La Marmotte 2004

Most riders in the UK now know about the Etape du Tour. Fewer know about La Marmotte, dispite it being both older and until recently bigger.

The idea is the same as the Etape: 7000+ riders, a hard mountain course, support, feed stations and all riders given a time with awards (Gold, Silver, Bronze) for finishing within given age-related times.

Unlike the Etape, La Marmotte always has the same course. 170km, 5000 metres of climbing. Bourg d'Osians, Croix du Fer, Telegraph, Galibier and finish at the top of Alp d'Huez.

So, it's nice and flat and easy for a quick spin round. Or something.

I'd been looking for a target for 2004, and decided to do La Marmotte. I'd entered in 2000 but never got down to France to ride. Then in 2001 I'd ridden the Etape so I fancied a change and a ride that would be hard enough to make sure that I needed to get out and train.

I mentioned this plan to various people over the winter and Steve Savage got talked into coming as well, so a plan was born.

We'd drive down to the Vercour massif near Grenoble and stay with Phil Smith of Gastrobiking for a week, go and ride La Marmotte and then drive back up via Belguim, catching a stage of the Tour on the way.

The end of June found myself and Steve heading down to the Vecour with bikes stashed in the boot of the car, fitness levels high and ready to go.

I could write a separate report on the riding in the Vecours and Gastrobiking, but all I'll say here is "go". It's some of the nicest riding I've ever done. 10Km climbs, very quiet roads, good cafes. The works.

For the event itself, we'd been booked in a nice Chalet in Alp d'Huez village itself. Not only was the accomodation very nice but it ment there was no prospect of packing on the Marmotte and riding "La Marmotten" (the easier option which finishes in Bourg itself and so misses out the final climb of Alp d'Huez) since the only way to get back to the chalet after packing in Bourg would be to ride up......

7am on the big day. It's very cold and streams of cyclists are heading down Alp d'Huez for the start. I'm trying hard not to shiver dressed in knee warmers, arm-warmers and a waterproof. The smart riders are wearing oh-so-chic plastic bin bags as a top so that they avoid carrying a waterproof round the whole course on what is set to be a very hot day. A tip to remember for the future that one!

Steve and I have gone down the hill together, but get separated in the crowds waiting for the start. It's pretty much impossible to ride in a group on a ride like this; the sheer pressure of 7000 riders on the roads means that groups form and re-form constantly for the first 100km or so. The queue at the start is about 1/2 mile long and many riders deep so it's easy to get separated right at the start as we do.

Finally at 7.30 the first riders are off. 15 minutes later I get to the front and roll over the timing mats. I'm off!

After my experience in the 2001 Etape, I'm very conscious of the need to start steadily so I wheelsuck and look constantly at my heart rate monitor, trying not to let the excitement get to me and start chasing.

It doesn't make that much difference in La Marmotte anyway. There's only about 5km from the start to the first climb, the 40km Croix du Fer. All of a sudden there's silence as thousands of riders clunk into bottom gear and concentrate on turning the pedals.

After landslides a few years ago, the Croix du Fer has two short descents in it followed by very steep ramps to get back onto the level of the main road. These have me in my bottom gear of 34x26 already in an attempt to stop my effort level from going through the roof. I only partially succeed - I don't quite hit my '10' TT effort level, but it's not far off! And there's 160km to go...

All the way up the climb I'm steadily passing people, while being passed. The people passing me seem to fall into two very distinct groups. The first go past out of the saddle, breathing deeply and labouring over the bike. They aren't usually going all that much faster and seem to be working much harder than they can maintain. The second group go past at what seems like twice my speed, sat in the saddle, chatting. This is both impressive and annoying!

Some very good riders indeed do La Marmotte. It's part of a series (The Grand Trophy) of Cyclosportifies which much publicity for the winner so top amateurs and ex-pros ride (this year an ex-pro won and the whole Laprierre development squad rode) so when riders steam past me like this, I don't worry to much. There's a long way to go yet and I might yet see some of the over-optimistic ones again!

Towards the top of the climb (towards near the turn off for the Glandon) the landscape opens up and I get the amazing sight of a solid stream of cyclists both ahead and behind me as far as I can see. If you haven't ridden a big event like this, it's well worth it just for the feeling of being part of such a huge mass of cyclists taking over the road.

Towards the top, two other riders (Paul and Richard) from the Gastrobiking group pass me. Knowing that they are both faster than me and aiming for a time about an hour faster than me, I chat for a while then let them go.

Pretty much two hours after starting, I reach the top of the climb. I feel quite cheery really; I've never done a two hour long climb before!

The descent is "interesting". There's still many riders around and many (mainly the Dutch ones) have no idea how to descend. Brakes on round the corners, swing wide onto the other side of the road, just miss the edge, teeter, repeat.....

I take the brakes off and try and get past a few, but my descent is tempered by the three ambulances I pass on the way down attending to riders who've over-cooked it. The roads aren't closed here and many riders are taking big risks on the blind bends. I don't feel like joining them so eventually settle down in a comfortable rhythm, take no risks and enjoy the descent.

The stretch to the start of the Telegraph includes a section of valley road. By this time the event has broken up into groups on the road so I tuck onto the back of a group and get a tow along the valley floor. This bit is my least favourite bit of the ride. The road is fairly busy and not really that scenic (or at least compared to where we've come from) so I just tuck in and concentrate on getting to the start of the Telegraph and the next feed station.

The feed stations are good, but not as well stocked as those on the Etape however they do have good supplies of the basics (bananas, dried fruit etc). I aim to stop for as short a time as possible so dive in, grab some food, fill up the water bottles and head on. I repeat this at all the other food stations.

Eating and drinking on an event like this is hard I find. Eating on the descents can be tricky due to the need to keep an eye on all the other riders around. Eating on the ascents can be tricky due to the effort level. And there isn't much flat! The one thing I do make a big point of is stopping at every water stop and filling my bottles. I'm drinking a big 750ml bottle an hour, but it's now over 30C and it's probably not enough since when I get to the finish I'm pretty dehydrated.

After the valley road, the ascent of the Telegraph comes as a relief. It's nicely shaded in the trees and at a reasonable gradient, so I just pop it in bottom gear and spin my way up. Having never ridden in the Alps before I'm starting to get worried by the Galibier. The Telegraph looks like a little pimple at the start of the Galibier but is still taking me a long time. I've been ignoring time so far, but in the back of my mind is the idea of getting a Gold medal. We'd sat in the Chalet the night before and worked out rough times for various points of the course to get a Gold. I'm still on schedule but beginning to worry about the climbs to come...

Worrying proves prescient, but not very useful. After a short descent from the top of the Telegraph it's through Laurant and a food stop and onto the Galabier.

Due to the climb, the groups have split and there's just a continuous thin stream of cyclists. I find the first part of the climb odd. It doesn't look very steep (indeed, watch the pros going up here and they will really be motoring) but I'm in 34x26, going slowly and still steadily passing most people. It's a combination of the by now very intense heat and the distance covered I think that means most riders around me (and me!) are starting to suffer.

I just keep going, counting down the k's. All I know about the climb is what I've been told: the hard bit is at the top. Given that I'm in bottom gear on the "easy" bit, this is a little worrying!

And then I get there. The road goes past a bar, swings right over a little bridge and goes seriously vertical. I get out of the saddle and grunt. I surprise myself by finding that I've ridden through my bad patch and am riding strongly again; keeping a nice rhythm as I swing the bike and not getting bogged down on the gear. There's a fair few riders here on 39x25 who look very unhappy indeed.

After the first ramp, it's still a long way to the summit. It's not as steep for a while but it's above 2000m and the altitude starts to tell on me. I'm finding there's not enough air around. We'd spent two night before the event at Alp du Huez (1600m) but had done no rides at altitude before the event so my body wasn't used to this lack of oxygen. It was an odd feeling. I wasn't blown, I wasn't suffering from lack of food or water but there just wasn't any power in my body.

The final 3km of the Galibier are the hardest climbing I've done. It's steep, very high (the summit is at 2,600m) and it was very, very hot. In the end I had to stop with 2km to go and hang my helmet on the bars. Of course, this was the exact moment that Phil from Gastrobiking rode past me looking very comfortable indeed. Sods law in action again!

Back on the bike, I just switched the brain off and turned the pedals. Slowly. I knew there was a feed station at the top so the though of food and water gave me added incentive to keep going. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Look up. No nearer. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Look up. Little bit nearer. Repeat.

Rarely has 2km gone so slowly.

[After writing this, I re-read my Etape 2001 write up, where I found a very similar sentence. Thus proving that the bad memories fade and the good memories stay from things like this!]

When I got to the top, I broke my "minimum stop" plan. The view from the top is just so stunning that I had to take it in for a few minutes while munching some food. High mountains all around, clear in the thin air. A very memorable moment.

And then helmet back on and back on the bike. I felt I'd cracked it now. I was still on my target time for a gold and all I had was the long descent over the Laurant back to Bourg and the final climb of the Alp.

The descent was a monster. It just goes on, and on, and on, and on. Every time I went round a corner and thought I'd reached the bottom, there'd be another descent. Lovely. I took the descent very steadily, mostly just letting the bike roll. With hindsight, if I'd realised how long it was I could have gained time here for very little extra effort.

The final stretch into Bourg was pretty busy with traffic, but there were enough cyclists around to form a small group for parts of this. Again though, the valley roads were much less pleasant than the rest of the ride.

Into Bourg, grab food at the feed station and onto Alp d'Huez.

I climbed the Alp the day before the event and reckoned I needed 1hr 20 to get from top to bottom (after allowing for my presumed tiredness at this stage of the ride). I checked my watch at the bottom of the climb. 1hr 30 in hand to get Gold. It looked good.

The first 3km of Alp D'Huez are steep and I started suffering. The miles were catching up with me, it was very, very hot and the traffic (which wasn't very heavy) was enough to ensure that I had to hold a straight line close to the edge of the road.

Again, I stopped after 1km to take the helmet off and then got going again. I knew that if I stopped, by body would go into shutdown mode and I'd find it very hard to finish so I resisted the urge to stop for water or food and just pressed on.

Despite the way I felt this was one of the best bits of the ride. There were people out handing out bottles of chilled water (which I very gratefully threw over my head), others cheering on their friends, family and everyone else on the bends and best of all I knew I was going to finish!

Half way up, I was feeling bad but it was still looking very close for the Gold. Three quarters of the way up and the time was slipping away. I tried to put in a bit more for the final few km. Up through the final kms I kept it going as much as I could (not much at that point) but when I got to Alp d'Huez village I realised I wasn't quite going to make it. But at that point with 1km to go it seemed a shame not to put a bit of effort in and finish looking good. So I did.

My final time was 8 hrs 54 min. To get a Gold medal I needed 8:49. So close! Steve finished happily about an hour later having twiddled round on his 30x26 bottom gear. Finishing times for the Gastrobiking group ranged from a very fast 7 hours to just under 12. The winnder rode the event in a few minutes over 6 hours.

Further details

The Vecours:

Gastrobiking: or phone Phil on

08000 192 491

My 2001 Etape:

La Marmotte: