Wednesday 10 February 2010

The Road to Tourmalet: 2010 L'Etape du Tour DVD

A century ago, the organizers of the still-young Tour de France decided that it was time to add in some serious mountains and came up with a course that would add immeasurably to the lustre of the race. The tenth stage, from Luchon to Bayonne, was 326 km, and featured four major climbs in the Pyrenees: the Peyresourde, the Aspin, the Tourmalet, and the Aubisque. It was the first time that the Pyrenees were included in the Tour. Upon learning what the route would be, 26 of the 136 registered riders pulled out. Somehow it also seems just that 1910 was the first year that the “Broom Wagon” was introduced to pick up riders who could not finish the tenth stage (but who, interestingly, would be allowed to restart the following day).

There was only a single cyclist who made it to the top of the Tourmalet, the highest point in the race, without getting off his bicycle, for which he won 100 Francs. Five cyclists used variable gearing for the first time. The first participant in the Tour died, electrocuted by a jellyfish during the rest day in Nice. But the race is most famous as the one where Octave Lapize, dragging his bicycle up the Tourmalet, screamed: “Assassins ” as he passed the organizers’ car at the top. It made forever the reputation of the Tour de France as the race for the hardest men in sports.

A century later, the organizers of the Tour de France have not only decided that this year’s event will see the Pyrenees as the main scene of battle, but that amateurs should have the opportunity to share all the pain too. On July 18, four days before the pros attack the same climbs, anyone who registers can participate in l’Etape du Tour, an annual event for cyclists that parallels one of the stages of that year’s Tour de France. The event first began in 1993 and this year there will be 9,500 anxious cyclists ready to test their mettle in Pau as they depart at 7 a.m., on closed roads, for three big climbs. The course, matching Stage 17 of the 2010 Tour, is 174 kms long and features 4,000 m of climbing. Of course, compared to 1910, things will be pretty easy but it is still better to be prepared.

Each year, shortly after the stage of L’Etape is determined, Cyclefilm Productions heads off to the mountains to make their annual reconnaissance ride DVD and “The Road to Tourmalet: L’Etape du Tour 2010 has recently been released. Although I don’t plan to be there to watch 9,499 other cyclists drop me (or ride into me), I will be cycling the same climbs a few weeks earlier. I found the DVD to give an excellent indication of the ride to come, particularly since I have not ridden the Pyrenees before.

The DVD begins with some goofy music, perhaps from an early 1960s television situation comedy, as Michael Cotty, the British cyclist who regularly rides the l’Etape events, demonstrates some cyclocross skills before heading out of Pau, followed by Chris Balfour of tour organizer PyrActif in a support van. Mr. Cotty, who clearly does not spend much of his time eating in France, provides clear and useful advice as he rides the actual route that will be used in the cyclosportif. He discusses the right gearing and bike prep, what you should think about for clothing, where it might be tricky dealing with the peleton and so forth. During the ride, he points out good places to get into a paceline if you can, and where you should eat and drink on the ride. Mileage is indicated and a profile of each climb is presented, although it is not always clear where exactly you are on the climb at that moment.

Soon he and Chris turn off the main road from Pau and begin to climb the Col de Marie-Blanque, which was first added to the Tour in 1978 and has been in the race 13 times so far. This may not be a legendary climb and it tops out at 1,035 m, but this 11.5 km climb looks surprisingly hard. This is a difficult way to begin l’Etape since the climb looks irregular, with a very steep beginning and then some more pitching up at the end. Michael warns about burning all your matches here since it is a long day ahead. Chris mentions that cyclists are disappointed when they get to the top and begin to descend since it is so flat you have to start pedalling, but soon the road becomes quite technical, with grades approaching 11 percent, so it is good to be wary on the very narrow, but well-paved road.

After rocketing off the Marie-Blanque, small country roads take you on a steady climb up to the top of the Col du Soulor, which is kind of the back of the more celebrated Col d’Aubisque. At 1474 m it is no pushover and the asphalt is a bit choppy, but the climb looks very regular and the scenery is simply breathtaking. As Michael and Chris pass the summit it is late in the day, so rather than show you the descent, the camera stops and that action recommences the next morning. I can understand why Michael Cotty wanted to do this section of the road a second time–it is utterly gorgeous and the crew somehow picked the most beautiful day of the year to do it.

Finally, the last climb of the day, the famous Tourmalet, which reaches up to 2115. Michael is an impressively fast and relaxed climber, and he can still provide comments even on nine percent grades. I would like to think this is due to some kind of special effects magic by Markus Neuert, the director, as I sound nothing like this myself after 4000 vertical meters of climbing. It looks like a superb finish, 37kms and 1658 vertical m to the top, and afterwards Chris and Michael sit at a café in La Mongie, a ski resort just below the summit, to discuss the route and offer other suggestions for participants.

The DVD, with the cycling and the chatting, is 83 minutes long, and for those chained to their fluid trainers for the winter, it offers some great views and a lot of motivation for the ride to come. It is hard to believe that those pioneers of racing rode their iron bikes on goat paths here, fortified by raw eggs and Bordeaux, and actually succeeded in getting to Paris eventually. Octave Lapize won that 1910 stage, and was the overall victor as well. This is cycling on the grandest scale and this DVD by Cyclefilm is ideal for hard riders and for daydreamers. 

You can buy it at


Michael Cotty said...

Thanks for the top review of the DVD & enjoy your trip to the mountains this summer!

Markus has many tricks to speed up a cyclist on camera. His favourite is threatening to leave me stranded in the midst if I don't make it to the summit before darkness. Don't tell him this, but I actually wouldn't mind that at all :-)

Ride on!


Donald said...

Good review that temps me to leave this comment page and go right to Cyclefilm's site for a purchase. But I'm also tempted to ditch my 53/39 for a 50/34... Ouch!

RobN said...

Hey Leslie!

great insight into the Pyrenees. I was the in 2007 - my 1st time cycling in Europe! - loved every thing about the trip - scenery, roads, people, food, weather (even though it rained 2 days out of 6). A compact crank is a must. I had a 25 on the back and was just fine. I will review my log and let you know what climbs I did.

kapblaubar said...

have been thinking of doing a week holiday down there on the spanish-French border, I think next year I will do the pyrenease. I want to start in Bilbao and end in Barcelona. Some friends of mine did Bilboa - London , they loved it.