Adrenaline levels surged as the riders set off in France yesterday, eager to get down to business on the gruelling course of Stage 19 of the 2015 Tour de France five days before the pros. While for some it was the key objective of the season, everyone saw it as an opportunity to share their passion in a kaleidoscopic peloton.
Riders got ready for the Grand Start of L'Étape du Tour in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne under the light of dawn. The challenge featured four legendary mountain passes, including La Croix-de-Fer (22.4km at 6.9 per cent) and the final climb to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles.
"This is what I love about cycling and, more specifically, L'Étape du Tour: you get to chat with foreigners and people you'd never meet in your day-to-day life, which is very enriching," said Mark from England, who came to the event alone.
Former pro cyclists were also on the road to share their experience with the amateurs. Among them, the freshly retired Thor Hushovd, who gave his expert opinion on the course:
"I think it's one of the toughest stages in the Tour de France. I've already climbed La Toussuire at the Critérium du Dauphiné, but the hardest part is Le Glandon because it's the steepest climb and it never eases up. It's going to be tough, but I'm here to have fun," he said.
Former international basketball player Richard Dacoury and athletics world champions Marc Raquil and Stéphane Diagana were there to test themselves and relive the experience of competitive sports. This was Diagana's first time at L'Étape du Tour.
"I'm here with my friends because it's a great sporting challenge we wanted to tackle together,” Diagana said. “I know some of the climbs, but I'll discover all the others against stunning landscapes."
The little groups that formed during the 138.8km ride featured smiling and focused faces. Cyclists counted on their friends and families to cheer them on.
"I'm still a bit nervous. I feel relieved when I see my husband approach. The children and I shout ourselves hoarse for him. L'Étape du Tour is always a great family experience," said one supporter on Le Glandon, feared for its average incline of 6.8 per cent.
Former pro cyclist Jérémy Bescond was the first rider across the line at La Toussuire-Les Sybelles, with a time of 4hr 52min 49sec and an average speed of 28.34km/h.
The overall distance, and sheer amount of climbing, had broken up the field, leaving the enthusiastic amateurs to cross the line at their own pace in small groups. The gruelling stage may have left their bodies exhausted, but these gutsy riders finished the event knowing they had just accomplished a true sporting feat.
L'Étape du Tour will be hitting the international stage in September 2015 with the Étapes by Le Tour de France, a unique concept designed so amateurs who love the biggest cycling race in the world get a taste of the Tour de France as close to home as possible.
Amazing courses dreamed up by the stage designers of the Tour, a Tour de France village at the start of each stage and the presence of legends of cycling combine to create an extraordinary event.
Australians will have the opportunity to participate locally in September 2016 in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales.
Plans are already well underway, in conjuntion with SBS, who is at Le Tour now working on how the event will be brought to life.