La Marmotte 2009


Marmotte route.

Marmotte route.

It is finished. The results are in. Now never mention the M word again!

In all seriousness, my memory of the 8hrs 43 minutes feels like a dream. I can remember fragments, mental images of the road, certain moments when I stopped riding – the rest is a blur of bright light and heat.

I was in command of the ride from the start until half way up the Col du Galibier. I did everything right:

  • keep heart rate below 160 on the Glandon and Telegraphe
  • shelter from the wind in a group after the descent off the Glandon
  • eat and drink at regular intervals

I felt fresh on the Glandon and Telegraphe. Early on, the temperature was cool, and the trees on the roadside provided plenty of shade. Based on my splits, I was 5 mins inside Gold pace at the summit of the Glandon, and 10 mins under at the Telegraphe – good news, but not good enough to lose concentration.

The Galibier

Then, just after the water station at Plan Lachat, I took a leak. As I dismounted I felt pretty unsteady on my feet, and ejected just a trickle of fluid into the bushes. By this point I was over 5hrs into the ride, the sun was high in the sky (we’d left the shade behind) and the temperature was 35C. There’s something about not pissing properly, even after drinking 4 or 5 bidons, that reminds you of the strain your body is under. From this point on, it was an ordeal.

The final 8kms of the Galibier are an 8% gradient or steeper. You just have to grind it out as the road climbs relentlessly, counting down the kilometre markers to the summit. It’s a truly brutal mountain. Cresting the hill I had a wobble, and took 5 mins to give myself a little pep talk. I knew I was 15 mins inside Gold pace, my energy levels were OK, my back wasn’t too stiff, I just had to nail the remaining 2.5hrs. Arm-warmers on, I began the descent.

One thing about the Marmotte is that it’s a long, lonely ride. Despite the fact that you’re never far from one of the other 7000 riders, you never seem to stick with one particular group. At my ability level – which I would class ‘fit enthusiast’ – there’s still lots of variation in the pace at which people climb. On this ride, because each rider takes good care to ride at his own pace, the mountains ruthlessly sort the field according to tempo. The order is then reshuffled in the valley, and reshuffled on the next climb. The other thing preventing the formation of groups at fit enthusiast level is that, on a ride like La Marmotte, you only care about self-preservation. 

My ride from the Galibier down the valley to the foot of Alpe d’Huez was ropey. If I got with a group and it started going even slightly quicker than I wanted, I lagged back and waited for another one. This of course meant that I did more work into the wind, which wasn’t clever. By this point, however, I wasn’t tactically on top of my game. In one of the many tunnels that you pass through at this stage of the ride, I hit a pothole, and my bars slipped. There was a moment of complete terror in the blackness as my upper body lurched forward over the hoods and the front wheel swerved to one side. Thankfully I managed to stay on board. Stopping to tighten things up, I lost another useful pack of riders.

Alpe d’Huez

Driving up the Alpe the day before, I had a strange feeling of not really wanting to take it in and prepare for the event. In a way this worked in my favour because at the foot of the climb (at 7hrs 15) I didn’t know how much I still had left to do. All I knew is I had until 8hrs 49 to reach the summit. And, as I passed switchbacks 21, 20 and 19 in fairly quick succession, that seemed perfectly achievable. Plus, after La Garde, Joe – who had already finished his ride in a superhuman 6hrs 34 – appeared in the ‘support car’ with soigneurs Amandine and Bill, so maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

But I was tired, it was very hot, and the Alpe d’Huez is steep. One of the classic alpine climbs, it is 14km long, and averages 7.7%, with a max of 12%. After the first few bends, the straights are long, and they just keep ramping up. Each time you reach a bend you turn round to see the next one rearing up. It feels like cycling up a helter-skelter. 

Time was ticking away and my optimism of achieving Gold began to fade. The km markers just weren’t clicking down fast enough. Joe, Amandine and Bill would stop on a bend, jump out and yell support, then jump back in and head up to the next one. Without their encouragement, I would have stopped for a break. I was fighting the urge to be sick now. A guy riding just ahead of me pulled over, and the sound of his vomiting echoed up the mountain for minutes.

I crossed the line a blubbering mess. 

A big thanks to the support team for getting me up the final climb. A big pat on the back for Joe, who, despite a recent bout of flu, achieved a phenomenal 23rd place overall. All the other members of his Montagnac squad got sub-7hrs, which didn’t exactly take away from my satisfaction at getting gold, but which did kind of put in perspective.

Further browsing:

6 Responses to “La Marmotte 2009”

  1. Motivation: La Marmotte 2009 « Ironman365 July 8th, 2009 at 3:30 am

    […] to finish. This is arguably the toughest sportive out there. Congratulations to Al and Joe on completing this year’s race in amazing […]

  2. Liversedge July 14th, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Thanks for the link!

    Nice job on the Gold Medal, sounds like you got it spot on really. Sticking with a fast group in the valley is dumb and you just sit up for 5 mins and another comes along.

    Good effort up AdH too – I found the switchbacks too tempting – like little benches of peace every 500m or so.

    Good luck getting a place on the Maratona – its pretty tricky – best to try a few routes I’m told – the lottery is just that.


  3. Al July 17th, 2009 at 5:36 am

    Thanks Mark!

  4. Legs, Feeling No Pressure » Top end outage August 12th, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    […] the week (ssshh, don’t tell work). I wanted to punish myself. 5 and a half weeks since the Marmotte and any really serious riding, and the layoff is getting to me. The first 3 weeks were OK – a […]

  5. Legs, Feeling No Pressure » 2010 – first ride out January 3rd, 2010 at 11:17 am

    […] remember this ride. I never blogged about it because I was just back from La Marmotte and I couldn’t be bothered. But it was the ride of the year. I was out with Millsy on a 4hr+ […]

  6. Legs, Feeling No Pressure » Happy New Year January 12th, 2011 at 10:39 am

    […] two-part 2011 Étape du Tour – neither leg on its own offered as distinctive a challenge as La Marmotte, and signing up for both was too much money and too much holiday. However, the event is still very […]

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