21/07/17

La Marmotte

Phil Welch - Isère

The Tour de Force challenge (http://www.modernsalt.co.uk/to...) is a huge commitment.   For those not able to give the time required, there is always the Marmotte. Named after the huge furry rodent often found sunning itself in the middle of the road in the Alps, is an annual, one-day cyclosportive event in France for amateur cyclists, ending on the Alpe d'Huez.  

Modern Salt reader Phil Welch from London competed in the event earlier this month.  Here is his account:

Touted as the hardest one-day road Sportive in Europe, the Alpes Marmotte has a fearsome reputation. With over 7,500 entrants, the Granfondo takes in four legendary mountains which regularly feature in the Tour De France, the Glandon, Télégraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. It covers 174 km with around 5,000 metres of climbing. Stories abound of participants bursting into tears of joy and relief at the finish, while others talk of the carnage of broken riders at the side of the road during the final climb of Alpe d’Huez.

The weather in the high mountains is unpredictable and the days leading up to the 35th edition of the Marmotte were not encouraging - we arrived in Geneva in pouring rain, and, on the 2645m summit of Galibier the temperature was -2 degrees and snow had fallen.

We started below the Alpe d’Huez at Bourg d’Oisans, it was cold, but dry. Despite early confusion and frustration, we were eventually on our way, immediately forming trains of equally paced riders and tapping out a fairly quick tempo to the foot of the first climb, the Glandon.

It is sensible to heed the advice of others and not to let the adrenaline, built in the early fast kilometres, to flow uncontrollably to the head. The overall gradient of the Glandon is relatively steady, averaging 5%, but the climb has some downward pitches which lower the average and are extremely long, continuing for 28 km. The road drops steeply for short sections before heading up into clouds and mist.

not Holland
not Holland

On a drive the previous day, I had seen a succession of spectacular waterfalls but now these could only be heard momentarily as they were passed in the gloom. Nearing the top, the mist had wrapped itself all over the peak, clearing only to reveal a rather chaotic feed station. Despite this section being time-neutralised, because of the danger posed by the descent's steeepness, I lingered a little too long. I was sweating from the climb and the chill in the air immediately dropped my body temperature.

I began the descent with care, with an additional windproof gilet but I was still cold and longed for the warmth of the valley. Just as I had stopped shaking, my lower back began to ache and unfortunately I was unable to enjoy the flowing corners lower down the mountain. On dismounting my bike my left quadricep cramped painfully and didn’t release for 30 seconds. Not the best sign so early on into the event – now I would have to manage the cramp for the next 140 km.

We rode through the valley, larger groups formed and the pace increased. I ignored the water stop at the foot of the Télégraphe, keen not to break my rhythm. The one hour ascent was exhilarating, with incredible mountain views all around. The gradient averaged 7% but the climbing was constant and the legs were now accustomed to tapping out a steady beat.

At this point, I noticed I was travelling far more comfortably than the riders around me and moving quickly through the moving mass of cyclists ahead. I would sporadically jump out of the saddle to offer relief to my legs as the 18 km began to whittle away. The views were awe-inspiring, particularly the formidable and imposing Meige peak to the south, the last major alpine summit to be conquered by climbers. The last section of the climb, the steepest, seemed to present itself as a wall of switchbacks ahead. However, I was surprised at the flow that I felt as I made my way up the final section. Making use of a private feed station 1 km from the summit, I grabbed more water and a handful of gels, before cresting the climb. At 2642 m, this is the highest point in the Marmotte. 

Col du Glandon
Col du Glandon

I was keen to avoid my mistake on the Glandon, and therefore immediately rolled over the peak and onto the descent. 

At around 50 km, this descent is the longest and without doubt the most exhilarating I've ever experienced. It took a while to drop enough altitude to stop the shivering, but on reaching a certain height, it was almost as if the gods had kindly thrown an electric blanket around my torso. The cold was replaced by sore and numb hands and, at times, I had to readjust my grip to confirm I was actually pulling the brake levers. Then I would plunge at spine-tingling speed into the first of several tunnels, more than happy to re-appear on the other side still in one piece. On the lower slopes, we would pass small villages, the gradient would level and offer some relief as I sat more upright and out of the drops, before plunging once again into the valley below.

Finally, I reached the valley floor, and riders regrouped into fast moving pelotons, driving towards the last climb of Alpe d'Huez. To reach the finish in the village at the top it is necessary to navigate the 21 world famous hairpin bends, enduring 14 km of road averaging around 9% gradient. Again, I ignored the feed station and kept my momentum for the last big climb. 

The first few bends are the steepest and I wondered how my legs would feel. To my surprise, I was still climbing well and, further to my amazement, I saw my much stronger training partner stretching out cramp at the side of the road. He joined me on the climb, and we chatted as if we were out on a training ride and not finishing a fiendishly difficult bike event. The switchbacks seemed to quickly come and go and then the church on Dutch corner appeared, so-named since Dutchmen won eight of the first 14 finishes in the Tour De France and is where the Dutch now congregate on race day. 

l'Alpe d'Huez through morning mist
l'Alpe d'Huez through morning mist

We stopped briefly at a private water station, primarily to remove clothes added at the top of the Galibier, two hours previously. The temperature was now well into the twenties.

As I neared the summit, more and more people appeared on the side of the road offering further encouragement. Once through the village, I picked up the tempo, finding energy reserves I had no idea I possessed. With 200 metres to go, I majestically rose from the saddle and began my sprint for glory. Within seconds my gilet fell from my back pocket and wrapped itself around my rear wheel and drive chain bringing me to an unceremonious halt. As I fought to release my gilet, I had a momentary vision of picking my bike up and, emulating Chris Froome's feat on Mont Ventoux in 2016, running with my bike to cross the finish line. These fanciful thoughts were interrupted by one kind spectator who picked up my bike allowing me to finally free my gilet. I remounted to a massive cheer, only for my chain to spin off. A third time, another cheer but I failed to clip in, my foot slipping embarrassingly off the pedal. One final roar, and I appeared to be swept down to the finish, crossing the line in a time of 8:06:59.

Without doubt, the Alpes Marmotte is the most breathtaking ride I've ever experienced on a road bike and I would fervently recommend it to any rider who is looking for a momentous challenge in a spectacular environment. It's incredible to think that the professionals actually race up these mountains, rather than merely survive the day but anyone able to complete this event deserves the utmost respect.

Phil Welch is an endurance Mountain Biker, finishing 2nd in the WEMBO 40-44  24 hour solo at Finale Ligure, Italy, in 2012. That year and in 2013 he also finished 2nd in the Australian National 24-hour solo (40-44). He regularly takes part in the word’s biggest stage races. He is a level 3 Cycling Coach and currently works at Cadence Performance Cycling, London and for Wattbike UK as a Master Wattbike Trainer.

I'm still standing ...
I'm still standing ...

and with a summary of today's stage (19) Embrun to Salon-de-Provence, here's the Podcast:

Credits

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Phil Welch photos