La Marmotte is an event that is on many cyclists bucket list and one that I have fallen in love with since I first took part in 2012. Since then I have taken part 3 times, twice on the “classic” course and once in 2014 on the modified (but most people agree harder) course that was used while a new tunnel was being built due to a landslide near Bourg d’Oisans. From 2017 the route returned to the classic route.
The event starts in the alpine town of Bourg d’Oisans and finishes up at Alpe d’Huez. In total it is 174km with a huge 5200m climbing and takes in the incredible Col du Glandon and Col du Galibier along the way. It is without a doubt one of the toughest cyclosportives in the World and also one of the longest running, first held in 1982.
My fastest time at La Marmotte was actually the first one I did in 2012 at (6hrs 38min – 56th), with another competitive time the following year (6hrs, 44min – 56th). I realistically had no hope of matching that this year as I am nowhere near the level of fitness that I reached while I was racing full time in either previous years, but I was hoping to get a decent time. Sub 7hrs was the dream time to aim for, but anything under 8hrs I would be happy with. All times are shown as full route time, not official times which remove the time taken to descend from the Glandon which is neutralised for safety reasons.
For the 2018 event I had managed around 8-10 weeks of decent training and being the first year for a while that I was concentrating on just one sport, not triathlon I was feeling reasonably fit for the amount of training I have been able to do, but still I was lined up nice and early in the front pen with a lot of unknowns as I had not been able to test myself on any hard effort event/race this year and while my endurance was fine, this would be more about holding and maintaining a threshold if I wanted to get a good time.
The start at La Marmotte is always a little nerve wracking, but after 3 manic and fast starts so far, every single one felt safe and it seems like the riders know how to ride in a bunch – something Velothon Wales severely lacks! The first 10km is gone in a flash, into the town of Allemond, up the first few bends and around Lac du Verney, passed the EDF hydro plant and then into the main climb of the Col du Glandon. I’d managed to stay close to the front and within the top 30 or 40 riders and the very early slopes were at a pace I could cope with, although that only lasted around a kilometre at the most and then the faster riders started to push the pace and slowly I drifted back.
I was amazed at the number of riders who were blowing out of their backsides going up, as if they thought it was a simple sprint to the top, not a 174km route! The Glandon is a relatively steady and continuous climb, except for two short downhill sections which do break the flow a little, but overall it is not too severe. I was 4min slower than my fastest ascent to the summit, set back in 2013. While the descent is neutralised, I had a plan and hoped to bridge back to the front group. After filling up a bottle at the top I dropped down, not at kamikaze speed, but a reasonable pace and was picking off riders along the way down. The descent is sublime, especially the bottom section with sweeping bends that seem never ending and suit me as it is more about technique that rider weight/absolute speed. Amazingly at the bottom I caught glimpse of the back of the front group of 70 or so riders ahead and seeing that the lead car was at the front realised I had achieved my goal.
Although the valley section is easier than a climb, a few accelerations did spike the pace a few times, but I managed to hold on to the start of the Telegraph at which point I had no plans and knew that I wouldn’t be able to stick with the faster riders. The Telegraph is normally a climb that people forget about, but for me it was painful and I found myself right at the back of the lead group and not feeling strong at all. The summit was a relief but then comes the biggest challenge, the Galibier.
A short descend follows first, but that was trouble free, if a little slow. After refilling both bottles just after Valloires I managed to get into a rhythm and the Galibier actually felt OK, or at least as good as could be expected and I was picking people off by the top. The descent is in two parts, the initial section down to the Col du Lautare, which is open and twisty but with a headwind on most of it the speeds were not that big. The second section is on much wider roads and much shallower slope and while the speed can build up, it never feels technical and on this section it is quite normal for groups to establish as the descent gradually drops off and that is exactly the position I found myself in and while there was a group of 10-12 riders, only 4 or 5 were really working on the front. I wasn’t one of the really strong riders pulling, but I did stick my head in the wind several times.
As Bourg d’Oisans approaches as per usual, less people in the group are willing to work as everyone knows what lies ahead. I had one full bottle left so decided not to stop at the final feed station, so was the first in the group to hit the Alpe. Looking at my clock I could see that I needed a sub 55min time up the mountain to get under 7 hours, which was going to be really tough. I have managed it once in the three previous Marmotte events, but I was much fitter then. I dug deep and hoped for the best as sometimes even the strongest of riders will fall apart along the 21 hairpins.
Initially I felt good, but before La Garde, around 5 hairpins into the climb and 1/3 distance I knew that I was not going to hit my target time, but it was still going to be relatively close. It dragged on and on and the heat was really starting to build up and I knew that riders climbing later in the day were going to struggle even more in the heat so in many ways I was lucky. In previous years I have cramped up severely near the top, but luckily I didn’t suffer too badly this year, but a sub hour time was well out of the question and my time up to Veil Alpe, the point at which most people will class their time (but around 4/5 minutes short of the TdF finish) was 64min.
The final section was a big relief as the gradient eases off and the finish line approaches. I crossed the line and let off a big sigh of relief. Final time, 7hrs 9min but official time of 6hrs 44min. I am absolutely over the moon with the time, although in the back of my mind I will keep thinking “could I ever get fit enough to beat my previous times” but realistically it would be a bit too much to ask. That said, I absolutely love the event and it has me hooked and I will no doubt be back again and the aim will once again be sub 7hrs.