• Riders climb out of Jindabyne on the inaugural L'Etape Australia (Cycling Central)Source: Cycling Central
This weekend, thousands of cyclists lined up in the Snowy Mountains to take on the inaugural L’Etape Australia. Kevin Eddy was one of those riders.
By
Kevin Eddy

5 Dec 2016 - 8:27 AM  UPDATED 5 Dec 2016 - 8:28 AM

The inaugural L'Etape Australia certainly lived up to expectations, with the spirit of the Tour de France taking over the Snowy Mountains for the whole weekend. 

More than 3,500 eager bike riders lined up to take on either the 126km Ride or the 157km Race - accompanied by one Christopher Froome (Team Sky), three-time Tour de France winner. Just like the Tour, L'Etape served up a fantastic mix of carnival, camaraderie and unexpected twists thanks to terrain and weather conditions.

Far from an easy ride

Prior to the event, ASO had commented that the route for L’Etape Australia was comparable to a Tour de France mountain stage.

 I wasn’t convinced - in terms of both distance and elevation, L’Etape certainly didn’t seem like it was ‘up there’ with some of Australia’s hardest cycling challenges.

I didn’t think it would be a walk in the park, but I certainly didn't expect it to be one of my toughest ever days on the bike.

I’m delighted (and slightly regretful) to say that I was wrong. The 157km course set by ASO was may have looked moderate on paper but in reality was a proper test of cycling skills and fitness.

The undulating nature of the early part of the course, combined with relatively high bunch speeds and dead country roads, meant that anyone who went too deep or who failed to fuel properly in the first half would really pay the price later. Like I did. 

This really started to become evident when we arrived at the Col de Beloka. Only 3km long, but one of the most savage gradients of any climb with pinches of at least 20 per cent in the first few hundred metres. With legs screaming in pain at the top, we were then confronted with a block headwind that made the run-in to Jindabyne - earmarked as some nice recovery time - much harder.

That wind also punished us on the 23km final climb to Perisher, seeming to gust every time the gradient eased, making what should have been a long but steady climb into an absolute pig of an effort.

It really was a challenge on par with a Tour stage - and one that left you both spent and fulfilled.

The scenery was worth every pedal stroke

It wouldn’t be a true taste of the Tour if you didn't look up from your stem and be immediately taken aback by the sights before you.

Well, the Snowies really turned it on for L’Etape Australia. The spectacular scenery of the region that made this ride feel special, whether you were descending past Lake Jindabyne;

rolling through back country vistas that led all the way to snow-capped mountains (that you’d be riding through later);

 or climbing through mountain scrubland.

Destination NSW is proactively marketing the Snowy Mountains as a major cycling destination and you can see why. This is definitely a place that I’d come back to for a week’s holiday with both my road and mountain bike.

But that’s not the half of it. The local community were wholeheartedly behind L’Etape Australia, festooning the local towns with yellow bikes (green for the sprint point town of Berridale) and embracing the thousands of riders that descended upon the region.

 You couldn’t ride more than a few kilometres without someone cheering you on, ringing a cowbell at you or sticking a hand out for a high-five - which really made a difference when the going got tough.

The bliss of closed roads

Another ‘a-ha’ moment came when we left the start village, pulled out onto the course and were confronted with no cars whatsoever. Sure, L’Etape Australia had been billed as a ‘fully closed road’ event run under race conditions, but you don’t realise the difference that makes until you’re riding it.

Fully closed roads meant there was plenty of room on the extremely fast opening descent for riders of differing skill and confidence levels to pick safe lines. It meant that you could zig-zag your way up steep inclines with no fear of being surprised by an irate farmer or grey nomad coming the other way.

Fully closed roads meant that the whole ride was safer and far more pleasant than the typical sportive held on open roads with cars passing all day.

It also meant that, while the event wasn’t technically a race, those at the pointy end could treat it like a race - and they absolutely did. While most of the pack were still struggling on the lower slopes of the Col de Kosciuszko, Christopher Miller was crossing the line first in just 4hr 39min.

Current Aussie women’s road champion Amanda Spratt (Orica-AIS) crossed the line just under 16 minutes later to take the women’s yellow jersey.

 

Froome is a great ambassador for cycling

Last but not least, there was one competitor who caused a bit of a fuss wherever he went - Chris Froome. He was undoubtedly the star of the show this weekend and is likely to have earned himself a lot of new fans.

No matter where he was - at one of the packed pre-event skills clinics, at the start line or on the road - he was always smiling, self-effacing and charming. Most importantly, he was always happy to pose for an all-important selfie with anyone who asked.

Above all, he genuinely seemed like a decent guy who just loves riding his bike (albeit really fast). If that doesn’t make him a great ambassador for cycling, I don’t know what would.

Was L’Etape Australia perfect? Not quite. There were a couple of small logistical issues - principally around getting riders to the start line on time (the five-kilometre tailback snaking up to Crackenback at 6am certainly caused a few nervous text messages). However, these are all minor issues that can easily be fixed for next year.

Overall, the inaugural L'Etape Australia was a roaring success, and I'm already working out how I can better my time in 2017. See you there?