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!|style=padding:10px;|align=left|src=!After summiting the fourth major climb of the daythe hors catégorie Port de BalèsI turned my attention to the gripping 15-mile descent. At 5,800 feet, the air was quite cool, and I shivered from equal parts chill and fear as I pointed my bike downhill, trying to stay clear of the kamikaze cyclists whistling by me at 50 mph. The newly paved switchbacks were just one-and-a-half lanes wide, but the lack of guardrails convinced me not to get too close to the asphalt’s edge; the drop was significant and I wanted to avoid riding home in an ambulance after making it this far.


I was participating in my first Etape du Tour, one of Europe’s top amateur sport rides that follows the exact route of one stage of the Tour de France. This year, we rode Stage 15 from Foix to Loudenvielle. The event’s length122 milescombined with over 14,000 feet of climbing, made it the most difficult in the history of the Etape, and certainly the single most challenging day of cycling that I’d ever experienced.


The day began with 8,500 nervous cyclists cramming into numerous starting pens in the village of Foix. Despite a 7 a.m. gun, it took 20 minutes to cross the starting line. Once moving, in just six short miles we reached our first climb, the second catégorie Col de Port. Coming so early in the event, the field had no chance to spread out, so the ascent was clogged with riders. This forced most to start conservatively, but also caused many to release their frustrations by launching into their first descent far too quickly.


The consequences of this strategy were realized only five kilometers down the mountain, with a major traffic jam of police and EMTs who were attending to a horribly injured cyclist lying in the middle of the road. The inert rider, blood on the pavement and smashed bike were not-so-subtle reminders that today’s descents were every bit as serious as the climbs.


Thirty miles of pace lines sped us to the second climb and descent of the infamous Col de Portet d’Aspet, site of Olympic gold medalist Fabio Casartelli’s fatal accident in 1995. Its 17 percent corkscrew gradients and blind hairpins were truly frightening, and I felt as if I’d dodged a bullet getting beyond it in one piece.


Up until that point we’d been fortunate to have some cloud cover that kept the temperature down. But at the start of the steep five-mile climb of the Col de Menté, the sun came out and riders began to suffer. On this third slope I maintained a slightly more ambitious pace and powered over the col for yet another very fast descent. My confidence was building, and it felt as if my Cervélo SLC-SL was on rails. Maybe I was figuring out this descending technique...


As good as I was feeling, the first 87 miles of the event were simply a warm-up for the remaining 35. Our next obstacle was the imposing Port de Balès. Its 12 miles of climbing including some of the steepest sections that we’d encountered all day, plus melted pavement that convinced me that the air had leaked out of my tires. What began as an exhilarating day of international cycling was quickly turning into an old-fashioned sufferfest.


Halfway up the climb at least a third of the participants were off their bikes walking, stretching or even lying in the stream to cool off. This was beginning to look like a death march. My speed was slowing to the point of defying gravity (how was I keeping my bike upright, going so slowly?), but I kept grinding through the kilometers. With two kilometers to go I popped through the treeline, got blasted by a cold headwind and could finally see the summit moonscape up ahead.


Having finally crested the highpoint of the Etape, all that remained was the nerve-wracking descent of the Port de Balès, the final five-mile climb up the famous Col de Peyresourde and a blistering descent into Loudenvielle.


Of the 8,500 who had entered, about 75 percent finished this year’s Etape du Tour. As a recreational cyclist, riding just one of the 20 stages of the Tour de France puts into perspective the unbelievable talent of the pros. Most of us in the Etape were riding to simply complete the course; the pros will race the same route at almost twice my average speed.


In subsequent entries I’ll tell you more about my equipment, nutrition and what I would have done differently, now that I have the benefit of hindsight. For nowif you’re a cyclist who lives for challenges, loves the sport’s culture and heritage, and are looking for your next big eventI encourage you to consider the Etape du Tour. It belongs on any rider’s life list.



Rob Klingensmith is an avid recreational cyclist and an executive at Rob will provide a unique perspective on what it's like to be inside some of the most decisive stages of the Tour.

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