Saturday July 2 – possibly the most stressed I have been in my life. Why? La Marmotte had finally arrived and the lack of training and preparation for this day had all suddenly come to catch up with me on the start line in Bourg d’Oisans at 7am with a sea of 8,000 people all looking in fine shape.
Anyway, excuses out the way, let’s get onto the ride. A quick overview; three mountains, Glandon, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez all in one day over 174km and with 16,000ft total elevation.
Sound easy? Well this ride is billed as ‘Europe’s hardest sportive’. I can tell you now that it is fairly manageable. Either that or I just dug deep and found some ability to cope well with the day. Apart from the initial fear and panic the evening before, I appeared to have had the perfect ride. I got all the feeding and hydration right, not overfilling my body with too many caffeinated gels, I took my time and conserved as much energy as I could for the big climbs.
There were a few dark moments where I had to do some soul searching. The biggest climb I have ever done before this ride is about a mile and a half long and around 10 per cent average gradient, so the first mountain (Glandon, 1924m) came as a bit of a shock to the system. When I saw the ‘summit = 7km’ sign I was very low, thinking how I was going to cope with the rest of the ride ahead.
At the top, though, all those feelings disappeared as I saw the descent. Breathtaking scenery on a very dangerous road; so dangerous that due to deaths in previous years the race organisers (with timing chip technology) had neutralised the downhill time on this section to discourage racing. Still I witnessed a lot of ambulances and medical staff patching up people on the floor brandishing lots of road rash.
On the next, flat 20km section to Saint-Michel de Maurienne, or the bottom of the Telegraphe/Galibier mountain, my legs appeared to be programmed into climbing mode and I found spinning them faster on the flat to get into a pack very hard, so I just plodded along until the bottom of the Telegraphe.
I was into the swing of this mountain climbing now and thought this climb through the trees, with lots of apex corners was one of the most enjoyable I have ever done. My biggest life saver were the kilometre markers from the bottom to the summit, they gave me something to work on, knocking one kilometre off at a time. This continued all the way up to the summit of Galibier some 35km from the bottom. The main thing passing through my head at this point was RCUK editor Richard Hallett’s advice: ‘Keep your nose dry until Valloire and you will be ok’. Sound advice. I won’t dwell on how long and hard the final 8km of Galibier (2646m) are. After all, there are books and commemorative jerseys dedicated to it. In fact, watch stage 19 of the Tour de France and see for yourself. Reaching the summit was amazing and needed that Kodak Moment!
The descent down to the bottom of Alp d’Huez was on a different level, superfast, lots of tunnels, fast corners, wide smooth roads and, for some, was complete carnage. Entering a dark tunnel with sunglasses on at 45mph was new for me. Unfortunately there were several rather large accidents on this 40km downhill and there were several hold-ups and road closures for police and ambulances (even a few fire engines) to clear. I hope all the downed riders were ok, we heard no information of serious injury at the end so assumed so. From here, mentally and physically the whole time was spent in preparation for climb ahead.
Alpe d’Huez. What can I say about this climb? I’m still struggling to come to terms with it. I’m sure a lot of people reading this have done it before so know what I’m talking about. We drove up it the day before for registration and the length and gradient filled me with fear, I had no idea how I was going to cope with those 21 hairpins after having just ridden the hardest 100 miles I had ever ridden and having just ridden past the van knowing I could have stopped to seek refuge. However, I have never quit a challenge and kept going.
Most of climb was at a 10 per cent gradient and, with the hairpins numbered from the bottom, I used the same technique from before and knocked them off one at a time, mentally preparing myself for the next one. And in no time I appeared to be at turn one and on the home straight. All that was left was a Mark Cavendish-style sprint across the finish line. However, more than 11 hours into a ride where the first man home finished five hours before, this was only to make myself feel better and look good.
La Marmotte is one of those rides you should do before you die. It is definitely not one to be scared of. I did no training nor had ever ridden up a mountain before and coped with it pretty well. Just take it at your own pace and get your feeding right and remember a gilet and arm warmers for those nippy descents (possibly the best advice I received before we went). This is one of the most enjoyable events I have ever done and the memories and buzz from finishing will last for a long time. Organisation was superb and I would like to thank La Fuga for being a great tour company and making life easy. They surely had the best feed station there – 4km from the Galibier summit, which was perfect.
Sign up for next year now – I will look for my next challenge and maybe do a little training next time.