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Giving amateurs a flavour of the Tour

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Author feels the heat.

Author feels the heat. (Image credit: Mark Sharon)
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Loo queue

Loo queue (Image credit: Mark Sharon)
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The peloton

The peloton (Image credit: Mark Sharon)
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50km down

50km down (Image credit: Mark Sharon)
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Combes to Queyras.

Combes to Queyras. (Image credit: Mark Sharon)
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Peloton is strung out.

Peloton is strung out. (Image credit: Mark Sharon)
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Peloton tackles the Gorges.

Peloton tackles the Gorges. (Image credit: Mark Sharon)
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Road notice.

Road notice. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Start village entrance arch.

Start village entrance arch. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Author with dossard.

Author with dossard. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Collecting race numbers.

Collecting race numbers. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Checking names on the start list.

Checking names on the start list. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Author and family checking names of friends.

Author and family checking names of friends. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The lady who checks the timing.

The lady who checks the timing. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Information at the start village.

Information at the start village. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Start village crowd around the information boards.

Start village crowd around the information boards. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Riders scrutinise the information boards.

Riders scrutinise the information boards. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Crowd listening to the tombola being announced.

Crowd listening to the tombola being announced. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Start village climbing wall.

Start village climbing wall. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Local specialities at the start village.

Local specialities at the start village. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Queuing for the bike park.

Queuing for the bike park. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Bikes racked in the bike park.

Bikes racked in the bike park. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Mavic assistance at the start village.

Mavic assistance at the start village. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Start village sponsor stands.

Start village sponsor stands. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The Tour de France on the start village big screen.

The Tour de France on the start village big screen. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Entrance to the start village.

Entrance to the start village. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Start village entertainers.

Start village entertainers. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Start village entertainer.

Start village entertainer. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Canadian patriotism.

Canadian patriotism. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Start village sponsor stands.

Start village sponsor stands. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Start village bike park and Mavic assistance.

Start village bike park and Mavic assistance. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Outdoor privy before the start.

Outdoor privy before the start. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Loo queue on race day.

Loo queue on race day. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Riders await the start.

Riders await the start. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Race day bike detail.

Race day bike detail. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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View from the cockpit.

View from the cockpit. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Author awaits the start.

Author awaits the start. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Gathering for the depart.

Gathering for the depart. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The peloton heads into the mountains.

The peloton heads into the mountains. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Heading into the morning sun on race day.

Heading into the morning sun on race day. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The Lac de Serre Poncon'

The Lac de Serre Poncon' (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The sun also rises.

The sun also rises. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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50km down 141 to go.

50km down 141 to go. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Feedstop melee.

Feedstop melee. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Piles of oranges at the feedstop.

Piles of oranges at the feedstop. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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50km to the Col d'Izoard.

50km to the Col d'Izoard. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Combes to Queyras.

Combes to Queyras. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Combes to Queyras.

Combes to Queyras. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Towards Col d'Izoard

Towards Col d'Izoard (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Peloton is strung out.

Peloton is strung out. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Peloton tackles the Gorges.

Peloton tackles the Gorges. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Author feels the heat.

Author feels the heat. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Mobbing a fountain.

Mobbing a fountain. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Brunissard at 80km.

Brunissard at 80km. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The peloton stretches back down the valley.

The peloton stretches back down the valley. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Nearing the Col d'Izoard.

Nearing the Col d'Izoard. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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On the Col d'Izoard.

On the Col d'Izoard. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Entering the Casse Desserte.

Entering the Casse Desserte. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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In the Casse Desserte.

In the Casse Desserte. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Approaching the summit of the Col d'Izoard.

Approaching the summit of the Col d'Izoard. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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At the summit of the Col d'Izoard.

At the summit of the Col d'Izoard. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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One of the few women in the Peloton approaching the summit of the Col d'Izoard.

One of the few women in the Peloton approaching the summit of the Col d'Izoard. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The feed stop at Briancon resembles a war zone.

The feed stop at Briancon resembles a war zone. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The peloton heads towards the Col du Lautaret.

The peloton heads towards the Col du Lautaret. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Stocking up at a fountain on the Col du Lautaret.

Stocking up at a fountain on the Col du Lautaret. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The never-ending trek up the Col du Lautaret

The never-ending trek up the Col du Lautaret (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Col du Lautaret just 2km to go.

Col du Lautaret just 2km to go. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Near the Col du Lautaret with La Meije in the distance.

Near the Col du Lautaret with La Meije in the distance. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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At corner nine on Alpe d'Huez.

At corner nine on Alpe d'Huez. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Col du Lautaret riders jostle to fill water bottles.

Col du Lautaret riders jostle to fill water bottles. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Alongside Lac du Chambon.

Alongside Lac du Chambon. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The road across the Chambon dam.

The road across the Chambon dam. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Riders cross the Barrage du Chambon.

Riders cross the Barrage du Chambon. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Foot of the Lac du Chambon.

Foot of the Lac du Chambon. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Descending the Col de Lautaret with 150km done.

Descending the Col de Lautaret with 150km done. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Descending the Col de Lautaret.

Descending the Col de Lautaret. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Near Bourg d'Oisans.

Near Bourg d'Oisans. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Last stretch near Bourg d'Oisans.

Last stretch near Bourg d'Oisans. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Reaching the feed station at the foot of Alpe d'Huez.

Reaching the feed station at the foot of Alpe d'Huez. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Alpe d'Huez first ramp.

Alpe d'Huez first ramp. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Corners on Alpe d'Huez.

Corners on Alpe d'Huez. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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On Alpe d'Huez near corner 14.

On Alpe d'Huez near corner 14. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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On Alpe d'Huez.

On Alpe d'Huez. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Corner nine on Alpe d'Huez.

Corner nine on Alpe d'Huez. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Looking down on Huez en Oisans.

Looking down on Huez en Oisans. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Looking down Alpe d'Huez.

Looking down Alpe d'Huez. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Struggling up Alpe d'Huez.

Struggling up Alpe d'Huez. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The corners of Alpe d'Huez.

The corners of Alpe d'Huez. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Alpe d'Huez jerseys for sale.

Alpe d'Huez jerseys for sale. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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The finishing straight.

The finishing straight. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Riders in the finishing straight.

Riders in the finishing straight. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Last 100 metres to the finish.

Last 100 metres to the finish. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)
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Crowd at the finish.

Crowd at the finish. (Image credit: Mark Sharon and friends)

L'Etape du Tour feature, Gap - L'Alpe d'Huez, part 1

L'Etape du Tour gives amateur cyclists a taste of what the pros experience in a mountainous stage of the Tour. The 2006 L'Etape mirrored stage 15 of the Tour, a 191 km exhausting ride through the Alps culminating with the 21 numbered corners of l'Alpe d'Huez. Mark Sharon was one of the 8500 riders who fought off fierce competition just to get a start. He gives an account of what it's like to compete in a mountainous Tour stage in part one of his three-part story.

Velo Magazine served up its 14th edition of the Etape du Tour this year with one of toughest in a history of some very tough events: Stage 15 of the 2006 Tour de France - a 191.4 km test of climbing and endurance starting at Gap and culminating with the strength sapping grind up l'Alpe du Huez with its 21 numbered corners.

Despite a profile that would keep a sane man in the bar, the competition to get into this years' event was as fierce as ever. It is not difficult to see why. With just a couple of exceptions, L'Etape du Tour has been consistently faithful to the concept of giving amateurs a genuine flavour of the world of a professional Tour rider.With its first edition in 1993, Velo Magazine put its marker down as it meant to go on. That year's edition took what is by today's standards a tiny field of 1705 riders 190 km between Tarbes and Pau, crossing the Col du Tourmalet, Col du Soulor and Col d'Aubisque. First place was taken by one Christophe Rinero - at the time of writing in 26th place on General Classification of the 2006 Tour de France.

The 2006 Edition

While getting into L'Etape du Tour is a major part of the challenge, finishing is a completely different matter. You may have eaten like a king, rested in a chateau, flown to the start line in a helicopter (oh, yes - there are one or two riders who do just that). You may have had the best training help, and be riding the most expensive bike one can buy but once that gun goes off you are on your own - all

8500 of you.The 2006 edition was always going to be tough - three big climbs and 191.4 km of high altitude alpine road (statistically 188.4 km, but you have to add on the opening 3km neutralized zone for good measure). First up, the legendary Col D'Izoard (2360 m) is not reached until almost the half-way mark. After a fast descent to Briançon, the Col du Lautaret, (2057 m) lay a further 30km grind further on. From there the longest descent of the day at 38 km takes the race to the lowest point of the day at Bourg d'Oisans. It is not over yet - it is just a matter of climbing the infamous (another adjective ticked off) Alpe d'Huez - 1200 m of ascent over 15 km. You work out the average gradient.

The biggest variable of all was weather. Except by the day of the race it was a certainty. All the forecasts pointed to the day being typical of the three weeks before - clear skies, and a high of 34 degrees centigrade. Out on the open road that temperature was sure to be a lot higher. It would take more than factor 35 sunscreen to cope.Over the weekend Gap had done a damn fine job of welcoming us to the Alps. The start village was bigger than ever and jammed packed with stands, coffee shops and bars, a massive screen for watching the tour and even a climbing wall, which the kids dominated. We cyclists are by nature over-analytical and both the information boards and the concessions were crowded with riders worried whether they would find their place at the start, their loved ones at the finish or whether a new pair of wheels would shave enough milliseconds off their time to be worth the 700 euros. Personally, I had enough time battling a tyre change the night before to risk swapping even a bolt at this stage.

On race day the start area was the usual melee. Riders dropping off bags and queuing for a pee… or not. I doubt the bushes along the main straight have much chance of recovering form the urinary assault of 8500 desperate bladders. The bag drop-off was fun too. Everyone had been given a rucksack with their dossard (French for race number), and now there were hundreds of identical bags piled up in the luggage trucks. One lost tag and you would never see your underpants and shoes again.Nothing prepares you for the Etape like the start itself. I was starting the race with Maurice Chabot, Luc Humbert and John Reed, who I would be lucky to see again once the race started. We would all be concentrating too much on our own survival to keep track of each other. The final count-down culminated in a crescendo of clack-clack-clack as thousands of feet engaged thousands of pedals and we were off - straight into a bright sun-rise. It would take 26 minutes for the last rider to cross the start line.

I had trained intensively for the start, doing sprint laps around London's Richmond Park. Hang the hills, if I didn't cover the first 50km without being knocked off or mown down by the peloton I had a chance of getting near the finish. As it was, the first 20 km passed off without incident with the road climbing steadily and the sun rising rapidly to ease the glare. Then, along perhaps the straightest, flattest, widest, piece of road of the whole route I was reminded just how dangerous bike-racing is.The thing with crashes is that you mainly see the aftermath, or get the story from someone else involved. It is not often you actually see one takes place. Fortunately what I am about to describe will remain a spectator experience but it sure unnerved me.

The first thing that happened was this guy losing his chain. It had some how dropped off the inner chain-ring and was flapping around uselessly. For a moment he stopped pedaling and looked down at it. At this time we were riding in a large but loosely packed group. Instead of pulling off to the side of the road the guy tried to get the chain back on by switching the front derailleur. At this point I am slightly behind and to one side of him almost amused by his predicament. Suddenly, his wheel jams and he stops dead in the road - well at least his bike tries to. The next moment he and his bike do a front flip and he smashes into the guy next him who slides directly at me. I swerve to the right and manage to avoid the collision by barely centimetres. Many people claim the actual events of an accident happen in slow motion. Not on this occasion. While I remember the details vividly, it all appeared to and probably did happen at incredibly speed - certainly at upwards of 50 kph, which wouldn't have done anyone involved much good at all.We make the first feed-stop in Guillestres, at 58.4 kilometres, in good order. While we are amongst the mountains, we haven't really done any serious climbing yet. Located on an uphill corner the feed-stop is a scene of pandemonium with the race reduced to walking pace. It is becoming worse by the minute. According to John Reed, some minutes behind, "it was grid-lock when I got there, with no place to park your bike. You had to keep it with you and fight with everyone doing the same for stuff at the tables".

At 70 km at a sharp left turn a sign proclaimed "Col d'Izoard - 15 km au Sommet". I was actually glad to start climbing at last. From this point on the scenery went from pretty to spectacular. We were in the Combes de Queyras, an utter contrast to the first 70 km of scenery. The mountains suddenly cluster around and we are racing along gorges and through tunnels, along twisting roads etched into sheer cliff-sides. Massive cascades tumble down the rock-faces. It is almost too much to take in and keep ones eyes on the road. It is certainly dangerous to do more than glance at it. I needed to stop and take just a minute to absorb it - so what if a couple of hundred riders flash by.At Les Moulins, we have covered 76 km. The scenery opens up and we are cycling along the bottom of what would appear from an aerial photo to be a flat open valley. Except that would be very deceptive. This is one of the steepest sections of the climb, at 10 percent for nearly 4km. It is an energy sapping section with no shade, and no water, except for a village fountain, which is being mobbed.

It is ever-upwards as we leave the valley and twist and turn through trees again. But the trees don't last and we are in the Casse Dessert, a barren landscape, with towers of rock jutting out of mounds of sand. You could fake a Mars landing here without a problem. Once upon a time, this section would be a cyclist's worse nightmare - a rocky track that would either leave you caked with mud or dust depending on the weather and covered with boulders that would break a frame and more if you fell. Today it is still spectacular but the addition of a tarmaced road has somewhat sanitised the experience. We are not seeing it at the right time of day though. It is at its best when the setting sun turns the rocks a beautiful rosy hue. It is truly a beautiful place.The triumph of arriving at the summit in good form is marred by a near complete absence of water at the feed-stop. There is a sea of sorts, but it is of empty discarded water bottles. The front-runners have drunk the place dry and the feed-stop-volunteers can only shrug and tell us to get to down to the "ravitaillement" at Briançon pronto. During the mad-cap descent, now being glad of the new tarmac, I note we have just passed the half-way mark - woweeee!

Part 2, thrown at the mercy of l'Alpe d'Huez, is here.
Part 3, a colourful history of l'Etape, is here.