Stephen Horne sticking to his game plan
Only if there’s no sign of rain and the temperature’s above 17.5C will I consider going for a training ride, and then provided it’s no longer than 2 hours. Preparation, given the British climate, is not amongst my priorities. But, I do like a challenge. Having completed the triple ascent of Mont Ventoux in 2006, La Marmotte in 2007 was the (il)logical next step. On ‘wing and a prayer’ preparation, was it to be a step too far?
Saturday 07 July dawned bright and clear. So the DNS due to inclement weather was out of ‘la fenetre’. Having dragged the missus down to the Alps – a car and ferry journey of around 15 hours – such an exit would have been rather churlish!
Said quickly enough – “glandontelegraphegalibieralped’huez” – it doesn’t sound all that bad. Sticking to my carefully crafted game plan, hopefully it wouldn’t feel too bad either. Some hope! 174km and 5000m of climbing! Some hope indeed!
Hunched over my handlebars in the hushed start pen there was little gallows humour in evidence in Bourg d’Oisans. I rehearsed my game plan; conserve energy, no racing, eat and drink loads. That should get me through, I reasoned.
The roll out from Bourg d’Oisans is an 8km downhill calm before the storm of the 35km ascent of the col du Glandon at an altitude of 1924m. Initially through pine forests and then open meadows a multicoloured ribbon of thickly packed cyclists snaked ahead of me. The summit gained, I encountered the first water-stop bun-fight; with stocks already low and only two-thirds of the field through so far, bidons were being thrust frantically in all directions.
A tricky descent followed on a narrow and often rough road. Victims of punctures and impromptu cyclo-cross excursions were too numerous to count. Avoiding the flotsam and jetsam of dropped bottles, lost tubes and wayward pumps proved more hazardous than dodging eccentric and erratic descenders.
Onto the valley road which runs to the foot of the col du Telegraphe and I hook onto the back of a group for some much needed ‘R&R’. On the Telegraphe itself, it all gets increasingly painful. The tranquil wooded slopes block any cooling breeze and with little shade the late morning sun is unrelenting. To cap it all, the promised oasis of a water stop 5km below the summit turns into a mirage as supplies are minimal. So it’s into the granny gear and chug away to the top where cramp hits for the first time.
A short downhill takes us into Valloire, the midway point and feed station. A quick refuelling stop and then it’s the brutal lump that is the Galibier. The initial 9Km is not too bad at all at around 5 or 6% but the latter half is steeper, and now I’m suffering from frequent bouts of cramp, is pretty gruesome. With the gain in altitude the heat does not let up and the summit is crested with gilet safely tucked away.
The descent to the col du Lautaret is tricky at the best of times but much more so when fatigued. From Lautaret to Bourg d’Oisans the 35km of downhill would have been most welcome if not for the nagging headwind, making forward motion impossible without some effort.
Eventually, the banner heralding the base of the Alpe d’Huez hoves into view. So, there’s only 14km, 21 hairpins and 1141m altitude gain to go. With bodies seeking respite or assistance everywhere you look, the Alpe resembles an A&E department with broken air con. I am now moving so slowly I am actually passing others who by remaining upright are defying the laws of physics.
The hairpins creep by and eventually I find myself in the ski resort at the summit. There’s a downhill showboat to the finish in the big ring and with a big grin. It’s all over in somewhere around 12 hours. I’m told the winner took only six and that his team car had trouble staying with him!
Later, back in the comfort of the hotel, steak, frites and 1664 tucked away, I realised that despite my perverse ‘wing and a prayer’ approach La Marmotte had been conquered and I’d actually quite enjoyed it! Of course, the enjoyment increases with each passing day. So much so, I might give it another shot in 2008!