After years of thinking about this event and watching the Tour de France, it was finally my turn to ride in the footsteps of my heroes from the last 20 years. Would I complete the epic 174 km Marmotte route, with 5,180m of climbing? How would I feel, riding up those iconic Alpine mountains - the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, the mighty Col du Galibier and the legendary Alpe d'Huez...?
Lee in Le Bourg d'Oisans, getting ready to start La Marmotte 2013.
Lee Wigginton, Bike Sales and Rides and Events Coordinator at Rutland Cycling
Scott CR1 Team carbon frame and forks and 105 groupset
THE MARMOTTE CYCLO SPORTIVE ROUTE
Covering a distance of 174 km (108 mi) and with 5,180 m (16,990 ft) of climbing, La Marmotte is considered to be one of the hardest of any cyclo sportive and comparable to any of the most challenging high mountain stages of the Tour de France. Several famous Tour de France mountains feature: the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and the final ascent of one of the legendary Tour climbs: the Alpe d'Huez. Le Bourg d'Oisans hosts the start of the event.
So after a day and a half of driving, myself and my companion finally reached the iconic resort of Alpe d'Huez. First impressions of the massive climb up to the resort were scary to say the least. Each of the legendary 21 hairpin bends, adorned with the names of past stage winners, rose up in front of us. Neither of us said much as we took in the awesome sight before us.
So what do you do after a 10 hr drive through France? Well - unpack my Scott CR1 Team bike (kindly lent to me by Scott Sports UK), get some kit on and motor down the descent. Only problem is that to get back to our apartment we had to climb the beast... 50 minutes after I started the climb I was back in the village. Not bad for a first go!
So race day had arrived and having driven the course the day before, we both knew what lay before us. After a chilly descent of the Alpe d'Huez at 06.15 am, we lined up in Le Bourg d'Oisans, alongside almost 10,000 other keen cyclists nervous for the long day ahead.
The start is a staggered process as the road out of the town, down the valley and up the first climb of the Col du Glandon is closed to other road users. Good job as we rocked towards the climb at a steady 26mph. Once on the climb, it is a case of finding your own rhythm and trying not to get too carried away with proceedings.
With the first climb out of the way the descent is neutralised, meaning our official time is stopped because it is such a dangerous descent. A timing chip on the bike and timing mats you have to ride over are an easy way for the race organisation to keep track of all the riders' times. The case was proven as we were stopped by an ambulance attending to a seriously injured rider. After this descent there is a long 13-mile stretch along the valley to the bottom of the Col du Telegraphe. The sign in the village says 17km to the top - easy, I thought. How wrong I was. It is a beautiful climb up to a fort at the top, but very long and relentless. You start the climb by the motorway to Turin and by the time I reached the summit the motorway looked like a strand of spaghetti in the valley far below.
I had reached the top of the Col du Telegraphe in a time of 3 hrs and 50 minutes, but the worst was still to come. After a short 10-minute descent, I reached the beautiful town of Valloire. Only problem being that this town marks the start of the Col du Galibier, a 2642-metre giant with the last 5km still covered in snow. Having spent the last 4 hours eating and drinking energy products, it was now time to give my stomach a rest and take on some real food. Good old bread, ham and orange segments were the order of the day and did they taste good. Now the first few miles are a slow climb out of the valley but certainly not to be underestimated. The road then makes a right turn over a bridge...and heads straight up into the gods. With about 5km to go, you can see the summit and the long line of riders very slowly making their way to the top. I soon learnt not to look up but to keep staring at the tarmac in front of me. The last 2km are probably the steepest roads I have ever ridden; I ground my 34 x 30 gear and hauled myself to the top. Crossing the actual finish line of the Tour de France at the top of this monster was an emotional experience: I had been climbing for 1.5 hours, just steadily getting closer to the summit, but good things come to those who wait and in front of me I had 50km of descending on the best, most famous roads in Europe.
Summit of Col du Galibier - 2642m
So here we go, 50km of downhill on smooth tarmac roads, going past villages at breakneck speed, past lakes and through tunnels cut into the mountainside. I soon joined a group of approx. 15 riders and we rode through and off like it was the end of a road race. Loving every pedal stroke, I ignored the pain in my legs and kept up, rarely dropping below 30mph for all of those 50km back to the start town of Le Bourg d'Oisans. Now if that had been the end of the ride then I would have been happy - but hey, I only had 8 miles left to ride. So with 100 miles and 3 monstrous mountains in my legs, I started the final 8 mile slog up the infamous Alpe d'Huez. Taking the advice of a very experienced rider, I had hidden 2 cans of Coke at the bottom of this climb, so I sailed past the last food stop to go and collect my rewards. Low and behold...they were gone! Oh, now I'm in trouble as the road rears up and bend 21 comes into view. This climb is so hard all you can do is sit down and plod on. The first 5 hairpin bends are by far the steepest and every time I tried to get out of the saddle my hamstrings locked up in cramp, kindly telling me to sit down and ride. The first village on the climb was a very welcome sight and as La Garde came into view, so did the first water stop on the climb. Having local scantily-clad French girls pouring water over you was worth its weight in gold, so clipping back in it was onto the next water station. I hit the bottom of the climb in a time of 6hrs and 35 minutes, so I knew that if I got my head down I could make it to the finish in a decent time. So staring at my Garmin Edge 510, I kept the speed as high as I could (all of about 5mph) and rode hard to the finish line.
Descent of the Col Du Galibier
CROSSING THE FINISH LINE
Now I'm not a religious man, but on crossing that finish line something strange happens to you. It's hard to explain but after wanting to do this event for such a long time, going past that line in such a state is kind of an out-of-body experience. You truly feel like you have arrived as a rider.
I now have so many memories of this wonderful event, and my thanks go out to Rutland Cycling for all their support and Scott Sports UK for the loan of a great bike.
But my biggest word of advice if you are ever going to attempt this event is...
PREPARATION IS THE KEY!!