La Marmotte is a one-day cyclosportive event in France, utilizing some of the climbs used in the Tour de France. The route is 174 km (108 mi) long and features more than 5180 metres of climbing. The event goes over the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and finishes at the top of one the most famous Tour de France climbs, Alpe d’Huez. Boom, Simple!
The who and why?
Me and two friends, why not. Well, I’ll tell you why not……
Back at the end of 2009 my friend Alex sent me a link to La Marmotte, I was just back from doing 3 days in the Alps as part of a Macmillan Cancer Support challenge and thought it sounded like a good idea. I had trained hard for the trip with Macmillan and as a result had gone really well over all the major climbs that the Marmotte takes in, this was however over 3 days in September so a bit different to doing all of them in one day at the height of summer!
When I first broached the idea of doing this with Mission control (aka Mrs Hilts) she stated that training for this was not to interfere with family life and by the way she was pregnant again with number 3 child due exactly 1 month before the Marmotte. Hmmm, not ideal really, I’m pretty sure Lance Armstrong doesn’t spend the month before the tour pacing up and down with a screaming baby at 2am!
or lack of. I managed to convince myself that sweating in the garage on the Turbo trainer while watching re-runs of the 07 Tour de France on DVD would be a good way to get through the winter and I was right. I managed not to put on the obligatory 14lbs over Christmas and started the year in rude health and fit’ish… Over the course of spring I managed to fit in a few rides to work and back (which is a 47 mile trip each way) and one medium length sportive. So, when June arrived I was pretty much at my fighting weight of 13 stone (82 kilos) and feeling ok about the whole thing. I suppose the only nagging sense of doom came from the fact that I was looking for a time of around 9hrs for the Marmotte, and my longest training ride had been 4 hrs long…9hrs is a long time in the saddle and I had not ridden for that sort of time since the Etape du Tour in 2008 where I had bonked terribly after ‘forgetting’ to eat having been caught up in the excitement..
So the baby arrived and my training stopped. Fast forward to July and I’m driving down to Folkestone with my friend James ready to take the Eurotunnel to France. The car is packed full of kit, we have a full tank, the I:Trip is charged and we’re ready to go…at this point he announces that he has spoken to his insurance company and found out he is not insured to drive my car, would I mind doing all the driving…….. Thanks a lot mate!
The journey down was actually not too bad; we stopped overnight in Dijon to charge the batteries and had an enjoyable spin around the town and a couple of beers.
The next day we headed off to the Alps and arrived around midday to find the place swarming with shaved legged Europeans, average body fat of 4%, it was over 30 degrees and people were returning from training rides looking incredibly tired and sweaty….luckily James agreed that rather than tire ourselves out we would have a large pizza and a beer in the town square and wait for Alex to join us, far more sensible. We then headed up to our ‘apartment’ (try shoebox) at the top of Alpe D’Huez, as we climbed in the car it definitely seemed to be steeper than I remembered and as we saw the poor souls struggling up in the baking heat (preparing for the next day the fools) there was a little sense of panic in the car!
The night before the big day we watched the Holland vs Brazil game in a bar full of orange shirted lunatics before retiring to the shoe box for a big Pasta feast and kit preparation.
The Big Day
The Bike – Pegoretti Duende – OK, it’s not vintage but it’s a hand built Italian Steel dream machine and very retro in my opinion.
The Kit – Retrobike Jersey, Bib shorts and Gilet. The RB bib shorts are still my favourites and testament to the Endura kit is that at no point did my **** resemble one of the baboons that steel car aerials at Windsor Safari park!
Nervous tension – Col Du Glandon
We arrived that the start of the ride after a thrilling and very quick descent of Alpe D’huez, we had a later start time so there was time for a leisurely breakfast. The organisation of the event is impressive and we easily found where we were to line up. Rolling through the town to start was an amazing feeling; there was the Mayor in his finery and a band to see you off plus all the locals looking at you as they would lambs off to the abattoir! On our way to the first climb I was cheered by the cry of ‘Go on Retrobike’.
The Col Du Glandon was the one climb I had not done before and it’s length and gradient were a bit of a surprise despite studying the course. It’s about 27km’s of climbing and even though I was taking it quite slow and steady by the time we reached the top I was feeling pretty tired. At the top was a water stop and feed station that was an absolute scrum, the temperature was soaring and people were struggling to get bottles filled before heading down the mountain, it took me a while to get my bottles filled and something to eat but we were soon off. The decent was great, a little hairy in places and I saw a few people come a cropper, I do not know the official toll of injuries from the event but I heard a lot of sirens over the course of the day.
Frying – The Flat Bit
The road to the Telegraphe was a slog! It was incredibly hot, I heard someone say nearly 40 degrees which did not surprise me but may have been a bit of an exaggeration. Despite sitting at a comfortable speed in a large bunch it still felt like hard work and to confirm this James told me his heart rate was the same as it had been climbing the Glandon. We arrived at the next food and water stop and I was already feeling the starts of cramp in my feet, not a good sign. I tried to take on as much fluid as possible but it was hard to keep drinking being so hot and fatigued.
Suffering starts – Col Du Telegraphe
On my previous trip to the Alps I had really enjoyed the climb of the Col Du Telegraphe, it’s not that long, not too steep and its tree lined roads offer shade and a good indication of your climbing speed. On this day however it was brutal! My foot started to complain at the bottom of the climb and did not stop the whole way up, add to that my left Hamstring/Glute area had begun to feel a bit sore and I was not a happy camper. I was struggling and cursing the fact that my lowest gear was a 34/25 which may have been a bit punchy considering my lack of decent training. People were stopping all around me and I felt like doing the same, however I was inspired to man the **** up when I came past a guy who only had one leg and one arm and yet was soldiering up the climb. I have heard a few rumours that this guy is ex army and was injured in an explosion, whether this is true I can not say but he looked to be suffering and to put it bluntly my petty troubles did not really compare!
I reached the top and collapsed, it was darkest point of the day, I ripped my shoes off and tried to relieve my feet that were screaming. The thought of now tackling the Galibier was not something I wanted to think about. Luckily James and Alex were on hand to gee me up and fill water bottles etc.. without them I’m not sure I would have kept going.
Relentless Brutality – Col Du Galibier
The descent to Valloire went far too quickly and we were soon beginning the climb up the Col Du Galibier and the highest point of the day. The Galibier is a strange climb as at the start it doesn’t seem like you should be climbing at all, the road almost seems flat but a quick look at your gears will tell you the reality which is how deceptive the road is. With nothing to gauge gradient or speed against the meandering road really seems like a journey into the abyss, unlike climbs that have switch backs where you can focus your effort seeing the Mountain sprawling on for km after km is quite mentally draining. Half way into the climb I was already feeling the cramp in my foot and was just focusing on the riders that I was unbelievably still passing, the top of the climb does become more interesting so I managed to keep my mind wandering and tried to stop focusing on the amount of pain I was in, I also found someone to chat to who was in similar agony so we helped each other along. The summit at 2600 m arrived and I was reunited with my friends who had waited patiently at the top, a quick salami baguette and we were off to enjoy the sort of descent you only get in the Alps, 50km straight down at break neck speed!!!
The Fun Bit – Descent of Galibier
It’s amazing how quickly the body forgets pain (ask any woman that has given birth and gone back for more) so quite soon after cresting the top of the Galibier I was feeling much better about life and looking forward to an hour of fun. It was awesome, I joined a good train and we flew down the mountain rarely touching our brakes and following the line of the experienced Belgian who took it on himself to drive us on. Swooping bends and dark tunnels added to the excitement while the majestic scenery added to the enjoyment, although at the speeds we were going you had to keep your wits about you. I do not have a speedo on my bike but was told by one of the French guys in the group that he had clocked 80 kph, a personal best…..
After quite a long time of riding with the group I decided I had better wait for my friends as I wanted to at least ride with them to the bottom of Alpe D’huez even though I expected to be dropped on the first ramp! We crossed a bridge and I sat up, coasted to a stop and sat on a wall drinking luke warm water and eating Haribo (most enjoyable.) A few riders went past and then nothing………..10 minutes and no one came past me……..something was not right! Perhaps my friends had actually been ahead of me and I was now last in the entire event, maybe I had gone the wrong way??? I checked my mobile phone, a text message was waiting for me….
Crash on Bridge, nasty, we’re stuck, see you at the end!!
I walked back up the road and sure enough on the other side of the lake there were the rest of the Marmotters waiting as medical assistance was provided for the crash victim. I do not know what happened but talk on other forums is that no one was seriously hurt.
The bridge was opened so we were all soon back together and we arrived at the bottom of Alpe D’huez in good spirits…
Final Push – Alpe d’huez
God it’s steep! No gentle introduction to this climb, it just hit’s you BAM and your legs start to complain pretty quickly. It was tough, seriously tough and my body was aching all over. There were bodies everywhere, littering the road and even asleep on a verges, lots of people walking and generally a lot of pain and anguish. Was I enjoying it, NO .. was I going to stop, NO .. I pushed on and tried to blank out the pain, I passed many people and was passed by many people, encouragement was gratefully received and the army guy with the hose was a particularly welcome addition to the climb…
The hairpins seem to go on forever and the countdown was slow, the sight of the final ramp up to d’huez was greeted with a certain mistrust as I knew there was a bit more to go afterwards, but that was when the adrenaline really kicked and I was able to manage one last effort. Into the big ring and try and catch the guys in front of me….I flew to the line and climbed off my bike…….exhausted!
I parked my bike and began to look for my companions.. I was broken, and all around me were people in a similar condition. The pained faces were beginning to change in to those of self satisfaction and elation, it took a while (and a beer) but I began to feel human again and all the thoughts of how awful it had been changed to what we would do differently next year!!!
Was it a sensible thing to do? Probably not given my circumstances, but as an event it really is awesome. The organisation is first class and the route is absolutely spectacular, yes it’s tough and not for the faint hearted but what an achievement. It’s a long old day in the saddle (10hrs and 8 minutes to be exact), the fastest man on the course could have finished, showered and watched Lord Of The Rings before I arrived at the finish but as we all know these Sportives are designed to test the individual and their limits, it’s not a race.
Between turns 6 & 7 of Alpe D’huez I had plans to sell my bike and never set foot/tyre on another mountain, however when I received a mail from one of the boys the day after we returned to England I smiled and did exactly as he had done….
“legendary weekend mate, realise now I am not a proper cyclist, just been planning my winter training regime and have told the wife I will be going back next year, bring it on!!! PS – Will shave my legs if you do…:)”