La Marmotte 2013

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In July 2013, I foolishly decided that a great way to celebrate the Tour de France’s centenary would be to ride La Marmotte, the self-appointed ‘hardest sportive in the world.’ This was quite a challenge in itself – the Marmotte is a 109 mile circuit around four of the most famed and brutal climbs the Alps have to offer: The Cold de la Croix de Fer, the Col du Telegraphe, the Col du Galibier and finally the 21 switchbacks that snake up to Alpe d’Huez. Of course, when I noticed that the Etape du Tour (which would follow the comparatively ‘easy’ 20th stage of that year’s Tour route, the lumpy run from Annecy to the Semnoz) was on the next day, I thought it would be jolly fun to try and attempt to do both – after all, everyone does the Etape or the Marmotte these days (I myself was already a veteran of the Etape, having done the 2011 event), but doing both? Clearly this was an excellent opportunity to add further stories to the bank of tales every cyclist stores for ‘one up manship’ on social rides. It would be a proper challenge, I told myself. What could possibly go wrong?

The Marmotte

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Things tried to go conspire against me pretty quickly in Annecy. Despite the beautiful surroundings – the town will be making a killing in 2014 when everyone brings their partners there to sample the gorgeous old town – the test ride around the lake was quickly halted when my seat pin decided it was just too stressed to continue, and promptly snapped, leaving me to swing back into town with the saddle below my handlebars and receiving many grunts of disapproval from the fashion conscious Euro cyclists. Even better, I ride a Cervelo, who use a different size seat post to all other manufacturers because of ‘science’ (read: marketing). Luckily, a bodge job by a local shop using a collar from a sit up and beg bike fixed it up for the time being, and we were able to get back to testing the legs on the 2009 Lake Annecy TT course.

Now, you might query quite why we (by which I mean my dad and I, ardent explorers both) were in Annecy when we were doing the Marmotte first. The Marmotte, after all, starts in Bourg d’Oissons,  – 98 miles away. An excellent question. Unfortunately, Casa Crisp isn’t very good at timing, so when we actually booked everything, we were a tad late for the more sensible package, which would have had us staying at Alpe d’Huez before the Marmotte, before transferring to Annecy on the evening after the Marmotte for the Etape the next morning. As a result, we got to stay in Annecy for all three nights, which was no bad thing, aside from the promised ‘very early start’ to get to the start of the Marmotte in the morning. Just an extra challenge, we laughed it off as at the time…

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But eventually we managed to get everything working and completed our circumvention of the lake before relaxing in preparation of the two hard days to come. My dad and I had both managed plenty of training – he cycled to work every day, we rode both days at the weekend, and as a university student, I’d had a reasonable amount of time to put in some extra hours, although nothing like the amount the guides on riding the events had recommended.

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These all recommended doing the full distance of the event in training a few times before hand – I’d done one 100 mile ride in the last year, and that had been the week before, when we used our local Virgin Money Cyclone as a ‘test’. It went rather well, aided by pleasant conditions – my dad just missed a Gold time of 5 hours 40 for the 101 lumpy miles, all the more impressive given he had been forced off the bike by a broken elbow only a couple of months before, and I got around in 5 hours 21 – in the top 10 of the event, which had been a pleasant surprise given I’d ridden basically the entire thing by myself. This suggested the form was good, although oddly I didn’t feel at my best, and so after a hearty dinner of pasta and chicken by the lakeside, we went off to bed in anticipation of the next days early start.

Saturday 6th July 2013

 

After awaking at some ungodly hour we slumped our way to the breakfast table to fuel up for the upcoming terrors. Industrial quantities of cereal, bread and the sweet nectar that is Nutella was pumped down our throats, before everyone, having grunted a morning greeting to the others wandering into the room, heading back to their rooms to dress. We then ended up waiting around for about an hour and a half trying to get the bikes into Sports Tours international’s Van, which gave any locals up at that ludicrous hour the proposition of seeing lots of shivering men in lycra standing in the dark trying to get their pride and joy into a cubby hole. When this was eventually done among mutterings about how we should have done it the night before, we set off through the gloom amongst the leafy valleys of Southern France, the cold sun just glinting softly over the crests of the shadowy peaks.

After what seemed an age, we arrived…well, near the start in Bourg d’Oissons, but not actually in it. This was impossible, it turned out, because we were so late the police had already closed the road. Unfortunately, the bus we were on still needed to find some where to park, so we spent yet more time waiting for this to be sorted. To add to our growing dissatisfaction, Sports Tours hadn’t twigged that we might need out numbers and transponders, which were apparently still at the top of Alpe d’Huez. Eventually we got those as well, and so wrapped up against the early morning cold, we mounted our steeds and began to head towards the start, following the masses of others with whom we exchanged foreboding glances. After all, these were the people we would be suffering with in the next few hours.

The Bike

Not quite built up...
Not quite built up…

I’m lucky enough to ride a Cervelo R3, 2010 edition, ie before their ‘BB right’ idea and so on. It’s pretty standard in most areas – 3T bars, seatpost and stem, Speedplay pedals, a Fizik Airone saddle and some DT Swiss Mon Chasseral wheels, which had served me well on the cobbles of two Paris-Roubaix sportives. Where it wasn’t very standard was the Campagnolo Record EPS groupset – something I’d bought thanks to the combination of large reductions and the fact I don’t spend my money on anything else. As I’ve discussed elsewhere on here, it truly is excellent. I hadn’t made any changes from the usual for the Marmotte – I’ve always ran a 27 rear cassette since I’d last done the Etape, where it had been used for the last kilometre of Alpe d’Huez (and never again since!), which gave me a bottom gear of 39-27 and a top gear of 53-12. To be honest, I was slightly concerned at the fact that no one at these events ever seems to run that kind of gearing – compacts are ubiquitous – but I hoped my somewhat Ullrich-esque, churning style would mean it would be ok.

Marmotte Part 1: Bourg d’Oissons – Croix de Fer Summit

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After a bit of searching, we discovered the start and joined the queue to roll out – luckily Sports Tours had delivered us so late to the start that it wasn’t too long and we could warm up pretty quickly, especially as the orange glaze of the morning sun was beginning to droop into the valley and work its magic. Rolling through the town we were already surprised at the amount of support from fans at the roadside, before we found ourselves out on a wonderfully smooth valley road chasing small groups as they coalesced and collapsed around riders of a similar speed.

After about eight miles we took a right turn and began heading up onto the dam that held back the Lac du Verney, even riding across the top of it before the first diffuclty of the day began: The Col de le Croix de Fer.

   Col de la Croix de Fer

2067m high.

4.7% Average Gradient

27.5km long

1,292m height gain

11% maximum gradient.

The Croix de Fer is an odd beast. It’s 27km, ie just under 17 miles in length, but the average gradient is supposedly 4.7%. This highlights a big problem with average gradients – they do not properly represent the climb. The Croix de Fer is an excellent example of this. As we began, I quickly lost my dad (sorry) as we began passing through the masses of people who had started before hand, up the reasonable steady 6-7% slopes my computer indicated. This part of the course was the sportive at its bustling busiest – people pull over to strip off unwanted clothes, to take a pee, or because they’re already struggling (ooh err). As a result, the two lanes quickly become regimented – you ride on the right, and you pass on the left. However, sometimes people just ride on the left anyway, which requires a sharp shout, given the lack of common language, to get them to move across to ease progression. I quickly settled into a rhythm, keeping everything under control as the gradient began to rise after a couple of kilometres towards the 8-9% mark.

I’ve always found it odd how a gradient that can on English roads feels ridiculously steep can feel relatively comfortable on a foreign climb. This is probably due to duration and pacing – in the UK, a 10% climb probably lasts only a couple of hundred metres if that, and so is usually tackled at a full on sprint. Meanwhile, on the continent, the climbs are longer and slightly shallower, which means you don’t try and kill yourself – you just try and get up. As a result, the climb actually doesn’t feel that bad.

After about 10km of climbing through identikit trees, you begin to emerge into what seems like a vaulted plateau – sharp peaks and bastions of gravel appear all around you as you break out of the trees, and as the road flattens out (letting you use the big ring) you wonder quite where the climb is going to go, as sheer rock seems to have encircled you into a dead end trap. The answer comes when you realise you’ve been looking the wrong way, as the climb descends down some incredibly steep and precarious hairpins by a couple of hundred metres – demonstrating the problem with the climbs average gradient. The descent reduces that somewhat, and so the actual climbing you do is at a percentage much higher than 5%. This was proven as the road returned uphill. A sweeping, tight bend delivered everyone out of the kilometre long downhill section and onto a 12% wall that caught many off guard – either they hadn’t changed gear in anticipation or weren’t quick enough to do so, so the sound as everyone began climbing again was on of swearing and the ‘clack-clack-clack-CLUNK’ of people trying to get their front derallieur to change under pressure. An added problem was the knock on effect this had on the people behind . As people swept off the descent at 30mph, they were suddenly confronted with people on the 12% slope moving at 3mph. Predictably, crashes ensued.

Once everyone had hauled themselves over a kilometre or so of 10%+ though, the climb returned to its usual 6-7%, and gently carved its way into the memory as one full of exquisite scenery. The day was still young enough for the sun to have only just crested the horizon of the mountains, so the scenery was somewhat obliterated in part by the glazing orange wash coming down the road, but elsewhere, the gravel screes, lush vegetation and glistening yet dark lake allowed everyone to calm down as the gradient followed suit, lulling down gently as the climb gently wound its way to the summit. One mountain down, three to go!

Marmotte Part 2: The Croix de Fer descent

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At the top, you were forced to stop: there were simply too many people stopping at the feed station to enable to ride over even if you wanted. I didn’t pick anything up as I didn’t really see the point – we’d only done about 23 miles after all (albeit with 1,200m of height gain), so I quickly shuffled my way through the crowd to the beginning of the descent.

As anyone who’s ever rode with me knows, I am, quite frankly, an appalling descender. I like to tell myself this stems from the fact I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was about 13-14, and that I fell off quite a few times as a result, but in reality it’s more down to being a coward when it comes to going down hills. If there’s a corner, however lazy the bend is, I’ll probably apply the brakes. I was thus already a bit apprehensive about the descents in the Marmotte, but to invoke the cliché, nothing could prepare me for just how bad the descent of the Croix de Fer would be.

The first thing I noticed was that it was perilously steep at the top: it stank of the road builders suddenly realising they had run out of space, and having to build the road as steeply as possible up the wall of the valley they had encountered. This sort of helped to slow it down at first, as the hairpin bends meant that no one could build up any speed. Not that it stopped anyone trying. As I gingerly tiptoed down the 12 miles of descent, it seemed pretty much everyone I’d passed climbing the mountain flew by me on the other side. Which contributed to the second thing I noticed.

BANG! BANG! BANG! It was all most like a machine gun was going off somewhere down the valley. Within half a mile of the beginning of the descent, the ‘gunfire’ noise was getting louder and louder. ‘What the hell?’ I thought, looking around at some other riders who seemed equally miffed, but as I rounded yet another of the climbs bends, I saw the answer: riders by the side of the road, inspecting their tyres of already furiously working their tiny pumps to re-inflate tyres. I later realised that people were simply going into the corners too fast, slamming their brakes on, overheating their rims and essentially exploding their inner tubes, resulting in the noises everyone could hear. When we began to hear sirens and began being slowed down at what seemed like every other corner by marshals brandishing red flags, it became clear that this was quite a serious problem: the number of ambulances treating people who had crashed as a result was appalling. Of course, all this did further wonders for my descending confidence.

To be honest though, it was moronic to have pushed the limits of descent so much anyway – there certainly was no excuse that you were ‘going for a time,’ as the descent of the Croix de Fer is the only part of the course where your time is neutralised: from the summit to the bottom, your time is stopped, only to restart near the base. As a result, it was worth doing what I did: ride up the climb at a reasonable pace, knowing that I could (well, in theory) have a relaxing freewheel down the mountain. However, it seemed that over the course of the Marmotte and the Etape that too many people were just there for the descents, or simply thought they were Fabian Cancellara and where the best descenders in the world. This was arguably ok at the top of the descent, where it was open and you could see quite a way down, but as soon as it dived into the woods, it was suicidal. When I eventually got off the descent, I was immensely glad – I’d missed the scenery, concentrating on the bad surface bounded by the coiled lines of barbed wire fences either side (memories of taking a bend wrong and ending up like Mr Hoogerland came to mind), but I now had a new way of counting down the day: one descent down, only two to go….

Marmotte Part 3: The Valley

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When I finally got off the Croix de Fer, I was now fairly confident of completing the ride. I ‘only’ had the Telegraphe, the Galibier and the Alpe d’Huez to go, but crucially, I had already ridden all of those in the 2011 Etape, which had started in Modane, descended gently for 10 miles, then taken us over those climbs. Seeing as this was ‘all’ that was left, I stupidly began to increase the pace, thinking that any minute the turn to the Telegraphe would appear and it would be up and away.

However, after five miles, I was still in an industrial valley fighting into a rather strong headwind , with no obvious way to the Telegraphe. Thus began 15 miles of rather miserable valley road, characterised by peloton groups overtaking and merging with one another as everyone struggled to get some shelter from the breeze. Soon the universal language of cycling was at work, the nods, the flick of a shoulder, the wave of a wrist. I was feeling reasonable enough to get down on the drops and sit on the front of a group to drive them along, doing one of the most enjoyable things you can do in a sportive: pursuing other groups.

There’s something quite satisfying about nailing another group in your sights and slowly reeling them in, especially as it focuses your concentration away from the fact you’re rolling over flyovers and railway tracks and still seemingly nowhere near the Telegraphe. Even better if you’re particularly sadistic is looking over your shoulder and seeing everyone suffering, or even better that they’ve all dropped off. Magic.

After about 15 miles of this industrial game of hopping between people, I recognised the roundabout with its sign for Valloire that I’d approached from the other direction two years previously, so that this time we swung right onto the early slopes of the Telegraphe.

Marmotte part 4: The Telegraphe

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Col du Telegraphe

1566m high.

7.3% Average Gradient

11.8km long

856m height gain

10% maximum gradient.

The Telegraphe is a good climb to go up at midday – you could be dropped at pretty much any point up it and you could be in the same place. It is shaded well by the trees around it, and isn’t as varied as other climbs – it remains at 6-8% pretty much the whole way, and has the joys of some very shallow hairpins to go around if you need a few seconds momentary rest. The surface isn’t as perfect as you’d expect, but it’s still much better than anything you’ll find in the UK.

The climb seems to have an odd reputation though. More often than not it’s lumped in as part of the Galibier, as it’s the connecting road to the climb with only a short descent between them. Oddly, it seems this means people pass it off as an ‘easy’climb, just a ‘warm up’ or a precursor to the main event. I’d be inclined to agree after my 2011 experience of it, when I positively flew up given it was literally the first obstacle of the day, but today, knowing what was coming, it was nothing of the sort. The climb is still almost 12 kilometres long, and 7.3% is still steep. It is only the fact it is consistent that makes it ‘easy’ in comparison to other climbs.

Knowing what’s coming was also a psychological barrier, especially as I began to have a bit of a crisis just after half way up. I wasn’t exactly suffering, I was just at a point where I felt a little concerned I might be burning myself out too quickly. I was fairly low on water but for some reason just couldn’t seem to get the power down without raising my heart rate too much – worrying not only because of what was coming that day, but because I had the Etape to do tomorrow. Perhaps I’d gone a bit daft in the valley beforehand. Worst of all, I now began to notice the small yellow markers, which almost resembled miniature tombstones, by the side of the road that counted down the distance to the summit. These markers not only told you the distance, but also the gradient of the new kilometre. If you knew the average, this was oddly satisfying – if you were on a 9% kilometre, as you knew it was going to get easier. If it was a 5% kilometre though, you knew you were in for a kicking somewhere further up the road. Still, it provided something to aim for.

However, my suffering was nothing compared to the man I saw as I rounded one particular corner. The man, who was being madly encouraged by everyone, some coming to ride alongside him and give him support, had only one arm and leg, and was still furiously propelling himself up the climb. He wasn’t even using a prosthetic leg. Seeing things like that showed not only the camaraderie of the road, but also that the people moaning about how hard and painful the experience was before/after the event really needed some perspective – this was something we were here to enjoy after all, something quite a majority seemed to have forgotten. So I pushed on towards the summit, doing what we were all meant to be doing – dreaming I was chasing down Contador and Schleck as they danced away a la 2011. Unlike Evans, I didn’t have to stop.

Marmotte part 5: Col du Galibier

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The top of the Telegraphe eases off a bit, which means you can accelerate towards the summit. Luckily, the scrum for the feed station that had blocked the road at the stop of the Croix de Fer was less busy – partially because I’d past a lot of people again, and partially because there was another feedstation at the bottom of the short descent to Valloire. This was a much better descent – a wide road, no hairpins, and a lazy, relaxed route down that never had you grasping for the brake levers. Not that that stopped loads of people charging past me again. I swear people put more effort into the descent then they did up the climbs!

Col du Galibier

2646m high.

6.9% Average Gradient

18.1km long

1245m height gain

12% maximum gradient.

Again, the average gradient of the Galibier is deceptive in the extreme. The lower slopes can feel like an extreme ‘false flat’ – that is a road which looks flat but is actually going uphill, and they continue ina  straight line for about 10 of the 18 kilometres. The scenery can be quite bleek – it’s an exclosed valley, so it’t not really open to the sun, you don’t get the glints and sparkles you do on more exposed climbs. It can feel a bit of a disappointment to be honest, especially on the lower slopes, where it seems to just be a dull road to nowhere. So much for the fabled Galibier, you might think. Unfortunately/luckily, you eventually see the road turning right over a bridge, and you follow the road with your eyes and suddenly realise things are about to get a lot worse.

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You’ll spend about a kilometre crawling along the ‘flat’ part trying to follow the rainbow wave of riders that are now zigzagging far and away above our head on the right, far into the banks of snow you can just about see in the far distance. When you get onto this section, the gradient begins to bite, and the true nature of the Galibier as a beast of a climb is unveilved. People often talk of ‘winding’ up climbs with hairpins, perhaps envisioning a smooth, gentle line around all the corners. On the Galibier, you just grind up – the corners offer little respite and neither do the views. Around every other corner a little more of the horror that awaits you is revealed, and it mentally cracks you once you realise just how far you have to go still.

It's chilly up there...
It’s chilly up there…

Eventually, you begin to see the 9 and 10% signs as you enter the snow, which helps actually, cooling you from your exertions. Everyone talks about the Galibier’s altitude being a factor, given it’s over 2,500m high, but I’ve not really noticed any issues the two times I’ve been over, although that’s probably because I was going so slowly – any shortness of breath was simply a result of the cruel final couple of kilometres, where the road forms a saw tooth profile up the road ahead whereupon you can see your fellow competitors chugging rhythmically up in a sadistic orchestra of pants and flaying for non-existent lower gears.

Unlike the Tour, you actually go over the very top, rather than the tunnel about a 100 vertical metres below the summit. Thankfully, the summit was staffed with the French Army, who were efficiently pouring out water and handing out apricots and salami sandwiches, which I devoured greatfully – the Galibier had burnt  a huge hole in my stomach! I filled both my waterbottles to the top and stuffed a bit of bread in my pocket – there were more feedstops on the route, but one was halfway up Alpe d’Huez, and my pride wasn’t going to let me stop on that…not least because I’d never get going again!

Marmotte part 6: The Galibier descent-Bourg d’Oisons

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I’m not the most easily impressed person, but the first time I rode down the Galibier descent was one of the few times I’ve had a genuine ripple of emotion flow through me at the sheer wonderous beauty of the scenery presented to you. Of course, this is aided by the fact that I am so slow going downhill and so have plenty of time to view said scenery, in particular the stunning Meije glacier. The descent is much more pleasant than the Croix de Fer – it’s only technical at the very top, and its open enough to allow you see down quite some way, and it eventually morphs into a massive dual carriage way where, if only the wind was in the right direction, the arrow straight plummet would allow some serious speed. Gliding down is a joy.

There is one issue with the Galibier descent, which is the tunnels, which the last time I’d been through hadn’t been lit for some reason, and as a result there had been many crashes. Thankfully, this time they were lit, but they still feel iffy – whilst the organisers provide tiny white and red lights to help you ‘be seen’ in them, they are quite eerie – perhaps because of the lack of wind all of a sudden, you feel like you’re accelerating, and become acutely aware of the fact there are two walls either side of you, which sort of prevent you being able to take lines through the softer curves correctly. Of course, it also makes your Garmin conk out at having ‘lost signal’ for a bit, which can result in it saying you went 300mph through the tunnel later on…

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Towards the bottom of the descent, you come to the dam at Lac du Chambon, and turn left across the surprisingly narrow top of it. The best of the descent was now over, and whilst the heat had built in the air again to furnace like levels since the drop away from the snows of the Galibier, the problem was not the lumps and bumps towards Bourg d’Oissons, which are not inconsiderable, especially with knackered legs which have been unused thanks to the last hour or so of freewheeling. Every change in gradient now drew a hiss, a murmour, just enough to make you slow down to a speed that just didn’t seem right.

Eventually you make your way onto the long stretch of the arrow straight D1091, which bar a bend ever so slightly to the left zooms straight towards Alpe d’Huez. Alpe d’Huez! It was still to go! As if the last 100miles up the Croix de Fer and the Galibier weren’t murder enough! Just the thought was enough to make you feel grim, but at the same time, that name kept ringing in your head. This was Alpe d’Huez, this was why we do cycling and these events, to be able to ride these great, mythical places and pretend, dream just for a minute that we’re a professional soaring clear of the pack.

Such grandiose thoughts were put slightly to the back if my mind when, having thought it was very quiet, I sat up to take a drink and was immediately greeted by tutting from a French sounding voice. Turning around, there were about 20 of the buggers in a line sitting on my wheel taking a draft! Thankfully, they did wheel past and so we were all sucked along to that famous turn to the left to tackle the big one…

Marmotte part 7: Alpe d’Huez

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Alpe d’Huez

1815 high.

8.1% Average Gradient

13.2km long

1071m height gain

14% maximum gradient.

Alpe d’Huez is somewhat of a victim of its own success. As the big, loud, popular and recognisable climb of the Tour, cycling culture has a seeming love/hate affair with it – either you enjoy it for what it is, a winding, character packed natural amphitheatre, or you detest it precisely because of its popularity, doing the usual cycling thing of proving how much more you know than someone else by preening about it being ‘easy’ and ‘ugly.’ Admittedly, none of this really helps when it suddenly rears up before you.

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It’s ridiculous to say Alpe d’Huez is ugly – the only thing that’s going to be ugly is everyone who slinks to a near standstill on it, as was shown over the next hour or so by the number of grown men weeping as they vomited their energy gels over the side of the road.  The climb is famous for its hairpins, the famed 21, and because of this it means it simply carves its way up the mountain side, and for the first few kilometres, there is no view bar the trees that offer little shade given the sun is parked right atop of them.

For those first few kilometres however, there are but two things on your mind: keeping the gear turning (note turning, not spinning) and getting to bend 10. Why bend 10? Why, because then you’ve done 11 bends and are over halfway! Cruelly of course, there is no uniformity in the distances between them, and the first straight seems to go one forever – probably because it’s also the steepest, at some 14%.

All the wistful dreams of ‘setting a time’ or perhaps ‘improving on last time’ just go out the window – its not even about getting to the finish now, that’s essentially guaranteed – just so long as you can concentrate on telling yourself to ignore the searing razors of agony carving their way through your legs, through your lungs (who knew your diaphragm could get tired?!) and your shoulders as you lever the machine from side to side.

Slowly, oh so slowly, the climb eventually changes into a more open arena, which is with its downsides – whilst it’s suddenly a bit more pretty what with the green meadows and wild flowers, it also means you can see where you have to go, which is frankly awful. Already your feet are beginning to ache after spending so long pushing on stiff carbon soles, but you don’t want to be the guy who stops to take his shoes off and walks up – as many where doing. The sight of lush, crystal clear mountain streams tinkling gently by the road side is torture as you can almost feel your skin beginning to crisp in the afternoon sun. The kilometre signs begin to tick away slower than the longest exam you ever took.IMG_1146

Somehow, the climb seems so much steeper than everything else you’ve done (technically, it is), even though you’ve encountered much steeper gradients in the day. The hairpins are both a curse and a blessing. All at once, they’re that loving sanctuary where you can just soft-tap a little around the near flat outer bend, recovering just  a little, but at the same time they emphasise the huge height gain as the road suddenly rears frighteningly up above you, and you look back down where you’ve came to see it plunging away.

Eventually though, things start to feel just that little bit easier as you sight the ski-resort up in the distance. Things become much better when you see ‘2km ‘ by the road side and know you’re going to make it. Interestingly, the finish of the Marmotte is different to that of the Tour – whilst the Etape du Tour takes you through the famous Tour route, sling-shoting through roundabouts and into the bend that brings you to the finish straight, the Marmotte almost takes you round the back, through what feels like the wrong way into someones residential back ally, before emerging in a similar place. As always, you can summon the energy for a faux-sprint…

The Finish

 

At the finish, pretty French girls applaud your effort and gesture politely towards the queue for food, which wakes everyone up. You were meant to have a meal ticket, but I’d lost mine pulling a gel out of my pocket on the Croix der Fer, and I was hardly going to stop to pick it up. Luckily they didn’t care, and so pasta, bread and water was gulped down in industrial quantities. Still, this is the time to soak in the achievement, something everything seems to forget – you’ve conquered four of the toughest climbs of the world’s greatest race, and been able to ride your bike to the best of your ability in some of the best scenery on earth – what could be better?

I picked up my medal with the ‘medal coupon’ and went to wait for my dad. A while later, he crossed the line in a bit of a state – it turned out he’d had his tyre unseat on the Alpe and had had to deflate then reinflate his tyre to get it back on – so we picked up our certificates and went for a sit down with the company we were with, who had the audacity to tell us we’d be cycling back to the bus at the bottom of the climb. Er, no.

I finished with a Gold time, which evidently I was immensely pleased by, officially in a time of 7 hours, 29 minutes, 51 seconds – Strava recorded it as 8 hours 19 seconds, but this of course included the neutralised descent of the Croix de Fer. This was good enough for 670th out of the 6,288 finishers, and 155th  in the rather broad 18-34 category. I was a mere 2 hours behind the winner! However, our attention had now turned to the next day’s Etape du Tour back in Annecy.

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Sports Tours did eventually twig that we weren’t going to ride back down the mountain, and also twigged that not everyone would be finished by 5pm, so found a meal for us which we ate whilst watching Chris Froome ravage the opposition at Ax-3-Domaines.During this time, I suddenly had a massive cramp in my leg which was more painful than anything I’d done that day, agonisingly so, and so we lumbered off to the coach for the long drive back.

Somehow, we didn’t get back to Annecy till midnight, which meant we didn’t get to bed until 00.45am…bad enough with four massive climbs in and 110miles in the legs, but awful given we’d be up in 4-5 hours to do it all again…

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