TDR sent a lone rider to face the challenges of l'Etape du Tour this year. Here's Watson's account of what went down:
"As some of you may know, I am currently lucky enough to be riding around France and following the tour. On Monday I completed the Etape du Tour, a sportif organised by the ASO that replicates one of the stages of the current Tour De France. I thought now was as good a time as any to do a ride report while it is fresh in my mind.
This year there are actually 2 etapes, I did the first one, being the same as stage 19 of the tour (Modane to Alpe d'Huez), comprising 2 hors categorie climbs and one category 1 climb. As the stage is under 120km, distance was never going to be a problem, climbing was the issue; when you take out the 65km of descending, you are left with about 3.5km of vertical ascent over only 45km. A big day for anyone. Even Adrian or Jeremy.
The first thing that I noticed about the ride was that there was a great atmosphere, all the towns have their party dresses on for the tour and all the locals were out yelling encouragement, a nice change to the yells you get from the people at home when you ride past. Cowbells, water bottles, people running along, it was all amazing.
After the grand depart there is only 15km of a slight downhill before the first climb, the Col du Telegraphe, a Cat 1 climb described as a 'warm up' for the day. 2 days earlier I had to ride it to register for the etape, and partly due to the lack of food and partly due to it being the first ride I had done in France, I was chewing nails. Luckily on the day I felt great, and despite starting near the back of the field, over the 12km I pounced over 2000 people, despite telling myself that I would take it easy on the first climb. I think with the tour this climb won't see much action, except from those after the polka dots, because the later sections of the stage will neutralise any advantage gained.
While the telegraphe and the galibier are technically separate climbs, given they are only separated by 5km of descent it is accurate to treat them as one LONG climb (about 30km together). Riding through Valloire (where I am currently staying) at the base of the galibier was enough to give me hope for the massive col. My gf, along with the people I am staying with, and the rest of the town were out in force. It is amazing what cheering masses does for one's adrenaline. I hit the galibier feeling great, and continued my good form on the hills, overtaking over 1500 on the Galibier. As climbs go, this was definitely the toughest I had ever done, 15km (more if you include the climb out of valloire) at 7 percent. Unlike the Telegraphe, which starts hard, the Galibier takes a few km to kick up, so the last 7km have you gritting hard. Luckily I was hooped up on cliff bars and reading the paint on the mountain from previous tours to get too far into the red, and I summitted feeling pretty good.
The next 50km were almost all downhill, on the most dangerous descent I have seen. The pros will fly here. In fact, the descent will be really handy for Cadel and other GC riders who may loose schleck/contador on the galibier but can descend like the wind. Expect to see even pegging at the base of Alpe d'Huez is my 2 cents. While I could have probably cut 30 minutes or more off my overall time by attacking the descent, I had promised the gf that I would be careful, and there were enough numpties chopping wheels for me to think that it was not worth the risk. Unsurprisingly there were approx 3 serious accidents on the descents so I am glad I took it easy.
I arrived at the base of Alpe d'Huez at about 11.30 and it was HOT, which was made worse by the fact that the alpe is in direct sunlight with little to no shade. I started the climb in about 5000th position (I started at (6500) after letting lots that I passed on the previous climbs go past me on the descent. It was a real joy being able to ride Alpe d'Huez without any cars and with so many people cheering you on. There were people playing music on the switchbacks, old french men pushing women uphill, people pouring water over the riders and lots of support, it really helped everyone get through the climb. For the whole ride I stayed under 85 percent max heart rate and my only concern on dHuez was my left hammy tightening up, I could feel the cramp not far away. For me this was the hardest climb of the day, about 15km where the garmin rarely dipped under 10 percent. The one saving grace was that I knew that the start was the worst and once the first 3km were over, the really steep stuff was out of the way and I could find a good cadence and ground my way on. After 7km my left foot was starting to go numb and my leg was tightening up a lot, but I resisted the temptation to stop until the water refill point, last thing I needed was my legs tightening up off the bike. I filled my bidons, pourted some cold water down my back and got back on for the best 7km I have had on a bike. Once I got moving I saw that I was still passing people (I overtook 2000 people on Alpe d'Huez and finished at about 3300, up 3200 places) and looked up and saw the church on the top of the mountain and knew that I would be okay.
As soon as I saw the 2km to go point I put it in the big ring and had at it. I have never had such a surge of adrenaline finishing a ride, not even while racing, there were literally thousands of people shouting, and I sprinted through the finish line with a cheesy grin.
If my experience is anything to go by, the last 2km will be great to watch when the pros hit the mountain, it levels off a little bit so there could be a good old uphill sprint, if Evans or Contador are in the mix expect them to do well.
If anyone is coming to France to watch the tour in the future I cannot recommend doing the etape enough; it is well organised, the people are friendly, there are crouds of people yelling and you get to ride on closed roads in some of the most beautiful places in the world."
Love your work Will!