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In this open-entry race, participants cover the same route that the cycling pros will cover just a few days later in the Tour de France. In 2015, the field included four cyclists who hit the jackpot in the prize draw from ŠKODA and WeLoveCycling: they were entered in the race and got to feel like pros for a day.

The legs burn, the pulse races, sweat streams down the face. Martin Roman gets out of the saddle and pounds the pedals from a standing position. “Don’t give up! Just keep pedalling, just keep going.” With a gaping mouth and open jersey, he struggles with gritty resolve up the Col du Chaussy – more than 15 kilometres long, with a maximum gradient of 8.7 percent. The 33-year-old is absolutely determined to make it, no matter how much he may want to give up. At the end of all the suffering the reward awaits: the finishing line of the Étape du Tour 2015.

José Gabriel García Caro and Emmanouil Maragkoudakis are also subjecting themselves to this extreme test of will. They won two of the coveted starting places in the WeLoveCycling prize draw sponsored by the online magazine and ŠKODA. Finally, Lionel Macaluso, one of magazine’s ambassadors, also signs up to push the pedals for the WeLoveCycling team.

The day finally arrives. On the agenda for the amateur racers on this sweltering day in July is the 19th stage of the Tour de France 2015. The 138 kilometres from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire are punctuated by four gruelling Alpine passes. Some 12,000 cyclists from 72 countries take up the challenge – an extraordinary backdrop. In comparison, the peloton of the hardest bicycle race in the world only has about 200 riders.

IT FEELS LIKE A REAL RACE. A RACE AGAINST YOURSELF, AGAINST YOUR INNER LIMITS AND THE MOUNTAIN BEFORE YOU.

J. David Martin Hernandez, WINNER OF A STARTING PLACE IN THE WELOVECYCLING TEAM 2015. HIS RESULT AT THE END OF THE DAY’S STAGE: 176TH PLACE OUT OF 15,010 PARTICIPANTS. HE CROSSED THE FINISHING LINE AFTER JUST 5:55 HOURS.

The Étape du Tour 2015

etape_du_tour_heigt_profile_2015_EN

Here, the four participants from the WeLoveCycling team talk about their moments of suffering and elation, the breathtaking climbs and hair-raising descents. They are all heroes, because they made it to the finishing line.

Martin Roman,
WeLoveCycling

Age: 33

Nationality: Czech

Job: Marketing

Bike: Sempre Pro Bianchi 52/36 with Roval 60 CLX wheels

Weight: approx. 8.5 kg

Time: 8:30 hours

“The Col du Chaussy is the first hurdle, shortly after the start. It’s a 15.4-kilometre climb with an average gradient of 6.3 percent. Here the key is not so much how well you climb with the bike, but how much pain you can endure – and for how long. A few participants pass me on the way uphill. The lads are so thin that my mother would send them to the doctor straightaway. And she certainly wouldn’t miss the opportunity to load them up with an extra portion of dumplings, to put some meat on their bones.

But back to reality. I don’t need any dumplings at this point – what I need is a fresh supply of water. Fortunately I’ll soon be able to take a breather because, just as in real life, the Étape du Tour is not all uphill – sometimes you get to coast down the hill as well. The landscape and the views on the 20-kilometre descent are so beautiful that I’m actually moved to tears. But this is no time for sentimentality. My speedometer shows that I’m moving at 70 km/h. It would be foolish to underestimate the dangers that lurk here. The point is driven home when I pass several ambulances. A few cyclists have crashed and are lying prone on the roadside wrapped in shiny space blankets – not a pretty sight. 

MY TOP SPEED IS OVER 70 KM/H FOR THE DESCENT!

MARTIN ROMAN, WeLoveCyclin

After about 60 kilometres, the climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer begins. This mountain is merciless, as cycling fans everywhere are only too aware. The pass is known as the ‘calf killer’. For 22.4 relentless kilometres, the strip of road rises inexorably to the summit at 2,067 metres above sea level with an average gradient of 6.9 percent. At points on the climb, the ‘Pass of the Iron Cross’ burns its way into riders’ thighs with gradients of up to 10 percent. It’s no wonder that this mountain earns the highest classification (‘Hors Catégorie’) of the Tour. It stands in my way like a wall, but I want to conquer it. The numerous spectators along the route drive me up the mountain with their cheers of encouragement: ‘Bravo! Keep it up!’ An older gent passes out water bottles to the cyclists and provides a welcome shower of cooling water at the steepest section. 

It’s precisely in this section that I’m afflicted by sudden cramps. They’re so bad that I have to get off the bike for a few moments. But giving up is not an option and I’m soon back in the saddle. The road is so steep that I can’t even start moving on my own, so the spectators give me a much-needed boost for the first few metres. The Col de la Croix de Fer is followed by two further climbs, including the final ascent to the finish in La Toussuire. ‘Please don’t let me give up, let me keep going!’ Yes, really, 20 kilometres before the finishing line, I have begun to pray. The valley feels like a gigantic sauna. And then the mountain begins. It’s hell. Only 18 kilometres to go, but every metre is more painful than the last. The finish is so close, I can’t give up now. In front of me I spot a friend who is also participating in the Étape du Tour. We both know that this is the hardest thing we’ve ever done. In sight of the finishing line, we dig deep, launch into a sprint and cross the line together.”

LIONEL “OFFROAD” MACALUSO
WELOVECYCLING AMBASSADOR

Age: 44

Nationality: French

Family: Married with two daughters (aged three and seven)

Job: Event manager

“I’ve been a competitive cyclist for a long time. Since I was seven years old, cycling has been an integral part of my life. As a downhiller I’m usually on my mountain bike. I live in Marseille and train twice a week. The Côte d’Azur region offers ideal conditions for cycle tours – whether on a mountain bike or road bike. But it’s been quite a while since I put in more than 120 kilometres on a road bike in a single day. 

I ride the first climb in a group. The rhythm is rather calm and relaxed. But that all changes when we reach the summit. On the descent, a few riders are

really going for it. They pass other riders, hurtling down the mountain as fast as they can. It doesn’t always go well – by the side of the road, I see a fellow cyclist who has crashed. I try to slow myself down a bit. ‘Stay cool and ride safely!’

I catch the wheel of a rider who’s taking the descent quickly but safely, and ride in his slipstream. On the flat sections, I take the reins and do the work at the front. We form a little echelon and push each other to keep up a good pace. The pros use this formation too, taking turns to lead and allowing those behind to save energy drafting off the man at the front. This cooperation works well – my speedometer shows a top speed of 72 km/h.

By the side of the road, I see a fellow cyclist with blood all over his face. Then I say to myself ‘Stay cool and ride safely!

Lionel “Offroad” Macaluso WeLoveCycling ambassador

But for all the benefits of drafting, this stage is extremely exhausting. I feel it and see it. In the last feed zone before the finish, my sports watch tells me that my body has already burned more than 9,000 calories. I need energy, but I’m simply too drained to eat anything. The reaction comes in my feet – cramps make pedalling an ordeal. If it wasn’t clear before, now there can be no doubt: the final climb to La Toussuire is going to be extremely hard. My premonition proves accurate, but in the end I do actually manage to cross the finishing line. Proud, if completely exhausted, I happily receive the medal and T-shirt with the word ‘Finisher’ printed on it. I’m as happy as a little kid.”

EMMANOUIL MARAGKOUDAKIS
WELOVECYCLING PARTICIPANT

Age: 44

Nationality: Greek

Family: Married with two daughters (aged seven and ten)

Job: Surveyor

Bike: Felt AR4, Weight: approx. 7.8 kg

Time: 6:45 hours

“Just before the race, as I’m talking to the other starters from the WeLoveCycling team, it suddenly becomes clear to me that with my 53/39 chainrings, I have the wrong gear ratios for this stage. Most of the other riders have a 50/34 set-up, and will therefore have lower gears at their disposal on the climbs. So I know even before we get started that my legs are going to burn on this stage. And that’s exactly what happens.

On the first mountain, I try to maintain a moderately fast pace and don’t attack. I feel fit, in good form, and enjoy every metre. It’s a truly fantastic feeling to undertake such an ascent in the presence of so many other cycling enthusiasts, and with such an amazing panorama. The route is already decked out for the pros, with messages and names painted all over the road. 

At the summit, I feel like one of the pros myself. I’m not tired at all, and think, ‘OK, that was relatively easy, let’s keep going.’ Now comes the descent. I pop into my biggest gear, stomp on the pedals and ride as fast as I possibly can. I shoot down towards the valley with a small group – always near the limit. But then I see the first crash and the ambulance that has arrived on the scene. It’s a compelling reminder that it’s not such a clever idea to take such a huge risk on a road I don’t know at all just to gain a few seconds.

On the flat section following the descent, I join a group again. The pace is high, over 40 km/h on average – and I’m feeling like a pro again. The sun is slowly approaching its zenith and the crowds along the road are swelling. It’s a new experience for me and absolutely fascinating. Back home in Greece, there are no fans on the side of the road to fire you on in a race. Here in France, they practically carry you to the finish line with their cries of ‘Allez, allez!’ It really energises me throughout the stage.

IT WAS SO, SO TOUGH. NO ONE CAN DESCRIBE IT, YOU HAVE TO LIVE IT. EVERY KILOMETRE ON THE COL DU CLANDON WAS STEEPER THEN THE ONE BEFORE, I’LL NEVER FORGET IT.

Manos Maragkoudakis, WINNER OF A STARTING PLACE IN THE WELOVECYCLING TEAM 2015

After two hours and 16 minutes, the hardest test of the day is up next: the road up to the Col du Glandon and the Col de la Croix de Fer. Again, I begin the climb at a moderate pace. At first everything is going to plan, and I enjoy the spectacular view of the countless cyclists wending their way up the mountain as if pulled on a string of pearls. But after a few minutes, I start to pay the price for my ill-advised gearing: the road is becoming ever steeper. I’d like to save my legs a bit for the rest of the stage, because we’re only halfway there. But there’s no chance of that. Due to my gearing, I have to push too big a gear and my cadence is at roughly 45 to 50 revolutions per minute. ‘When is this damned climb going to end?’ is all I can still manage to think. All around me, more and more riders are clicking out of their pedals and walking their bikes up the mountain or, even worse, turning around and giving up! ‘I have to make it to the finish,’ shoots through my mind. Metre by metre, I battle my way up to the summit, and shortly afterwards I reach the Col de la Croix de Fer. As long as I live, I will never forget this mountain. It has burned itself into my memory. And my legs. 

I still have about 40 kilometres to go. On the descent, I shake out my thighs, talk to other participants, try to refill the energy tanks for the last big climb of the day. When I start the final climb at 12:30, the thermometer is reading a murderous 37 degrees Celsius. And once again it is the spectators who make the ordeal somewhat more bearable. So many fans are cheering us on and providing the riders with water bottles – from four-year-old kids to 70-year-old pensioners. Simply unbelievable! I corral all my remaining energy for the effort. When I see the finishing line in the distance, I get out of the saddle and muster a final sprint. Then I’m completely fried. Pain and utter exhaustion mixed with unbelievable happiness and pride. I really did it. At the finishing line, my wife gives me a big hug. She’s been suffering, too. Huge thanks to WeLoveCycling and ŠKODA for enabling me to take part in this unforgettable tour stage. It’s absolutely incredible that the pros can deliver that kind of performance for three whole weeks, all the while maintaining such an amazing pace. I can only think of three words for that: respect, respect, respect!”

José Gabriel García Caro
WELOVECYCLING PARTICIPANT

Age: 27

Nationality: Spanish

Job: Software developer

Bike: BH G5 with Shimano Ultegra Di2 and Mavic Cosmic wheels, Weight: approx. 7.5 kg

Time: 7:30 hours

“I did my first race in 2013. I currently do about 12,000 kilometres in the saddle every year. In the prize draw from ŠKODA and WeLoveCycling, I won a place in L’Étape du Tour 2015. So I’m at the start and have the chance to follow in the tracks of the pros.

About a month earlier, I’d put in a good number of kilometres at altitude in the French Pyrenees in the Quebrantahuesos event – ideal preparation for the Étape du Tour. To be in good form for this challenge, I’d been doing long-distance rides at least twice a week and had, of course, integrated numerous climbs into my training programme.

And a good thing too, because the 138 kilometres before me today are peppered with gruelling passes. It gets under way not long after the start when we reach the Col du Chaussy. It takes a bit out of me. But in spite of the exertion, I briefly let my gaze wander and enjoy the spectacular view. I take the descent with caution, knowing that hazards are lurking around every corner. After a flatter section, at kilometre 60.5 the next climb begins. My plan is simple. I don’t want to start too quickly, but just set my own pace. 

Switchback by switchback, I fight my way towards the top. Every metre is more exhausting than the last one. Give up? No way. After more than 22 kilometres, I finally reach the pass. So here I am, in the middle of the French Alps, and I’ve just conquered the highest and hardest mountain that I’ve ever encountered on a bike. 

THE ONLY POSSIBLE STRATEGY FOR THE ÉTAPE: EAT WELL, DRINK WELL AND TAKE EXTREMELY GOOD CARE OF YOUR RACING BIKE.

José Gabriel García Caro, WeLoveCycling PARTICIPANT

But I’m not at the finishing line yet. The Col du Mollard at kilometre 103 seems mild by comparison. It’s ‘only’ a second category climb. But after 120 kilometres, things get serious again: the final climb up to La Toussuire with 17 steep kilometres ahead of me, 120 kilometres and three Alpine passes already in the legs. If I want to cross the finishing line, I’ve got to make it up that mountain. And once again the many spectators along the road give me an extra portion of energy. It’s incredible how people live and love cycling here. Thanks to their frenetic cheers, I manage to tease out my body’s last reserves. Along the way I encounter Martin, who also started the race with the WeLoveCycling team. Together we master the final kilometres. And finally, at long last, the finishing line is in sight. Martin and I give it our all and sprint across the line together.

The fans cheer for me and all the others who have made it this far as if we were Tour de France winners – an unforgettable experience! When I consider that the pros in the Tour de France do stages that hard almost every day for three weeks and maintain an amazing pace the entire time, I have the highest respect for them. Now I’m looking forward to a huge mountain of pasta to recharge my batteries.”

The Étape du Tour 2016

And on the evening of 10 July 2016, tens of thousands of legs will once again be aching like never before. The Étape du Tour 2016 starts in the village of Megève in the French Alps some 70 kilometres south of Geneva. The route scales four mountain passes on the way to Morzine.

Website of the event organiser

The 2016 route profile on video

The 2016 route (Google Maps)

Photo: welovecycling.com, sportograf