Riding the first Etape Australia
With race season done and dusted, I’d just resigned myself to a few months of cold, winter rides and turbo sessions when out of the blue, a very exciting email landed in my inbox. Would I like to go to Australia to ride the first ever L’Etape Australia, I was politely asked?
Naturally, I’d replied with the only answer any person in their right mind would give, and after a whirlwind tour of Sydney en route to the starting point of the Etape in Jindabyne, I checked into my cabin in Lake Crackenback resort, assembled my bike and did the usual jumping around the room with glee.
Obviously I was stoked about cycling, but there there were also trampolines, a river, a lake, kayaks, frisbee golf (yes!), a swimming pool and mountain bike trails right outside my door. Oh, and hopefully kangaroos – I was dying to see one. Excitement levels were off the hook so I went straight out for a ride in the short time I had before dinner.
L’Etape Goes Global
The original L’Etape du Tour takes place in France on a genuine TDF stage and is wildly popular, so much so that I know people who set an alarm so that they can register the minute entires go live. It’s spawned a handful of Etapes in various different countries, all using the tried and tested Etape du Tour format and a route designed to mimic a TDF stage.
2016’s Etape Australia this December was the first time the ride had come to Oz, and seeking a suitably mountainous region the organisers had picked New South Wales’ Snowy Mountains, home to Mount Kosciuszko, mainland Australia’s highest peak as well as Threado, a popular ski resort.
Like all Etapes, L’Etape Australia is billed as a ‘closed road amateur cycling event run under professional conditions.’ Honestly, I’m not totally sure in what way it’s run under professional conditions any more than any other closed road sportive – it has support vehicles, feed stations and all that kind of thing, but then you’d expect that anywhere. What does set it apart from other mass cycling events is the fact you’re timed and actually encouraged to race, with King of the Mountain stages, a Sprint and an Overall prize awarded to winners. The women’s event was one by a pro however, so I’m not sure how that fits in with their ‘amateur cycling event’ spiel. But whatever.
Early To Bed, Early To Rise
As I wasn’t in Australia for long and also, if I’m frank, because I far prefer cycling to evenings out, I’d given up trying to adjust my body clock to the time zone and was just going to bed at around 8.30pm and getting up at about 5ish. This made getting up for the Etape a piece of cake and I was up and out the door without the slightest hint of grump, which wouldn’t normally be the case if you told me we had be at the start line at 6am.
Morning! It’s @julietelliott here enjoying my last day in charge of the Assos account. We’re nearly ready to begin the Etape Australia, it’s quite chilly this morning but predicted to get scorching later. Looking forward to exploring this mountainous region with one eye out for wildlife – yesterday a cyclist was chased by an emu! #cycling #womenscycling #assoswomen #etapeaustralia #visitnsw
Having been advised by Chris Froome at the previous day’s seminar that oatmeal and eggs is the best breakfast before a big stage, I tucked into some bircher muesli, steering clear from the coffee as usual – I recently quit drinking caffeine. As I dutifully ate my eggs, I noticed Froomy himself in the corner of the breakfast room. It turned out he was staying at Lake Crackenback too, a smart move given the start line was just a 1km away so we could roll down there – other less fortunate people had to get a bus at 4.30 am from Jindabyne.
Ride or Race?
Having never ridden any of the Etape events before, when I was asked whether I wanted to register for The Ride (127km) or The Race (157km), I’d chosen The Ride as I hadn’t quite understood the concept. I mistakenly though that The Race was actually a full on road race and seeing as I was just coming back from injury and furthermore, have never done a road race, I thought it wouldn’t suit me. Far better, I thought, to just enjoy being in such a beautiful area riding my bike on The Ride.
It turns out that although you’re on the clock, L’Etape Australia is far more akin to a timed sportive than truly a race (unless you’re a total machine) and that’s it’s nice to do it in a good time but not really important. It also turned out that the vast majority of people were doing the long version. I therefore had a mini crisis about being a weed and tried to switch routes, but it was too late.
And They’re Off
Down at the start, crowds were milling around in anticipation, waiting to be herded into large pens before setting off in waves of several hundred people. I’d asked when I picked up my rider kit when I’d be setting off but no one knew, so had a rather chilly wait as it turned out I was last. Actually scratch that; I was shaking uncontrollably in my summer kit!
Chris Froome donned his yellow jersey to lead out the group in front of us then we assembled at the start line ready for the off. I was hoping there would be some fairly fast people that I could ride with but worried that because I’d chosen the shorter route, people might be taking it fairly easy. And certainly when we set off, it did seem like I might struggle to find a group to ride with.
I shot off up the first long climb because I was so damn cold and then spent a pretty long time riding solo into a headwind, because I’d rather go slightly faster on my own that go slowly with other people. Thankfully, a group caught me up, we exchanged hellos and I jumped in with them and enjoyed a bit of shelter. A fun descent followed, made all the more fun by the fact the wide, gradually curving roads afforded far reaching visibility so you could give it some gas without worrying what you might encounter. The fact the roads were closed to traffic made things even better – we were kings and queens of the road.
Past Jindabyne the route rose up again with views of the lake to our left. I truly felt happy as larry. The weather was perfect, the wind had dropped and all I had to do was enjoy myself; everything else was taken care off. As we pedalled our way over the crest of the hill, spectators cheered us on as excited children furiously rang their cowbells. I stopped to refill my bidon and use the portaloos, ate a few snacks and continued.
From there, it was all rolling hills across vast, open expanses – we passed through maybe one town. I kept seeing the same bunch of guys so we fell in together and began chatting and riding together. I’m always fascinated by our strengths and weaknesses and how we develop techniques to deal with them. For instance, I’d go hell for leather on the flats and descents and always start hills close to the front of the bunch, eventually dropping towards the back as I just suck at climbing. In the meantime, another of our group would be dancing his way up the hills with ease but absolutely destroyed by our pace on the rolling flats.
Points Mean Prizes
At Berridale, the main street had been turned into a sprint zone, something we’d been told about in advance, but I didn’t precisely know where it began so wasn’t up to speed when I entered it. With a green jersey up for grabs in The Race, it was hotly contested by the other participants. From there, we continued to the first King Of The Mountains stage, which turned out to be an absolute beast.
The Col de Beloka looked fairly innocuous as I turned the preceding corner, but kicked up savagely once you passed the bend to about 17%. The sides of the road were littered with people walking (with difficulty) but there was no way in hell I was getting off my bike, no matter how steep things got. I may have just said I suck at hills and it’s certainly my week point that doesn’t mean I’ll ever give up. The first bit was so horrible that the rest of the 3.5km, at an average gradient of 10% actually seemed fine by comparison. I looked at Strava later and I was 4th fastest women on The Ride for that segment.
I refilled my waterbottle for the 4th time (there were three feeding stations and one water station – the food I didn’t need so much as I regularly ride 80km on an energy bar but the water was crucial as it became very hot) then continued on the road back to Jindabyne. By this point, it was very windy as well as hot, so I was grateful that we’d started so early.
A Surprise Podium
After crossing the finish line and collecting my medal, I headed straight for the beer tent (of course). Whilst sitting in a shady spot chatting to a new acquaintance, I happened to glance at the giant screen over the stage in front of us. I thought I saw my name come up in a short list of three. Squinting my eyes further, I tried to get a better look and asked my friend to check what I thought I’d seen. It turns out, I’d finished Third in The Ride, without actually trying to. A quick glance at Strava revealed I’d have won if I’d have finished 7 seconds earlier, which would have been as simple as just eating a few less figs at the feed zone – if only I’d known!
Later that evening, back at Lake Crackenback I dismantled my Goomah Bike as the following day I’d be hiring a mountain bike to ride Threadbo’s chairlifts and the cross country trail back to the resort. I was feeling damn fantastic after a day on the bike with good company and a couple of beers in the VIP tent afterwards. Then I glanced outside my cabin and saw a trio of kangaroos hopping around in the grounds. My epic day was complete!