Marmotte 2017 eight Golden hours of pain
On my third attempt at this beautiful but brutal course of 174km and 5500m of ascent I finished with a Brevet d'Or, the Gold Classification
The training is working, and this weekend I got actual proof.
A few days of riding in the Alps is always a joy. A small village on Alpe d’Huez, the mountain we climb no fewer than three times in August, was a base for three days of riding which I was considering a good training camp for the Haute Route.
The idea, with the Marmotte on the last day, was to get a base of miles (and fatigue) in the legs before the race. With a decent ride around a mountain across the valley followed by a recce of the unusual back-roads climb of the Alpe (that we hit on stage 3 of the Haute Route), all before the big event, I was ready to hit 10,000m of ascent in three days. That’s more than an Everest, and in line with what we’ll cover in the Haute Route.
In previous years I’ve approached the Marmotte slightly cautiously. It’s a single day that is so long and hard that the traditional choice has been not to go too hard too early, in order to leave some energy for later. This year, treating it as a training session it was an opportunity to learn what happens if I push a little harder. With a power meter, of course, this is all measurable. Whereas in previous Marmotte years I’d been limiting myself to put out around 200W or less on the climbs, the target this time was to push for 250W as much as possible. If I couldn’t sustain that and ended up losing loads of time, at least I’d know.
Last year, I took 40mins off my previous time. The same difference this year would just about give me a Gold classification.
The first ride was 135km/3000m from Bourg d’Oisans, the entry town to Alpe d’Huez, over Col d’Ornon and around the mountain to the west was beautiful. Here I rode some alpine country I’ve not seen before, and it was great. There were big expanses of valley wilderness, cute villages, seemingly abandoned ski stations (they look out of place in the summer!) and even cows wearing actual cow bells. The roads were really quiet, I didn’t see many other riders all day after the first climb.
A lot of the villages have these water stations, a small tap continuously dripping water into a stone bath. I’m still not sure if the water is drinkable, but there’s a great picture from a past Haute Route of some riders cooling down sitting in one of them!
I felt strong on the climbs, and was able to sustain the power, so that’s a good start. On arriving back in the flat valley up to Bourg d’Oisans, I met the first rider of the day who passed me. (It was that quiet elsewhere!) I pressed a little harder to keep up, and quickly found myself very drained of energy and not able to hold his wheel. A very similar thing happened on a recent very long ride with the Cycology club around Berlin: cruising at tempo was fine, but extra bursts of higher effort became really hard.
In hindsight this is exactly explained by the training I’ve been doing, which has been single-mindedly focussed on the sort of diesel-crusing at a fixed power for a long time that will get me up mountains. I’ve not at all been training for bursty riding above that limit. Is that going to be a problem for the Haute Route?
The second day was to check out a part of the third stage of the Haute Route that includes a climb of Alpe d’Huez from the west, a relatively less-ridden route through the tiny village of Villard-Reculas to the west. This ride was much shorter, just a descent down the Alpe, a short roll along the valley floor and then this climb that joins the famous 21 bends only six from the top.
Honestly the climb is unremarkable – a bit of rain, a bit more tree cover than the normal route, but it felt like a fairly constant gradient up to the village.
Et ensuite, to the start pen for the ritual of a banana at the start. This year there were even bin bags at the side of the road to cater for it!
Each age group has time bands that win Gold or Silver classification. For my group, the cut-off between them and my target for Gold was 8h 13m (not including the untimed descent).
I know the route pretty well now, and it’s reassuring to feel able to judge when to make efforts and when it wasn’t worth it. When to push to stick with a group, and when to relax and wait for the next one. The start is a 10km roll along the flat floor of the valley – a good place not to do too much work in the wind, and instead wait for faster groups to form. At the start the pace of riders is quite mixed, and it takes a while for the groups to sort out. Some come flying past slower groups, and riders move in and out of the different streams. So here you do need to be watching other riders’ lines pretty carefully, and need a good burst to get onto a quicker group.
Anyway, at the start adrenaline is high and the tendency is, of course, to push a little harder than you’d want to sustain. Good warm up!
The first of the four climbs is the Glandon. As with the Telegraph and Alpe d’Huez there’s a really clear point where the gradient goes up and the climb starts. Hit the climb, and set the watts to 250, simple! Immediately things felt good, this pace not too hard. My speed also seemed similar enough to others not to worry about being dropped by those aiming for similar times (or blowing too hard too early) – there were a few distinctive jerseys that seemed consistently around me.
People were quiet. There was very little conversation, less than in previous years, just focus on powering up the mountain. Maybe a good early sign of the kind of company I was in, at this pace? As if to give something to talk about, we then came across a group of cows on the road, with a desperate couple of farmers and dogs trying to chase them back to a field!
To the top in under 90mins, fill water, grab a slice of a ham baguette (love a French feed station), and head downhill. The descent from the Glandon is neutralised – the timers are stopped to encourage people to take it slow. Gendarmerie and marshals with yellow flags are sitting out in the piercing cold of low, wet cloud to guide us down safely. I’ve really enjoyed this descent in the past, but the biting cold was working its way through my fingers, telling me that I was underdressed today. Too late now.
The passage from Glandon to Telegraph is a false flat, slightly uphill and along a main road. In my first Marmotte I was in a group of a hundred, powering along with no trouble; in my second I didn’t want to hold the too-fast pace of the group I found, and had to do most of it on my own. This time was a compromise – a group of a dozen, with maybe half of us rotating on the front to share the work, which worked pretty well.
Arriving at the Telegraph climb I settled into a rhythm again around 250W, and under an hour later I reached the top feeling pretty good about the world. I’d been able to keep an average of 233W, and was starting to think through the arithmetic of the rest of the day. It was looking good for Gold already, but still with the monster of Galibier to come.
A short descent from the top of the Telegraph leads to another feed station at the start of the Galibier. I chatted with a Dutch guy who said he was on course to beat his previous eight-hour time, which felt good. I refilled water again with some carbohydrate mix that they were offering, in order to keep pushing in fuel, in addition to another ham sandwich!
The Galibier ascent is a bit of a slog. For an hour and a half (two, in previous years) you get up to and beyond the snow line (it’s July) towards an exposed, cold and wind-beaten summit. The added difficulty this year was the carb mix, which appeared not to agree with my stomach. I was craving just some water to rinse it all down with, and eating anything was a struggle. I keep saying that digestion is one of the hardest parts of an endurance bike ride, and this is how that manifested for this year’s Marmotte. By the time I reached the top I could refill with plain water, which calmed everything down a bit. But by then given the altitude, the water was really cold! Spilling some on my fingerless gloves set me up for a chilly descent.
The first few hairpins off the top call for a lot of care but before long the road down to the Col du Lautaret is open with long sweeping bends and good visibility. I was still among the slower descenders, with people coming past me all the way down. (The wife was very pleased to hear that bit.)
And finally it was Alpe d’Huez for the finishing straight! By the time I’d traversed the valley and reached the foot of the climb it was clear that I had about two hours in which to reach the top and still get a Gold classification – easy! At that point it was a little tempting to relax into it and enjoy the climb, but I got chatting with a guy wearing a Haute Route jersey from a previous year, and found we were climbing at exactly the same pace. So we kept pushing each other on, at 250W for me, all the way to the top. For a while it was conversational, but by the top the weight of the day was really biting. Thanks, Josh, for helping me keep going!
Quick sprint through the village and I made the cut for Gold by 45 minutes, taking 80 minutes of my time from last year – yay!
The results are in: after a long, a short, and a very long ride, I can push towards 250W consistently on the climbs and not totally collapse. I did find I wanted a smaller gear, to spin more up the climbs rather than pushing the pedals too hard. So Shimano will make a bit of cash out of me in the next few weeks for upgrades.
I felt comfortable enough descending by the end of the holiday – even if a bit slow, it felt stable. Given my training ground has nowhere to train for this, I figure that’s as good as it’s going to get before the event.
I seem to have picked up a tweak to my ankle, which appeared the morning after the race. Hopefully that will go away before getting in the way of the rest of training for August, and hopefully won’t repeat during the race.
Coming down from the finish and heading towards home, we passed hundreds of people still making the climb, including those just within the time cut (they stop the timer at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez if you don’t get there in time). By that point, after eleven hours or more of riding, people look pretty broken.
Covered in sweat and still pushing the pedals, walking their bikes, or just sitting at the side of the road looking beaten. I really feel for people who are still there at that point – they had a much harder day than I did. I suspect most of those we saw would go on to make it, they just didn’t realise it yet.