Le Marmotte – (cycling race)

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What’s the natural thing to do when you have a weekend free in-between two of Europe’s hardest marathons? Why not book into a 108mile bike race with 5000meters of climb? Sensible? No! In perspective, 5000m is the height of Mont Blanc from sea to summit with change left over!

Le Marmotte is A legendary cyclosportive race over 174 km and with a 5 000 m height gain. Departure from Bourg-d’Oisans (717 m), arrival at Alpe-d’Huez (1 880 m). Riding over the mountain passes of Glandon (1 818 m), Télégraphe (1 570 m), Galibier (2 642 m) and Lautaret (2 057 m).

A quick google search led me to the French Cycling Holidays (FCH) company website run by Mike and team who were able to register me a place three weeks before the race.

I bought my bike the day after confirmation from FCH from the cycle surgery store in Spitalfields Market, London and that weekend went out for my first ride on a racer bike. A shaky start as after clipping my shoes into the pedals I fell over straight away right in front of the neighbours! All the gear and no idea was a suitable phrase! Still I managed to get from Bournemouth to my mums house in Exmouth, Devon in one piece and so claimed that victory as suitable training – how wrong could I be?

Le Marmotte sportife
Those who know about cycling (and I met a lot of them this weekend, Dave, Mike, Peter, Huw, Jonathon in particular) say that there are only a couple of cyclo-sportifes which rival the Marmotte (they are not allowed to call it a race due to a ‘race’ definition would requires all sorts of additional health and safety additions, insurances and permissions and so forth). Due to everything that happened this past 48 hours an abridged version of events is below:

It was easy to pick out others heading on Le Marmotte from london due to the size of the bike bags, as a runner all the gear was a total pain. Identifying other cyclists I quickly met Jonathan and Hugh on the Eurostar, panicked at Paris Nord when I realised my connection train was from Paris lyon which was a 20min metro ride away, took a bus from Grenoble to Borg D’osians and then French cycling holidays (fch) drove me the rest of the way up the 21 hair pin bends of the Alpe D’huez (all 7.5 miles of it) to the Pic Blanc hotel.

Once checked in I took a short stroll to the expo consisting of around 50 stalls, far more than at a marathon, probably considering running is just trainers and dryfit tops! They had everything here from sales of components, full bikesand a large queue of people waiting to I think have their bikes given a free service. On pick up of the chip, a quick test to makes sure it works on their computer on the way out the door and that was it, pretty dull by all accounts as I didn’t buy any of their merchandise, all featuring the little marmotte animal, which is a really cool logo.

The evening was 10 cyclists per table, I was on one with two members of the fch company, Phil would go to complete the race in 9hours, very impressive (although the winner unbelievably achieved 5:35hr). I noticed that no one out of the 200 or so were aged in their 20’s, a fair few in 30’s and the main was late 30’s and 40’s. Odd that.

I shared a room with a great guy, Peter, a big runner and triathalonist (is that a word?) and in the evening I picked up my race number and sorted out my bike ready for the race. I took:

On bike
Tool bag with inner tubes, gas, small toolkit, garmin gps, money for coke, two little lights for the tunnels which were given out at the expo, three cliff bars, 4 gels, three nuun (electrolyte) tablets, two water bottles, camera and iPod

In drop of bag to transfer to bike at the half way point
Three cliff bars, three gels, wind proof coat. I would add to the bag my garmin cadence thing as it kept knocking against the spokes and I wasn’t using it.

After putting the bike together I crashed, two bad nights sleep on the sofa of a friend and then on my own sofa left me v tired with a cold.
On the am of the race, to be ready for a 7:30 start you had to cycle to the start of Boug D’osians, which meant heading down the 21 Alpe D’huez hairpin bends.

On the third bend on hitting a dip in the road my camera flew out of the small velcro bag by the handlebars and at 30kmh it smashed the screen and case, how i dont known but despite the damage it miraculously still turned on (once I retrieved the battery from further up the hill) and I have not checked if the hundreds if photos I took round the course have taken properly. I really hope so!

The start was phased, a 7am, 7:30 and 7:40. At 7:20 I arrived at the line, 7:25 looked down to see my water bottle holders had come loose and so the first and only repair of the day amazingly was competed. Later that day I saw two crashes, one very poorly looking man with blood all over his body on a stretcher during the steep descent from Gabilier and about 15 punctures. My guess was the man in the stretcher had been the unfortunate victim of a front flat tyre on a bend at 40/50kmh. Not much he could do about it.

With 7000 people on the course I expected a bit of a fan fare at the start but it was a bit crap really, didn’t hear a gun or anything and when we started to move forward I thought that was the pushing up to the start but it was in fact the actual start, suddenly we were off and I was crossing the start line – bleep, the chip timer went along with the start of a very long day. I was elated either way, I knew I was not trained for this but I knew I’d get round, I was definitely excited about being somewhere so unique.

Since I’m not a cyclist really I’ll start by saying that racer bikes just eat up flat roads, on a light bike carrying little weight flats are really really effortless. The first 15k went by easy, fast and without much happening, which was fine as this time was spent just settling in to the bike, being close to other riders around me and enjoying the open road and the craziness of being with so many other riders, yet on my own in the French alps on one of Europes toughest races. Really cool.

The first of four mountains is Glandon, climbing from 711m to 2008m.
The Glandon started with a sign similar to that one below taking all the mystery away of what was coming up. I learned to hate these signs as the %sare always really hard and the distances long! Sometimes you just don’t want to know you have 17k of climbing up 8% average gradient coming up!

It has a little 2k fun downhill strech half way at Rivier (1254m), which is great for giving the legs a rest. My bike had two gears at the front, not three to save weight, the rear had 8 gears I think, unfortunately none of them were low enough for steep hills and I found myself loosing too much speed whilst seated and so most of the uphill stretches were spent up on my feet to get more power. In the end I think the lack of a big hill gear was to an advantage that it kept my speed up, those whom had them were spinning without really getting anywhere! The more powerful riders didn’t need to stand and could happily stay seated in the same gear as me standing.

The first water stop was at the top of col du Glandon. Huge congestion so I followed a small group scaling the grass bank to get round the back of the aid station tables and then it took me a while to work out that the water bottles on the desks were for cups and there were taps at the end of the stations for refilling bottles. A lady filled my bottles with water and I popped a nuun tablet in one, plain water in the other; I ate a cliff bar and headed off. The temperature was quite mild, but I was still easily finishing two bottles of water every stop. There were 8 water stops placed for me just in time as I ran out of fluids. One had jellies too, something missing from the others I think, all sporting events have a place for sweets at aid stations.

Apparently there had been a fatality on the decent from Glandon in previous years and other frequent cases of people finding themselves off the edge of the course and into a ditch, wall, pile of mud or otherwise in a worse off position, so they now stop the timer at the top just after the aid station so there is no race to get down, which takes around 35/40 minutes. In reality it is near impossible not to achieve high speeds downhill on a racer as they pick up speed soo fast, whilst you can keep the brakes compressed, some of the downs last more than 15k and you need to rest your hands on occasion. I was given the tip to use the front brakes more that the rear as the front wheel receives more wind to cool the brakesdown, it’s true on long downhills the smell of rubber is everywhere!

I saw four punctures and one ambulance dealing with an accident on the way down.

Once descended the route goes through some stunning countryside and valleys taking in a few bridges and some long stretches which slowly take their toll on the legs.

You soon realise you’ve moved off the uk equivalent to B roads and now on busy main roads past a train yard, lake and not much else lf great interest which leaves you pretty tired, all I was thinking on the long straight road was which of those mountains in front of me will I be going up next!??.  At this point I was impatient and wanted to start the Galibier climb, the flats were getting tiring on the legs.

Sport communications sponsor the event and after a short few flats you cross a small town and a chip timing road strip where the ascent of the Télégraphe starts.  It was very welcomed and only 7km to the Telegraphe (then a further 17K to the top of the Galibier). We had been told that the fch would have their aid station just after this mid way peak in a town called Valloire, which I remembered, however even though the queue for water was long at the peak I stayed in it just in case on riding down the hill fch they we not there. I was out of water and since the next stop was at the top of the Gabilier I knew I’d need as much water as possible for that effort.

It was there, along with drop off bag with my coat, more cliff bars and gels. I also cut off my Garmin cadence sensor from the frame which had been knocking on the wheel spokes (which did at times at least distract me from staring at my Garmin wondering how much further it would be). I stayed there for a good 5 mins, thinking about what to take and what to leave, I’d already had a lot of gels and was confused how many more to take, I’d had too many but didn’t want my old friend cramp to make an appearance and the sodium in the gels does stop delay cramp. I ate most of the bowl of crisps because they had salt and I was very hungry, said my goodbyes and headed off.

The climb to the top of the Galibier starts with the familiar tombstone Information post. This one saying Galibier 17k to the summit, average incline 9%. Oh goody. We were already at an altitude of 1450m and would now continue to climb to 2645m from 514m which was the bottom of the first decent to the Télégraphe.

The ascent up the Galibier is a really stunning route with so much scenery that the k’s tick off very quickly. A 17k ascent however does require significant stamina, and after the first 10k I started needing serious rests. We past a cafe at the side of the road selling coke – bought two and gave one away (I didn’t want the change in my pocket!) and sat for a good 10mins watching 100’s of riders pass by. I didn’t really care as I could see the ascent ahead and it was getting even steeper, I could also see the look on the faces of people who really really wanted to stop and rest but wanted to push on for time – it was great that whilst i did care about time, it wasnt enough that I would pass up a nice view, can of coke and a nice little rest – a nice competitive balance. By 5k to go now a 300-400meter stretch now required a break of 10seconds or so to keep going. At least I had nearly mastered the clip in pedals and wasnt close to falling over any more on stopping!

The climb became relentless and with only 2k to go and snow appearing at the wayside, you could see the summit up high at the top of 5 long switch backs. To me I knew the race was won now. On reviewing the route prior to arriving I knew If I could get to the top of this then I could finish – it was my placebo to know that a 45k down hill was coming up and then I would only be 17 k from the finish which at worse could be walked within only a couple of hours which would still get me in within 12-13 riding hours and I had time to be taken off that from the timer stop during the Glandon down hill. I was very happy at the top of the Gabilier.

A few photos, cliff bar, handful of jelly sweets (yey to jelly sweets at this stop), a slight sense of urgency to keep going and the cold starting build from the exposed peak and altitude and I was off…. The road instantly changes on the down hill to a perfectly smooth Tarmac, the best road I have ever seen, at 2600 meters! It starting with 6 or 7 hair pinsandthen the dug out road hugs the cliff wall most of the way down to the bottom 45k later at the Bourg D’osians; given the excitement of having reached the top of the Galibier heading down this road was the most amazing feeling, the views were awesome and flying down these roads looking down at the GPS watching the k’s tick away did for a moment make me realise the buzz from cycling. It was about 5k’s into the decent and my calf muscles were so sore and I was trying to sit on the seat to relax them both – would have been achievable too if bike seats weren’t the most uncomfortable things ever, all I could manage was the alternate the pressure on each leg ever thirty seconds or so. Interestingly on taking the odd stop down hill I found my legs were strong on walking, not sore at all, just cycling – this is the sign of unconditioned muscles and possibly an incorrect bike set up.

Eventually the descent gradient reduces and I nervously look at the GPS, a slight incline for a couple of k’s gives me nervous flashbacks from the incorrect profile of the Himalaya run I did in 2009 and I start to calculate how far to Bourg D’Osians. We approach a blue lakes, series of dark tunnels (one long one which I had a lorry following me and only my little dangling single led light on the seat to warn the driver I was there!), stop for a quick photo on a bridge and chat to a Dutch chap, then off for hopefully the final 10-15k of flat/ down to Bourg. I started to realised here that my last three hours had lost me a lot of places and the field was really thin spread, I even noticed the fitness of the riders had noticeably changed (not that they didn’t still look fit to have got this far 🙂 I was to pass a few more up hill sections before I really started to feel I was reproaching civilisation, my legs remained fine, however I noticed a pressure building up in my left kneecap when pushing down on the pedal.

A telling sign I was close to the bottom of the Alp D’Huez was passing the coach station where I was dropped off, I switched my Garmin to the map mode so I could gauge how far to the start of the switch backs which were just popping into view on the map.
Arriving at Bourg was a mess, 100’s of riders, I was sick of energy drinks, gels and water, my mouth tasted too sugary and I should have just passed the station since I had a feeling I wouldn’t be cycling anyway but I did stop out of habit, faffed around there for too long, eventually filled up my water, found a spot I was happy to take a pee and then bumped into Jonathon. He too had found it hard going but felt strong for the final accent and so I said my goodbyes.

After a pathetic attempt at cycling up the first hairpin I quickly got off and walked, giving credit to a seriously tough event. Whilst I still had power in my legs, my left knee was feeling a lot of strain and I was not walking due to muscular reasons but there was a risky amount of pressure and pain building in my left kneecap. I knew it would be tough walking with cleats up 17k but two things killed me inside, first the length of the switch backs – there are 21 of them, I thought therefore they would be short, they went on for ages before spinning round 180degrees to go the same distance back again to only gain 80-100 meters each time. The second was the Garmin – I had switched from map mode back to information screen and each time I looked at the screen I had only moved 0.1 of a kilometre in what seemed like 5 minutes, I think time was passing slower than I thought but thoughts can become fuzzy after 12hours of exercise.

Eventually you gain enough height that the views are great and you can see progress being made, one advantage of being an experienced runner, you know that it will end, head down and plod on the k’s will eventually tick off – know it and you get through it bit by bit. At some points I tried to run, some points I had breaks and some points I was able to get on the bike and give a blast of power to see me through a good proportion of the straight. I would only stop when the pressure in my knee became risky.

On the straights I would be overtaken by about 20 cyclists, on the corners I would overtake 5 of them whilst they were resting. The 100’sof spray paint messages on the road, views, odd chat with resting cyclist, slowly building comprehension thatit would be over in an hour and the fact I had a windproof coat kept me happy and occupied. I started really hoping my photos would develop after taking so many.

Finally a view looking up shows you the end village, quite far but in sight. The switchbacks finish and a long straight takes you to the village start where I grumpily moaned at a guy who was looking at me and not clapping! Then a finish line appears which was weird as it was not a finish line, a sign just after it by a bridge says 1k to go. I’m on the bike riding now to the finish, up a slope and then there it is. I take my hat off, cross the line with it in the air and shout out… I can’t help think the crowds would have been bigger earlier that day and in a daze I get off the bike wander into the crowd and am not sure what to do.
After a minute of dazing around I look for the medal – nope, no where, I ask around and am pointed to a small tent who ask me if I want cash or a medal – what? – cash or a medal – I don’t answer and she passes me 10 euro and explains I can either have 10 euro or a medal…. Now is it just me or is it totally ridiculous to offer 10euro in place of a nice medal for having cycled 108miles up 5000meters!?! So in my happy state I had another good moan at her and then grumpily headed off the wrong way down a hill to where I thought my hotel was. Faffed with my Garmin to tell me how to get home and then went back up the hill I’d come down, down the length of the expo and then freewheeled to the hotel. Straight upstairs, shower, smiled, looked at and donned the medal, then down stairs to dinner. David had left me a note then he’d already gone down and on arrival there I got a big cheer from everyone at the table, who were all people I had met the following day at dinner. I was really pleased with that as they had all done much better times but still gave me a good cheer.

By the end of the race, in 13 hours and 2seconds (11:43 chip time), I had eaten 6 gels, 5 cliff bars, 4 nuun tablets in water, 15jellys, 6 handfuls of crisps at one aid station, and some bread, covered 108 miles, climbed 5000meters of ascent and felt very very happy with myself. I haven’t done the calculation however I must have consumed the same number of calories that I had burnt and for the first time ever was starting to feel sick towards the end if the last few k’s. I’m glad it finished when it did. In 13 hours you can see a lot of scenery and take in a lot of new experiences, the photos as always only show some views along the way, however just like running, the challenge of it all, the occasional fun moments and the final sense of achievement make the Marmotte something I will never forget.

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