Tuesday 5 August 2008

Alpine Challenge - La Marmotte


Once I'd recovered from the exertions of La Vaujany I decided I would rest up a bit in preparation for the big one the following Saturday. Fat Chance !

The thing is, when you're out there nestled among the majestic mountains that make up the beauty of the Massif des Ecrins and the peaks of the Grandes Rousses - when you step out of your flat and you see loads of cyclists from all around Europe and beyond zooming down the car friendly roads, or sitting on sun-kissed cafe terraces, you really want to be part of all that. There's a real urge to explore as much of the area as possible and take in the spectacular sights.

So with that in mind, I didn't do much resting at all ! I rode every day - mostly uphill ! But it was fun.
Being based in Le Bourg d'Oisans meant that we could get to the surrounding valleys very easily.

Naturally by the time the day came to ride La Marmotte I had definitely found my climbing legs - unfortunately, they were a little tired.

Fortunately, for us the start line for La Marmotte was at the end of the lane where we were staying. Very convenient indeed.

We started promptly at 7.50am. Again, as is customary, the pace was very brisk from the gun. The straight flat, slightly downhill N91 leant itself to road racing pelotons forming. Rolling road closures meant that we had the road to ourselves and there was no worry about vehicles in our way. Once at Allemont, the readings began to show on the altimetre, and the paced slowed.

I rode slowly the whole time. Given that I would've had no warm-up ride to get to the start, I found it difficult to set off at a blistering pace. I didn't feel bad though on the climbs. I was happy to trundle along.


The first significant climb, the col du Glandon was very long - about 25km. The gradient wasn't too difficult though, and as we were still bunched together, the company of others meant that you still felt motivated. I was passed by alot of riders - many from the UK, who greeted me as they went past. It was almost like a home from home !

I continued to spin up the hill at a slow pace and enjoy the landscape. The area of the Barrage de Grande Maison was very pretty and many riders stopped to take photos.

Near the summit of the Glandon I bumped into a girl from CC Giro. She'd been at the Vaujany and the Trophee des Grandes Rousses sportives. It was good to bump into her again. I also got chatting to French woman who was asking me if I'd be interested in doing the Tour of Guadeloupe (French West Indies) later that year. Hang on, let me get through this challenge first ! I replied.

The first feed station at the summit of the col de Glandon was a little chaotic as literally thousands of hungry riders tried to get their fill of bananas, cake, savouries, energy drinks and water. As I wasn't after a time (or a medal) I took my time to eat and stock up on food for later.

The first few km's of the descent were steep and technical. It was reassuring to have marshalls waving flags to signal the more tricky descents - a measure that was probably necessary to prevent repetitions of the serious accidents that have occurred on this stretch in previous years.

This is one of my favourite alpine descents. It's long and twisty, and not so high up so you don't get uncomfortably cold on your way down. In fact it was warm and sunny on the way down.

Once at the bottom I stayed in a group as we ploughed along the main road through the Maurienne valley. This was my least favourite part of the ride.


Once in St Michel de Maurienne the road began to climb again as we started our second climb of the day - col du Telegraph.
This is the "easiest" climb of the day - 12km long and average gradient of 7%. In fact this climb was so easy that when I bumped into Lisa from Agisko Viner we rode together chatting about life and the universe, as well as our racing. We still managed to overtake a few people at the same time !

It was at this time though that I overtook a few people who had sailed past me on the col du Glandon earlier in the day. The col du Telegraph was beginning to take it out of people - not because it was so difficult, but mainly because by this time people would have been riding for 5 hours. The short descent to the ski resort of Valloire would provide little respite before tackling the big beast - Galibier.


By the time we reached the early part of the main course of the day - the col du Galibier - some people were really beginning to fall apart. Many people had to stop and walk, some had to stretch off their legs. It was lucky that there were cafes along the way.

I continued to spin my way up, and felt ok. But with 18km and 2 hours of uphill ahead of me, I was getting rather bored. The sun had gone in, and the sky was gloomy. The large expanse of rocky snow covered peaks made the area and the task feel formidable. I preferred not to look to high up above me. The sight of hundreds of riders on the hairpins above was enough to test the resolve of the most committed of riders.

In general on these type of climbs people are quiet as each and every one of us fights our own personal battles to reach the top. But on this climb, in the face of desperation people break their silence to give words of encouragement to those who appear to be worse off than them. And no matter how bad you might be feeling, there always seems to be someone faring worse than you.

As I'd been on these slopes just a couple of days before, I knew what to expect and that helped me to manage the situation. I was glad to reach the summit. The feedstation here was more subdued as riders were strung out and were probably not in a rush to get back on their bikes so soon after the ordeal of the col du Galibier.

Once I was fed, watered, and wrapped up for the very chilly descent, I made my way homewards. We were graced with an even longer descent - from the summit all the way down, via col du Lautaret to La Grave. The section from then on was either flat or downhill as far as the foot of the Alpe d'Huez climb. Lovely. By now, the sun had re-emerged and the area looked glorious once again. I pegged myself to the wheel of 2 Spanish guys. They were happy to drag me along while they chatted away. Spanish are so talkative - neither a 70km/h descent nor a 20% climb will shut them up !


Alpe d'Huez for me, was just a case of get up it any which way you can. I had eaten quite alot all day so didn't need to stock up on anymore energy. It was just a case of keeping hydrated and keeping it steady. 14km of climbing didn't seem that far compared to the other climbs I'd done, but riding this after 160km, and with some 10%stretches thrown in, would not be easy.

As with the Galibier, many people had to stop at one or more hairpins to stretch off their legs or just to have a breather. I stopped twice to take phone calls from Fred (who had finished a couple of hours earlier) asking what was keeping me !

As this was the third time that week that I was riding up Alpe d'Huez, I knew exactly what to expect and was able to put on a final spurt in the last couple of kilometres. I crossed the line with two guys from Northern France that I'd ridden over col de Galibier with. It was good to cross the line with familiar folks.


Fred, who had taken a few photos of me suffering on the later hairpins had managed to zoom across the ski resort to meet me at the finish line. It was nice to see him there so soon after I finished.

He said it was good that I came in so long after him as he'd been feeling really rough when he finished and couldn't eat or drink or do anything for the first 45 minutes after crossing the finish line. He was just glad to find a corner to collapse in first before doing anything else !

Once I finished we were very quickly given our post race meal and found somewhere to sit. Who should we bump into but John from Surrey League. Such a small world ! Sadly, I couldn't say much to him as it was at that point that I realised how fatigued I really was, as the exertions of the day, and that week took their toll on me. I was only just about able to lift my fork and knife ! Thankfully, John was just as tired too though.

The fact is, La Marmotte is the toughest cyclosportive in Europe. There are only 4 peaks to climb, but each one is very testing, and the summit finish makes it a beast of an event. However, the landscape, the organisation and the company of thousands of cyclists plus locals makes it a great day out.

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