The first-ever L’Étape du Tour took place in 1993, is now organized by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) in conjunction with Vélo Magazine, and usually takes place on a Tour rest day in July. To make things interesting (and gruelling), it’s usually held over the infamous mountain roads of either the Pyrenees or the French Alps, on roads closed to traffic, and normally with approx. 15,000 participants from across the globe. It’s worth mentioning that L’Étape also has many international offshoot events in countries such as the Czech Republic, Colombia, Australia, Brazil, and more.
This year’s edition copied the route of stage 12 of the Tour de France from Briançon to Alpe d’Huez, measuring 170 km with an elevation gain of 4,500 m. Circling back to the aforementioned mountain sections, the riders were faced with the legendary climbs up to Col du Galibier (Hors Catégorie), Col de la Croix de Fer (Hors Catégorie), and a final climb to Alpe d’Huez (Hors Catégorie). Unfortunately for the participants, the French summer decided to bless the land with a full dose that day, which meant temperatures over 30°C since the morning.
Even though the L’Étape is supposed to bring the riders as close to the allure of the Tour as possible, many of them venture into it nearly self-supported or with family or friends acting as the assistance team. However, the We Love Cycling magazine and Škoda wanted to create an unforgettable experience for the lucky foursome who won the VIP hospitality race entry by providing them with all the perks the pros get. Their care package included all flights, accommodation, professional service by Festka, on-site support, and having the Škoda team collect their racing number for them beforehand, so they could fully concentrate on their performance. The welcome goodies for each rider were designed to create a truly pro-team feel: matching Škoda cycling kits, Festka bidons and totes, Nutrend food packages, and, last but not least, WLC T-shirts as a souvenir.
The determined four from Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom, and Romania, three ladies and one gentleman, were led into battle by their team captains Jiří Ježek and Cameron Jeffers who briefed them before the race, and gave them secret tips and tricks on how to survive and finish this no easy feat. Furthermore, Festka did thorough checks on everyone’s bike before the start.
Cameron Jeffers is currently covering the entire Tour de France from the Škoda hospitality perspective, also set out for the L’Étape alongside the team. After an impressive start, he managed to arrive at the first refreshment station (before the Col du Galibier climb) in a group of the very first 30-50 riders but in a stroke of bad luck, his bike broke down. In the following series of unfortunate accidents, the nearest Shimano neutral support car run out of the needed spare parts and the next assistance station was 100 km away – which sadly meant the race was over for him.
But that’s luckily where the ill fortune of the Škoda team ended – as all managed to cross the finish line of this year’s L’Étape du Tour! Namely, Olivia French from the UK finished first, followed by Teresa Vesely from Austria, Jozsef Reinitz from Romania and, lastly, Christine Bertram from Germany.
The ultimate L’Étape winner happened to be 33-year-old Stefan Kirchmair, finishing the race in incredible 5 hours and 17 minutes, managing to put a huge gap of approx. 6 minutes between him and second-place Loic Ruffaut. To compare, Cameron’s later estimated that the pros will probably finish the same route at around 4:50–5 hours. That doesn’t seem like such a difference but we have to factor in all the killer stages they already have in their legs.
All in all, everyone on the Škoda team agreed that this was a limit-pushing but exhilarating experience as not many things can beat the rush of adrenaline and, honestly, pride when you finally throw yourself over the finish line after three “beyond categorisation” climbs and 170 km of pure stamina.
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