La Marmotte. The Queen of all sportives? Its the original, its the oldest. A ‘proper’ sportive. Its an event regarded by cyclists as a badge of honour. If you have merely completed it, it carries more kudos than a toilet roll length of Strava KOM’s can only dream of. Its a 109 mile Alpine test of endurance up 4 cols is enough to make any club mate stop, digest what you just said and give you that nod of acceptance and respect
I have completed La Marmotte once in 2009. Three times I tried. This is my brief tale of how it went down the first time I attempted it. The mountain won.
Saturday, July 5th 2008 – I can’t feel it in my fingers
I think the alarm went off about 5.30am. It was eerily quiet in our chalet. We were staying in Venosc, just down the valley from Bourg D’Oisans. All the guys woke and got up. As my head cleared there was a palpable rush of excitement inside me as I woke up. I dressed and got my gear together. We gathered for breakfast and feasted on cereals, toast and coffee for the big day in the saddle. Our slumber gave way to excited chatter as the caffeine kicked in. I was looking forward to this. I was fit. I had trained well and raced regularly. I had ridden in the mountains before so I knew what I had to do to get through the day. Breakfast over we sorted our bikes and rolled down the valley. It was about 5 miles to Bourg so we soft pedalled along the valley road preserving as much energy as possible. As we reached Bourg, more and more cars were parked as riders were disembarking and getting their bikes ready for the ride into town. Groups merged with groups. It was massive. 7500 cyclists in the village. Just after 7am we lined up waiting for the off. Chatting, looking at bikes, other riders and listening to French, Italian and Dutch probably saying exactly the same things. The weather was dull. No sun and pretty cool, but these events are. Because of the mountains, you take clothes for cold weather at the top. Gloves and a gillet to quell the chill. Shorts are ok, legs can deal with cold better than arms and body. The sun will burn off the cloud when we get going. Tick, tock. After 10 mins of standing around in a crowd of 7500 cyclists I was getting itchy. 7.30am and in the distance you could see the start had begun. These events are like the London Marathon, it can take a while after the official start to actually start by going over the timing mats. No riding is possible until the line, just scoot, brake, scoot until the road opens up and you are off.
Technically the roads are not closed for this event but the sheer volume of cyclists, the time of day, the area and local knowledge the event is on essentially keeps them closed as the hoards of riders roll through. The start was manic. Always the same, train after train lined out. Its so tempting to jump on them and get a 25mph tow but you have to be patient and try not to get sucked in. The road just makes it worse. Pan flat, dead straight. Its a dragstrip. I made this mistake at the L’Etape du Tour some years earlier and paid for it later in the day atop the Col du Tourmalet with the climb of Luz-Ardiden still to go. Purgatory. I stayed disciplined and just rode at my tempo knowing I’d see a good bulk of these guys hanging on the Galibier in a few hours time.
The weather wasn’t improving. We turned right off the dragstrip and begun the ride out of the valley to the reservoir (Lac du Verney) with the first climb and hairpins of the course as you ascend the dam just outside Allemond. Its a great spectacle as you reach the dam as you look back and look up and see the thousands of cyclists spread out for what seems like miles. Dam done, its a short descent and then you begin the climb of the Col de la Croix de Fer. Silence. Nobody speaks, you only here the sounds of mechs chainging gears or the huffs and puffs of the unfit fighting the gradient as you pass them.
Looking back at the ride now, it was clear the weather wasn’t improving the higher we got. Common sense tells you that if its not so good further down a mountain it is generally bad to worse at the summit. But when you are in your zone, measuring your effort so you can last all day, you lose focus of what is around you. You are going uphill slow enough to enjoy the sights and sounds but you don’t dwell on them, they are just passing glimpses as you temper your effort, breathing and discomfort km after km. The Croix de Fer or Glandon (they are the same road until a few km from the summit wher they split and the Croix de Fer carries on) is a stepped climb. The first part of the climb winds up the valley through the trees to a spattering of chalets called Le Rivier d’Allemont. This gives way to a short steep descent and then an initially steep 10%+ ascent back out of the valley before it opens up and you can see (or should be able to) the summit of the Croix de Fer.
As I climbed out of that descent the weather deteriorated. Drizzle and heavy skies broke my focus and I began to think about what I was doing and where I was. Its a one-way street. There are no back roads or loops back to base, if I decided to turn round I’d have to navigate back through thousands of cyclists in their own zone. Riders were already stopping and turning back but I ploughed on naively thinking I’m wet not cold and I’m in it with everyone else. None of my group were with me. I was telling myself they won’t give up. What if I was the only one? How would that look? PRIDE. Bloody pride. There’s the word, I kept riding on because of that daft notion. Common sense began to sink in on the next descent. After a climb out of the valley, you descend a gentle but fast slope bypassing a lake. This is when I froze and realised I could be in the shit. Seriously in the shit. I couldn’t feel my hands. I was numb. The cold hit me like a runaway train. Thump. Sweating one second, frozen to the bone the next. I looked up and it was just higher and obviously worse. Drizzle became rain. Very cold rain. As you ascend the final part of the climb, there is a left turn to the top of the Glandon (where the Marmotte route takes you now) and on that corner there is a cafe/restaurant. It was rammed with cyclists seeking shelter. As I woefully carried on, more and more were scooting back down the roadside abandoning. Everything was now screaming at me to pack it in. I decided to get to the top and just look down the otherside. That was my line in the sand. Carry on or stop. Do it or jack it. I reached the top and it looked bad. It was raining heavily now and the throng of cyclists I had seen behind me were now decimated. Frozen souls passed me one by one as they topped the summit and rode off down into the abyss like lemmings. Crazy I thought. I had now decided to just go back. I stood and waited. Soaked, frozen, shivering and hoping I saw someone.
I began to scoot back down the road slowly keeping my eyes glued to each rider to see if I recognised them. Then I saw my mate riding towards me. I can’t recount the exact conversation but we didn’t say much other than quickly deciding to carry on was a really bad idea. We were abandoning. He was soaked and cold too. We were both concerned about our other mate and agreed we had to find him and get him down with us. We knew he would be behind us both so we began the scoot and started to look for him. He was pretty fit and a big, tall guy so he wouldn’t be far. Not far down the road, perhaps a km, we found him. We made it clear we were abandoning but stubbornly he wanted to carry on. That bloody pride again. I made it clear it was f****** stupid but he wanted to just get over the top convinced it would get better. My mate and I had to compromise.I wanted to bail there and then and just get down the mountain ASAP but we decided to become the lemmings and brave the descent and hope for better weather. Sticking together was the best option whatever we did so I reluctantly remounted and rode back up to the summit. The first few hairpins of the descent come in reasonably quick succession and the road is steep, probably 8%+. I was frozen within 100 yards. I pulled hard on the brakes for the first hairpin and not a lot happened. I didn’t slow, I just eased up a bit. The colder I got, the more my hands were numb. There were cyclists cowering on each bend. Some had space blankets on. It was carnage. A couple more bends and I could feel nothing. I had to stop. I wrung my gloves out but I was shaking uncontrollably. I needed heat. I cupped my hands around my mouth and blew hot air. I sucked on my finger tips. No good. I had an idea. Don’t know how it popped into my head but I didn’t even take a moment to think about it. I pulled down my soaked shorts and pissed warm, fresh urine over my fingers. Instant relief. Straight back on the bike and I was away again. It was enough to get down far enough for cold to ease enough. We regrouped and decided we’d try and find shelter and let the weather pass.
We dropped into a small village and saw a load of bikes stacked outside a shop of sorts. It turned out to be the Tourist Information office. It was rammed. Everyone had taken off their wet kit and was trying to dry it either on radiators or dryers in the toilets. There were no drinks, no food, we just stood around and waited out of our wet kit. It was like a flash mob. We waited there for over 2 hours. The floor was flooded. We had all dripped so much, the floor was soaked. The manager was running around gesticulating in French and was mostly ignored until we were all eventually kicked out and locked out. Luckily the weather had improved. Torrential rain had given way to brighter clouds and the rain had ceased. We decided we had waited too long to carry on so we began the ascent back up to that damn summit again which got better with the sun coming out and drying us off completely. As all the riders had passed through, the road back was empty. We lit up the road with a blistering descent back. I let rip, opening up the taps trying to get something positive out of the morning. As we got to Bourg, we crossed the path of the lead riders who were turning and beginning their ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez. They looked weather beaten but you could tell they were fit.
This was my biggest abandon to date. All that way, the training , the expense for what? We heard rumours of snow on the Galibier and subsequently we found out somebody had died on the road too. Sunday I was riding the Grimpee de l’Alpe. A timed time trial up Alpe d’Huez. My attention turned to that.
NEXT : Grimpee de l’Alpe – Going round the bend (21 times)