La Marmotte 2010

A bit of a change of plan this year; rather than the usual sausage-fest at the Pelvoux we decided to hire a chalet and turn the event into a bit of a family holiday and all-round cycling jolly.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon in time to catch the humiliation of our national football team – we even had (or rather only had) German commentary!  DaveM and entourage turned up a little later on Sunday and AndyC’s lot on Thursday morning.

DaveM and I did a couple of rides; both sides of the Col de la Madeleine on Monday and the Glandon to the Croix de Fer followed by the Alpe on Wednesday.  I was hoping that these rides would have felt reasonably easy; they did not. Still – that will teach me a lesson that I can’t just rock up and do Hors Categorie (beyond classification) climbs as if they are mere hillocks.


Alpe D’Huez proved a slightly sub-optimal base for a family break.  It was like a ghost town when we arrived, being between the end of the ski season and before the school summer holidays and it was a bit of a faff getting anywhere as we, quite literally, had a mountain to climb (or descend) every time we set out.  We had a nice time in Annecy (which was delightful) and Briancon (which was fine).

Anyway, enough of all this chutney, what about the Marmotte.  After three years it’s dawned on me that I’m not ideally suited to mountain riding.  Even with a pretty disciplined few months I’m still nothing like the weight I’d like to be – partly a lack of discipline, partly that I’m just the wrong build.  I’m giving away 13 or so kilo’s to someone like DaveM – that’s 6 or 7 2 litre bottles of coke!  I’m also knocking on 40. With this nagging at me, and that my back that has been giving me quite a bit of grief, confidence was not that great before the ride.  I also managed a pretty respectable time last year which, great though that is, rather raised the bar for this year.

The Start

Up early, eggs and rice knocked back and pockets full down we went to Bourg for the start.  I’m getting to be a better descender with practise and cruised down which was a great pleasure.  AndyC went off for his elite group start hobnobbing with the rich and famous (including the 1997 Tour De Suisse winner apparently!).  DaveM and I had to make do with some of the remaining 7,000 or so riders; surely the best collection of Europe’s amateur riders that assembles each year.

All packed in to the narrow streets we stand around feeling nervous and becoming increasingly sure that the early morning clear-out wasn’t 100% effective.  Playing the ‘who’s got the lowest heart rate’ game helps and as does checking out some of the kit on display.  The start is always delayed a bit, or so it seems, and we finally got going at 7:15 or so.

Whatever happens later the first 10km of the ride are a joy.  Bombing along at 50kmph or thereabouts down the valley road.  Big peloton, lots of adrenalin.  Half wanting not to overdo it, half wanting to get stuck in.  Wonderful.


The first climb; the Col du Glandon – 24km.  Not my favourite – it’s too irregular for a big diesel like me.  The foot of the climb was rammed with riders which was probably a good thing as it calmed down my pace a little.  The first few kilometres are actually quite tough, largely tipping the gradient-o-meter above 8 or 9%.  Then there’s a small village, a tricky little descent before it kicks up again.  Pressing on I felt OK.  Maintaining a good pace but never feeling that great; I think paying the penalty for not riding many hills again this year.  The climb levels off a bit and I got stuck in.  It dawned on me that I was surrounded by riders with green numbers; ie chaps that started in the elite group and double-ie ergo better than me.  My heart rate was steadily, and comfortably, above 170 bpm (no power meter dagnabbit – too heavy :-) ) which should have also been a troubling sign but still I kept going.

After about 1hr35 I made the top.  I’d decided to do the ride without support so I was using the regular feeds for water and whatever nuggets I could find in my back pockets.

The descent was effectively neutralised this year as it was not timed.  It’s a bit of a tricky descent and people have died though not for a couple of years.  This was the organisers attempt to try and slow things down a bit.  I was having none of it.  Official time or nay, I still had a time to beat.  I passed quite a few riders on the way down, but it’s such a narrow descent that there’s really not that much space to pass.  I tried an arsehole move into a hairpin that was a little misjudged and I could have taken myself and another rider out so I backed off and enjoyed the view.

Flat Bit

The French have beautiful mountains but they could have moved them a little closer together.  A flat(ish) drag for 30km’s or so breaks up the climbs and descents and it’s neither that scenic or enjoyable.  One advantage of catching up the elite guys was that the group I was in was brilliant. Slowing a bit at the bottom of the descent so we could eat then really upping the pace hastening our arrival at the foot of the Col du Telegraphe.

Col du Telegraphe

I sort of like the Telegraphe.  It’s regular at least – staying largely at my psychologically acceptable gradient of 8% for most of the climb.  Like the previous years it’s pretty hot so I guess it must be facing the right way to catch the sun.  I started strongly and stayed with the best riders in the group as lots of guys got dropped.  However as the climb wore on I had to back off a fraction to a pace that I was more comfortable with.  With a kilometre or two to go I could feel my legs cramping up. I didn’t need a power meter or even a heart rate monitor to gauge my effort – instead I could work just below my cramp threshold.  It was here that I also realised that I was going to lose my ability to get out of the saddle to break up the climbs which was a bit disheartening.

Col du Galibier

A quick descent of the Telegraph done it was on with the Galibier.  No doubt about it, the Galibier is a tough climb; if you’re feeling any less than 100% it’s going to beat up on you good and proper.  There’s a horrible steep straight climb out of the town at the foot followed by a morale sapping 10km or so that looks pretty flat but is a steady 8% or so. That’s all before you hit Plan Lachet and it turns nasty.  A long, steep, straight ramp looms above you and it doesn’t let up all the way to the top.  With 3km to go you can look up and see the top of the climb towering seemingly vertically above you; miles up in the sky.  I made it but it was not a pleasure.  At all.  It’s hard to describe the suffering – the long, painful slow grind.  Praying for it to be over.  To stop hurting.  Playing every mental trick; counting breaths, converting kilometres to miles to make them sound more palatable.  Trying to take small sips of drink when the hairpins flatten the gradient a fraction.

On the plus side I’d made 5 hours or thereabouts which is about the benchmark time for me to hit last year’s time.

This gives me about an hour or so to get to the foot of the Alpe and just over an hour to get to the top.  If I’m feeling fit.  Re-fill of the water-bottles and off.  Crazy descent time.  I don’t even know how far it is from the top of the Galibier to Bourg D’Oisans; maybe 40km.  Mostly downhill.  Mostly fast.  Some badly lit tunnels.  And, luckily, much less traffic this year than last which meant that I could take fewer risks and still make a reasonable fist of it.

Alpe D’Huez

I was not feeling bullish about the Alpe.  In previous years the estimable Paul Martin has partly justified staying in Alpe D’Huez on the basis that you have to finish the ride; that it would simply be too tempting to quit if staying in Bourg for example.  This year, for the first time I understand.  I’d made a hash of the Galibier and was not feeling remotely fresh.  I’d found the brief ascents on the way to the foot of the Alpe energy sapping and was unable to get out of the saddle which was going to make the climb of 14km very hard work.  It was also baking hot.

So my calculation was that if I endured 1h15 of total suffering I might just make last year’s time.  Hardly a great payback. The ninety degree left kicks off the climb and you are faced with a long 11% section up to the first of the 21 hairpins.  Starting as it means to go on.  Oddly I left behind all but one of the group that I was in which was a real surprise as I slowly plugged away.  On bend 18 Justin, doing support this year, very generously offered to take my helmet without requiring me to stop which was nice.

I don’t know if the counting down of the hairpins helps or hinders.  Likewise the kilometre counters.  21 doesn’t factor well; 24 would have been much better.  It was desperately hot – I swerved to the wrong side of the road to find a brief moment of shade and poured water over my head and was tremendously grateful for the overhead spray half way up.  I was passing other riders more than I was being passed.  And I was genuinely suffering.  Without recourse to be able to stand every time the gradient pitched above 9% my cadence dropped with my morale.

But you have to finish so I ground on.  Slowly the kilometres ticked by.  Alpe D’Huez is not a long climb at 14km and it’s not even massively steep.  But it barely lets up the whole way.




I did not feel the usual euphoria as I got into the town.  Checking my computer suggested that I could finish in about 7hr20 which was good if not great.  Over the line I went and was neither happy nor sad.  Just relieved it was over.  I was, however, very pleased to find Rachel, Annabelle and the recently finished AndyC waiting for me.  I was very pleased also that Rachel had an iced Diet Coke for me.  And I was pleased that AndyC had had a good, hard ride and had finished not much more than a minute or so before me.


More Finish

Our chalet was located on the entrance to the town and we had a third floor vantage point of the course.  It was great to see the other riders coming in.  What is nice about the Marmotte is that,  irrespective of fitness, everyone has an epic day and I have a lot of respect for those still limping up the Alpe five or more hours after I finished.  The patrons of the bar opposite were generous in their support of the riders especially if they were female.  My favourite moment of the day – the standing ovation, cheers and applause for the one-legged rider that completed the entire ride.  It’s impossible to imagine how he did it.  If ever there was a chapeau due…

After weeks and months of relative abstinence it was great to have a beer or two, some champagne and enjoy a bit of the TdF Prologue and a delicious celebration tea.


I’d not had the Steve Redgrave moment the last two times I’ve done this ride.  For sure it’s hurt but I had the joy of finishing at all the first time and, as a bonus, with a reasonable time, the second time I rode well and knocked 50 minutes off my time.  This year I didn’t ride that well and managed to knock 7 minutes off my time; but this was only achieved with a considerable amount of pain.

I had a diluted Steve Redgrave moment this year – immediately after I’d finished I said "I’m not sure I want to do that again – I don’t want to suffer like that again".  One day later this has subsided and I’m already plotting for a better time for next year.  But, as I’ve found with most events this year, it’s getting harder and harder to improve.

My first year was just about the pleasure of riding my bike.  The second year was about actually training and getting some reasonable results.  My third year has been about trying to make the very best use of a limited amount of time and trying to find ways of making gains on the previous year.  I have done it but it has come with a cost – my training has been much harder and, to be honest, not as enjoyable and the upside has been, and could only be, relatively small.

It’s not, of course, that I thought I wouldn’t be subject to the law of diminishing returns – but maybe that I’d thought that I would not take myself so seriously that it would matter!

DaveM completed a really great ride and came in at 7hr40 which was a terrific job after a meltdown last year; 7hr30 next stop I think.


That’s two years in a row that AndyC and I have ridden separately over 174km and 5,000 metres of climb and finished a minute and +/- 20 seconds of each other.  40 seconds this year.  Ridiculous.  It suddenly dawned on me today that I was very close to beating him but actually I’m just as happy as I am.  Though maybe next year… :-)

No Comments on “La Marmotte 2010”

  1. 1 Hugh G said at 11:40 am on July 5th, 2010:

    Nice work Paul – in every sense. Perhaps pharmaceuticals are the answer to your plateauing form – and the only way to beat Andy C.

  2. 2 paulnixon said at 11:43 am on July 5th, 2010:


    Definitely not.

    Only two solutions present themselves; more overtraining and more money :-)

  3. 3 Simon Roberts said at 2:21 pm on July 6th, 2010:

    Good work again. Can’t see how you can throw any more money at this!

    I had a poor ride again at the Marmotte. Ride time of a squeak under 8 hours. Suffered with leg cramps again and gearing was wrong – must get a compact chainset for the Parlee. A shame as preparation had been good, and I felt a faster ride was within me. Time was lost in the following areas:
    - Glandon, picking way through slower riders due to late start time, steeper than I remembered, held up on descent by official motorbike and by dawdlers
    - Telegraph, stuck with Italians on the run-in who refused to work; was going OK until got stopped by traffic lights at the top and cramped up
    - Galibier, faffed around at food stop, but otherwise OK. Couldn’t really push it due to cramps.
    - Alpe, a game of two halves – first half fine, then bonked for second half (having used up all 5 gels on previous climbs – should have taken more) and crawled to finish line feeling dreadful.

    Odd, but I didn’t really enjoy the ride or the scenery. Was concentrating too much on the riders in front – why do the slow guys stick to the middle of the road going up and down? – and my general grinding of the pedals.

    Still, at least I can put my feet up now, and enjoy some simple riding of the bike rather than “training”.

    All the best.


  4. 4 Rory said at 2:17 am on July 7th, 2010:

    Great blog Paul – for a moment I thought you were describing the Tour de France! Hope you’re enjoying some well deserved down time with Rachel and Annabelle. Incredible stuff.
    BTW – you taking your bike to Andros? There’s a couple of nasty hills to get your teeth into and I do remember spotting some cyclist there last year…but of the mountain bike variety.

  5. 5 paulnixon said at 7:31 am on July 7th, 2010:

    @simon – anything sub-8 hours is pretty respectable I think. what was your target? what cassette did you have on the back? i was thinking – even with a 34×27 setup – i could have done with an easier option on some of the steeper sections. but at what point does it become embarassing?

    @rory – good to hear from you. i hope the plans for the wedding are all going well. wasn’t planning on taking a bike to Andros, hassle aside, i thought it might be a tad warm! catch up soon.

  6. 6 Simon Roberts said at 1:40 pm on July 7th, 2010:

    I think I had a 7.40 ride time in me (including Glandon descent). Shaving 20- 30 mins off my performance was do-able, without the mistakes I made, as I felt I was in decent nick.

    I rode a 39 front, 27 rear. A 34 -25 gives you a little bit extra, and I think that would have possibly tipped the balance – next time(!), I will go armed with that ratio. With a 34 – 27, you would just be spinning and going slowly! And I agree, it is embarrassing, though not as bad as a triple.

  7. 7 Edward Mason said at 4:22 pm on July 22nd, 2010:

    two comments from your blog.

    “What is nice about the Marmotte is that, irrespective of fitness, everyone has an epic day and I have a lot of respect for those still limping up the Alpe five or more hours after I finished. ”

    “even with a 34×27 setup – i could have done with an easier option on some of the steeper sections. but at what point does it become embarassing?”

    So are those that took 10+ hours to complete who are likely to have been using 34×27 an embarrasment.

    Just need to know before next year’s effort

  8. 8 paulnixon said at 4:27 pm on July 22nd, 2010:


    Easy Ed – sounds like you’re taking life a bit too seriously.

    Perhaps you’re overtraining?