My uphill struggle on the Tour de France

Keen amateurs can try out the world's greatest cycling race. But it's not for the faint-hearted, says David Prosser

There are two ways for amateurs in this country to get a taste of just how tough the Tour can be. The easy option is to ride the route of the first stage of the 2007 Tour. The race organisers confirmed last week that this will be in London - the five-mile against-the-clock "prologue" starts in Whitehall and finishes on the Mall.

Alternatively, you can apply for a place on this summer's Etape du Tour, which will be a little more demanding.

The Etape is an annual event organised by France's Vélo Magazine, offering thousands of amateur cyclists the chance to complete one of the official stages of the Tour, on closed roads, just a few days before the professionals race over it.

It's supposed to be fun, but don't even think about entering unless you're prepared to put some serious training miles into your legs.

This year, the organisers have chosen Stage 15 of the Tour for the Etape. At 116 miles, it's one of the longest stages in the race - more worryingly, it's the first major alpine test.

Between the start line in Gap and the finish in the ski resort of Alpe d'Huez are three very serious mountains. First up is the Col d'Izoard, a nine-mile climb - the average gradient is 7 per cent, though it increases to close to twice that at the steepest parts.

The second difficult climb, the Col du Lautaret, is marginally easier - seven-and-a-half miles at a lower average gradient - but it will serve as a challenging warm-up for the legendary ride up Alpe d'Huez.

The scene of some of the Tour's most famous battles, the Alpe d'Huez climb is almost nine miles long and has an average gradient of 8 per cent. Each of its 21 hairpin bends are numbered, which really brings home the agony of the countdown to the summit.

The Etape is never easy. I completed last year's race, an 112-mile slog from Mourenx to Pau, through the heart of the French Pyrenees.

The stage included three major climbs, but the real test is the Col d'Aubisque - 1,300m of ascent over the space of 10 miles. Add in temperatures of 35 degrees on the day and the 8,000 of us mad enough to ride the Etape last year suffered. It's not possible to take things slowly. A strictly policed broom wagon operates on every Etape. Riders who fail to keep up a minimum pace are swept up by the organisers' lorry and forced to drop out.

Then there's the difficulty of competing for road space with so many riders. On the climbs, it's a question of weaving between bikes slowing to walking pace. On the descents, you have to dodge each other at speeds of 40mph or more.

Still, the large crowds of enthusiastic French cycling fans will help you through. Drinks stations provide much-needed refreshments, though watch out for the peppermint Perrier water, which nearly finished me off.

My time? I collapsed over the finishing line (perversely situated at the top of the steepest hill in Pau) after eight hours and 17 minutes in the saddle.

That was two-and-a-half hours within the broom wagon time limit. I was impressed - until Spain's Oscar Pereiro Sio won the real stage a few days later. He covered the same course in four-and-a-half hours.

The 2006 Etape, 10 July, Gap, France. For a list of UK agents with places, see www.letapedutour.com.

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