The Étape du Tour starts and finishes in the town of Annecy, which gives its name to the Lake that, alongside the surrounding mountains, makes it possibly one of the most picturesque Étape locations ever. A grand tour of some of the prettiest and majestic riding terrain in the world, the ride is a clockwise loop through two départments, the Savoie and the Haute Savoie, taking in hills and mountains that make up the Bauges massif, part of the French Prealps.
The Savoie and Haute Savoie départments are the perfect Alpine environments – fir trees, lush green meadows, rolling hills, handsome mountains and possibly more cows than people. The fertile land and large bovine population means cheese is a big part of the cuisine and diet here. Cheeses like Tomme, Gruyère and Reblochon. Tartiflette – a (winter) dish using Reblochon cheese, potatoes, cream, lardons and herbs is a something that shouldn’t be ordered lightly.
After the 2011 and 2012 double headers including the catastrophic Massif Central in 2011 (where only 1,200 of 6000 starters finished)
and the Circle of Death in the Pyrenees in 2012, this Étape is more digestible, but certainly not easy. This will be the 21st Étape and mark two decades of the amateur event established in 1993.
It’s also the Étape in the year of the 100th edition of the Tour de France. A year to remember and a route which A.S.O. the organisers of the Tour and the Étape, have described as “the Tour of all the beauties of France”. Ridden entirely within France and beginning for the first time in Corsica, known as the ‘Island of Beauty’, this will set the ‘tone’ for the rest of the race. This penultimate stage A.S.O. have elected to use as the Étape route will be a real spectacle at the Tour this year before the final day’s ride to Paris. It’s a beautiful route and one to celebrate this landmark year for the world’s grandest stage race.
MENU DU JOUR
An easy way to describe the route could be a ‘three course meal’. There are three main elements to the day’s menu, the entrée, plat principal and dessert.
Departing from Annecy you should set off at a steady pace – the adrenaline will get the better of many at the start as riders try and hammer it along the first and only real flat section of the course – the main road on the western shore of the lake, the Route d’Annecy. But it’s important just to hold your line and let the faster, more ‘ambitious’ riders overtake. As you approach St. Jorioz and then turn right off here onto the D10B, it’s likely there will be a bottleneck: patience and composure will keep you happy here.
Côte de Puget. 5.4km at 5.8%
As you find a good spot and rhythm on the narrower road, it twists up away from the lake. The first climb up the Cote de Puget is one to warm up with and go steady on its relatively mellow gradient. Go at your own rhythm and find a comfortable gear. It’s very important you don’t burn yourself out on this first section. This climb also provides a stunning vista across the lake. Hopefully a clear sunny day will give you the first of many breath-taking views. The road then continues into perfect Alpine pastures. It’s stupidly pretty as you roll towards the next official climb of Col de Leschaux. 3.6km at 6.2%. But don’t let this enjoybale appetizer, which is could be ever-so slightly filling, lull you into a false sense of security.
With any nice meal you want to savour it. Rejoice in the route and don’t ‘eat’ too quickly. The route gets progressively harder and as you reach Col des Prés at just under halfway your legs should give you an indication of how good you are feeling.
The descent off Col des Prés has some tricky cambers and is quite twisty with a hairpin or two. But this should be fun if you keep your wits about you, don’t be too distracted by the amazing and expansive views… Once you reach St-Jean d’Arvey, where there is a water stop, you’ll ride on towards the real meat of the main course, Mont Revard.
Col du Mont-Revard. 16km at 5.4%
You’ll notice changing scenery here. Mt. Revard is not the prettiest of climbs as it’s mostly climbing through forest up to a ski station. Nothing is perfect, and you may have to get a bit ugly yourself on this climb, just as racer Cyrille Guimard had to do in the 1972 Tour de France.
Guimard was in yellow and was matching the Belgian Eddy Merckx as the race headed into the mountains. Fighting to keep the lead on long climbs, he aggravated a knee injury he sustained in an accident with a car whilst training. Merckx won two stages in the Alps and Guimard the next on stage 15 where Merckx tried to dispose of him over Mont Revard. But Guimard (a tough Breton who would later coach some of the best French riders including Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon) hung on and crossed the line first by a fraction just as Merckx raised his hands thinking he had won.
By this stage Guimard was being lifted onto his bike each day because of his knee injury and showed remarkable resilience. Guimard was in second place and leading the points competition two days from the finish in Paris when he was forced to withdraw due to the injury. Merckx respectfully gave his green points jersey to Guimard on the podium in Paris._
Like Guimard you’ll have to show fortitude and fighting spirit on Mt. Revard. But the reward at the top here isn’t just getting to the top, you’ll see an incredible view out to Aix-les-Bains and Lac Bourget. And another prize for climbing this mountain is the descent. At 1,538 metres something like a gilet or wind jacket will be useful here. It’s important to take every kind of kit you have to France as the weather could do anything on the day – when we were there we moved from 20 degrees and sunshine to rain clouds and winter temperatures.
Down from Revard is fast and not too twisty, it’s good fun, especially with closed roads. Again have your wits about you and watch for a slightly broken road surface. (A.S.O, organisers of the race and the Étape, assured us the roads will be repaired before the Tour begins.)
Once you’ve descended you’ll come back on yourself at a white shrine and ride some more narrow-ish but lovely rolling and shaded roads. Then you cross Pont de L’Abime – a suspension bridge built in 1887 which links the towns of Cusy with Gruffy over the River Le Cheran. And this is where the final, crowning course will be served.
Semnoz. 11km at 8.3%
The Semnoz begins effectively on a straight drag up to its official starting point. There is a feed station in Gruffy, which it would be wise to use. The final and toughest part of the journey, the Semnoz will also (eventually when you reach the summit) provide the most beautiful aspect of the day.
Known as the “Green lung” it is the first time to feature in the Tour and will be an unknown climb for many of the pros as well as riders of the Étape du Tour. It is the highest peak in the Haute-Savoie and is no easy climb. It’s a lot about frame of mind at this point and finding a good place mentally. If you have a mantra for climbing, this is the place where it could really help you focus.
Once you reach the summit of the Semnoz, however long it takes you, you’ll get there and be completely stuffed, but entirely satisfied… The view should really – if the climb hasn’t already – take your breath away.
GARDEZ-EN SOUS LA PÉDALE
Dominique Gabellini, who narrates the film and also rode the route with us, used some French cycling jargon in relation of how to ride the Étape du Tour 2013. Gardez-en sous la pédale means ride within yourself, hold something in reserve, watch your pedals…
Keep your powder dry for the final test. It’s also very important to keep your body well fuelled. Use the feed stations, which apparently will be serving the kind of local cheeses previously mentioned. There are four feed stops and five water stations, and it’s always prudent to use them even if you think or feel you don’t need to.
You have a long time to finish this route, 9.5 hours in fact so take it in and keep your head up. Talk to people, relax, don’t be too serious, enjoy the opportunity to ride on closed roads on a beautiful stage of the 100th Tour de France.
Once you’ve taken in the view at the summit of the Semnoz you’ll descend down partly the way you came back to Annecy and safely enjoy a digestif and possibly even jump in the lake to celebrate your achievements.