How it feels to tackle the Tour de France’s ‘final battle’- the Col d’Izoard

Today, the elite riders race to an historical Alpine summit stage finish, but at the weekend it was the turn of 12, 000 amateurs to try to emulate Coppi and Bobet

They parked their motorhomes in laybys on the steep slopes of the Col dIzoard five days early to be assured of a prime place to witness their Tour de France heroes ride past. On Sunday, they got us as the warm-up act.

Deckchairs out, barbecues lit and with occasional explodes of dodgy Europop they willed on a ragtag river of 12, 200 amateur cyclists testing their mettle on the mountainsides of what will today be the road of the 18 th stage of the Tour.

The Etape du Tour a mass-participation event offering amateur cyclists the chance to race over a full stage has been growing rapidly since 1,700 took part in 1993. This year, it took two hours to get the last rider through the start line in the alpine city of Brianon.

By the time the race reached what will be the Tours first ever summit finish on the Izoard some 110 miles afterwards organisers Amaury Sport Organisation( ASO) estimated that riders were stretched across 40 miles of road. There was rarely more than a metre or two between us; leave half a handlebars width and someones front wheel would soon nudge in.

Villages on the road, bedecked with bike-related art, seemed to be practising for the real thing. On Thursday 20 July the crowds will be many people deep but four days early they are continuing mustered impressive support. Around half of the field were French and a quarter British. A piece of encouragement scrawled on the road seemed to sum it up: Allez Bardez et papa.

Shouts of allez, courage and bravo pushed us up the hills, while children stretched out their hands for high fives. The most welcome scream on an intensely hot day, though, was douche !. A nod brought a slosh of icy mountain stream water down the back. Part agony, part bliss: much like the Etape itself.

Ottavio Bottecchia climbs the Izoard on the 1925 Tour. Photo: Olycom Spa/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Tour director Henri Desgranges first sent the race over the 2,360 m Col dIzoard and the barren moonscape of the Casse Dserte just before the summit in 1922 on a 170 -mile stage from Nice on the Mediterranean coast to Brianon. Like this year, it went via the Col de Vars.

The task at hand is so hard that our humen wont even think about combating each other until the finish line, Desgranges said before the stage. With their racing instinct theyve sensed that they first have to survive, to finish, and that with such difficulties and such suffering ahead of them it would perhaps has become a consolation to have comrades with whom to share their misery.

The Belgian rider Philippe Thys won the stage. When the Tour returned in 1923, the leader at the summit was Henri Plissier, of whom Desgrange once remarked: He does not know how to suffer, and will never win the Tour. He won that year.

While, in summer, a lush green carpets much of the Alps, the treeless upper slopes of the Izoard can be more reminiscent of the lunar Mont Ventoux. Jacques Goddet, Desgranges successor as director, described it as a new version of hell; calling it a terrible exigency, which establishes the border of the difficult and the terrifying.

Izoard legend Louison Bobet rides the Casse Dserte in the 1950 Tour. Photograph: Universal/ Corbis/ VCG via Getty Images

Italian Gino Bartali resulted over the Izoard on his route to victory in the 1938 Tour, and recurred both accomplishments 10 years later as Europe, retrieving from the demolition of the second world war, is again espoused cycling.

His young countryman Fausto Coppi the radical atheist to Bartalis pious Catholicism led over the climbing in 1949. He won the stage by 20 minutes and he too went on to victory in Paris.

Coppi won the Gap-Brianon stage over the Izoard again in 1951 before it was the turn of Frenchman Louison Bobet to dominate. Bobet led over the Izoard in 1950, 1953 and 1954, the latter two leading to overall victory. Both riders are honoured by a monument near the summit.

The Izoard fell out of popularity in the 1960 s and Eddy Merckx, widely regarded as the greatest ever cyclist, merely rode to victory on its otherwordly slopes once, in 1972. Three years later, Bernard Thvenet beat Merckx over the stage, consolidating his result in the Tour with a daring solo climb.

Those barren scree slopes seem to be back on the Tour agenda, with Andy Schlecks long solo assault in 2011, and Joaquim Rodrguez leading a group of 10 over the summit in 2014. This year the climb 35 th inclusion will see the first summit finish.

Eddy Merckx tackles the Casse Dserte in 1975. Bernard Thvenet went on to win the Tour. Photograph: Photosport/ Rex/ Shutterstock

During Sundays Etape there was the smaller matter of 100 miles to tackle first, including the third category Cte des Demoiselles Coiffe and the first category Col de Vars.

It was on the steep descent of the first climbing that I rounded a hairpin to determine two riders stopped in the road and a third appearing dazed after being propelled over the metal barrier. Locking the brakes I managed to hold the slide speedway style and was quite pleased with myself until I heard a loud pop and considered the gaping hole in my rear tyre.

It could have been the end of my day had one of the stopped riders not suggested using a folded-up race number to plug the hole; enough to get to the bottom of the hill, although not to the next feed station and possible assistance. The wheel blew again as I neared a group of spectators watching from a grass verge, and I walked along asking if anyone happened to have a spare tyre to hand. Success! Johannes got a bike from his auto, took off the tyre and tube and got me back on the road, rejecting all offers of pay the kind of act that restores faith in humanity.

Almost 1,000 riders gave up. The fastest Etape rider, Norwegian Jonas Abrahamsen, completed in a time of 5 hrs 15 minutes, around the predicted period the autobus of sprinters and strugglers will take to avoid being cut off and ejected from the race.

Etape riders on a descent. Previous editions have tackled Mont Ventoux and the Tourmalet. Photograph: A Vialatte/ ASO

Current Tour director Christian Prudhomme is billing this years Izoard stage as the final battle between the climbers ahead of the races last three stages: a relatively flat likely breakaway or sprint; an individual period trial around Marseilles; and the closing procession to Paris. The mountain also hosts this years La Course( an elite womens two-day road race ), although many are disappointed that the womens route is only 40 miles long.

When the pros tackle the ride today they will scarcely be able to see their surroundings for the sheer volume of spectators mobbing the roadside but they will suffer just the same.

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