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La Marmotte and L'Etape

La Marmotte and L’Etape du Tour July 8-10th with Mike Cotty

With the La Marmotte Grand Trophée event and the annual L’ Etape du Tour falling within days of each other, and being in the same region, it was far too good an opportunity to make the trip down to the French Alps only to do one or the other. With a day in between that should be plenty of time to recover, right?

Lautaret

The Lautaret drags on and on… © Chris Dodman

Set on a 174k course that takes in the delights of the Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and L’ Alpe D’ Huez, La Marmotte offers no places to hide with 5000m of climbing, whilst this years L’ Etape du Tour runs the length of the 191.1k stage 15 from Gap to L’Alpe D’Huez. Both are monsters in their own right.

It seemed like such a logical plan, to drive over to France for both events. No bike packing, or worrying about excess baggage, just throw everything in the back of the car and hit the road. With changeable weather in the mountains it was certainly a weight of my mind knowing I had kit for any conditions.

Arriving on Friday afternoon in Bourg d’ Oisans and a quick drive up L’ Alpe D’ Huez to sign on for La Marmotte also gave a chance to check out the final climb of the day for both events. Back down the mountain and out for a little spin on the bike to try and loosen the legs up after 750 miles of driving only added to my previous conclusions that sitting in a car for that long really is not good for you! I cut the ride short to do some stretching and try and get my back into its usual position. To be honest I was more than a little nervous that evening as I still wasn’t sure if I’d managed to get my back straightened up ok. Still, no time to worry about that, one thing’s for certain, it was just a matter of time before I’d be in pain anyway.

It was a 4am start on Saturday, for a solid breakfast, and then to get over to Bourg for the start of La Marmotte. Being number 376 meant I was in the first block so didn’t need to worry about lining up too early as I was assured a good starting position. It always amazes me how fast the start of these events are. Riders are continually surging forward pushing the pace and trying to get as close to the front as possible. It takes some real concentration to hold your position before you hit the first climb of the day, the Col de la Croix de Fer. At 22k’s in length the Croix de Fer is a very tough climb to start with. Being a rider that needs a good warm up it came too soon in the day, so I decided it was best to ride conservatively as opposed to trying to get up to the leaders and risk seeing breakfast again.

The descent had to be ridden with caution, trying to pass riders at every opportunity, before we hit the second climb of the Col du Telegraph and the beast that is the Col du Galibier. By this point I’d got in to a good rhythm and was riding the climbs at my own pace, blocking out the riders around me and concentrating on the road ahead. Of course it wasn’t all ‘tunnel vision’, with spectacular and truly inspirational backdrops from all angles; the pain was well worth it. The descent of the Galibier is incredible with multiple open switch backs that can be taken at full speed. At over 2,600m altitude, and despite the perfect summer conditions, it was cold at the start of the descent until I reached the lower slopes and the sweat on my kit had dried. Luckily I made contact with a small group at the bottom of the descent and we worked well in the short valley section in to Bourg d’ Oisans before the final test of the day. Having suffered up L’Alpe D’Huez when I rode La Marmotte back in 2003 I was determined to ride a strong climb this time. The heat on the climb is oppressive, and the steep hairpins at the beginning need to be ridden with respect. Counting the 21 hairpins down one by one and reading the names of each of the legends that have conquered L’Alpe, and the rest of the peleton, is a good distraction. As the climb progresses the gradient becomes more forgiving, but the heat remains and any shaded sections are a welcome find. With 4 bends to go I catch sight of a Dutch rider I’d spent a fair chunk of the day with. We’d ridden the same tempo up the Galibier, but at the start of L’Alpe D’ Huez he’d pushed the pace and I’d decided to hold back or risk another 2003 style ascent.

It’s always good for the mind to be catching people, even if you’re tired, it can boost your morale and give you that little bit extra. I passed a handful of riders and continued riding at the same pace until around 1k to go when it’s time to bring the 53 ring back in to action and it’s a flat out effort, dropping down over a roundabout and then in to a sharp left hand bend for the uphill sprint to the line. My final time of 6hr 44min 54sec was over 30 minutes faster than in ’03 so I was immediately pleased with my ride. On inspection of the results, 36th overall and 1st British finisher only added to my joy. Tired but satisfied there was no time to bask in the sunshine, much as I wanted to, at the top of L’ Alpe D’ Huez, it was time to get back to the Gites I was staying at in Le Sardonnier for some good food and to get things organised for L’Etape du Tour.

Izoard it isn't hard

It’s bloody hard, the Izoard © Chris Dodman

A leisurely ride on Sunday morning helped to loosen the legs, before a 2 hour drive over to Gap to register for L’Etape. I wanted to spend as little time at the start village as possible, for one it was incredibly busy and more time on the feet today could only lead to less punch in the legs come tomorrow. I was staying approximately 12k from Gap in a French family’s house that the Tourist Information office had found for me. This worked out to be absolutely perfect, as it was close to the start and the service from the owner, Madame Choppard, was absolutely first class in every respect. Fresh salad, pasta and fruit were exactly what my body was crying out for and by the time I went to bed I could feel my muscles being charged with energy. Also staying in the house was Australian Natasha Perry, originally from Brisbane and now living in London, it was good to talk about some of the past epic adventures as well as to learn about Natasha’s superb 3rd place finish in the female category in last years L’Etape! A seasoned pro no less!

The weather forecast was looking good for Monday, although thunder storms were threatening on Sunday evening. I awoke in the middle of the night to the noise of water. My initial thought was that it was hammering it down outside, although much to my relief it was actually some sort of water feature in one of the neighbour’s gardens. The sky looked clear so back to bed I went, a happy man.

4am on Monday morning and I was getting a strange sense of déjà vu. Another day, another early breakfast and another big day in the saddle ahead. I couldn’t have asked for a better morning, clear skies and a temperature of around 12 degrees meant that keeping warm on the start was not such an issue. 7am and we’re off! Although I started in the second block, close to the front, it was once again a game to hold your position and not be squeezed through the sea of never ending riders. The first 50k was run out on beautiful rolling roads with a handful of groups chipping off the front at times to taste the wind for themselves. The lower open sections of the Col D’ Izoard were the hardest, and I found myself at the front of the second group of around 30 riders tapping out a comfortable pace. I really enjoyed the climb of the Izoard, the gradient is such that you can ride at a good tempo without really putting yourself in the red through sheer steepness and the road surface is also superb. I’d been warned by Madame Choppard the evening before about the Casse Desert and that although it descends for about 1km it’s not the top of the Izoard. I’m glad I had this knowledge as otherwise I could see myself getting in to descent mode only to be faced with another steep section of climbing before the “real” top. As they say “knowledge is power”, I couldn’t agree more! The descent of the Izoard was absolutely superb, one of the most fun descents I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing. Knowing that the roads were closed and no oncoming traffic was around the next corner was a huge benefit and you could hit the exact lines you wanted without a worry, an incredible feeling of pure exhilaration and freedom.

A steep pitch out of Briançon puts you at the foot of the Col du Lautaret, where I caught another group of around 20. I’d been told on several occasions by my regular training partner and fellow Grand Trophée rider, Paul Whitfield, that the Col du Lautaret wasn’t worth worrying about as the gradient is never very serious. Although I listened to what he had to say, I still had reservations about his comments and prepared myself for another long, hard climb. The initial part of the climb is fast with a number of flat sections that make the pace high. I was sat in a group of around 20, although there were only 5 of us that appeared to actually want to ride their bikes today. I’m sure the others were having a competition as to who could go the furthest without pedaling! When the gradual gradient started I went to the front and set a tempo that I felt I could sustain until the top, some 25k’s away. I didn’t want any advantage that we’d got from the ascent and descent of the Izoard to go to waste so was happy to ride at my own pace, hoping that maybe someone would lend a hand in breaking the wind at times. This didn’t happen and I ended up riding the whole of the Col Du Lautaret on the front in around 53×21. It’s true what Paul had told me, the Lautaret wasn’t worth worrying about and as I crested the top of the climb I was prepared to ride the descent on the absolute limit to try and make contact with any riders up front, and to distance myself from what can only be politely described as a “lazy” bunch of riders.

565

The ‘Bellville Rendez-vous’ shot of the Izoard © Chris Dodman

On the long descent I caught two riders, one of whom looked pretty cooked and was happy to sit on, the other I worked well with all the way to Le Freney d’ Oisans where we caught another group of 7. Still descending and with only a couple of rolling pitches before reaching Bourg we pushed on and went straight to the front. At the foot of L’ Alpe D’ Huez the group thinned out as a couple stopped at the final feed station before they began their ascent. Two riders pushed the pace and surged ahead by the 2nd and 3rd hairpins. This put me in an all too familiar position, at the front of a small group tapping away at my own pace.

I didn’t want to look back at any point, preferring to concentrate on the riders I could see ahead, trying to slowly pull them back. The tactic was working well and after the initial steep bends I found a good rhythm and started to get back to the riders that had fled the group at the beginning of the ascent. I was hoping to take on some fluid part way up the climb and I still had about half a bottle left which was reassuring. I grabbed a bottle of ice cold water from a spectator and took a couple of big gulps before pouring the rest over my head and back. The cold water was a shock at first, like jumping in to a cold swimming pool, but it was only a matter of seconds before my body was baking again in the 35 degree heat and I was wishing for more. With 4k’s to go I heard a spectator say “vingt cinq” as I passed. That’s 25th! Wow, is that for real? No time to dwell on it, I could still see a couple more riders up the road so made a steady acceleration and started my final effort to the top. With 1.5k’s to go I had caught everyone in sight but I still didn’t want to look back to see if I had a gap on any of the riders I’d passed. Knowing that someone was sat on your wheel or just a few bike lengths behind is worse than not knowing at all. Having ridden the climb on Saturday I knew exactly where to up the pace again, under the bridge at Huez and in to the big chain ring, if anyone was still with me now, and preparing to jump and come past, then they’d better be ready to do battle as I was seriously not willing to lose any places so close to the finish. In to the final left hander and hammering the last few meters felt so good. La Marmotte and L’Etape had been conquered back to back, with no mechanicals or crashes so I couldn’t have asked for more.

Checking out the final results at the finish and seeing my name in 22nd overall brought a huge smile to my face, but in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t over. In fact the day was literally just beginning. Packed up, bikes and kit loaded in the car and on the road by 3pm with a 750mile drive back home on the cards was something I could have done without. Eventually getting back at 3.30am on Tuesday morning, with over 1,700miles driving in the bank and two epic rides in just 4 days will certainly take some beating. I was quickly asleep on arriving home, but awoke early in the morning thinking to myself “was it all a dream?” The whole weekend still seemed surreal, but when I got out of bed and walked downstairs my legs didn’t hesitate in reminding me that it was definitely for real!

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