The dream of a sub-seven hour Marmotte.
When I first entered at the Marmotte back in 2006 the word ‘sportive’ had yet to enter the lexicon of the British cyclist. Back then we trained and we raced. I know there were riders who just rode for fun, or rode Audax events and the like, but they were mostly men in their 60’s who wore baggy woolen tights and sported mudguards year round. I guess the closest us ‘racers’ got to a sportive were the early season reliability trials. These events were organized at the pointy end of winter to allow us to ‘test’ our legs in a ‘non-competitive’ environment before the real business of racing got underway. We paid £3 to enter, smashed round the familiar course and took home a certificate at the end, yes, bit like a sportive, (apart from the price). The Marmotte though, this was to be a new experience, this was European and exotic and even though it wasn’t a race, 174.5 kilometres crossing four mountains gaining over 5000 metres of altitude seemed a worthy challenge. How though does a competitive cyclist, one who lives for racing week in week out not ride it competitively. The answer is, they can’t. A group of us from the club were all going down to the Alps not just to ride the Marmotte but to see how fast we could get round, with our target being to break the seven hour barrier, a task that without any knowledge of the event seemed plausible. The Marmotte for those not aware, began life in 1982 and is run each year over the same famous route in the French Alps starting in the town of Bourg d’Oisans and finishing at the top of Alpe d’Huez. In one giant circle it crosses first the Col du Glandon, the Col du Telegraph and then the mighty Col du Galibier before finishing with the famous 21 bends of ‘The Alpe’ as Alpe d’Huez is also known. So, back to that first trip, I’d been building up to it for months, this was to be the highlight of the whole year, BUT, disaster was to strike on the journey down. Thanks to a bout of food poisoning which I can only attribute to a dodgy sandwich bought at the Eurotunnel departure gate, I spent 24 hours sweating profusely and didn’t eat a single mouthful of food. Empty and powerless I was desperate to ride so still got up for breakfast the next day like everyone else, ate what I could and rolled down to the start line. As soon as I hit the Col du Glandon though I knew my legs wouldn’t get me round and at this point, in the middle of 5000 fellow riders I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I was gutted. I love to climb and here I was, on a mountain and I just had zero power. I was rising so slowly I knew I had to stop but not being able to handle the shame of turning round I ended up completing a full 10 kilometres before I eventually pulled over. I pretended to fix a puncture whilst waiting for the dregs of the giant peloton to pass, then, when I saw a gap, I ripped my number off, put the wheel back in and headed down the mountain. Crestfallen, dejected and down right miserable I plodded back to Alpe d’Huez where I sat on the side of its slopes watching life go by for the rest of the day. This isn’t the way it was supposed to end and immediately my thoughts turned to next year, I had to come back, had to, I’d set myself a target and I would reach it.
And come back I did, but this time to ride solo the following summer working my attempt into a family holiday. No club backup, just me, and abandoning my wife and daughter in the sparse ski village for the day I set off to break my duck, to loose my Marmotte virginity. What a day on the bike, it was everything I ever dreamed off, I was a pro riding the Tour for a day, but boy did I suffer, it was beyond hard. I managed to ‘get round’ in a time of 7 hours 39 minutes, yes I’d conquered the mighty parcours, but I was in agony and well off my target. I wasn’t gutted with my time and knew with better prep I could have gone faster so immediately my focus again turned to the following year, maybe it would be third time lucky.
The next year was a full on assault by the club, eight of us traveled in total so the pressure to be the first club rider back was huge. My time of the previous year was in fact now the club record so this was the target for all to aim for, to knock me from my perch. I’d prepared well, my bike was pimped with a loaned set of Campagnolo Hyperons and yes the target was of course sub seven hours, nothing else would do. I started like a bullet from a gun, forced the pace up the Col du Glandon to put pressure on my club mates but two of them clung on, so at the first feed stop, instead of filling my bottles I just rode straight through in a move to dislodge them. Dirty tactics? Maybe, but it worked and I never saw them again, this was a ‘race’ after all. By the end I’d put over 20 minutes into my closest comrade and posting another new club record in the process. This ride had hurt even more than the last one though, I’d gone VERY deep and really paid for my early exuberance when I got to the final slopes of Alpe d’Huez. Had I ducked under the seven hour barrier? No. I posted a 7.19. A full 20 mins faster than my PB but still way off where I wanted to be and to be honest I was pretty dejected. It was a full three meals later before I felt human again and I began to wonder if I actually had a sub-seven in me, maybe I just didn’t have the physiology, maybe I’d set an unattainable goal? OK, I said, I’ll give it one last try.
The year after just four of us headed south, normal people don’t ride the Marmotte every year but I was so focused in my quest that I practically called each and every club member to beg them to come with me, yes, I was just a little bit obsessed. Plagued by temperatures in the mid 30’s though, this attempt was a disaster, I fell apart before even reaching the half way point, died a thousand deaths climbing Alpe d’Huez and ended up posting a time of 7.51, a full 30 mins slower than my PB. At this point I knew the Marmotte had beaten me. That was it, I was done with the event, crestfallen. Never again, I said. To make matters worse, our club’s star rider James Stuart posted an incredibly impressive 6.49 to destroy my club record so that was it, me and the Marmotte were over. FINISHED.
Many years past, and although I rode a lot of mountains the inclination to return to this classic event was not there. I accepted I’d done my best so why torture myself, that was until my old school mate Owen took up riding and was looking for the ultimate challenge. He’d ridden a few of the toughest events on the now burgeoning British sportive calendar but yearned for something more. “More” I said, well, there’s only one place to go, you have to go to the Marmotte, you have to ride the toughest of them all. Owen loved to climb so would be well suited to the event and together with another old school mate Nick, they convinced me to return so like a criminal returning to the scene of the climb I was once again heading south to the Alps. There was a problem though this year, due to the Tunnel du Chambon collapsing on the road between Briançon and Bourg d’Oisans the route had to be re configured. The Cols du Telegraphe and Galibier were removed and replaced with the Col de la Croix de Fer and the novelty of the Lacets de Montvernier. It would still be a massive test for all riders but it lacked the romance, lacked the history of the classic route. For me this was perfect because I was under no pressure to crack that elusive seven hour barrier, but for my mates, they felt like they were missing out somewhat.
I had good legs early on but the heat, the ferocious unforgiving heat really took it’s toll this day. The thermometers hit 42 degrees at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez and up it’s cruel slopes every last inch of shade was occupied by riders trying desperately to cool down. The various streams and water falls that punctuate the climb were packed with competitors desperatley trying to lower their core temperatures. Road side hose pipes doused us, water was consumed by the gallon but still by the time I reached the top I was riddled with cramp and in a state of real distress. So much so that I opted to take myself off to the medical tent for reassurance that I was in fact not dying (I can be a little melodramatic at times). Entering the sports hall / first aid room I was greeted with the sight of rows of camp beds, each occupied by a rider either writhing with the agony of cramp, or simply just curled up in a ball moaning. It was as if I had walked into a triage room in some sort of bizarre war film where all combatants were dressed in garish lycra. There were drips set up, there were groans, screams, it was horrible, and this was meant to be fun! I was told to lay down, I had my blood pressure taken, I don’t remember if it was too high or too low but they insisted I stay, They brought me a little food and a Coke and told me to rehydrate and relax. Once I began to feel slightly more human I contacted my mates to tell them where I was, only to find out that their days hadn’t gone much better. Owen had crashed in the Maurienne Valley crossing the train tracks that intersect the road, had written off his bike and bashed his body up. He’d spent three hours in the blazing sun waiting for the broom wagon to scoop him up and then a further three getting home and Nick, well, he’d taken 12 hours to complete the ride and was walking round in what can only be described as ‘post sportive-shock’. That night when we all eventually got back to our hotel room we were just about the last three people you’d ever want to spent the evening with. We didn’t have a single beer, were all asleep by nine, and again, this was meant to be FUN! Would this be my last memory of this brutal event? For a while I thought so, I couldn’t go back, the scars it left were too deep this time, but time does heal all wounds and after missing a year the opportunity arose to do some work at the event in return for my accommodation and a start in the exclusive front pen of riders. How could I turn this down, OK I said, ONE MORE TIME ( you can see a pattern developing here). Owen was not going back, not this time, but enticed by the return of the classic route Nick jumped at the chance. To complete our posse I roped in Paul, a dad from the school yard and with my trusty Octavia loaded up we were going to smash it. The classic route had been restored, but still, I had no ambitions of breaking seven hours any more, I’d done with that, in fact I was not looking for a fast time at all. My preparation had been dire in the run up, consumed by the stresses of life so I convinced myself I’d be happy just to get round.
I was apprehensive of pushing too hard right from the start but did make a few efforts to grab some fast wheels on the flat approach to the first climb. I rode conservatively up the Col du Glandon, which was shrouded in cloud at the top but I couldn’t be bothered to put on my jacket for the descent so by the time I reached the base some 25 mins later my body was shaking almost out of control with cold. I set about warming up by pushing it in the big ring on the flat but my legs just felt terrible. This was the worst part of the day, whenever the pace picked up I just didn’t want to hurt myself closing the gaps and in the end just let the fast riders go and soft pedaled all the way to the Telegraph in the hope that I’d feel better on the climb. Thankfully I did, and I just love the inoffensive, constantly benign gradient of the Telegraph. It’s the perfect mountain to ride, never steep, packed with hairpins and not too long, it makes us all feel like Marco Pantani. Over the top and onto the Galiber I was still feeling OK, but at the same time still holding back slightly, scared off over cooking it. I had the first signs of cramp towards the summit but managed to rub it out on the long descent to Bourg d’Oisans. At the base of Alpe d’Huez I popped a caffeine gel and hit the bottom slopes with what I can only describe and a flourish of pedal strokes.
I had never felt so fresh at the end of this ride, never, and this freshness lasted almost all the way to the village of Huez. Here alas it faded and as per the norm I was plunged into the familiar world of purgatory, of five kilometres of almost unbearable discomfort. Every pedal rev becomes a chore, the road turns to treacle, time is stretched and the distances between corners grow exponentially as you seek out that final kilometer then the sanctuary of the finish. I rolled across the timing mat, looked at the Garmin to see that including all my stops I’d clocked 7.46. I was over the moon. If you’d offered me sub eight hours at the start of the day I’d have bitten your hand off so 7.46 was just brilliant. And I felt OK. Yes I had suffered over the final five kilometres but I was not in any state of distress. I grabbed my free food bag, found some shade, ate it’s contents, did a bit of social media and within 30 mins felt human enough to grab a cold beer. Had I taken it too easy or had I just ridden the perfect ride? Was it the mild weather? Most likely, but then it got me thinking, something I would never have thought I would dare think about again. What if I lost a little more weight, what if did some proper training, what if I got the perfect feeding strategy, could I, could I still dream of riding sub-seven hours? Maybe...