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La Marmotte 2019

Author: Tim Blewitt, 16/07/19

On 7th July 2019, Cheryl Blewitt, Pat Hackett and I took on the challenge of La Marmotte. It is a classic single-day cycle ride in the French Alps, including iconic mountain climbs often featured in the Tour de France and concluding with a punishing ascent to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez. Total length is 174km with well over 5000m of climbing.

We had reserved entries through Sports Tours International which not only guarantees a place in the event but also a starting position in the second of three waves of riders instead of much further down the field of 7500 cyclists.

Registration was very smooth at the Palais de Sports although the goodie bag was significantly less valuable than the equivalent on offer at the Maratona dles Dolomites event which other BCT members were tackling on the same day.

The event begins in the town of Bourg d’Oisans at the foot of the mountain below Alpe d’Huez.  Depending on where you stay, you have a 12km descent either in the morning to begin the ride or after reaching the finish later in the day.  We found ski chalet apartments (L’Ours Blanc) in Alpe d’Huez which were comfortable and very convenient and, in the town centre, there is a podium for photographs with a background slogan of “I did it!”. 

So, event day finally arrived and the three of us left the apartments at 5:15 just as the sky was showing its first signs of light.  There was an eerie calm as we carefully negotiated the 21 hairpin bends down the mountain to enter our allocated starting pen exactly when it opened at 6:00.  We were first there and in prime position and congratulated ourselves on giving us the best chance of reaching a timing cut-off of 18:30 much later in the day.

Our pen was due to be released at 7:30 so with half an hour to spare, Cheryl and Pat took their chance for one last visit to the ladies.  But for some reason, at 7:10 the pen was opened and I was left helpless as I watched 2000 cyclists flood past me.  By the time the girls had returned with exquisitely powdered noses, we were at the back of the field.

After an easy few miles of cycling to warm up, the first climb is up to the Col du Glandon.  In theory, this seemed the easiest one at 5.5% for 22km but that figure includes downhill sections and masks the longer steeper climbs involved.  The sight and sound of real marmots perched on mounds in the vegetation just off the road shouldn’t really have been that surprising.  

The descent from Glandon is deemed too dangerous for cyclists to race, so the section is excluded from the timing of the course.  However, it was a welcome relief to enjoy the scenic Alpine mountain views.  It was a good move to have taken BCT members’ advice and used aluminium wheels rather than deep-rimmed carbon alternatives which may have overheated with the sustained use of brakes for many miles.  The unpredictable sharp gusts of wind throughout the day supported that decision also.

The route then followed the valley for a reasonably flat section but a headwind made it harder work than I wanted.  I tucked in behind another rider to gain as much drafting advantage as possible with Cheryl and Pat in line behind me.  The Italian cyclist was completely oblivious as his every slight swerve was copied by the ever-growing train of cyclists behind him, reminiscent of Benny Hill sketches from the ’70’s.

Refreshed at a pit stop supplying cool mountain water from a series of temporary taps, the ascent of Col du Telegraphe was a uniformly relentless climb of 11.5km at 7.3%.  And in fact it passed fairly quickly through good banter with fellow cyclists and decent amounts of shade from the hot sun as we made our way up through the forest.  Pat showed great energy and reached the summit in good voice and still smiling.

It was only a short descent to the village of Valloire and we made the most of the last feed station before the ascent of the infamous and daunting Col du Galibier, 17.6km at 7%.  It was Cheryl who, despite not being able to take on or keep down essential food energy, showed characteristic strength when ticking off number three of the four major climbs of the day.  On the summit at 2642m, there was still snow and although the sun was warm, it was time to put on extra layers for the long descent back into Bourg d’Oisans. 

At this point, it was looking less likely that we would make the 18:30 cut-off but we decided to go for it.  The views from Galibier were absolutely stunning but we were totally focused on getting down as quickly as possible.  The route included a series of road tunnels through which a combination of subdued neon lighting and sunglasses only heightened the exhilaration of concentrating on the road surface as well as oncoming traffic at speed.

Cruelly, a couple of miles of gentle uphill near the town caused our required average pace to suffer as well as increasing lactic acid in tired legs.  We reached the timing station only four minutes past the cut-off time but were allowed to continue anyway, albeit without an official time.  We just had the small matter of climbing Alpe d’Huez having already cycled 100 miles over some very hilly terrain.

Taking it one or two bends at a time, it was an immense effort to finally conquer the summit with both Cheryl and Pat demonstrating extraordinary resilience and steely determination when many others would have taken and did take the easy option of a lift to the top.

It was now 21:15 and it appeared that the timing mat at the finish had long since been tidied up.  As it happened, it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d arrived five minutes earlier at the Bourg cut-off as we probably still wouldn’t have registered an official time.  The Marmotte organisers were still there to hand out medals though and for us it was never about how fast we could do it.  It was all about riding the legend that is La Marmotte and cycling every metre of the tough but wonderful Alpine sportive.  And we did it.

And we don’t need to do it again.

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