My journalistic duty for the opening miles was simple: to keep tabs on Laurent Jalabert. But hurtling through the cobbled streets of old Strasbourg in a bunch of 2,500, this wasn’t so easy.
Theoretically, the Etape de Legende was a sportive, but at the front it was being ridden like a race. There had been a lot of hype about whether former world number one Jalabert would finish first, and the speed at which we started belied any notion that this was a leisure ride.
While the huge bunch hared over canal bridges and dodged traffic islands, scores of other cyclists were trying to get near the front too. Some dived down the inside lines then slammed on their brakes to squeeze into a gap. Others were pushing, shoving, elbowing they way through. It felt like the closing kilometre of a flat Tour de France stage — and being a retro-flavoured spin-off of the Etape du Tour, I suppose empathy with the pros was the idea.
The only difference here was this was the first kilometre. And the route wasn’t flat. Beyond the level farmland of the Rhein river plain, the ride profile resembled the lower jaw of a crocodile.
The Vosges may not be the Alps or Pyrenees, but what they lack in altitude can be made up for in frequency. Retracing a classic stage of the 1967 Tour through these mountains was going to be quite an ask and a 55kph ruckus at the front of the bunch was probably not the ideal warm-up.
Of course, I could have sat up and joined the hordes of other riders starting out at a more sedate pace further back. But Jalabert was up front holding position with such impressive cool, it would have been a cop out to abandon my brief this soon.
The Col du Kreuzweg rises up from the neatly cobbled streets of the village of Andlau. It’s not a steep climb, but at over 15 kilometres long, it’s enough to open up the lungs. Unfortunately I’d already done that trying to hold my place in the bunch over the initial 40km. Thus I spent the first part of the climb waving goodbye to Jalabert and getting passed by riders from behind.
Once settled in, the Kreuzweg proved to be pleasant enough, snaking up through pine forests and past oversized timber figurines in the mid-climb village of le Honwald. Once over the top we were treated to a fast, curvaceous descent, where it appeared that one rider had overindulged in the thrill and come a cropper on a sweeping left-hand bend. With the event given the same well-supported infrastructure as the Etape du Tour, gendarmes and marshals were already on the scene when I passed.
Whereas I climbed the second ascent, the modest Col de Fouchy, at my own pace, I latched onto small groups at the bottom of the third and fourth major climbs. After the over-enthused shenanigans of the start, the field was finally starting to take on its more natural shape.
Both of these cols also had double summits. So when we passed the sign announcing the top of the Col du Haut de Ribauville (altitude 742m) we turned right and continued climbing.
Seven kilometres, a dip and another uphill kick later, we finally reached the real summit of the climb, the Col de Fréland at 831m. It was the same story on the Col du Wettstein. Here we turned left and gained another 80-odd metres’ altitude to pass the battlefield of le Linge — site of some the First World War’s most vicious fighting.
By this point we were sniffing air almost one kilometre high, and an exhilarating drop back to down the valley followed. At the bottom, I stopped at the day’s second feed station, where one grub-covered trestle table after another lined the side of the road. Volunteers behind the stalls offered the food like they were in competition with each other.
“Here, have a pastry,” I was told repeatedly.
“No thanks,” I replied, “I’ve already had four.”
From the feed, we rumbled up the valley until we hit the foot of the Col du Platzerwasel. Such was the gradient that reared up into the trees at the bottom, it was easy to get the impression we were embarking on a short, sharp British climb. What British climbs don’t do, though, is continue at 10-12 per cent for the next 10km.
Like the earlier ascents, thick pine forest provided shelter from the intensifying September sun, but that proved too little relief for many riders. Although I went OK on it, this was by far the toughest obstacle of the day, and coming nearly 100 miles in didn’t help matters.
“I just didn’t expect it to be so steep,” recalled British rider John Day after the finish. “I got cramp in both legs and had to stop halfway up. My energy just disappeared and it was absolute hell trying to get to the top.”
Like the previous two climbs, the Platzerwasel teased us with several marked summits. The first sign at 1,193m merely spelled an end to the steep bit. The road then climbed out across open mountain-top meadows before joining the roller-coaster, ridge-hugging Route des Crétes (Crest Road), where the wild and spectacular view distracted from the fact we were still sporadically going up. Although just two days into the season, the colours on the trees were richly autumnal. High in the clear blue sky, paragliders soared in the thermals.
A colourful fall
It was coming down from the Platzerwasel that French hero Raymond Poulidor fell off in the 1967 Tour and thus gave the eighth stage its legendary status. Although this event was supposedly a celebration of that day, I thankfully didn’t see anybody following the
re-enactment too faithfully.
Initially a rough back-road, badly surfaced and tightly cornered, the descent soon opened out into headwind. On the plus side, a largish bunch regrouped, and all that lay between us and the finish now was the relatively pathetic looking Col du Menil and the final 9km ascent up the Ballon d’Alsace — which I figured could be tackled on willpower alone.
The route was supposed to be following the aforementioned ’67 Tour de France stage, but I’m sure that day’s stage didn’t go along the Green Path of the High Vosges. No wider than a country lane and signed for cycle use only, it looked suspiciously like it might have been a railway line back in Poulidor’s day.
It seemed odd to bring a sportive of this magnitude along such a narrow route, but then it was probably a better and easier alternative to shutting down the parallel RN66 trunk road. Whether the two riders who I saw lock bars then clatter against a signpost would agree is another matter.
No sooner than we’d got off the cycle route, we were suddenly onto the slopes of the final climb. Compared to the Platzerwasel, the Ballon d’Alsace is not that hard, averaging a steady 6.7 per cent all the way up. A few hairpin bends and clearings in the forest break the monotony, so the kilometre markers passed fairly quickly.
In 1905, the Ballon was the first mountain pass ever used in the Tour de France, and René Pottier is reported to have averaged 20kph up it. I don’t know how much embellishment has gone into that figure, but I’m embarrassed to admit I found myself pacing myself up the foot slopes at half that speed.
Although I sped up in the closing kilometres, it occurred to me I’d perhaps got more of an insight into the Tour de France’s history than I’d bargained for by entering the Etape de Legende. Not only had I been put in my place by a relatively recent Tour star in the early miles, but it also turned out that — despite a century of technological and healthcare development — even the old boys from the pioneering years would have blown me away with ease.
HOW WAS IT FOR YOU?
Brit riders on their experience of the Legende
Tim Cook, VC Venta: “It’s been fantastic: it was really nice to be taking part in a bit of history. That said, the Col du Platzerwasel was a complete nightmare. It just went on and on and it was definitely a case of ‘I’m not sure if I’m going to make it all the way up to the top of this’.”
Mark Hoppe, Swiss-based Brit: “The last couple of the climbs were very challenging but the scenery was spectacular — especially the Route des Crétes.”
John Day, former runner turned cyclist who travelled with Sports Tours International: “That was the hardest endurance event I’ve ever done — and I was an athlete for 25 years.” A day later he learned he was also coming down with chicken pox at the time of the ride.
Andlau-le Honwald-Col du Kreuzweg-Ville-Col de Foucy-Lièpvre-Saint Marie aux Mines-Col du Ht de Ribeauville-Col de Fréland-Orbey-Col du Wettstein-Collet du Linge-Hohrodberg-Munster-Luttenbach-Sondernach-Col du Platzerwasel-le Breitfirst-Col d’Hahnenbrunnen-Route des Crétes-Col du Herrenberg-la Bresse-Cornimont-Col du Menil-le Thillot-Saint Maurice sur Moselle-Ballon d’Alsace.
WANT TO TRY IT?
THE Etape de Legende was organised by Tour de France organiser ASO as an alternative to its better known and oversubscribed Etape du Tour. Hoping to attract 8,500 riders, ASO was disappointed with the turnout of less than 3,000 for the inaugural running. Thus the future of the event is uncertain.
See www.letapedelegende.com for further announcements.