Tackling the Etape. It may be the amateurs’ stage of the Tour France but it’s still brutal

Fran Millar

Fran Millar cycling 300x225 Tackling the Etape. It may be the amateurs’ stage of the Tour France but its still brutal

Fran (left) with Gem Atkinson (c) Phil Gale

Fran Millar is Head of Business Operations at Team Sky

My brother David is riding this year’s Tour de France – it is his 12th time doing the event. In 2007, when I told him I was going to ride the Etape – the amateurs’ stage of the Tour France which that year was a brutal 198km through the Pyrenees – he was incredulous.

He simply could not understand why I would subject myself to it. He then told me that if I didn’t train I would fail. That if I didn’t show it the respect it deserved I would fail. That if I didn’t stop smoking, lose weight and generally get my act together, I would fail. Needless to say, I ignored him. And I did fail.

As I sat on the coach that takes those broken souls who haven’t completed the course to the finish I promised myself I would return and complete it. In 2008 I signed up for the event and set about training properly. By that stage I was working closely with Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton, setting up Team Sky, who after some begging agreed they would help me train. My brother’s training advice amounted to “ride as hard as you can, for as long as you can, as often as you can”, which although effective lacked a little structure.

Dave’s approach was a steady, planned, spreadsheet-based method with lots of common sense and hard interval sessions. Shane’s was more hands-on: taking me out on 7am rides – him on a mountain bike, me on a top-of-the-range road bike – and forcing me to ride harder than I would ever manage by myself, shouting constantly about what I could be doing to improve. It was horrific and incredible in equal measure.

I finished the event in 2008 – 167km, also in the Pyrenees. I was delighted and incredibly proud of myself. More importantly, I had laid that ghost to rest: I never needed to return to the Etape.

That was until Rapha – Sky’s clothing partner – told me about their idea to get 100 women to ride the 2013 Etape, whilst also encouraging women all over the world to ride 100km on the same date – 7 July - as part of their “Women’s 100” challenge. I felt a moral obligation to ride the Etape again. And it was last November, and the route’s 128km – one of the shorter Etapes even if it was in the Alps – seemed almost easy.

Sat in the starting pen in Annecy at 6.30am on Sunday, I was not quite as keen. I knew I hadn’t done enough training. I had done just a tiny bit more than the bare minimum, but still felt woefully unprepared. Work, life and general apathy had prevented me doing what I swore to myself I would do – get lean, fit and better prepared than ever for the event. But that’s life, right? It’s not always possible to do everything.

I was confident I could do the distance – 128km for me has become a long but not scary distance. I am a competent cyclist and know what my limits are. As long as there are no hills. Unfortunately this year’s Etape had six “hills”, one of which was 16km long topped off with an 11km summit finish at a gradient that on paper looked manageable but in reality was unrelenting and demoralising. I desperately didn’t want to fail again but I wasn’t sure I was going to have much choice.

The day started well, hot but not unbearably so, with a riding partner who I knew was stronger than me and would motivate me through the first climbs. I got over the first two categorised climbs with relative ease. My head was still firmly in the game, and I actually began to think I had maybe been too hard on myself. Maybe my training had been good enough. Then the road rolled on. And on. Up and down pretty much all day until the 16km penultimate climb, “Mont Revard”. With an unintimidating gradient, I knew it was just a case of finding my rhythm and sitting on it till it was done. I also knew mentally that if I made it to the top of Revard I would finish the course. Even if I had to crawl up the final climb, the Semnoz, on my hands and knees.

Somewhat miraculously, I did reach the top of Revard, at which point I told my riding buddy to head off for the finish. She had already wasted five hours riding at my pace, leaving me to face the remaining 45km alone. I know myself well when it comes to my physical limits; and I know when the going gets tough I am best on my own, battling through mentally as much as physically.

Eventually I reached the base of the Semnoz. I zero’d my Garmin – I needed meter-by-meter information of my progress – and set off on the hardest 11km I have ever ridden. I won’t go into the detail of the suffering, but it was of epic proportions. The climb took me over two hours. Two hours to do 11km. I would have been quicker walking. I took breaks, had several chats with myself and did some soul searching. But I made it. And as is always the way with big physical challenges, the minute I crossed the line, the pain was forgotten.

I was over the moon to have finished, I didn’t care about my time and I didn’t care what time the other 800 women riding the route had done – I just hoped they’d all finished. All the women in my Women’s 100 group finished. Some solo, some in groups, some very fast some, like me, very slow. But unlike a marathon where the first thing you get asked is – “what time did you do?” The first thing you get asked about the Etape is “Did you finish?”

I think therein lies one of the beauties of doing the event – you ride a route the pros will do in a week or so, you can compare yourself to them if you’re that way inclined (last year’s Etape winner would not have made the time cut for the professionals on the same stage) and if you are successful you achieve something they all hope they will achieve – you finish it.

When the professional riders doing this year’s Tour de France reach the summit of the Semnoz they will have completed the final climb of this year’s Tour. They will have ridden over 3,300km and all they will have left is the “procession” ride into Paris. And when they cross the finish line on the Champs Elysees, whatever position they are in, however their race has gone, the thing they will be most proud of is that they finished. And in my own small way, I know how they feel.

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  • CycleLove

    “I took breaks, had several chats with myself and did some soul searching”

    This sounds pretty familiar to me too, having just got back from my first cycling trip to the Alps :)


  • Foxexpress

    You must feel great as well as David Holms saying your brother is one of the top 5 coolest riders of all time! x

  • Dinah Gray

    Well done! And spare a thought for the 30 strong Tour de Force group who are doing the whole Tour, right now, a week ahead of the pros (@tdefcycling). My partner Tim’s loving it … exhausted, but loving it.

  • Hannah Schulz

    Fantastic article Fran, and as a fellow female finisher on Sunday, if I were a better ( and quicker) writer, I would have written the same words. It had me smiling at the similarities all the way through. The Semnoz was absolutely ridiculous, I had people vomiting and crying around me, very demoralising, I do hope they all made it too! Amazing to finish, feel very proud…can’t help thinking it may have been easier if I’d lost the 10kgs I promised myself!

  • Gixerstu

    What a great article and well done.

  • chris_todgers

    lovely article. congratulations!

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