The actual route announcement on the 24th October was a big let down for many. A tour of the Bauges mountain range (where?) with two climbs, le Revard (what?) and le Semnoz, scene of the 1998 rider's strike following the Festina drugs busts. Not the iconic route expected by many and worse, no Pyrenean stage. In protest some people have even decided to organize their own 'alternative Etapes'.
Well to find out if the negative comments were justified I decided to ride the route. Mid-November isn't the ideal time but with the highest point at just a bit over 1600 meters and the average altitude under 1000 meters the roads are rideable pretty much all year round. The road to Semnoz is ploughed most of the way to the summit as there is a ski resort on top. I started from the Chambery end, because that is near where I live and logistically, given the short November days and heavy rush hour traffic in Annecy it made more sense than driving to the true start. This meant I tackled the two hardest climbs in the first half of the ride. I also missed the Cote du Puget, instead of adding 22km to the overall ride with the Semnoz to Annecy link I descended directly to the Col du Lechaux. The cote du Puget is north facing, cold and damp in mid-November and again the shortness of the days worried me that I would not be able to get back to Chambery before dusk and have time to do a bit of filming en-route.
The weather was cold with fog flowing down the valley floors like a glacier. A typical winter inversion layer. It was warmer at altitude but despite a number of layers I was cold. Not an extreme cold but a cold that gnaws away at you, sapping your strength. The only exception was on the south facing climb to le Revard, a clue that this could be an inferno in the summer.
For reasons I've already outlined I didn't climb the Cote de Puget. The ride along the lake from Annecy to St Jorioz is flat (there is a cycling path that follows the track of the old railway line that is also heavily used by cyclists). The climb from St Jorioz to the Col de Lechaux is 12.5km with an average grade of 3.2%. The roads are narrow and twisting and if you are looking at a good place you'll need to be ahead of your pen when you hit the climb at St Jorioz. There is very little difficulty on the climb and the better riders will take under half an hour for the ascent. Weaker riders should not go too fast, too soon on this climb but leave something in reserve for the Revard and Semnoz later in the day.
A nice ride on good roads with stunning alpine pastures and cliffs high up to your left. However it is over all too quickly so for me doesn't really qualify as a great descent.
As you come out of Bellecombe there is a sharp left hander that in typical Bauges style plunges down to a gorge. This is followed by a bit of a drag up to Noiray, another quick descent than another drag into the village of Le Chatelard. In the village there is a fountain on the right hand side. None of this is particularly steep but it all adds to the vertical in the legs.
From the col de Lechaux to the bridge over le Cheran following le Chatelard you'll cover 16km, descend 350 meters but climb and additional 140 meters. We will cross le Cheran again later over the Pont de l'Abime but it is altogether a different river by then. This was the only section of the route where I saw any road traffic.
There are road humps coming out of le Chatelard. A quick, straight descent is followed by a right hander and the start of a gentle climb towards Aillon le Vieux, only the last km before entering the village is steep, around 8%. A short 3km descent follows to Aillon le Jeune then 4km of steep ascent to the Col du Pres with 1.5km above 8% just after the village. The col is more or less the half way point before you turn north again towards Annecy.
Despite the 3500 meters+ of climbing this is the only really impressive descent of the ride. I reached the col at 5pm so the descent was in failing light, the sun having already set far to the west. Below the lights of Chambery twinkled in the valley. After the col the descent starts off fairly gentle as the road seeks out a gap between the ridge at the cascade du Fournet. Through the gap and it sweeps the right then a left hairpin with rock walls on your right shoulder. You'll need excellent bike handling skills to descend quickly. A series of majestic turns and switchbacks follows down through les Chavonettes then a fast descent into Thoiry before a right hand hairpin and a sharp left hand turn over the pont de Leysee. Overcook this and the bridge ramparts, or worse, the river below, awaits.
The descent from the Col du Pres only gives a brief respite before the first significant climb of the day. There is about 100 meters of ascent up to St Jean d'Arvey at over 5% followed by a couple of kilometers flat. After St Jean the climb to le Revard proper begins. This is a south facing climb and will be pretty hot on the day. Tip, there is a water fountain about 100 meters down the Chambery road in front of the Church, worth taking the small detour to fill up if there is not an official feeding stop in the village.
The road is not too steep at first, it reaches 8% after the Montargy hairpin and briefly flirts with 10% through the villages of les Deserts maintaining a consistent 8% over 4 to 5km but as you approach the col du Planpalais the climb levels off with a km or two of flattish road in la Feclaz. This is an opportunity to drink and get some food. Out of la Feclaz and through the woods the road climbs again and the surface is not the best with potholes and cracks. You exit the forest a couple of km before the col du Revard, you can see the summit restaurant to the left and if it is clear the lac du Bourget in the valley below.
Overall you have gained 968 meters with an average gradient of 4.8% with the steepest section in the first half of the climb. The slope from St Jean d'Arvey to Planpalais is exposed and hot with light woodland giving some shade after the Col du Planpalais to the Col du Revard. I didn't notice anywhere en-route to stock up on water.
This is a fast run down through a pine forest. The first section to the col de la Clusaz is fairly open with views over to the Mont Blanc on your right. After a short cutting through the rocks you enter a section of long straights with wide, sweeping hairpins. Fast roads but with nothing much to see but trees and other rider's butts until just above Trevignon where a sharp right exits you from the woods. You pass through a hamlet and then a wider left hand hairpin.
You don't enter Trevignon but make a very sharp right by a small white shrine. The road follows a rolling balcony at around 550 meters altitude on generally good roads. Just after Cusy you descend to the spectacular Pont de l'Abime suspension bridge which links the Savoie and Haute-Savoie departments over the 100 meter Cheran gorge. The bridge was opened in 1891 after four years construction and is a national monument. The bridge is much narrower than the road and you'll need to take care if riding in a group. On the far side the road climbs gently through a cliff before reaching the village of Gruffy where you will find a water fountain about 1km past the Church on the right hand side of the road.
The climb to le Semnoz proper begins a few km before the village of Quintal at a bridge that crosses the Gorges des Vaches stream at a little over 600 meters altitude. We should have recovered a bit on the previous rolling section. Had a chance to drink and eat, maybe even stop a few minutes.
As you can see from the profile the climb to le Semnoz is an altogether different beast to that of le Revard. Consistently steep for much of the route with an average gradient of 7.8%. The first shock comes as you swing round the right hand bend onto the D241 at Quintal, the road climbs through the village directly up the hillside on a slope well over 10%, it eases a bit past an old chateau on the right and there is a fountain to get water on the left. As you pass the village sign the road rears up again for 2 km of around 10% slope. The gradient eases as you approach the junction with the Annecy road but then there is a brutal 500 meters of well over 10% as near the treeline. More steepness awaits as you climb through the ski area and round a right hand bend to reveal splendid views of the Mont Blanc and distant glaciers twinkling in the Swiss and Italian alps. The final km almost feels flat in comparison with what went before as you can drop down a gear and power over the finish line.
On the positive side the climb, at less than 1000 vertical meters from Quintal, is short. It is a long way from the lung busting slogs up the Madeleine and Croix de Fer. It is also north west facing and largely in woods. The average altitude is just a little over 1000 meters; not something that will give a fit cyclists altitude sickness.
The negatives are the steepness, especially with 100km and over 2500 meters in the legs. Wooded climbs can also get humid with no breeze to ease the suffering. You'll need to make sure you are properly hydrated before Quintal.
Many people have commented on the almost loop- like route the 2013 Etape takes. As I said at the start of the article it is pretty much a tour of the Bauges. This makes logistics easy for both organisers and riders. No coaches needed to get you back to base with all the costs that entails for the ASO (about a tenner a head I would imagine).
It is generally accepted that you'll roll the 22km from Semnoz down to Annecy but I don't see this happening. It would be a recipe for head on collisions between finishers and people still on the course.
In any event the north descent of the Semnoz is far more interesting. A series of fast switchbacks through sparse pine woods and rugged cliffs that take you down to the col de Lechaux and from there to Sevrier at the gates of Annecy or to one of the campsites along the Lake if you are staying there. With the col de Pres this is the second major descent of the route even if it is not part of the sportif proper.
http://www.trainingloops.com/etape-du-tour-2013.htm - detailed route description
Most of the route could be tackled on a 34x25 chainset for normal riders or even a 39x23 for people looking for a top 100 place. The exception is the climb to le Semnoz where a 34x28 would be appreciated for the steeper sections. The climb to le Semnoz will obviously favour pure climbers, small, lightweight but still able to spin gears fast. The rest of the route will suit power and strength. My training plan would mix hill repeats pushing bigger gears seated as well some repeats out of the saddle over distances of a km or more. If you can ride 160 km+ on rolling terrain this Etape should not be too much of a challenge.
I lost 2.6kg on my ride in November. It wasn't hot but obviously a lot of that was still water. I ate 3 'pom pots' and a couple of gels as well as a crepe on the Semnoz and a Twix at Chatelard. Riders will have to be careful about hydration, especially on the south facing climb to le Revard which some will be tackling at midday. The Savoyards don't seem generous with water, many village fountains have fallen into disrepair and are dry. I found water points at le Chatelard, St Jean d'Arvey (100 meters off the route by the church), Gruffy (1km after the village on the right) and Quintal. There are the official feed points too and riders will want to keep mineral levels up to avoid cramps on the final climb.
Some of the other reviews I've seen have spoken of the fantastic views offered by this sportif. Leaving aside whether sportif riders are really there for the scenery I remain to be convinced. Apparently you can see the lacs du Bourget and Annecy from le Revard and Semnoz. Well there is a 100 meter stretch coming up to le Revard where bits of the Bourget are visible but you can't properly see the lake unless you climb to the summit of le Revard, something you don't do on this Etape. I never actually saw the lac Annecy from the Semnoz, it is largely hidden by the mountain although you do ride close to the lake from Annecy to St Jorioz.
The Bauges is a fantastic little mountain range. In particular the curving summits of le Trelod and Arcalod are visible at the start of the ride as well as le Semnoz, your final destination, as you come over the Lechaux. You also get a great view of the Mont Blanc in the final few kilometers on le Semnoz although I'm not sure how many riders will appreciate this with 120km in their legs. However it is all mid mountain stuff, you rarely get the feeling of dominating the landscape as you do on some of the 2000m+ alpine cols where you almost touch the glaciers and summer snow fields. Climbing out of the treeline is limited, the best section is on the south end of the route from the Col du Pres to the Col de Plainpalais.
Hotels in Annecy will be filling up fast. It has a pleasant town center but the outskirts are typically French: industrial estates and commercial centers and a motley collection of Ibis and Formula 1 hotels.
Chambery would be a good base, giving easy access into the Chartreuse for some training rides and it rivals Annecy for charm. Aix les Bains is full of spa hotels and old ladies having their annual enemas but is right on the Lac du Bourget with a cycle path down to Chambery and beyond and climbs to the Col du Chat, Colombiere and le Revard for training. It is also close enough to Annecy.
Annecy, Aix les Bains, Geneva and Chambery are all within 50km of the start and all have mainline TGV links to Paris and beyond. There are international airports at Geneva and Lyon. I don't believe there are flights into Chambery or Annecy during the summer.
From Chambery and Aix les Bains you can get a train to Annecy (trains every hour taking 1 hour from Chambery).
So who is the 2013 Etape for? Well it will obviously appeal to more mortal cyclists than recent editions. Even puttering around in the November cold I didn't find the two major climbs particularly challenging. In fact le Semnoz, although steep, is rather short. More of a sprint than a slog. The problem for the organisers is that it doesn't really differentiate itself much from the many sportifs that run all the weekends during the May-July period in France. As last year, it is in the same weekend as the Marmotte so you could ride the Marmotte for the iconic climbs: Croix de Fer, Galibier and l'alpe d'Huez then use the Etape as a bit of club run the next day to loosen up tired legs.
There is probably only one Etape this year to keep numbers up for this event. According to Niedermeyer on Bike Radar 4000 places were reserved for agencies last year but only about a third of these were actually used.
Were the 2012 Etapes simply too hard? For the Alpine stage there were 5688 starters and 4422 finishers, around 80% of the total so on the face of it no. In reality only half of riders finished in under 10 hours, over twice the time pros take to complete the route and roughly the cut-off point for being swept by the broom wagon. That said, I spoke to a 50 year old guy I met on the Roselend in October. He'd ridden the Alpine Etape in 9 hours and he only took up cycling in 2011 so with the right preparation it certainly was doable even for people not contending for podium spots.
So, apart from the Marmotte, what are the alternatives for sportif riders looking for iconic French climbs? Well there is the week long Haute-Route from Geneva to Nice but that is rather expensive. At the start of July you have the Luc Alphand which tackles the Izoard and Granon over 150km and in mid-July the Arvan-Villard which follows the 2012 Etape without the Madeleine or even the Challegne du Vercors with the Col de la Machine and roads stuck to the sides of cliffs?