The Wheels on the Bike Go Round & Round
Your legs feel like someone poured gasoline on them and lit a match. Each breath you take gives you half the oxygen you need, and your heart is pounding in your throat. No, you’re not in the emergency room—not yet, anyway. You volunteered and paid good money to ride in L’Etape du Tour (one stage of the famous Tour de France bicycle race), and like so many others around you, you’re now wondering if you don’t have some kind of a masochistic edge, if not an all-out death wish. Up ahead you see a fellow rider bloodied and broken like roadkill on the side of the highway, surrounded by medics with worried looks on their faces. But for the grace of God . . .
Each year, organizers of L’Etape du Tour pick one stage of the actual Tour de France and make a one-day race of it—one long, hellish day of heaving up the mountain passes of the Pyrenees or the French Alps, where grueling climbs of more than 2,100m (nearly 7,000 ft.) are commonplace. Downhills, while a welcome respite, aren’t exactly risk free either; groups of riders ripping around curves at high speeds have almost no margin for error, and one slip-up can wipe out 20 cyclists or more.
Signing up for L’Etape should be done months in advance, and of course training should begin at least a year before the actual event. The well-organized ride has plenty of van support and medical teams to assist fallen riders. Expect plenty of company on the ride; each year over 8,000 riders enter this event. The course changes each year, but is generally about 161km (100 miles) long more or less, and some courses can have a total of 3,000m (10,000 ft.) of climbing. Though the weather in July can be pleasant, freezing weather and mountaintop hailstorms can destroy the resolve of even the hardiest bikers. But the hundreds of onlookers cheering riders to the finish can restore the adrenaline of beleaguered bicyclists, and at the end of the ride—assuming you make it—there’s plenty of free wine and cold beer. Bon courage! —ML
L’Etape du Tour ( 33/1/41-331-468; www.letapedutour.com).
When to Go: July.