La Marmotte was this year’s ‘A race’ for me. Before this it was just a few sportives and day one of London to Paris (L2P).
La Marmotte is a very challenging climbing event – 175k of Alpine Climbs (over 5,000 metres in a day) that ends on Alp d’Huez with its legendary 21 bends zig-zagging up the mountain – the Alpe will feature in this year’s TdF, as does the stunning Lacets de Montvernier – see photo. 8,500 riders lined up for the 7.00 am start, not a coat in sight, as this area of France had a heat wave predicted to peak at a bonkers 42 degrees later in the day. Little did we know it would rise to an incredible 46 degrees by mid-afternoon at the bottom of the Alpe, one of the main reasons that 3,000 never made the finish this year. My friends and I wisely bought entry and support packages from GPM10. Among the benefits of using GPM10 was being in the front start pen, even if that meant my 66 KG frame made me look like the rider who ate all the pies. Some riders weighed less than their carbon bikes, and my heart rate was already at 110 without having even started.
The start was slightly downhill at 50 kph for 15 minutes before the first climb up the Col de Glandon. 2-300 riders must have passed me on Glandon’s 21k climb, and yet I am a mountain goat! All shapes and sizes coming through, with some blowing like they were in a 2k track event. 150k+ to go and yet some were riding their wheels off, burning matches like they were lighting a barbeque with their mates. Still it was hard to stick to my coach’s carefully prepared race plan, with my ego getting crushed (Jay McStay of M1 Performance had it all planned out in meticulous detail) – staying below my aerobic threshold of 165 bpm and accepting that meant a pedestrian pace and easy watts of 200-220 at this early stage. If all went to plan, and in a long race it rarely does, I should be round in 8 hours – 1 hour inside the target ‘gold time’ of 9 hours for the over 50’s – it could have been 7 hrs 30 but Jay adjusted things to account for the extreme heat.
At the top of Glandon there was a scrum of drink refills, then an untimed descent on a dangerous twisty road of variable surfaces. Immediately there was a man down and paramedics in attendance – it wasn’t even 9 o clock!
Along the valley floor the temperature was rising. It sounds like a line from The Weather Girls, and much later on it would sure enough be raining men – down the Alpe as so many quit in the extreme heat with just one climb to go, but what I climb that would prove to be.
Before that the beautiful Lacets de Montvernier (shoelaces – see attached photo). A gorgeous climb, not too steep but narrow. Then on to the Col du Mollard that was a good 6k longer than the signs suggested. Mollard was shaded, thankfully, and now some of those who flew past earlier were coming back to me as I chugged along, letter heart rate sneak up to 168 and hoping that would be ok at circa 210-220 watts.
I meet Alan of GPM at the peak of Mollard for our super-slick private feed stop and he cleans my glasses, which were covered in sweat, OTE gel and sun cream. A twisty descent off Mollard on variable roads and the initially steady climb up Col de la Croix de Fer suddenly turns to a more brutal 10% in bright sunshine, with nowhere to hide. Now very few are going by and I am catching more and more of the hares as I rumble along, tortoise like, at only 200 watts.
The public feed station has Dates……Dates? WTF?
Nothing else so I grab some water and hope the one remaining gel will see me to the Alpe.
A fast descent of Croix de Fer to Glandon and then more fast descending a lovely flowing course from Glandon, with a few sharp climbs to wake things up part of the way down.
It is then a long uphill drag to Bourg in the intense heat. I am out of drink and my gel has gone, mostly over my glasses and shorts (again). Thankfully I catch a group of four and we do ‘thru and off’ at 35 kph+. In no time we are at the foot of the Alpe. I miss GPM’s 2nd private feed stop (as I am looking in the wrong place). Quick thinking needed as I charge into the crowded public feed station (like travelling ‘economy’ after too long in ‘business’). I grab a gel and 2 drink bottles, and I am off. I hope it will last, miles away in my thoughts as I scamper to the foot of the Alpe, missing Mark of GPM shouting and waving at me about my missed nutrition, all laid out & ready.
‘Get past the first 4 ramps’ is what everyone says – they are 9-10% and go on forever. They are numbered in reverse order, and start at 21. Even getting to 21 was an eternity and the heat was totally bonkers. I had done one bottle by turn 19, the maths was not looking too good, anxiety was chatting away in my ear:
You’ve shot too many bullets you idiot, might not make it, so far to go, so hot…..running out of drink already…..heart rate climbing, watts are dropping too
it is now ramp 17. That is the 4 down, and still it seems silly steep as I chug at a cadence under 60 with my watts falling away. Riders were strewn everywhere, some with the heads in their hands, all off their bikes and every stream was like bees around a honey pot as riders squabbled to get under any running water they could find. Still I chugged along, now down to 180 watts as I tried to keep my heart rate under 175. I could not risk pushing too hard, I had no desire to bonk this time out. Still nobody has come by, and despite how I feel I am passing rider after rider. Little did I know that relative to them I felt great.
Finally I get to ‘Dutch Corner’ (turn 7) where there are numerous hoses. I stand under one for 30 seconds and my heart rate is down to sub 150. I am off like a rat up a drainpipe, now pushing 220-240 watts with a heart rate sub 160. Any anxiety is kicked into touch – now I understand why everyone was lying in the streams, must do that next time it is hot on a long ride!
I race up the later turns and sprint to the finish, romping past rider after rider, getting cheered on by the locals. I then stand there chugging cup after cup of recovery drink. I now get to find out how many riders will not even start the Alpe, and how other strong well-prepared riders barely got onto it before turning round in the heat.
My time of 7.59:43 is 17 seconds inside the 8 hour estimate that Jay, my coach, said I could ride in the heat, pretty accurate forecasting on his part! I am placed 539th overall from 8,500 riders and 52nd in the over 50’s. I passed hundreds of riders up the Alpe, and the story of the tortoise and the hare springs to mind, as I reflect on how many passed me up Glandon – the first climb, but burned way too many matches, classic cycling folklore.
La Marmotte is a gorgeous event in stunning alpine scenery, but woe betide anyone who is not super-fit and very well prepared. 5,000 metres is a lot of climbing in that heat. Training Peaks say I went thru over 5,000 calories. I ran out of drink 3 times with 2-3k to go but was lucky. I still drank 7.25 litres of energy drink, and ate 4 bananas, 2 Bounce bars and 14 OTE gels. Riding with a powermeter helps hugely, but knowing your numbers and sticking to them is key to beating the ‘hares’ who mostly fall away and finish behind you, or blow to pieces at some point on the ride after they blast past in a dash for glory akin to sprinting the first 1k of a marathon.
If you want to do La Marmotte then go for a private entry with GPM10 or similar companies as the private feed stations help. The exclusivity of the front pen is a huge plus too. GPM10 know the event very well, and the hotel and food were lovely too. If you don’t have a coach and fancy a big ride like this then think about getting one, it makes a huge difference to maximise your potential and make a very challenging climbing event great fun.
The moral of the story…..Go off slow, then taper!