So, a little history before we get into the main event.
I started cycling about 4 years ago when back to back calf and knee injuries put an end to my pursuit of running and whilst in a bit of a slump over the frustration of not being able to hit the trails, my physio suggested cycling as an alternative to keeping some cardio fitness but taking my knees out of the equation almost entirely.
A few conversations later with my brother in law Dave from Ride Strong Bike Tours and I found myself driving to Exeter to pick up a second hand Specialised Secteur. Nothing too glamorous or racey but it was my first foray into the world of road cycling.
The bike lead to bib shorts.
Bib shorts lead to clipless pedals and the clipless pedals lead to falling off.
But falling off lead to more riding, sportives and joining a local club.
I got the bug. Big time!
My first ever sportive was the now defunct Gower Bike Ride and like anyone venturing forth into a new venture, you want to go big but you are convinced to start small, so a 50 mile ride around Gower with a few thousand other charity riders it was.
From there, things escalated quickly and less than 12 months after buying the Specialised Secteur I was riding a newly purchased Ridley Helium, rocking some slightly tighter bib shorts and slightly shinier shoes. That’s when I met these two via the Swansea Wheelers cycling club:
At the risk of inflating some already large ego’s *cough*Andy*cough*, I owe them both a lot in terms of them pushing me to go further, train more, ride harder and improve my overall game on the bike. If they hadn’t been there with support, advice and derision in equal parts, I probably wouldn’t have bothered doing any of this.
I’ll go into my training, bike set up, fuelling, what-went-right/wrong etc another time. What I really wanted to get to is my experience and thoughts on the event itself. La Marmotte. In all its hilly detail.
Day -1 and Day 0
I love a good road trip and combine that with a dislike of flying meant that me and my brother in law, the aforementioned Dave from Ride Strong Bike Tours took to the road on the Wednesday evening before the event. We set out from Swansea after I finished work and got to Dover around 9pm and spent the night in what became affectionately known a our sordid little grief hole (I will spare adding the name of the accommodation. After all, if you don’t have anything nice to say…).
A 4:30am wake call and we were repacking the car and heading for the port and on to the ferry. Dave had made me nervous about this by pre-packing his Hammer Nutrition perpetuum powder in vacuum packed servings but after a surprisingly casual approach to customs on each side of the Channel, we were in France and had the small matter of a 950km(ish) drive to our apartment on Alpe d’Huez where we’d rendezvous with Andy and Karl who were flying in later that day.
If you have ever made the pilgrimage from Dover to the French Alps you’ll know the road is fairly anonymous but what it does do, is afford you the opportunity to dissect each others training and race and fueling plan in very, very great detail. As if I wasn’t nervous enough already, I now had an experienced rider picking apart the strategy I had built up over months. Phrases like “Oh, you’re only drinking electrolyte and no calories in your bottles…I’m sure you’ll be fine.” did little to quell my nerves.
About eight and a half hours later and we were stood in the Casino supermarket car park in Boug d’Oisans staring up the mountain at the town at the top of one of the most iconic climbs in cycling.
We’d booked an apartment for four via AirBnb and whilst it was indeed a “cosy” apartment, how can you be disappointed with views like this every morning!
Being the first to arrive meant first choice on the beds so we pitched up, had some food and awaited the arrival of our cohorts in this expedition. Having opted for the cheap flights, our eager compatriots didn’t arrive until 2 am and promptly crashed out and slept.
Day 1 – Friday 06-JUL
After the first black coffee of the day the rest of the day was all about building up bikes, sorting out kit, registering for the event, picking up our numbers and a shake down ride up the Col D’Ornon. After all making use of the work stand I had chucked in the car that I had previously been politely informed that “we will NEVER need”, we got ourselves together and went to register/amble around the promo area/finish line.
(Karl putting together his Ridley Noah.)
We had two days before the event but even then there’s a huge buzz around the locality. You can feel the excitement and the anticipation. Everyone you seem to meet is in the same boat with months of training, hard work and sacrifice have all lead to this point.
Registration was really efficient and well run (as was the whole event). The team there seem to all be bilingual so even if you don’t speak a lick of French they can sort you out. After being presented with our race numbers, course information, safety info, promo backpack and free lights we ambled back to the apartment to get down to it and do some riding.
We had limited time in the Alpes before we headed home so we made the most of it. Staying in a small apartment meant close quarters whilst getting ready but we were stoked to be here and were soon descending Alpe d’Huez and rolling through the middle of Bourg d’Oisans and along the road we’d take again in two days towards Allemond. Today though, we turned left after a few km’s off the main road and on to the quiet climb of the Col D’Ornon.
Almost everyone was riding a compact/semi-compact groupset of some variation there of and was just out to spin the legs so there was a rapid shifting into the lowest gearing once we hit the first hint of an incline. No PB’s today.
On to the Col dOrnon.
I LOVE this climb! It was the first ever proper Col I rode when I came to the Alpes a year prior and I was happy to repeat it as my first ride of this trip. For the unfamiliar, the Col d’Ornon is a little over 11km long, climbing just shy of 650m with an average gradient of 5.8% maxing out at 8.5% so it was not going to be anything as taxing as what we’d be riding on La Marmotte.
We tapped away at it staying together for the nearly the whole climb with a bit of music on and great atmosphere. Everyone had the urge to ride and it took a few reminders amongst the group to take it easy when someone started pushing the pace. We had the big one in two days.
(left: Dave, right: me)
A little over 40 mins later we hit the summit and made the obligatory coffee stop at the cafe/bar there. The general consensus at this stage was that it was hotter than any of us remembered it being before, but the legs were all feeling great.
(Left to right: Andy, Karl and Dave)
Mandatory Coke break #1 of the trip.
With any great climb, comes a great descent. What goes up….
An easy spin back through Bourg d’Oisans for more coffee and the sensible amongst the group (Read: scared about torching my legs ahead of La Marmotte), jumped in the car and drove back up Alpe d’Huez.
A few hours of sitting around and drinking coffee (really leaning hard into the French lifestyle) and that was a wrap for Day 1.