2015 numbers & stats:
175 – Distance in kilometres
5100 – Height gain in meters
7500 – Number of riders entered
4678 – Number of official finishers
10 – Number of litres of fluid I consumed during the day
2.5 – Number of litres of fluid consumed on the final 13km climb up to Alpe d’Huez
5hrs 55min – Winning time (Stefano Sala)
14hrs 14min – Lantern Rouge time (last official finisher)
La Marmotte has been run every year since 1982, it is one of the longest running cyclosportives in the World and in every single previous year the route has been the same. Glandon, Telegraph/Galibier, Alpe d’Huez. It is classic: iconic and tough. So when a landslide closed a road, making a loop including the Galibier impossible many were unsure of the new temporary route. The distance and climbing figures were almost identical, so of course it would be tough.
While the new route was a talking point it was the heat that was the biggest worry for most. Those riders arriving later in the week were not really giving themselves enough time to acclimatise to the temperatures in the valley which were above 35 degrees. I arrived in France a week before the start, but since I was in Morzine and not riding a road bike I wasn’t getting properly acclimatised either. I arrived in Alpe d’Huez on the Wednesday night and it immediately felt far hotter than Morzine. I was working for a few days with Alp Cycles, helping out a bit in the chalet and driving the shuttle bus, I had worked for them a few years ago and jumped at the chance to spend a few more days helping out in return for a ride in the Marmotte. The weather and temperature wasn’t changing much, the forecast was to be 35 degrees (shade temperature) in the valley throughout the weekend. A few 2-3 hours rides in the days before prepared me as much as possible without making myself tired, so at 5am on Saturday I was awake, ready for the start.
Staying at Alpe d’Huez, I had a pleasant ride down the mountain, arriving in the starting pen at 6am where the temperature was already 20 degrees and rising quickly. After 2 previous good finishes (55th & 56th) I was lucky enough to be in the front pen of 500 riders and even managed to get myself towards the front of the line. At 7am we were off, the usual manic, super fast, flat out sprint to Allemond. I was on the right hand side, trying to stay out of trouble and largely succeeding and found myself in the best position yet as we hit the dam. This is a natural bottle neck, if you are far back you end up stationary but I was close enough to the front that I could keep riding.
A few kilometres later we hit the foot of the Col du Glandon, a 20km, tough climb to the summit at 1950m. I knew that I wasn’t as fit as previous years where I have been able to stick with the front group for a while, so just kept a good tempo. Towards the top, I was riding with an Alp Cycles guest Miles, we were around 5 minutes back on the leaders in the 3rd major group on the road. From the top, the descent is neutralised to St Ettienne des Cuines at the bottom of the valley. There are two ways to approach this, ease up, go steady knowing that your descent time doesn’t count but potentially miss joining faster groups – or, as I prefer to do, just smash it.
The Glandon descent is my favourite descent ever. Steep, tight switchbacks to start, becoming a little straighter and faster in the middle with the bottom section being really flowy, but a few corners can really catch you out. The road is supposed to be closed to traffic, but there is always the risk of a rogue vehicle coming up, but I tried not to think about that. I took plenty of risks, hit my fastest ever speed (97.2 kph/60.3 mph) and passed plenty of riders on the way down, reaching the bottom and just managing to join a big group. One other rider followed me down the bottom section and he said something to be in another language that I couldn’t understand – but he seemed approving – I think.
A few fast kilometres on the flat led us into the Montervernier, a fantastic looking climb with masses of switchback up what can only be described as a cliff. It passed very quickly, barely a blip compared to the other climbs. Then we had a fairly flat, but pretty tough going section to the bottom of the Mollard.
The Mollard is not a climb I have attempted before from St Jean de Maurienne, but it was a nice gradient the whole way up, featuring over 40 switchbacks to the summit at 1640m. The descent was pretty nasty, very bumpy and loose in places, so I took my time and had a group following behind. Onto the Croix der Fer and the group disbanded instantly, which was odd as it starts off pretty steady, with 14km the first half is mostly 3-5%. I was holding position fairly well, but drinking lots and feeling really thirsty and the worst was yet to come.
As you hit a village the road ramps up to 9% and stays between 8% and 9% for the final 6 kilometres of the climb. Its a really tough section and I was suffering, being passed by a few people but there were plenty of others suffering as well. It was a bit relief to reach the top, but with another 75km left, I knew I was in a bad way, close to bonking and Alpe d’Huez was scaring the hell out of me.
The Croix der Fer and Glandon are the same road, except for the final few kilometres at the top, so we were going back down the first climb. Where the Glandon joins Ade from Alpcycles had a feed station setup and it was like a formula 1 pit. I pulled in, they pulled the bottles from the bike, put 2 fresh bottles back in a extra gel, a sandwich and a mini can of coke in my back pockets. I wasn’t very coherent at this point, so I was just pushed off and on my way.
The Croix der Fer descent passed by uneventfully, trying to eat and drink whenever possible, preparing for the Alpe. I was on my own as this point and dreading a long solo ride to Bourg, but I caught a rider just as we passed by Allemond, so we rode back together sharing the work. This wasn’t the time to suck wheels, we both worked on the front, taking the time to eat and drink but didn’t say a word to each other. Cycling is a bit odd like that, I knew exactly how he felt, he probably knew what I was thinking; we were both dreading the Alpe, so you just get on with it.
I stopped at a feed station at the foot of the Alpe to refill my bottles, while the guy I was riding with carried on. With 2 full bottles I headed up the long, steep, hot climb. In the valley the temperature was 38 degrees, the sun was bright and there is almost no shade on Alpe d’Huez. The climb starts steeply, so I was srabbling for gears and soon found myself in the lowest gear, with 13km ahead of me. I knew that I wouldn’t get close to a sub hour climb that I’ve managed to achieve at the end of La Marmotte before.
For me I split the climb into 3 sections. The steepest bit, from the bottom to La Garde, then the middle winding section to the Dutch Church before then final section from Huez to the finish. By the time I reached La Garde (10km to go) I’d already drunk a full bottle of water, which was a worry. I also looked at my Garmin, 4200m climbing – the same amount as in The Monster, not bad for an event in Wales! I managed to crawl to Dutch corner and refill both bottles, 6km to go. Dan Evans (British Hill Climb Champ) was out watching on the corner and rode along with me at near walking pace to bend 6, just passed Huez. It helped having someone to chat to. The final 6 bends I did feel ever so slightly better, but I was still crawling up and so was everyone else around me. I was amazed that I wasn’t getting passed all the time, but instead I was passing riders who were stopped on the side of the road, unable to carry on. One of the riders was the guy who I rode with from Allemond. I tried to encourage him to carry on, but he was looking pretty wasted.
As I rode into Alpe d’Huez village, just 1km to go my left leg cramped up just as I was passing the cafes and bars. I had to unclip my left leg, stretch it out and try and pedal with one leg in agony and screaming much to the amusement of those in the bars. I managed to clip back in, but every time I sat down I cramped up, so I had to pedal out of the saddle to the finish. I can’t think of many other days on the bike where I have been so relieved to have finished. A few days at Iron Bike perhaps, but nothing on a road bike that has hurt quite as much as this 2015 La Marmotte.
A massive well done to everyone who finished. Everyone who hauled themselves to the finish line will remember that feeling forever.
Anyone who wants to tackle La Marmotte and do it properly, check out Alp Cycles and get on the 9-day trip. All 9-day guests finished the event, proving that the extra riding time and acclimatisation makes the difference.