We decided this year to skip the extra day on the Alpe, nice though it was to spend time there last year. AndyC and I were driving down at an obscenely early hour via the Eurotunnel and the fantastic French road system.
We were meeting up with a bigger group of guys organised by the excellent Paul Martin – 28 of us in total. In the back of the van we had 3 other bikes; Bigfooter DaveM and two renegades CliveH and SteveF who were flying together from Stansted.
The plan was to get to the Hotel Pelvoux in time for tea which we managed no problem.
Friday was a nice day to chill, plan and enjoy the surroundings. After a briefing in the morning we wandered round the town and I picked up an absurdly expensive jersey (€150).
We gave the bikes a quick shakedown by riding up to the lake. It was the first time I’d got in the saddle for ages and frankly it didn’t feel that great. My legs felt tired and my pedalling laboured. The views were terrific though!
The other chaps picked up their race packs and we headed down to Bourg for a spot of lunch which was fantastic.
I spent ages mulling over my packing options. The team of chaps we were riding with do a brilliant job offering support at three places on the route. However, the number of options this gives and the fact that the weather conditions can be so variable makes the decision process strangely complicated. Anyway, I packed up three bags with bottles, powders, potions, bars and gels ready for the morning.
My preparation in the last week had been far less than ideal. A spot of gastric flu the weekend before meant that I’d been unable to train as planned (I barely had the energy to climb the stairs let alone ride) but also left my body depleted so that when I did a little training on Tuesday I suffered terrible cramp during the night that I was still feeling the effects in my calf muscles 3 days later. This was cause for concern so I went to the pharmacy and the nice lady gave me some magnesium tablets and French ‘deep heat’ which smelled pleasingly of lavender.
Despite getting an early night and sleeping well the alarm at 5 o’clock was still pretty shocking. Up we got and forced down some breakfast. The day starts with a chilly descent of Alpe D’Huez which was much more fun this year than I remember. It was really exhilarating and great to get back on the bike after so much rest. We were herded into the town – luckily were were in the first group (after the elite riders) and would be starting at 7:00.
Last year I managed 8hr20 which was a reasonable first attempt. I’ve trained hard this year and was hoping at least to beat the 8 hour mark. Last year I rode my bike a lot and in the process got pretty fit. This year I’ve cut out a lot of the ‘fun riding’ and had a much more focussed and structured plan which has involved a lot of hard sessions on the turbo.
I thought that I probably had a 7hr45 and maybe even a 7hr40 ride in me this year but that was before my compromised preparation, aching legs, inability to train in the last week and mechanical problems with my bike had dented confidence.
To the Glandon
The first bit of the ride is a half hour blast along the valley dwarfed on all sides by mountains. Everybody is pretty pumped up as the 1,600 riders in our batch burn off some adrenalin and it’s the perfect way to get the legs going cruising along at 45kmph almost effortlessly. AndyC, DaveM and I set off together but in the melee Dave dropped off the back somewhere. AndyC was displaying his usual ‘leave nothing on the road’ mentality and we ripped up the first couple of undulations. Not content with sitting in on a fast moving group were were straight on the attack and swiftly got to the foot of the Glandon.
The first test of the day; a 25km climb. Only 5% or so on average but a tough and inconsistent climb. It ramps up pretty quickly and Andy and I set about making our way through the crowds. Probably a little quicker than I would have liked as my heart rate was a bit high but I thought we’d settle in. After half an hour into the climb we got separated and I backed off slightly.
Unbelievably I had cramp in my calf muscles already! After the first little test. To say I was a bit gutted was an understatement. I backed off completely when I hit a small town and rested my legs. I was half tempted to turn round and head back there and then. The Marmotte is a murderous day even when on the finest form. The idea of spending 8 or 9 hours enduring cramp for a poor time did not strike me as a great way to spend time.
“6 months training for this!”. Anyway, I stopped moping and decided that I’d ride to the top of the Glandon and see how I felt. If I thought I would be able to survive the ride then I’d do it, otherwise I’d turn back. Once past the summit there would be no going back. I felt that all thoughts of a good time had gone, instead I would ride to finish if it was going to be possible. Any number of the riders that I’d past on the initial climb were now streaming past me which was humiliating.
Just before the summit at least a friendly face appeared. DaveM caught me up and was going well. We made the first support car together, stocked up and went on our way.
“Fuck it” was what I actually thought. If I can’t climb well at least I can have a good go at the descent. I dropped Dave instantly and set about making the most of the downhill. I remember last year relishing the views. Not this year. I was totally focussed on the next corner and maximising my speed. The top section is a bit dicey and there’s always a few crashes each year, some fatal, but I negotiated them well and felt good.
At the bottom I felt okay but started to wonder where everyone was. With 7,000 other people doing the event it would seem impossible that there could be no other riders in view but that was the case. At other points in the ride this isn’t a problem but with the ‘boring flat bit’ coming up the last thing I wanted to do was ride on my own wasting precious energy.
Road to the Telegraph
This is the only slightly unpleasant bit of the Marmotte route. Slightly uphill, 25km or 35km, unglamorous single and dual carriageway. It’s not the organisers fault of course that the mountains don’t all join up perfectly but still it is a shame. There is a very simple strategy for surviving this part of the ride; find a group to sit in and eat and drink like crazy.
Simply put trying to consume anything whilst either climbing or descending is very difficult. When you are climbing even taking a quick sip of a drink can leave you hopelessly gasping for breath, let alone trying to eat. Descending at pace requires a good deal of concentration and hands on handlebars!
I pressed on alone for a while and actually felt pretty good on the flat-ish roads. The cramp was long gone and I was setting a good pace. Finally a group caught me and I joined them. I ended up doing a couple of turns on the front which was not really the plan but anything to hasten the arrival of the next climb.
I was the only one of our immediate circle of 5 that had ridden the Marmotte before so I was in the position of dispensing various bits of my acquired ‘wisdom’ whilst trying to make clear that I was extrapolating from a single ride. One of these little gems was that the Telegraph was a nice little climb. Mainly as it is, compared to the Glandon, a consistent gradient. What I had forgotten in the year that had passed was that it is consistently bloody hard. And really hot and exposed.
I was heartened that I was climbing OK and I dropped some of the group I’d been riding in. My legs were cramp free and I made steady but sure progress. With about 3km to the top I could feel a few twinges in my legs in my quads and hamstring but not in my troubled calf muscles which was a great relief. I backed off a tiny bit and continued to mix in efforts out of the saddle. I hit the top of the Telegraph and pressed right on. I’d been promising myself a piss for some time but I wanted to save it for a treat, however mad that might sound.
Something odd happens when you push your body hard physically. It affects you mentally as well. I started singing, not out loud thank god, the chorus of White Lies’ Farewell to the Fairground, the bit that goes “Keep on running…” over and over again with tears in my eyes. Very odd. But motivating and I tore down the hill.
The short descent from the Telegraph takes you down into Valloire which in turn, after a brutal little kick, brings you to the Galibier.
I started the Galibier as planned with a nice piss by the side of the road. I managed to get on and off the bike without any cramp which was a good sign. My back was holding out too on the climbs was was good news – I’ve sold out and started stretching since my trip to see Jo McRae and I reckon this was paying dividends.
The climb starts innocently enough with a playful 5 or 6% gradient that softens you up a bit. Then at Plan Lachat you cross a small bridge and it turns nasty. Straight away you’re faced with a wall of a climb which sets the tone for the next 45 minutes or so. It’s a brutal ascent which gets harder and harder.
It was on the Galibier that the memory of suffering from the previous year returned. It seems that the brain, probably for reasons of kindness (or more likely as an ardent evolutionist – survival advantage), is incapable of recalling exactly what pain and suffering are like. Climbs like this really hurt and go on hurting for a long time which is very hard to relate. The thought “I’m never doing this again” goes through your mind countless times. The roadside markers counting down the kilometres are a mixed blessing. When it says 3km to go but you can see the summit towering above you it means nothing.
The last few kilometres are particularly tough. Road traffic is directed through a tunnel and only the crazy carry on to the top as the gradient stiffens to 10, 11 and 12%. Though not for me the horrendous cramp of last year, of being bent double over the bike. I was straight on to the big ring and into the descent.
The second support vehicle is just the other side of the summit so a couple of turns later I was forcing chocolate brownie and diet coke down. I’d said to the chaps that it would be a good idea to have a ‘treat’ to give you something to look forward to during the climb. Actually it was a pretty shit idea I think and I didn’t really enjoy either of mine. I was very quickly on my way, water bottles replenished and jersey stocked with bars and gels.
I set about the descent in much the same vain as the Glandon. Singing away to myself I was taking no prisoners. It’s an amazing descent but again I had no time to enjoy the views. During the descent there are 7 tunnels of varying lengths and illumination – or rather un-illumination. Going from the glaring sun to a pitch black tunnel with no time to remove the shades is a bit of a hazard. You can just make out the guys in front as they are silhouetted against the darkness.
I’ve never been so inclined to take risks and I overtook cars in the tunnel on blind corners and lorries without plain view of oncoming traffic. But having come this far and worked so hard I didn’t want to compromise my time.
As I started to see signs for Bourg D’Oisans I started to think that, actually, after all, I might be on for a reasonable time. In fact 7hr45 was looking possible. I kept my head down and worked in a small group as the kilometres ticked down.
Alpe D’Huez Ascent
I was feeling pretty good at the bottom of the Alpe. Not brilliant. But good. 7hr45 was still on which was awesome and motivating. Unfortunately this year the weather was not so kind and the sun was beating down. The first couple of turns on the Alpe are brutal. 12% easily at points. The final support car was placed at hairpin 18, or three long turns up the hill. The guys were brilliant and turned me round in no time with a fresh drink and gel to get me up the hill. I stripped off my helmet and gloves, poured cold water over my head on got on with the climb.
And so the climb ground on with a succession of relatively flat hairpins followed by walls of tarmac of varying levels of intensity. There were a couple of water points on the way up and it was such a relief to have half a cup of cold water to drink and the other half on my head.
I was not climbing brilliantly but steadily and there were plenty around me off their bikes or in a worse state than me. With each kilometre marker I was trying to do the maths to see what time was possible. 7hr40 looked about do-able.
As I came out of the trees another of my absurd nuggets of wisdom came to get me. Who was it that said “it’s really nice when the climb opens up”. This is absolute bollocks. It’s really steep and it hurts like hell. Slowly the hairpins counted down until I got to the last one. I’d been getting stronger and stronger as time went on and felt good as I got into the town.
I crossed the line at 7hr27 which I didn’t think at any time was remotely possible. I stopped at the drink station and necked 5 cups of brightly coloured liquid, one after the other. I spotted AndyC and went to congratulate him. Legend. It turned out he’d finished only a minute or so before me! Simply amazing.
What’s great about an event like the Marmotte is everyone has a story. It’s not possible to have a boring day of it.
I was, well, thrilled and relieved in equal measure. Thrilled with my time. Knocking 53 minutes off last years time is ridiculous. Finishing in under 7hr30 exceeded all expectations. But also relieved. I’ve made no secret of how seriously I’ve taken cycling this year, made no secret of how hard I have tried to train and that the Marmotte was my main goal of the year. If the ride had gone badly, as looked so likely early on, it would have been a very public-feeling failure. Excuses are just that.
AndyC is a legend. His ‘leave nothing on the road’ philosophy, his ability to push himself hard and his level of fitness are a real motivation for me. There is a level of friendly competition between us but I was nearly as pleased for him as I was for myself at the end of the ride. And, one day maybe, if I actually beat him at something, that would be good too :-).
DaveM struggled in the end after a blinding start. Well on target for an 8 hour ride after the first climb, cramp came after him in a big way. Much as it had for me the previous year. I don’t care what women say about child-birth, cramp is a killer! In the end, and despite the travails, Dave completed the course compromised and emotional in a very credit-worthy time of 8hr36 – inside Gold time and only 16 minutes slower than my effort from last year.
SteveF and CliveH. I’m sure they won’t me mind saying that they are not as fanatical as the rest of us. In training it took them 9 hours to complete the Dragon Ride which is a so-so time for a relatively unchallenging course. I was pretty concerned what sort of state they would be in by the end. Or maybe if they would finish at all. I should not have worried! Such incredible spirit mixed in with some comedy. Not everyone would have been so blase about being sick during a ride. Or so desperate to shed weight that they leave their mobile phone with the support car. Or self-consciously doing up their jersey for the finish line despite being 5 hours down on the leaders. But, if we are to be judged on the manner, style and spirit of our performance, then they both had fantastic rides. Chapeau!
Stats and photos to follow!