My big challenge of the year is La Marmotte, billed as one of the hardest 1 day events in Europe over the legendary climbs of Col Du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and finishing at the top of the near mythical Alpe D’Huez – 174Km and more than 5,000 metres of climbing.
On the Friday we drove up Alpe D’Huez to the registration in the main sports complex. Not sure driving up the Alpe was a good thing or not, as even in a car it was steep and slow moving, signs of things to come! The sign on was quick and hassle free, picking up my “goodie bag” which is not a patch on what you get when entering Etape du Tour, basically a couple of energy gels and a chamois cream sample, no t shirt or water bottle.. As well as the timing chip for my bike, also received a small front and rear light which are compulsory when descending from Galibier through the tunnels! Again, unlike the Etape du Tour, the exhibition stalls are sparse with not to much to get excited about. So didn’t hang around and it was back down the Alpe and home to rest and eat, ready for the next day.
We were staying in Les Deux Alpes, a 1,650 metre high col which still had skiers in full winter gear hitting the higher slopes! As this was my first Marmotte and only paid the cheap entry only option, my number was 8528, with a start time of 7:50 (the lower numbers start at 7am). So, it was an early breakfast trying to stuff whatever I could down, before the drive down the descent and on towards Bourg d’Oisans. About 5Km from Bourg the traffic was backed up and so we joined the others and parked up while I got ready. So with a hug and a wave from my ever fabulous support team (Lindsay) off I went for a wee spin into town to find the start line. It would be a wee while before we saw each other at the finish!
Off to the start at Bourg
As you can expect with 7,000 participants, Bourg was heaving with cyclists making their way to the start. Sign posts were good and I was directed to what was 1 big long “pen” for everyone with a number > 4,000. Queuing by a river on the outskirts of Bourg, couldn’t even see the start. After a bit of a wait, but at least it was dry and warm, we started the slow shuffle towards the start. As we hit the main town I could see the start line, complete with blaring music, and at 7:55am I was off and running.
The first 10 miles are a warm up, reasonably flat, and lots of large groups blasting along at a good pace, then we hit the first of the climbs. Col du Glandon is a little more than 20Km with an average gradient of 4.7% – a bit of a false sense of ease, as the average is lower because there are 2 small “descents” during the climb. Most of the climb averages 7-8% with a couple of tough K’s at 10-11%. My plan was to take it easy as it is a long hard day, and so I did, reaching the summit after 1:55 in the saddle and it was mayhem. It’s the first feed stop and bikes and people were everywhere, you couldn’t cycle it, had to walk, carefully.
As there have been fatalities on the descent in the past, the official timing is stopped at the top of Glandon, with the descent neutralised until a timing mat at the bottom, in Saint Etienne de Culnes. I was glad as it means you can go as slow as you like without “losing” any time, so I did! The descent is very technical, steep and even had cows to doge at one point. Unfortunately even though it’s neutralised there were a few mishaps (for others) and I passed a bad scene with one rider motionless on the roadside with an ambulance beside him (fingers crossed it looked worse than it was), but hits home just how fragile things can be and didn’t help my already nervous descending. I was glad to reach the bottom and start of the timing again.
What follows is a 25Km stretch towards St Jean de Maurienne and the Telegraphe. It’s not the best stretch of road on the route, busy and more rolling than I was expecting. So it was time to get in a group and push on. By now it was 11am and the temperature was rising fast.
The Col du Telegraphe is 12Km long with a 5% average and is really a warm up for the Galibier. When taking the two together, it is more than 35Km with a 5.5% average, with only the 4Km descent to Vailloire to break up the relentless climbing. So off I went up the Telegraphe at a steady pace, trying to keep something back for the Galibier. Over the Telegraphe and down to Valloire, trying to spin the legs and all too soon it’s time to start climbing again. Stopped at the feed station to fill the bottles up on what was originally planned as a 1 stop strategy! The Galibier on its own is 18Km at an average of 6.9% and split into two main parts. As you leave Valloire it climbs fast then levels out for a couple of K and a steady slog up to Plan Lachat. Then the next 8Km are unrelenting hard at 8%+ average, with a final K of 10%+ just to finish you off. It was while climbing Galibier that the first warning signs appeared for me. I couldn’t drink or get a gel down without feeling really nauseous and my legs were feeling really dead with the start of cramping. It was a slow slog to the top as I was cooking in the heat, which was 28 degrees at the TOP of the Galibier at 2645 meters high. There was still lots of snow around and it looked so tempting to get off the bike and dive in to try and cool off. Over the Galibier after 6 hours in the saddle with the 50Km descent to follow to get back to Bourg. The start of the descent is technical, with not much to protect you if you did overcook it (a long way down). But it then settles down to become a really good descent, not too steep and lots of straight stretches where you can let go – but I was now cramping even going downhill!. Thankfully the tunnels were well lit and with riders having their lights on, made the descent safe (as long as you remember to take your sunglasses off). There is a small sting to break up the descent where you climb up for a K or so towards the end, then drop down for the 5Km flat section to the foot of Alpe D’Huez.
I stopped at the foot of the Alpe to fill up my bottle again and throw cold water over my head as I was cooked. Only 14Km at an average of 8.2% to go to the finish, a steady 1:15 should see me home – if only. Very soon after starting as the cramping really kicked in and the dry boaking started in earnest I hit a wall, of heat. I could barely turn the pedals and was crawling and I have never been as slow going up hill. There were lots of others finding shelter where they could or stopping to soak themselves in the stream. At Le Ribot I had to stop at a water station to tip cold water over myself to try and get my temperature down. It didn’t work.
Make the pain stop, please.
So after an age crawling up to the Huez village (still 5K to go) I tried again, stopping to tip cold water over myself. By now if someone had offered my a lift to the top I would have given in. I kept trying to tell myself it was only 3 more miles until I could make this all stop! After a couple more hairpins, I just couldn’t carry on. I felt I was about to puke, couldn’t drink anything, my entire body was now covered in salt and I felt really dizzy. I sat on the wall for a few minutes until the worst passed and got back on for the last couple of K. And so I crawled at a snails pace to the top of Alpe D’Huez and entered the village to a cacophony of noise and cheering and finally over the finish line. It had taken me 1:35 to get to the top with all the stopping and crawling and my Garmin was telling me it was 40 degrees!
Finally, the end is nigh…
I met Lindsay at the finish line where I slumped down for ages trying to get the sickness feeling away, still couldn’t drink much even though I really needed to. Finally handed in my timing chip and received my certificate and Gold Medal as I was somehow within the gold standard for my age group (think it’s a generous gold).
It’s all over now…
My official time was 8:18, 1,740th out of the 7,000 and 591st in my age category! My Garmin told me it was 8:35 of moving time and 20 minutes of stopping time! The longest (in time) I have ever been on my bike, in the hottest weather I have ever ridden in, at the slowest pace ever and I was a broken man.
Swore “never again”, but after a week now, I can’t let this be my finale with La Marmotte, I could easily take 30-40 minutes off my time, especially if it was raining 😉 Next year anyone?
My post event thoughts on La Marmotte. Not as big as the Etape du Tour in terms of organisation, freebies, host village etc etc, but is an excellent event over a very very tough route. It does have the advantage of it being essentially a loop so start / end logistics are easier than the Etape.
Some official photos here.
Have a game of ” where’s Wally” trying to spot me in the official video of my race – here