La Marmotte

La Marmotte and L’Etape Act 1 preview
5th July 2012
L’Etape du Tour Act 1 – Alps
10th July 2012

Of all the overseas Sportives the Marmotte is one of the most famous, the route hasn’t changed since it started many years ago and it remains one of the hardest sportives in the World and completing is a real challenge.

I’ve wanted to do it for years, but never had the opportunity. This year after setting up a manic schedule of events it was finally time to do “La Marmotte”.
174km. 5200m climbing. Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraph, Col du Galbier, Alpe d’Heuz.
The hardest and most iconic climbs in the Alps, in one ride. Over 8000 people enter each year, making it one of the biggest as well.
Nutrition and hydration would be very important. I decided to start the race with one full 750ml bottle with Torq energy and Torq ribose plus another with just a tiny amount of fluid, but with the same Torq energy and Ribose mix. My idea was to climb on one bottle and fill the other up at the top of the first climb. I also had 6 Torq gels and 1 Torq bar plus a Torq single container with Torq energy and ribose in it for a bottle change.
I was lucky to have a priority race number, no. 144. This placed me in the first start gate (for numbers 1-400) and after an early 5am wake up call I got into the gate to find I was one of the first. I could have taken up a front row spot, but for whatever reason I decided not to and instead waited a while and joined in row 2. At 7am we were off and I wasn’t quite expecting the start to be as fast as it was! Road race pace from the off, 8000 all wanted to get near the front! The first 10km or so was slightly downhill and it was manic! People were trying to pass all over the place and I really had to keep concentrating.
We finally hit the lower slopes of the Glandon/Croix de Fer and things started to improve. The first few kilometers were very busy but after that things soon split up. I had lost the leaders in the madness of the first 10km, but I felt like I was climbing well, passing quite a few people but staying within my limits. The Glandon is a long, hard climb and it is frustrating as at one point, around half distance it drops a few hundred meters before climbing again! During the second half of the climb I’d found a good group and climbed the remainder with them. At the top I filled up the second bottle as planned and headed down the Glandon descent!
The Glandon descent is simply awesome, very fast and potentially very dangerous. For that reason the official timing is neutralised for the descent to try and stop people racing as the roads are very narrow and not closed to the public. The reason for it being neutralised soon became apparent, on one of the first corners the guy ahead of me went way too fast into a switchback and had a massive crash, the organisers must have been expecting it as the ambulance was there waiting. The very next bend there was a guy sitting in a ditch with a paramedic by him and I presume he went straight on into a rock wall. Ouch. I descended well, passing lots of people without taking any risks and ended up catching another big group as we neared the bottom of the valley. It was absolutely vital to get into a group for the section from the bottom of the Glandon to the start of the Telegraph so I was very happy to find a big group.
The valley section was rather frustrating however. A group of 30 or more had formed but the speed was rather slow as no one seemed to be willing to work on the front. In the end I pushed on, taking a few other dutch and danish riders with me who were willing to work and this had the effect of speeding up the whole group – finally!
Reaching the Telegraph I wasn’t sure how the legs would be. It took about 1km of climbing for them to settle in and from there on I felt OK and climbed in a group of 5 or 6 people all very evenly matched and all consistent with the pace. From the top of the Telegraph there is a 5km descent to the town of Vallorie and this is where the Galibier climb starts from. At first it is relatively easy, 4-6% gradients for a few kilometers but it steepens slightly as you approach “Plan Lachat”. Anyone who has climbed the Galibier will know that bit well, it is the 8km to go marker where the road turns 180 degrees and steepens. From here to the top it was hard, at first because of the gradient and then because of an absolute killer headwind that really slowed me down. I was climbing on my own by this point so had no shelter what so ever.
The top of the Galibier was a very welcome sight. I took a minute to add my Torq single to a bottle and fill it up before starting the descent. I pushed the pace as hard as I dared, trying to catch a group in front but stayed on the right side of the road at all times as cars were frequent, so avoided any big risks. It is about 8km to the Col du Lauteret where you join a more major road. From here it was important to be in a group all the way to the bottom of the Alpe d’Huez. I caught a few people up and eventually formed a group of 4 by the time we reached La Grave. Thankfully all 4 of us were willing to share the work, which was fantastic and I am sure we all had the same objective. By now I was constantly checking my Garmin and working out if I would manage a sub 7hr time. I wanted to give myself 1hr 30min to be fairly certain of making it but after 5hrs 30min ticked by I started to doubt I could do it.
Reaching the bottom of Alpe d’Huez after 5hrs 40min I really didn’t think I’d get inside 7hrs. Last year during the Etape du Tour on a shorter course my climb up was 1hr 15min. With more distance and climbing in my legs I thought I’d struggle. As soon as we started climbing I took a Torq caffeine geland I got into my rhythm, a few riders came past and I also pulled away from a few others. It was every man for themselves, every was fighting their own horrible battle! The first 4km to “La Garde” are the worst, pretty steep and relentless. From there it was about 10km to the top and looking at my Garmin I’d completed the first 4km in only 20min. I quickly worked it out… I could make it!

It might be close and I couldn’t afford to slacken off, but I needed to keep my speed above 10kph. This then became my fixation for the entire climb! Thankfully my speed was almost always above 10kph, mostly 12-15kph! Whenever the gradient slackened off I’d kick up a few gears and whenever it steepened I’d try and dig deep. With 9 hairpins to go it seemed like a good milestone to treat myself to my final Torq caffeine gel. Along the whole climb there were spectators handing out water for people and I took advantage of this wherever possible, just incase I should run out of my own drink which happened in last years Etape. The atmosphere was pretty special, lots of people out on the climbing cheering everyone on, especially near the bottom and then nearing the top.
Reaching the town of Huez with 5km to go I knew I could get within 7hrs and this really spurred me on. Last year it was the point where I hit the wall but not this year! Instead I seemed to speed up, or at least I was passing more people, including those who had passed me early on the climb. The kilometer markers were slow to pass but a very welcome sight. Reaching the start of the town with 1km to go I pushed on, clicking up a few gears. The finish line seemed far longer than 1km, but it finally arrived. I crossed the line and stopped my Garmin. 6hrs 38min, 39 seconds!
I’d got within the 7hrs I wanted and by quite a long way too! My climb up Alpe d’Huez was 58 minutes, pretty fast considering what I’d already ridden in the day. Endurance was definitely my friend today.
A little reward to myself
With the Etape the next day I didn’t hand around too long and descended the mountain and then did another 15km or so easy riding to try and get my muscles ready for the next day. Over 200km in total and a massive amount of climbing. Achieving my goal was a massive release of emotions and a realisation that maybe I did have some fitness after all. My season to date has been a little disappointing and the last few months have been fairly stressful. To work hard for something and achieve your goals is the most rewarding experience there is. Don’t be afraid to dream.