174km of cycling
5000m of climbing
An event like no other
Finally, after over 9 months of directed training, 11 months of waiting, the Marmotte has been completed. It is done. We got around. Completed.
From start to finish, it really is an epic event. Everything from the scale of the mountains to number of cyclists to the amount of water I had to drink (somewhere about 10 bottles I think excluding what was dunked over my head). But even with the massive numbers, things were well organised. Everything moved pretty quickly and didn’t leave us waiting in the sun too much – which was pretty hot for a lot of the day. Reports of 39C on the Alpe d’Huez yesterday!
Bourg d’Oisans to base of the Glandon
The day begins by hoarding everyone into different gated sections for the start. I had heard that is was like cattle pens, but these expanded out pretty far for our group. For the front group (1-200), they were in a small area like a cattle pen but then it is a smaller group.
It begins by people ahead moving slowly forward and everyone around you slowly shuffling ahead. As you get closer to the start line, you hear the band, pass by it about the time you get to cycling, then across the timing mats and the day begins. Immediately groups begin forming, some fast, some slow. Then there are those that seem to cycle like they have rocket packs.
I did manage to stay with a group and bridge up at different times all the way to the Glandon. Even on the Glandon, right up through the first climb section, groups and pace lines stayed together. Actually it was my first time hitting a roundabout in a large group at high speed, and it is amazing how it strings out around the roundabout, then bunches back up straight afterwards.
Col du Glandon – Alt. 1924m
We had been warned that this would be 3-4 cyclists deep the whole way up the climb when we hit this, and it was for the most part. Coming past the EDF electricity station, I was on the front of a group for a bit but obviously I hammered it a bit too hard and they dropped off my wheel for a while. I hadn’t fully gotten everything together on the subsequent descent when I locked up my rear wheel momentarily. Not a fun thing to do. It actually happen again at the first descending bit of the Glandon climb. I once again locked the rear after overtaking a Tandem and ended up a foot into the grass. Quite a few others did similar things around the course.
Other than that, the climb was pretty much a case of just keep pedalling and watch the heart rate so as not to over cook it, which is surprisingly easy to do if you stay on the wrong wheel for a while.
The Glandon descent was meant to be removed from the timing so just after rounding the hotel before the summit was the timing mat. It took a few minutes to figure out how the water works. At one section there is cups of water, and another taps for bottles. I spent a few minutes trying to get a bottle to fill my bottles before someone said this. The stop had some food, soft jellies which were amazing, but not as amazing as the cut orange pieces. They really are super to much on and get juice from at a time like that. Very refreshing.
Col du Glandon Descent
Being neutralised, a lot of people were taking it slow. Very slow. Some weren’t and we ripping by like we were standing still. After a bit, I jumped in line with a group and picked up the pace with them and even though we were doing 40-50km/h, guys were still flying by occasionally.
The downside to the slow people was that the rims heated up. And for those that have never seen this, rims on long descents can heat up quite a bit. Enough to cause a blowout. And blowouts there were a lot of. Yet another reason I didn’t take it all too fast as the smell of brake pads was pretty strong.
Col du Glandon to Col du Télégraphe
The not so flat bit. Advise for this section was take it easier than you think you need to. And if you are on your own, sit up, wait for a group. One will come.
Luckily I had been in a group from the descent and they were going at a descent enough pace. It allowed me to sit in for the first 5 or so minutes and get some much needed food into me. It immediately became apparent the differences in ability on the first little uphill. No more than 25m of climbing but the rate at some people went backwards was insane. Almost like someone had pulled their brakes.
The most interesting part of the descent would have to the speed bumps on a long straight road where it flatten out. While on any other day these would have been up and over, at the speed we rolled onto them, well I got airborn coming off them.
For about half of this section, the group held together. I think I lost contact or the group split a bit mid way through. But for whatever the reason, I was in a smaller group for a while, then behind only one person, then bridging gaps and watching people fall from my wheel.
The Télégraphe did come all too soon in some respects.
Col du Télégraphe – Alt. 1570m
If you were to stand all four climbs on their own in similar situations, the Télégraphe is probably the easiest of the lot. Not so in the Marmotte. We hit the bottom sometime before 11 meaning things were starting to heat up, and heat up they did. I later heard that the village below the Télégraphe was 35C at 11am. A sign of things to come.
About half way up there was a water truck at the side of the road with some jellies. A quick stop and another bottle fill and back on the road. By this stage things felt hot but I was still managing pretty well. The worst part was the road works near the top. Yes the organisers had people there directing traffic, but we a solid stream of cyclists for however many hours, things did bunch up for a while. This gave me a chance to walk by bike for a little bit while waiting for traffic.
Another fill of the bottles at the top and it was on to Valloire.
Col du Galibier – Alt. 2645m
When we climbed the Galibier on Tuesday, it became overcast and cooler when we passed through Valloire. Not so today. Yes there was some drizzle for a short period while climbing, but it was a very strange cast of ah cold rain drops, but everything else is still burning hot. Even upon reaching the top, I was standing around for a few minutes with the jersey unzipped before I even started to cool down.
Unfortunately there isn’t much else to this climb. It was an hour and half of slogging away and keeping the pace. The most memorable point was passing one of the corners were a few dutch cyclists were sitting on deck cars outside of a camper van that was there to support them. They all looked very refreshed and were enjoying their ice cold cans of coke. Really, the only way to live.
Col du Galibier – Descent to Bourg d’Oisans – Alt. 719m
A 40km descent may sound great, but when that 40km descent has some rolling roads and a few smaller climbs, it becomes a bit harder than you set yourself up for, as I found out on Tuesday. Luckily, doing these in a group is a fair bit easier and once again allowed me to relax some for the first section.
The relaxing stopped about 12km when some not so good riders caught up. Descents are not fun when guys pull in front of you, pull the brakes, and then start weaving. This made me hunker down and up the speed a little leaving them behind. An aside, passing cars at 50km/h isn’t always as scary as it seems. A group of faster riders then began forming leaving us about 20 strong by the first uphill section. Unfortunately for me, almost all of them had started 20 minutes after I did and were a fair bit faster on the hills. This resulted in some of my highest heart rates for the day while fighting up the hills after them, usually having to catch them again on the descent after the climb when everyone started bunching up again.
It held together until the flat section rolling to the bottom of the Alpe, the pace drifting off somewhat. But onward, and upward to hell!
Alpe d’Huez – Alt. 1880m
I’ll start by echoing the advise given to me by others.
The Alpe will be hot. It will be hard. You will suffer. And you will NOT go as fast as you have on other ascents up the Alpe.
Little did I know how much I’d suffer or how hot it would be. My initial plan for the day was the leave my timer on and not stop it. That way when I got to the Alpe with less than an hour to go before the 8:27 Gold cut off time, I’d take it easy and enjoy the finish. Not so. I rolled to the bottom with 7:10ish on the clock. This made me push through the food stop and along the short flatish part, exactly like I said I wouldn’t.
Immediately on the climb something became very apparently. People everywhere were suffering, and suffering badly. My fast pace made me look like I was going well as I past a load of people during the first 30 seconds, presumably as they were smart and had just come out of the food stop. I stopped passing people as we hit the steep section and I settle down somewhat. I do say somewhat as I still was pushing a little hard as I knew this was where I’d make up the most time due to my climbing style. So push I did.
The heat really became apparent when I took a drink somewhere along the road, a drink of warm water! And I do mean properly warm water. It was at this point I realised that if I kept my current pace, I’d burn off all the water I had well before I hit the first tap I knew off on the flat section near where the road forks at the top. This is where you should ALWAYS read the race book properly before hand. As we got to Huez, there was a water stop on the side of the road. For the first time of the day, a water bottle was emptied, filled, then thrown over my head. One of the ladies at the stop also poured a few glasses over my head before I filled the bottle back up and went on. Onward and upward with some lovely ice cold water. Or so I thought…
Within a few hundred meters, the water had heated back up in the bottles again, and I was almost bone dry. A litre of water over my head and I was dry within 5 minutes. I later found out that it was 39C at the bottom of the Alpe when we rolled on to it. Something that explains why everything was heating up so much.
The rest of the ascent, including another water stop at a waterfall at the side of the road, was just a case of push hard, but not too hard as too burn up. So two water stops, one pee stop. Not too bad.
The Last 2km
This will probably remain the hardest few minutes of my life for quite a while to come. And all because I didn’t read the race book properly. As any cyclist knows, there comes a point when you start doing some mental maths and realise you are tired because simple things are taking way way too long. For me, the mental maths started early in the day on the Glandon when I realised I was well up on the pace I was expecting. On the Alpe however, it became nearly constant. Always trying to multiply or divide something, seeing if I’d get that magically cut of time of 8:27. Rolling up at the bottom, I really felt confident. 75 minutes to do the ascent, one that had taken 61 previously. One I now knew I could push harder in certain sections. Yes, I was quietly confident.
As the water stops rolled through it did begin to change, and I remember getting along the faux flat near the top, the section where the road forks. I was trying to work out how fast I needed to go compared to what I was doing. It was taking minutes to do the maths. More so, the ascent was to finish at 175.3km, not the 174.4km I had been planning. This could only mean that the ascent was longer, something that was confirmed at some corner with a nice sign telling me the summit was Xkm up.
The graph above is that of my speed along the Alpe d’Huez. I had realised it would be close. A matter of seconds to reach the time cut off for Gold. My HR was rising so I decided to click up and push harder. And harder and faster I went. Luckily the top started flattening out letting me continuing upping the pace.
I rounded the last corner and entered the gated area. All the time watching the precious seconds tick away. Then finally I crossed the line – hitting stop as I did. La Marmotte was done. I’d finished.
4 Seconds was what it came down to. The training, the suffering. All for 4 seconds. Yes I’d get my gold due to the Glandon descent being removed, but it wouldn’t be a real gold. All for 4 seconds. A quicker pee stop. A quicker water stop. Pushing through the roadwords on the Telegraphe quicker. Not breaking as hard during the Gliber descent. Pushing just that tiny bit harder on the ascent. Anything.
I was too sore to be annoyed. My back was stiff and I needed something to drink. Luckily there was a stand with more recovery drinks just over the line which helped.
After putting the bike in one of the stands, I lay down for a while. Resting. Trying to take in everything that had happened. Trying to understand how 4 seconds could influence everything. I think I was up the Alpe for around an hour and a half. Ate the food they gave us, got my cert and returned the timing chip. My friend Peter hadn’t arrived up so I decided to head on back to the house.
Success comes in strange things
Upon returning back, one of the first things I did was pull out the page with the time cut offs. Mainly I was trying to figure out if the cert said Gold or Silver. I honestly couldn’t remember which was which. But once I opened the page, I saw it. Cat C, 8:29. I had actually made it and not known it. I did what I had hoped for and earlier in the week doubted I could. I had made the real gold time.
Right now it is just over a week after the event. On the day of the event I had publicly said that I didn’t think La Marmotte was as hard as everyone made it out to be. I still stand by this. My point being that the heat pays a monumental part how hard the day is going to be. Now for someone who doesn’t handle the heat well (i.e. me) to say this, something has to be up. Calorie wise, the Marmotte wasn’t much beyond the Wicklow 200 I had completed a few weeks before. And while it was definitely harder, much harder, La Marmotte wasn’t as truelly hard as I expected. Yes the heat made me suffer, but not as much as I did during an ascent of 3 Rock the week previously while training.
Maybe the event and its magical powers helped me feel it was easier, who knows. On the Sunday after it I went out for a training spin. For the first time in as long as I could remember, my muscles were still a bit sore and stiff. Cycling was also hard. The kind of hard I get when I don’t train for 3/4 days, except this time my heart rate was not going up. No matter how I pushed, my legs were giving out before it went up. Sprinting on a hill raised it to 158 but then my legs gave out and said no more. It was surreal. Honestly something I had never experienced before.
The following week I remained tired. But more just the kind of tired you get from lack of sleep than anything else. We hadn’t been sleeping properly during the week in France and it was starting to catch up with me. It finally hit home on the Saturday after when I didn’t get out of bed until 12:30. Part of this may also have been due to one of our neighbours having a party during the night and waking us up multiple times, but I still felt tired so I’m putting it down as a bit of both.
Would I do it again? Simple answer is it depends. I don’t think I’d just do La Marmotte by itself. If I was to go back, it’d be for La Grande Trophie, a series of events over the week. I know I’m strong enough for a Marmotte Gold so I’ve nothing left to prove in it.
Would I recommend it? Yes. Yes. Yes. It is an epic event on a scale like nothing I’ve seen. Make sure you can climb before you go. And bring a compact and a large rear cog (I had a 34×28 on my Cervelo) or else you will suffer. Apparently lots of people go over every year to do the event, see the hills then realise the event is insane, and then go home. One of the guys staying near us did this. He arrived over on a standard crankset with a 25 on the back and he did suffer some. But once you have some real hill climbing experience, you’ll know what to expect and you’ll love it. Even if you are one of the people who spends 3 hours walking up the Alpe at the end of the day, you’ll still love it. Getting around is an achievement no matter how you do it.
Stopped Time: 24:05
Avg Speed: 20.7km/h
Fastest Speed: 65.2km/h
Calories (PowerTap): 5889
Avg HR: 149