Hell on the Hautacam: What L’Etape du Tour Is Like For An Average Rider

By Joshua Donaldson

The cold has set into my bones. I can’t feel my hands or feet. I have all of my cycling clothes on but nothing is working. The rain has been steadily falling and I am huddled in a cafe in the Pyrenees, surrounded by other riders. We all hold hot drinks that we can barely feel and the weary, vacant looks exchanged suggest we are all thinking the same thing. Why are we doing this?

The L’Etape du Tour is one of the ultimate challenges for amateur cyclists. Taking place during the Tour de France in July each year, it gives amateurs a taste of professional cycling. It is an opportunity to take on one of the hardest mountain stages of that year’s race with the same organisation as the pros, on closed roads and with full support. More than 10,000 people take part and they come from all over the world, all in search of ticking off a great achievement and, for most, to live one day like their heroes.

For me, that day came back in 2014. Alongside my father, we were attempting to take on stage 18 of that year’s tour. Starting in Pau – one of the most visited cities by the race – and finishing on top of Hautacam – the same finishing spot used this year. It was a stage of 140 km, which wasn’t our biggest concern. That came in the elevation gain. Not only did we have to climb Hautacam (13.6 km at an average of 7.8%) but before that came the fearsome Col du Tourmalet, a climb steeped in myth and legend. In total, we had more than 4,400 metres in elevation gain on that day, halfway to the top of Mount Everest. It’s a tough enough task just to finish but there is added jeopardy in the form of the broom wagon. The time cut looms over most average riders as you will be pushed to your limit during the day.

L'Etape 2014
The pack racing for the finish in 2014.

Training for an event like this is tough if you’re from the South of England. Across six months of training, I did my best to replicate the distance with as many hills as I could find in Hampshire. I slowly built up through the spring; I was riding well and I felt ready for the day. So did my dad. Spoiler: we weren’t.

On the day of the race, July 20th, it started dry and sunny. For each of the 13,000 riders, sleep had been difficult the night before, with thoughts of the race flooding minds across Pau. So, it was a relief to get going just after 8 a.m. as each wave rolled away in groups of 500. The early progress was smooth. We managed to get into some groups and keep our average speed up, trying to give ourselves an advantage over the time cut.

After 28 kilometres and in some nice summer weather, we came across Côte de Bénéjacq. On the road map, it looked like a speed bump compared to the HC climbs we would be tackling later in the day. We had fresh legs and were surrounded by thousands of like-minded souls – all loving the feeling of closed roads on the same tarmac the pros would roll through in just four days’ time. That moment was fleeting. I had ‘dropped’ my father during the climb and, as he rolled over the top of the category-three climb, he gave me a foreboding look.

“That’s the biggest climb we have ever done.”


Another category-three climb came soon after without drama. We now had our sights firmly set on the Tourmalet. It was the first ‘col’ used in the Tour de France back in 1910 and the winner of that stage, Octave Lapize, reportedly shouted “you’re assassins” at the race organisers for sending them over this mountain. And as we snaked our way up the climb, I couldn’t agree more. The atmosphere, once jovial, had turned – as had the weather. We ascended silently in the rain, akin to a funeral procession rather than a celebration of the best race in the world. As we continued up and up, riders started passing us but in the opposite direction as they abandoned the race. The sense of fear was now rising inside of me as my father and I exchanged worried looks.

As we reached the summit, the temperature had dropped from 18°C to just three. We were both freezing and were just wearing summer kits to keep us warm. This was doing nothing for us as it was soaked through from the mist-like rain that had been falling throughout the climb. I had been grinding for more than two hours up the 21-kilometre ascent before reaching the top. I was so proud to have made it, having seen so many turn back but worse was yet to come.

Ahead of us was a descent back down the mountain that would have tested my bike handling skills on a dry day. As we tentatively made our way down, I realised that I could not feel anything on my body, my legs shaking from the cold and my frigid hands barely able to control the brakes. We tiptoed our way down, flanked by rows and rows of abandoned bikes, where riders in a similar situation to us had stepped off unable to bear the extreme conditions in the Pyrenees.

Why are we doing this?

As we entered that small café crammed with other riders, we were both empty. The ascent had drained us physically, the descent mentally. We both questioned whether we should get back on our bikes and continue. The answer was always obvious. Yes.

We clambered back on, ‘flying’ down the valley with its false flat descent and our persistence paid off as we were greeted by big crowds of riders who had already finished at the base of Hautacam encouraging us up this final climb. To this day, those final 13.8 kilometres were some of the slowest I have ever done on a bike, agonisingly turning the pedals over, my hamstrings complaining mercilessly and my father having to stop three times to get rid of cramps in his calves. We were still worried about the time cut as we ticked into our eighth hour on the bike but we needn’t worry.

With two kilometres to go, we could savour the achievement and the beauty of this incredible race. The Etape du Tour is special, undoubtedly. It gave me an opportunity to feel the same as a professional rider, and experience the highs and lows of a horrific day in the mountains. On that day, more than 25% of the field dropped out before the end. It is not for the faint hearted but then nor is the Tour. And as I crossed the line atop Hautacam, I was struck by the same feeling the pros must feel crossing the line on the Champs Elysees. Elation, joy and relief. My dad was the same, filled with emotion that he had completed what he described as a ‘bloody tough day’.

Eight years on, we share a tattoo of that day – an outline of the stage – and much like that tattoo, that day will always stay with me. It was savage but it was also an incredible experience. I have a profound respect for the pros who I then watched on Hautacam four days later going considerably faster than myself. I also applaud anyone who takes on this challenge whether in France or at another one of the Etape rides around the world. I recently took on L’Etape Czech Republic and found that same sense of achievement crossing the line in Prague as I had on Hautacam, even if the route contained fewer mountains.

For an average cyclist, L’Etape du Tour is one of the most challenging things you can do in this sport. So, why should you do it? Well, you’ll only know that intangible feeling once you have completed it.

This year’s L’Etape du Tour takes place on July 10th, replicating stage 12 of the race, which finishes on Alpe D’Huez and climbs Col du Galibier and Col du la Croix de Fer before that. For more information on the 30th edition of the race, head here.