Emmie Collinge has dreamed of riding the Tour de France since she was age 10. So when the 25-year-old Briton won a contest to take part in the Étape du Tour, which took place on July 7, she couldn't believe her luck.
"I absolutely enjoyed every minute of it," says Collinge, a fresh masters grad who lives in Gent, Belgium, because of the cycling opportunities there. "I loved overtaking everyone up the hills, I loved the crowds, but I hated the descents."
Since 1993, the Étape du Tour has been the holy grail for "cyclosportive" enthusiasts, the equivalent of Boston for marathoners and Kona for triathletes. Each year, event organisers ASO - the same ones behind the Tour de France - pick a major mountain stage to give amateurs a taste of what the pros go through in the 21-stage Tour.
The mass participation event sets cycling apart from most other sports. You wouldn't be able to drive an F1 car around Monaco, or hit a few balls on centre court at Wimbledon, or have a kick around at Old Trafford.
This year's Étape replicates the Tour's penultimate stage, which the pros will ride this Saturday. It starts beside the lake in Annecy to the 1,700-metre high summit of Semnoz, in the heart of the Bauges Natural Regional Park in the Haute-Savoie department of the Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France.
Although not nearly as long or with as much climbing as previous Étape editions, this year's event is an undulating 128 kilometres, with 3,500 metres of cumulative elevation gain, the altitude distributed among many ascents - including a final 11-kilometre climb with an 8.5 per cent average gradient.
"There is barely any chance to rest," says Tour de France race director Jean François Pescheux, in a preview of the stage.
Collinge is among some 11,475 participants from more than 50 countries (including a group of us from Hong Kong). Race slots sell out almost instantly, but Collinge earned hers through a contest organised by race sponsors Rapha, the London-based cycling apparel brand that's on a mission to get more women on bicycles.
Yoko Aoki, a freelance writer from Kamakura, Japan, is also among the 600 women who do the Étape. "It is very well organised," says Aoki, 44, who has ridden sportives in Honolulu and London. "The general level of the participants is very high - which is refreshing," she says.
There's a large variance in abilities across the participants - the winner, Frenchman Nicolas Roux, took just four hours, 13 minutes, while the final finishers took about nine hours, 30 minutes. But there's a minimum riding ability and preparation required. About 1,000 people didn't finish the race.
Former French pro rider, Dominique Gabellini, 57, who still does club races, savoured his first sportive.
Gabellini says it is a good all-round experience: "There is certainly a feeling of accomplishment, but it's to do more with riding with friends and sharing the passion for cycling."
This is my first Étape, too. Although I've been road cycling for about 13 years and done a number of bike and triathlon races, the Étape is a unique, unforgettable experience.
I'd call it an event rather than a race, because for most of the participants - myself included - the goal is enjoyment and to get to the end, rather than a podium finish or a personal best.
The only pre-start jitters I feel are due to the mass of bodies and bikes around me. Riding elbow to elbow means risking a crash. Thankfully, the organisers stagger the race starts between 7am and 8.30am, with better riders flagging off first, so there is no jostling involved.
With my nerves eased, I manage to fully enjoy the course. The first nine kilometres are a flat section that runs parallel to Lake Annecy, a great opportunity to spin lightly and get the engines warmed up.
By Hong Kong standards, the inclines are not tough - about as steep as Stubbs Road heading up to the Peak - but they are energy-sapping because they are persistent.
Officially, we climb six mountain passes and hills: Côte du Puget (5.4 kilometres long), Col de Leschaux (3.6 kilometres), Côte d'Aillon-le-Vieux (six kilometres), Col de Pres (3.4 kilometres), Mont Revard (15.9 kilometres) and Annecy-Semnoz (10.7 kilometres).
Unofficially, there are many ramps in between that are not mentioned, but the burn in the legs is just as real.
The weather is perfect - at least for someone coming from Hong Kong's summer - between 18 and 25 degrees Celsius. It eggs me on, as do the cheers from the crowds lining village streets, the hypnotic sound of cow bells, the smell of freshly cut hay and the calming sight of the azure blue sky meeting green vegetation.
The refreshment stands are frequent and well-stocked: energy gels and bars, cakes, biscuits, bananas, oranges, dried fruit, and even local products such as Bauges Mountain cheeses, herbal tea and wine.
I pass on the delicacies, preserving my stomach - as I've been doing with my legs - for the final push up the Semnoz.
In bike races, most climbs are designated from category one (hardest) to four (easiest), based on both steepness and length. Semnoz is hors catégorie, which is French for "beyond categorisation", meaning it's tough beyond description, and on the same level as mythical climbs such as Mont Ventoux and Alpe d'Huez.
Thankfully, Hong Kong prepped me well. The climb, although long, is never really that steep - especially compared with the incline up Tung Chung Road to Pak Kung Au, or Ngong Ping Road to the Big Buddha, on Lantau Island.
I stay seated on my saddle for most of the way, grinding out each pedal stroke with eyes fixed towards the summit. The flamme rouge, or the red flag that marks the final kilometre, comes sooner than I expect.
The final straight is dotted with spectators, just as you see on the TV when the pros ride the Tour. In the final 500 metres, one zealous (and possibly inebriated) Spanish fan even gives me a gentle push.
I cross the line, relieved, elated, tired, and with a whole new level of respect for the pros who do it day after day, for 21 days of the Tour.