. Not wanting Ventoux to steal an early march in the mind games that were sure to follow, I began the two-hour drive to Montélimar with three words in mind: bring it on!
It would have been nice to get a hot meal and a good night’s sleep before such a ride but a stale sandwich from motorway services and four hours’ kip had to suffice. That was after finally getting to the Hotel du Parc in the centre of Montélimar, building my bike up, going through the relevant kit preparation and committing the route to my loyal stablemate, also known as my Garmin 705.
Having breakfasted at 7am, I left the hotel and was greeted with an icy wind immediately reminding me that this wasn’t meant to be easy. Conditions, however, were much more favourable than the preceding days, which had seen constant rain bouncing off the road.
A quick tour of the town revealed that Montélimar has everything to offer including quaint cobbled streets, an abundance of hotels, cafes and restaurants and if you do happen to need a top-up of energy products there are nougat shops aplenty. Montélimar is the nougat capital of the world — I eagerly await for that one to crop up in the Monday night pub quiz so I can be the fastest finger on the buzzer.
Within minutes of leaving town I’d left the congestion to its own devices and was on beautifully quiet, picturesque, roads that would set the scene for the day ahead. All were narrow, technical and undulating.
The start of the Etape du Tour is always fast, with riders trying to surge forward to better their positions. In these early stages, and especially with the width of the roads, you really will need to ride with caution to avoid trouble.
Cote de Citelle
Without doubt the 8,000-strong peloton will still be together, thundering towards the first climb of the Côte de Citelle just 14km into the stage. With an average gradient of 3.9 per cent and at 5.2km long this initial obstacle will do little to split the pack, acting more as a leg warmer for the ride ahead. With such a large field and a series of switchbacks towards the top, you may face your first Etape bottleneck early on.
With less than 45km covered it was clear that I was tracking my way through some of the finest roads in Provence, passing through vineyards in rolling terrain as I made my way to Nyons. I was already imagining the lavender fields and sunflowers that would greet riders in the summer.
The fast pace should continue through the Gorge de Eygues, and with flatter roads it’s wise to try and stay out of the wind while topping up your energy levels. As you enter St Jalle the road narrows to one lane, before swinging hard right to start the first real test of the day, the Col d’Ey. There will be designated feed stations throughout but it’s worth noting that there’s a water fountain just after the right-hand turn.
The Col d’Ey is 6.3km in length and offers stunning views of the valley and surrounding mountains. With a consistent five per cent gradient and no sharp inclines to push you deep into the red, at the 718m summit the only thing on your mind will be how incredible this area is for cycling.
The short descent to Buis-les-Baronnies is fast and one to be enjoyed, while recovering and setting yourself up for the Col de Fontaube. Approaching mid-distance it’s worth remembering that the heat in the valleys can be oppressive come July, with little shelter from the sun.
It was so peaceful on this autumnal day in October that I risked slipping into my own little fantasy world. As I climbed the Col de Fontaube, breathing in the clear mountain air, I rounded a hairpin and there it was in full glory on the skyline.
The Ventoux was keeping a careful eye on my progress, with the telecommunications mast at its summit blowing its cover. On a clear day it’s an amazing sight; inspiring a mixture of anxiety and excitement that guarantees an adrenaline rush.
Col de Notre Dames
A short descent to Reilhanatte marks the starting point for the drag to Aurel and onto the village of Sault. The summit of Mont Ventoux is now ever-present, and as you descend to the base of the Col de Notre Dames des Abeilles and you can see the road ahead slicing its way through the Vaucluse plateau.
On paper it looks similar to the climbs that have characterised the day so far but in reality it’s a tough ascent on a wide highway that’s exposed to all the elements. At this point it could be very hot with the sun reflecting off the road and limestone walls. Its average four per cent gradient is deceptive, mainly due to the rolling section at the top that has short descents before pitching up to over eight per cent.
These short descents bring the average gradient down, making it far more challenging than anticipated, especially with 121.5km covered. Cresting the summit at 996m reveals an exhilaratingly quick 10km descent to Villes-sur-Auzon. Take care here, as crosswinds can be strong.
At this point everything should be geared towards staying relaxed and focused on the final ascent of the day. Although Mormoiron is still 30km from the finish it marks the point where the road starts to climb towards Bedoin.
Around now you must ensure that mentally and physically you’re ready for 22km of skywards riding from 309m to 1,909m at an average of 7.6 per cent. The initial three kilometres offer a moderate start, gently easing the legs into the road ahead as you pass through the Côtes du Ventoux vineyards and up to Saint Estève.
From here, the gradient increases, remaining constant at between 9-10 per cent for 9km. Shade from the pine trees and dwarf oaks that line the road may be welcome against the potentially stifling July sun. But there’s no hiding, this is a tough section with very little chance to rest or recover.
Approaching Chalet Reynard, with 6km to go, the mountain takes on a whole different look. Trees are replaced by a surreal lunar landscape made up of limestone. From here on in there’s absolutely no shelter as the Mistral makes it clear why Ventoux means ‘windy mountain’. The summit looks close enough to reach out and touch but the hairpin bends prolong the suffering for longer than you may expect. At 2km to go, I pause momentarily, passing Tom Simpson’s memorial. Being here serves to remind me of the history that has been played out on the legendary Ventoux.
Any mountain that takes a life and causes the great Eddy Merckx to need oxygen by the top gains my humble respect, and when you reach the top you can guarantee your share in the satisfaction that comes of completing a truly beautiful and challenging stage of the Tour de France.
TO ENTER THE ETAPE DU TOUR 2009
UK entries will be managed through www.lafuga.cc and www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk which has a selection of packages available. Logistics are normally tricky to arrange at the Etape, and with an organised trip you can relax and leave it to the experts.
Check for suitable flights run by airlines such as easyJet, BA, Ryanair and BMI to Grenoble, Lyon, Avignon and Marseille. If you’re booking a package through one of the Tour operators then seek advice on the best airport for arrival and departure.
Etape du Tour 2009 profile
Etape du Tour 2009 map