My Dream Came True: This Is My L’Étape Story

By Martin Atanasov

When I started riding my bike regularly 20 years ago, if someone told me I’d be able to ride a route of a Tour de France stage, I’d have considered it a very cruel joke. It was merely a dream. And this dream came true last Sunday when thanks to Škoda and We Love Cycling, I was able to join my first L’Étape du Tour de France. To say that it was the most exciting ride of my life would be a massive understatement. Sharing the road with over 17,000 of my kind was pure bliss. But let’s start from the very beginning.


Since I found out that I’d be riding the L’Étape, my regime changed drastically. Each morning I rode my indoor bike trainer for about an hour and a half, and whenever there were two hours of pause in the rain, I’d go climb the local mountain. The elevation was approximately 900+, far from the intimidating 4,100+, but still much better than nothing.

Moreover, I joined the biggest local XC race a week before the ride. It was a 100km ride around a mountain with more than 1,800m of total ascend.

I was ready for the L’Étape. The only problem was that road bikes were not my preferred rides, so I had little experience with them. I don’t even have a road bike, but that was an easy fix. I rented a bike from the organisers, and a kind young lady accommodated me with everything I needed. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had any experience with clips, so I had to ride with flat pedals. Regardless, I felt ready for the L’Étape. I felt excited. I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to expect, but I expected a lot, and thank God L’Étape provided it.

The event

From the first moment I set foot in the Annemasse L’Étape Village, I felt like I was in paradise. The village spread joy and a spirit of festivity, with hundreds of vendors specialising in gear, supplements, food, and clothing. After buying equipment like a kid in a candy store, I finally got my bike. It felt right, with minor problems that the friendly Dutch rental company fixed on the spot. Everything was ready for the race. Only one thing was missing.

Martin Atanasov
The author at L’Étape

The Škoda team

Ever since I started writing for We Love Cycling, I knew they were my kind of people. Fresh, full of life, ready to enjoy every second. I wouldn’t expect anything less from people who love cycling as much as they do. Still, they exceeded my expectations. Every second spent with them was a genuine pleasure. However, the highlight of this event, without a doubt, was my three new Georgian friends, Giorgi, Mari, and Sulkhan. They were the stars of the show, accompanied by the YouTube sensation Cameron Jeffers. I was thrilled to have the chance to tag along in the team ride surrounded by such accomplished athletes. More importantly, I stole some valuable know-how in road cycling.

The best part, however, was the new Škoda jerseys, which made me feel like part of something bigger, like part of a team. I was so overly excited that I have absolutely no idea how I managed to fall asleep before the main event on Sunday.

The race

It’s tough to express just how thrilling it was to see over 17,000 people gathering in a small town, increasing its size by almost 50%. Cyclists from all around the world became part of this cycling celebration. Our team left the Geneva hotel, about 12 km away, just before dawn. There were six of us. Then we got 12. Along the road, others joined our small procession, and by the time we crossed the French border, we were already around 20 cyclists. From every street, every corner, every pass, we gathered new riders to join our carnival. As we got to the start, all the roads of Annemasse were filled with speeding cyclists, cheering spectators, and a lot of excitement.

I was in the 14th group of 1,000 riders scheduled to start an hour and 45 minutes after the initial start. At 8:45, I was already on my bike, slowly approaching the line. As I crossed, goosebumps covered my entire body. I wanted to take a video with my phone, but I was trembling with excitement. Not the best time to drop my phone. So instead, I focused on gathering some speed.

Although not everyone managed to conquer the 157-kilometre route and more than 5 thousand had to be brought to the finish by buses, everyone present had a lot of fun and discovered first-hand what it’s like to be on the grandest of all stages.

My strategy

When riding a race, it’s good to know your strengths and weaknesses. My biggest weakness is hard climbs above 7-8%, and there were a lot of these on this route. My biggest strength is the downhill sections. What surprised me, though, was the average speed I maintained during the false flat sections. I stuck behind a group of faster-running riders and retained 35-40kph at a changing 0-3% gradient. This really gave me the edge before they inevitably dropped me on the first serious climb of the day, Col de Cou.

I had prepared three bottles of water, one mixed with electrolytes. Some snacks in my back pockets, two magnesium shots, three caffeine shots, and two power gels. I know I was over-preparing, but it was my first road race, and I didn’t want to lose my legs before the big climbs. I had planned to drink a lot of water, as the forecast was for extremely hot weather. A temperature of 36 degrees was expected in Geneva, which meant 30+ degrees in the mountains. So I had to stop at each watering station to get some fresh water. Otherwise, I risked dropping out because of heat exhaustion.

So, my strategy worked like a charm. I dashed through the first 32 kilometres in about an hour or so. I climbed the first serious peak of the day in about 40 minutes. I was doing great. Then came the second climb, Col de la Feu. The weather was starting to get unbearably hot. Some riders along the road collapsed. I stopped to give a friendly Canadian a caffeine shot so he could reach the top. I also shared my extra magnesium shot with a tired Frenchman, as he was starting to cramp way too early. At the top, I drank mine as well. It’s always better to replenish your magnesium needs before you start feeling the effect of their exhaustion.

At the top of Col de la Feu I met Sulkhan. He definitely was a sight for sore eyes. Unfortunately for him, an old injury and the 9-to-5 job took a toll on his performance, and he decided to quit then and there. I needed some rest, so I spent the next 15 minutes chatting with him. Mari came just as I was preparing to leave and told me the swiper car had overtaken her shortly before the top. Despite being disqualified, she was still as overly excited as she was the day before. That’s just the spirit anyone who rides in such events should have. Enjoy the ride and see where it will take you.

Regardless, after the rest, it was time for me to get at least two hours on the swiper car before the harshest climb of the day: Col de la Ramaz. I dreaded this climb, as it was 14.3 km long, and it would take me at least two hours to climb. So I started pedalling downhill. I was the last rider left on the station still in the race, which gave me space to work up some speed. Later I’d find out I reached 90 kph on that descent, trying to gain as much additional time on the swiper car as possible. At the flat land after the fast descent, I hoped to get into a group, but unfortunately, the riders cycling at my speed were long gone. So I had to hop on and off riders, which was fun on the one hand and quite frustrating on the other.

The end of the race for me

In the 45-kilometer descent and flat section, I gained about 2:10 hours on the swiper car. I had a short rest. I put some sunscreen on, took a caffeine shot and a power gel, refilled my bottles, and started the Col de la Ramaz climb. The heat was excruciating. The energy from the gel was quickly overpowered by the 33-degree heat on the slopes. The worst part? There was no shade during the entire climb. I battled with the heat for about 4 km. Half of my water was already gone, and the toughest part of the climb was just starting. I decided it was not worth dying then and there. Better to fight another day. So I turned back like so many before me and descended to the gathering point at the start of the climb. This was the end for me. I DNFed at 100km, with 2,300m. gained elevation, 16.8 kph average speed and 90 kph max speed. Not bad for a first try.

What were my highlights?

There were a lot of them, frankly. Without a doubt, descending at 90kph was among the top. Meeting my new Georgian pals was also a blast, as was finally sharing a celebratory beer with the We Love Cycling team. Still, what I will definitely remember most about the L’Étape was the amazing atmosphere the locals created during the entire race. Leave it to the French to make you feel as if you are truly riding in the Tour de France. Every village and every town was out on the streets, cheering on even the very last participant. Kids were giving high fives. People had put sprinklers on the steepest parts so the riders could cool down a bit. Others simply shared their water with the contestants whenever they needed it. It was simply amazing. Thank you, France, for this wonderful experience. Hopefully, next year, I will manage to finish and see a genuine celebration at the finish line. I simply can’t wait.