This was it. No more training, no more preparation, no more waiting around..
Before La Marmotte I’d ridden in the Alpes before but never more than one Col at a time. Unless you count the Col du Lautaret when riding the Col du Galibier from thr Southern side which my friends do not. So I’d acquired the nickname of “One-Col-Tim” over the last year. That was about to change.
I woke up about 30 minutes before my 5am alarm and lay there stewing on everything, but at 5am we were all up, eating and getting dressed.
Dave and Andy were in the second wave to leave Bourg d’Oisans so had to leave 30 minutes before me and Karl which left me pacing around and Karl telling me to chill out.
At 7am we hit the road. Or rather that was the intent until we got outside, lit up the Garmin’s aaaaaaaand my power meter which in hundreds upon hundreds of uses has never had a major issue, refused to connect.
My Garmin located about 20 other power meters within range but not mine. After some frantic resetting, a new battery and more frantic resetting, it finally connected and we were on our way down the mountain to the holding pen.
If you are considering riding La Marmotte in the future and stay up on Alpe d’Huez (which I highly recommend and will come back to later), the descent in the morning is cold! Take a gilet/rain cape. I don’t wear gloves and was wishing I had.
Once you hit Bourg d’Oisans you start to see the signs for the different pens for the groups based on your race number. The organisation is as previously, absolutely stellar and you are filtered according to the numbers by the many, many marshalls. One thing I spent a lot of time trying to find out ahead of the start was whether we’d be able to switch pens so that all four of us could ride in a group together. You can’t. The organisers are clear on this when you get the final race pack that you could be disqualified for switching pens and the race numbers are different colours so they can filter you easily into the correct pens.
There are queues for the toilets right up until you roll out of the pen and along to the start line in the centre of town, so there’s a chance to deal with any final pre-game jitters and then it’s time to hurry up and wait for the start. People chat, eat, sit in silence, whatever works for you.
(Everyone ready to go)
Once you leave the pen, you roll around the town following a predetermined route and at zero hour you are all set loose on to the course.
(Out of the holding pen and on the approach to the start line.)
The initial ride from Bourg d’Oisans can be a fast one if you want it to be with plenty of fast trains rolling down to Allemond at what seems like a professional pace, but, if like us you just want to ride your own race, then stick to the right and do your thing. The entire road is closed to traffic whilst all 3 waves leave town so you have the entire road to play with with the faster riders on the left. There’s quite a bit of road furniture on the way down to Allemond but its all well marked with teh local police stood with flags just like you see in the Tour de France,
Karl and I went back and forth doing turns on the front and before long realised we had inadvertently started our own train to Allemond with an unknown number of people sitting in. Not a problem for now, we were riding a comfortable pace after agreeing to make sure neither of us got to caught up in the excitement of the event and rode too hard too soon, so we were in a very comfortable zone, but be warned….people are selfish and in an event like this you should be too! I am not saying to go around yelling at people out and throwing elbows, but it’s a tough ride and if you get the opportunity to not do any work take it, but also don’t be that guy who when it’s his turn to hit the front for 400m suddenly fades off the back or develops a “mechanical”.
We all know those people, we’ve all ridden with them, and there’s no getting away from it some times.
Personally, I don’t mind doing my part and putting in some work. After all, we are all in the same boat and if you can do something to help your fellow rider out then do it. That willingness to help each other out is one of the things I truly love about the cycling community.
As we approached the start of the Col du Glandon I checked my shoulder and Karl had vanished. I eased up but couldn’t see him but our deal was that we’d regroup at the top of the Glandon if we got split in the melee of the first climb.
So off I went up the Col du Glandon riding to my power zones and not going too deep unless it was on one of the steeper ramps where its out of necessity to dig in a little.
The Col du Glandon sorts out the field pretty well in my opinion. You eventually settle in with riders going at the same pace as you and then it’s a case of weaving through the slower riders on the course and making room on the left for the faster riders coming through. For the first several kilometres you are in the treeline and the temperature was right in the goldilocks zone right up to La Rivier. As the road flattened off for a short stretch I soft pedalled and looked for Karl but he was still no where to be seen. I checked my phone and no messages or missed calls so I had to assume he was still on the road.
The view as you come out of La Rivier and begin a short descent is amazing. You can see where the road bits the bottom of the valley and starts to climb again and the thousands of riders ahead of you. Once ou hit the bottom of the hair pins its an abrupt incline similar to the first stretch on Alpe d’Huez where you go almost instantly from flat to 10%. I like to climb but from experience I know that once the gradient tips into double figures it doesn’t favor a rider of my height and weight.
La Marmotte is all about the experience and my first new experience came just before the second dam when after resisting it for as long as possible, I had to take a comfort break.
Never in my life have I taken a more scenic break than on the side of the Col du Glandon whilst being watched by several hundred passing cyclists. One for the books!
I’m genuinely enjoy the second half of the Col du Glandon and kept a decent pace all the way up, feeling pretty fresh right through the timing stop just before the feed station at the summit.
I’d been eating and drinking all the way up but took the opportunity to refill my bottles with water and SIS Go tablets and munch down the rest of a Cliff bar I had open.
I waited for Karl for a while and chatted with a Dutch rider about the descent we were we about to tackle, but that first feed station is chaos and overrun with people so I opted to descend and move on in the hope that Karl, who will attack and descent with youthful abandon, would catch up with me before we were in the Maurienne valley heading for the Telegraphe.
I’d never descended the Glandon before and was took it easy knowing it was neturalised and a chance to rest up and enjoy it.
There were a couple of people on the deck being seen to by the French Red Cross vans which you never want to see, but again speaks volumes to the organisation of the event. I must have passed 20-30 marshal’s on the descent warning you of dangerous corners, road furniture etc. All seemed to be volunteers (I might be wrong on that) pitched up for the day, some with whistles and flags, others with just flags, but either way it was reassuring to see them and adjust my approach accordingly.
The descent itself is a lot of fun, especially when you know there are not going to be any oncoming cars on blind corners. You can really get some speed up if you want to, otherwise, sit up, flow though the corners and take it in.
Once you finish the descent you pop out into the Maurienne valley. Not the most scenic part of the ride and for me a particularly frustrating section.
This is another section where the trains emerge, some faster, some slower so it’s a case of finding one that suits your pace and getting on board. In my case, this seemed to mean me sitting on the front of a group of about 8 people none of whom would come through and do a turn. I let this go for a while and just kept on at my pace, watching my power and being mindful of the heat in the valley as it was starting to get into the mid to high twenties now. After about a kilometre, I flicked the elbow, and nothing happened. I looked back and got the next riders attention and flicked the elbow again. Nothing. I don’t mind doing my share but I am also not burning all my matches for someone else so rather than pushing on and trying to drop the group I sat up and waved the next rider through. Eventually two came through and we rolled on through the valley with another 8 riders in tow until we came up on another train and merged into one.
One or two more turns on the front and we hit the water station just before the Telegraphe. A quick refill, a more private comfort break and it was on to Col #2.
I opted not to take any pictures in the Maurienne valley. You are not missing anything.
The Telegraphe was fairly anonymous. You spend most of the climb in the trees and the gradient is never too much to deal with but the heat from the valley was with us on this climb so pretty much every jersey I saw was open and plenty of water was consumed.
There’s a water station about half way to two thirds of the way up the climb if you need a refill, but it is just a water station. No food on this one but a good opportunity to refill. For me, riding this event was dipping into the unknown in a lot of respects so I was fairly conservative in my approach and I would refill my bottles at every opportunity. I’d rather be carrying a little extra weight on the bike in the form of full bottles and suffer through thirst and the danger of dehydration. I am a sweaty guy at the best of times so plenty of water was consumed.
I don’t really have much to say on the Telegraphe. It wasn’t the most exciting or scenic climb but getting to the summit meant I was officially no long One-Col-Tim, so at least there’s that.
The descent from the summit of the Telegraphe to Valloire is over VERY quickly. The five or so kilometres flies by but the view towards Valloire is nice and the breeze was refreshing after the heat coming up the Telegraphe.
Valloire looked really pretty as we rolled through but my mind was fixed on the Col du Galibier.
Just after leaving Valloire there’s an official feed station so another water refill and a minute to take in to brace myself for the biggest climb of the day and it was back on the bike. I’d trained with Cliff bars, SIS gels and SIS Go Electrolyte tabs and wanted to stick to that rather than risking eating something that caused me to need to Dumoulin-esque comfort break (we all know what I am talking about and if you don’t Google “Tom Dumoulin Giro d’Italia 2016 poop”. Subtle, right?)
The initial gradient after the feed station is gentler than it gets so I munched down another Clif Bar (White Chocolate Almond – best flavour!) and got settled in. The gradient for the first 8km doesn’t really tip much above 7% so it’s very manageable and with so many riders on the road you are never short of a wheel to follow. The views on the way up are phenomenal so drink it in and make the most of it if you can rip yourself away from chewing on the bars for a minute or two.
After the first 8km you hit a hairpin and if you are brave enough to look up will see several riders at what appear to be a great distance above you but the road looks improbably short to get there. I’d been warned about this point by everyone I’d spoken to and had tried to mentally prepare myself but seeing the gradient kick like that is a bitter pill to swallow. A series of hairpins and steep ramps ticking up over 10-12% are your next couple of kilometres on the road to the highest point of the top.
I’m not a naturally built climber. I’m 6’7” and when we started the day I weighed in at 85kg so there’s a lot of me to haul up any mountain. I promised myself that unless a medical issue necessitated it or I was about to Dumoulin myself that I would not be getting off the bike on any climb. My cadence dropped to about 50rpm for the remainder of the climb but a ground away at it along with everyone else.
The Galibier seems to be the point in the race where the cracks start to show. There were more than a few people who came off behind me but I didn’t dare look behind in case I then became one of them. You also start to see people pulling over and just sitting on the road side, head in hands or cramping. The temptation was strong to stop at the little cafe half way up for a cold Coke and to rest but my plan was to just focus on each individual kilometre and once the current one was done, to push it out of my mind and work on the next one. I’d spend about 8 months training on TrainerRoad for this and I found all those hours on the rollers helps develop an ability to compartmentalise your suffering. I went kilometre to kilometre focusing solely on the stretch in front of me to get me to the next marker.
Off topic(ish) – One thing that did bother me was that you have the official permanent markers on the road side every kilometre but then the event markers which were also signifying how many kilometres to the summit in completely different places. Sometimes 50m or more apart. It’s a small gripe, but sure the person tasked with that could have just set them up next to the permanent markers? To the other end of the spectrum, there are bins all up the climb specifically designed for cyclists which have huge openings and back plates so you can just throw in your rubbish without getting off the bike. It’s a nice touch!
The closer you get to the summit, the more people seem to be on the road side and once you hit the 1km to go marker near the tunnel, there was a full blown party atmosphere with the different tour companies blaring music and cheering everyone on.
The last kilometre was an out of the saddle experience. It’s steep, there were people weaving all over the road and I needed to get around people. My legs were also screaming from the low cadence work and needed a stretch but when you come around the final hairpin and can see the top there’s not a rider on the road who doesn’t get a little surge of energy and ups their pace to get to the feed station at the summit. I got through the gate and dismounted, planning on a quick water refill, a banana and getting down off the mountain so as not to get too cold and start cramping. That was three cols done and even though I was feeling the effort I was smiling.
After taking a minute to catch my breath I was greeted by Andy gyrating wildly in my direction which added to the surreal feeling of the moment. It was a shock considering he’d started 20 minutes ahead of us but a quick catch up and Dave appeared which was possibly the biggest surprise as I had expected them both to be long gone and putting in some good times up the road. They had their stories from the road so far and quickly filled me in on what had happened to bring them there at the same time as me, but that’s their story to tell.
At this point I needed food and broke my own rule about the feed stations. The SIS gels were starting to not sit well and taste awful going down and considering we still had about 60km and the small matter of Alpe d’Huez to deal with I needed more calories.
The feed station a top the Galibier is well stocked and I munched down several orange slices, a banana and several Madeleines before getting my bottles refilled and throwing in some more SIS electrolyte tablets. Returning to Andy and Dave who had held on to my bike for me, we were met by Karl who it turns out had been about 5 minutes behind me for the whole route so far. Karl went to eat and we then got ready to get moving again.
Fed and watered we descended and began the ride down from the Col du Lautaret .
If one good thing came out of La Marmotte, it’s that i got the best photo of me on a bike so far….VANITY TIME……
The ride from the summit of the Galibier to Alpe d’Huez is mostly downhill so its a good chance to rest up and let your legs get some recovery in before the final challenge.
Edit: It was brought to my attention after publishing my write up of the big day that I neglected to include an incident that really drills home how lucky you can be riding with good people. During one of the longer sections of tunnel en route to Alpe d’Huez I dropped a chain in the middle of the tunnel with no where to stop and no real souce of lighting except those on my bike. Not an ideal location for a mechanical. After a brief round of cussing and looking for any alcove I could get into to fix the issue I felt a hand on my back and Andy began pushing me out of the tunnel. With him pushing me, I was able to reach down and manually get my chain back on without stopping. He was tired, I was tired, it was boiling, but he still helped me out when I needed it. Always help your fellow rider out where possible. (Thanks Andy!!)
As we hit the valley floor rolling back towards Bourg d’Oisans ahead of the final climb of the day, the heat began to bite in a big way. We rode as a group and agreed that we’d do our own thing on Alpe d’Huez. The rest of the group stopped at the final feed station but I wanted to push on. I’d come out to push myself and see what I could do in an event beyond anything I had done before and despite feeling fatigue and the heat, I promised myself I would keep going and put in the best possible effort I could muster.
If you are at all familiar with Alpe d’Huez you know that feeling when you make the left turn and start to climb. the gradient goes from flat to 10 or 11% almost instantly so the first 50-100 meteres is all about finding the right gear and trying to set a rhythm. It’s relentless on fresh legs but none of us were on fresh legs now. Half way up to the first corner I checked my Garmin and the ambient temperature was 36 degrees centigrade. This was going to be tough.
Back in to the low cadence last seen on the Galibier it was time to settle in. I worked a simailar approach as I had on the Col du Galibier but instead of going kilometre marker to kilometre marker I focussed solely on getting to the next corner and no further.
Reaching La Garde there was a water station where one of the volunteers had rigged a hose and was gladly hosing down anyone who need it. Few things have ever felt so good as being showered down with cold Alpine water in that heat!
There’s 3 water stations that I can remember on Alpe d’Huez and my bottles were refilled at every opportunity. One for drinking and one for pouring over myself.
If the Galibier is where the cracks began to show then Alpe d’Huez is where they are widened into canyons. The were riders on every barrier, shady spot, every corner, resting, lying down, stretching. It’s a tough climb on the best of days but we were all hurting now.
I was making steady progress but rounding corner 8 I got out of the saddle to stretch and my left hamstring cramped hard, almost forcing me to the deck. It was my turn to stretch and contemplate my life choices. I’d hoped that I wouldn’t have to dismount on any of the climbs but plans change and there I sat on the road side trying to stretch through the cramp and get on with the job at hand. A brief respite and the cramping subsided and I took the opportunity to force down another gel and some water.
Back on the bike and my cadence back up to a whopping 50 rpm on I rode to corner where a lone spectator sat with some kind of air horn trying cheering us weary souls on our way to the summit. It was a taste of the atmosphere that builds and builds as you get higher up the mountain. The support form the local residents, other riders and tour operators is phenomenal.
As I rounded corner 7 I glanced back over my shoulder and was greeted with the a call of “OI OI!” and Karl rode up next to me. I could have cried I was so happy to see a familiar face. Our spirits lifted and we plodded on together not really talking just focussed on getting through the final few kilometres until we hit the end. I was grinding away in 32-36 gearing and feeling every rotation but eventually Karl rolled away from me in his 28-36 and I cheered him on with as much vigour as I could muster and amazed at the strength to keep pushing.
The final corners all blurred together into one mass of pain and sweat, though corner 1 was in full on party mode with several vans and companies blasting music, sounding air horns, ringing alpine cow bells and cheering you on as you hit the final stretch into the village heading for the finish line.
Half way up the final ramp and elderly couple cheered me on by name with an “Allez Tim! Allez” which in my exhausted state confused me more than anything. I had no idea who they were, but they knew me?!
About 50m later I remembered my name was on the number suspended from my handlebars as more and more people sat in the bars and cafe’s cheer you home.
No matter how exhausted you are, no matter how much your legs want you to stop, you can’t help but get a final surge of energy as you go through the tunnel and make the final turns through the village heading for the finish line. The exhilaration of finishing this ride was overwhelming and again the atmosphere kicks in with the music, the smiling people, the elation of finsihing. Of beating the Marmotte. I think anyone who undertakes some kind of endurance activity, something where you push yourself physically and mentally as far as you can knows that feeling of accomplishing something you set out to do and work relentlessly to accomplish.
We’d done it. We’d finished La Marmotte! As I rolled over the line there was Karl who’d finished about a minute ahead of me filming me finish and collect my medal. We caught up and pitched up against the barriers admiring the medals we’d earned and comparing war stories whilst speculating as to where Andy and Dave had gotten to.
After about 20 minutes and with no sign of our remaining party members, the exertion combined with a little dehydration began to get to me and I grabbed two cokes and a full water bottle and retreated to the apartment to work on not feeling awful.
40 minutes later the apartment was at its full compliment and we all sat down to Coke and whatever food we could reach from our respective seats. The months of training, preparation and sacrifice were over. For some of us it had gone well and for others not so well but no matter how exhausted you are there’s a special feeling that comes with being a finisher of La Marmotte and if you have an interest in sportive riding I cannot recommend this event enough.
It’ll push you, hard, but it’s worth it. If only for the massive amount of pizza and beer you can consume guilt free in the aftermath.
6029 cal burned
2388th rider to finish
700th male aged 30-39.