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Et trois, brutal

The Trois Etapes gives amateur cyclists the chance to compete with the pros at ferocious speeds over the toughest grand-tour mountain routes – all in the name of charity. Charlie Norton is the first journalist to report from the saddle

November 13 2013
Charlie Norton

The dust may have settled on the 100th Tour de France, but the Alpine sun is scorching my back amid another set of racing riders. I’ve come through a patch of rain and cloud on the lower hairpins and found a sweet tempo in rhythm with my breathing. The romance of the climb is finally swallowing my pain. I’m on the great fold of earth where the legendary Louison Bobet bade farewell to the Tour in 1959, and my team car is close at hand to give me advice on race radio and supply me with water bottles. I ascend past 2,000m and look around to see iceberg chunks of snow and panoramic views. The Channel 4 and EuroSport cameras whizz by as they record action footage from the press cars, and the 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre is 20m ahead of me on the iconic Col de l’Iseran, the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps. Now I’m way out of the saddle like an old-school grimpeur, pressing forward to catch and overtake the riders ahead on the final few kilometres to the summit. It feels like my time.

Am I twitching in my sleep again? Is it that recurring grand-tour dream that annoys my wife, in which I am suddenly a pro racer, my fleeting youth is still in≈full flush and I am in a breakaway looking for an immortal victory at the top? No, this really is the queen stage of the Trois Etapes, the high point of the world’s leading pro-am cycling event, which has now raised more than $4.5m for charity. The endorphins, the emotions, the mountain peaks, the blue skies and the cameras have been driving me through the pain until I find myself smiling, seemingly held in a timeless bubble, flying along uphill and competing right alongside the cycling elite.

But my glorious few moments drinking from the holy grail of la volupté (an almost divine physical pleasure in cycling, coined by Frenchman Jean Bobet, brother of Louison) are dissipating. A twinge in my neck brings me back to reality, my legs start cramping on every pedal stroke, my team car is off with the rest of the members and Sastre has disappeared up the mountain. Sadly, I am no professional cyclist, and as I start weaving across the road, trying to maintain my forward momentum, a tight peloton of insect-thin US amateur riders comes by me at such ferocious speed and wattage that I feel like an asphyxiated ant wading in treacle. I was up the field due to the staggered start, but I am now back with the stragglers in a ramshackle gruppetto digging deep for the final stretch, wondering whether my body might just give way to cramp completely.

However, as I cross the pinnacle of the Col de l’Iseran, I cannot help but smile again. As Sastre himself says, “It’s not about being competitive any more, it’s about enjoying the climb, the views. I think it’s a paradise.”

The Trois Etapes is a truly epic event, now in its second year and starting to build a history of its own as a pro-am race uniquely designed to incentivise tactical team riding and raise millions for charity. Not to be confused with the annual Etape du Tour, which mirrors a mountain stage of the Tour de France, this challenge takes amateur racing to a new dimension, with 15 teams of seven amateurs and one professional racing over four days (consisting of a “prologue” and three stages) up some of the toughest grand-tour mountain routes, close to this year’s race HQ at Orelle. Niels Bryan-Low, CEO of Cosaveli, the organisation that runs the event, declares, “When you ride as an amateur you ride as an individual, but when you ride as a pro you ride as part of a team.” And Richard Gorman, race director, co-founder of Cosaveli and former sponsorship manager at pro team CSC, adds, “We make it as close to the pro tour as we possibly can. Each team has its own support car, each rider has race radio, and each team has a directeur sportif.

There are some sensational pros past and present with whom to ride here, including Sastre, former Garmin members Andreas Klier and Daniel Lloyd, Team MTN Qhubeka’s Songezo Jim and world champions Evie Stevens and paracycling’s Colin Lynch, not to mention legends Bobby Julich and Scott Sunderland coming as directeurs sportifs. However, it’s Champion System’s US pro Craig Lewis who sets the pace in the prologue, recording under nine minutes for the 5km uphill time-trial course to the village of Albiez-le-Vieux, a deceptively painful and challenging opening salvo, especially as many of the competitors are more likely to be found playing the world financial markets in the City or Wall Street than competing in the Alps. The long golfing weekend seems to be on the wane. Triathlon has made ripples for a while, but with back-to-back British Tour de France wins, unprecedented Olympic success and government legislation to transform the roads for cycling, the zeitgeist is for road biking. The event is supported by the likes of Vincenzo Zinni, head of emerging markets sales at Credit Suisse, riding for EMpower Europe, and Peter Oppenheimer, chief global equity strategist at Goldman Sachs, who also sponsored it and donated over $250,000 in prize money through the Goldman Sachs Gives programme. Oppenheimer, riding for the Anne Frank Trust, says, “It’s an amazing experience to ride together with professionals in breathtaking scenery and raise critical funds.”

For some in the City, it may not even be too late to turn pro. Evie Stevens was an investment banker on Wall Street until 2009, when she discovered her extraordinary cycling talent. Last year, she was world team-time-trial champion and she came to the Trois Etapes to ride for World Bicycle Relief, one of the event’s signature charities. “You just can’t put caps on what you think you can do,” she says. “Anything is possible. The bike has positively transformed my life and is an incredibly important tool for achieving happiness and independence.” World Bicycle Relief has more than 125,000 bicycles in use in rural regions around the world, deployed for educational, environmental and healthcare initiatives. One of the other World Bicycle Relief teams was led by the exciting pro talent Songezo Jim, who himself benefited from the loan of a bike when he was younger in the Khayelitsha township on the Western Cape in South Africa, and this year was part of the first African pro-tour team win with Qhubeka at the Milan San Remo.

The Trois Etapes certainly seems to have legs. As Bryan-Low says, in terms of philanthropic appeal it is an evolved way of raising money. “Asking your grandma for £10 to do an event is a saturated market, but for corporate fundraising there is commercial and marketing potential, as it’s a high-end demographic.” Cosaveli already has plans to do a Giro d’Italia version next year, as well as the Tour event. “It’s an incredibly powerful platform for famous riders to come and raise money, leveraging their celebrity for wonderful causes.”

It has already received the approval of Bradley Wiggins, who tweeted what a huge success the event had been, and has been invaluable for Sastre in his extensive charity work, such as promoting the Victor Sastre Foundation (a cycling organisation) near Madrid. Dan Lloyd, his affable former team mate at Cervelo, riding for Shooting Star Chase at the Trois Etapes, puts his finger on what makes it so inspiring. “Even at your peak fitness this is a very tough event, but at the back of your mind you know what you are riding for, and it’s that last little percentage you need to push yourself harder.”

On the second day, racing up the Col du Glandon, I am lucky enough to join the World Bicycle Relief Grey team, led by the laid-back German former pro Thorsten Wilhelms, when Søren Mose, the CEO of Saxo Bank, agrees to give a little respite to a swollen knee that would have kept most mortals in a hospital bed for a week. We roll out from Orelle to St-Etienne-de-Cuines for 30km before we line up for the staggered team start at the foot of the Glandon. Under the glare of the television cameras, my team starts the 20km timed section at an electric pace, properly racing up grand-tour climbs. I’ll have to suffer to keep up and I fall in with the second group, slipstreaming with James, Heidi and Fran.

However, it’s not long before we all find our own pace on the steeper incline under the trees. I get some relief from my choice of gear. I’m riding a featherlight RR Storm from the Austrian Airstreeem. The frame weighs less than 1kg and its electric Shimano Ultegra gearing is perfect for slopes. Meanwhile, my normally tortured feet have found solace in the soft, durable yak leather of Rapha Grand Tour racing shoes. But equipment will only take you so far. After a kilometre of relief-giving flat, I’m passed by the Walking with the Wounded team, which is spearheaded by Terry Byrne of the Parachute Regiment, who lost his lower right leg in an IED explosion in 2008, but is stronger on one leg than I am on two.

The road starts to stretch past waterfalls high into the sky like a weaving beanstalk, and for an instant I feel as though I am on a storybook climb. Even the great name of the Belgian Lucien Van Impe, who led the Tour over the summit three times, seems locked in fantasy. Minutes are like chunks of eternity, where time vanishes into the Alpine meadows, holding me in the moment as I push those pedals round forever.

I finally find my pace with a few former rugby players from Shooting Star Chase, the Miall brothers, who have been enjoying the bar as well as the riding, but over the final 2km the gradient jumps to more than 10 per cent, and it’s a real strain on my legs to make the 2,067m summit. I had left little in the tank for such a long climb. The eventual winners, dZi US, had apparently scorched by me, powering in excess of 300 watts, which is astounding for amateurs on an ascent like that.

The levels of training for this race are mythical in themselves. For some it entails thousands of kilometres in the saddle for a year, rising in the middle of the night to train in the dark, riding through rain-soaked weekends in winter, the dietary regime of a neurotic Hollywood starlet (weight is time on hills) and altitude training camps to ramp up fitness. Then some riders spend every other spare moment pouring over their data on Strava or Map My Tracks. Some teams have the ultimate expertise. American Bobby Julich, who made the podium of the Tour in 1998 and worked as a race coach at Team Sky, was on hand to answer training emails from his group, dZi Europe, in the run-up to the event. “I tried to instil team spirit and maintain a good work ethic.”

I trained at Club 51 in central London on an exercise bike using an altitude mask (simulating a height of about 2,500m) to maximise my aerobic fitness in minimal time. It’s the most intensive form of training, but even with its help I run into problems. On the 30km race up to the Col de l’Iseran during the third day, I lose my team and agonisingly miss a ride on the back of Shooting Star Chase rouleurs, who are like speeding comets. But then I enter my period of volupté up into the snow. Nothing beats ascending that high for that long on one of the iconic grand-tour climbs with the knowledge that if your bike or body fails, a support vehicle is close at hand.

Due to a huge storm, the final stage is cancelled for safety reasons, demonstrating how much thought has to go into the Trois Etapes logistics. The idea is that you ride, sleep and eat like a grand-tour rider (though I’m not sure whether the GT teams eat quite that much bread these days or have access to a luxury pool and a heavily stocked bar every night). This means a lot of bike mechanicals (done by Bepoke Cycling), as well as 13kg of bananas, 4,000 meals and 5,000 litres of water. There are 157 volunteers, 30 vehicles to tend the teams, and motorbikes to control the traffic on treacherous mountain roads, because the slopes are what make this race, for the beauty and the pain. As cycling journalist Philippe Brunel wrote in L’Equipe, “It always comes down to the mountain stages. It is there that champions meet their destiny and later … their decline.” But it’s also where amateurs can push their limits and test their boundaries. I’ll leave the last word to Bryan-Low: “It’s the most majestic opportunity to ride as a pro and change the world while you are doing it.”

See also

Cycling, Bicycles, France