An account of this year's La Marmotte as experienced by our good friend and climbing specialist Alexander 'Sasha' Ivakhov.
As I turned the corner a gust of wind brought me to an almost complete stop. This wouldn't be a problem by itself if only I wasn't on a 9% incline on the upper slopes of Col du Galibier with 100km and 3,000m in my legs already. I was two-thirds of the way through one of the most demanding European sportives, La Marmotte.
La Marmotte was first run in 1982 and since then it has established a reputation as one of the toughest amateur cycling events. The course continues to maintain the same 174.4km and 5,180m of elevation as the original 1982 running, including several iconic climbs such as the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier, and finishes at the legendary Alpe d'Huez. Each of these climbs separately would have made a nice day out, but put together they create a challenge above even the Tour de France's queen stage.
As you can expect from an event with 35 years of history it is a well-run event. There is a big expo 2 days ahead of the event where one can register and shop around. Participation in La Marmotte is limited to 7,500 places with registrations gone within a day or two of being released. It attracts a massive number of foreign cyclists, in particular from the Nordic countries. 7,500 riders require a staggered start with the first wave allocated to riders who demonstrated excellent finishing times in prior years.
With L'etape du Tour scheduled for 10th July it meant that I would be doing La Marmotte just a week before that on 2nd July. No pressure, then. The stars were aligned - our holiday would start at the end of June, which would give me a week to acclimatize in Alps, then La Marmotte, followed by L'etape. I couldn't ask for more. I decided to treat La Marmotte as a "training ride" (if such a term is applicable to a 7+ hours and 5,000m on a bike).
Being located 2.5hrs away by car I didn't bother visiting the expo and opted for registration collection on the morning of the event. This meant waking up at 3am for a drive through deserted and quite alpine villages. Half way through the drive it started raining. Perfect. Weather had been my biggest worry. With mountain passes over 2,500m in elevation any rain in just average weather would mean cold, wet, and possibly snow in the mountains. I still remember the last time I got bone cold in the mountains – my hands were not working so I couldn't even apply the brakes on the descents.
Anyway, I parked 5km away from the start line with a hope of leaving easily when I'm done. I had decided to wear all black kit (marginal gains!), arm warmers, and a light vest. I plastic taped an extra Gore Tex jacket to my seat post. I needed my jersey pockets for gels, bars, phone, and vest (when I wasn't using it). Initially I thought of taking two spare tubes, but at the end I couldn't find enough space and went with only one.
Nutrition was planned out for an 8 hour ride - total 16 pieces divided between gels and small bars. I would be carrying two 710ml bottles on the bike which I ended up refilling only twice (I told you it was too cold!). I had a humongous portion of oats in yoghurt while driving the car and took a homemade peanut butter and banana sandwich and isotonic drink to the start line. After one more visit to the toilet I was ready to go. And it wasn't even raining, although temperature was about +12C at 6am!
After a quick warm up ride to the host town, which was literally buzzing with cyclists, I located the registration desk for my number collection. However, they could not locate my registration, bummer. Never mind. I was given a cool replacement number, 6660, however it meant that my start time was now 7:50 in the "everybody else group" for riders from 4,000 to 7,500. A Long wait.
I had time to kill so I went for another short warm up ride around the town. Riders were appearing from every single street and every single house and very soon I could only move slowly. I was directed to my start pen where I would be waiting for nearly an hour. Lesson for future: bring extra warm clothes that are disposable if you will be waiting for an extended period of time at the cold start of a race. My peanut butter sandwich was very well received as it was getting colder and a small drizzle picked up. However, being among thousands of people made the whole experience worthwhile; plenty of nervous guys with shaved legs, and hundreds of Danes, Swedes, and Nords all eager to go. In hindsight coming early was great as I was able to start at the front of the wave and it certainly helped with pacing to and over the first climb.
At 7:45 we rolled from our pen to the start line (some people were treating it as a race already!) A quick stop at the line, and an announcement in French, what is it? Did I hear "ice" and "closed"??? Apparently as the temperature dropped overnight the top part of Galibier climb got iced out and the organizers decided to close the last 1.5km/150m of the top climb. At the time I regretted it....how little I knew!
3-2-1 and off we went.
The first 15km is flattish before a 25km climb to Col du Glandon via Le Rivier begins. It was critical to latch on to a fast group. A group of 20-30 fast guys formed immediately and pushed at 40-45kmh approaching the first climb. I was happy to ride smart and sit on someone else’s wheel. I didn't want to wait for the scenario where the road turned uphill, the group quickly disintegrates, 3-4 guys speed ahead while another small group including myself have immediately have to push hard from behind with the rest of the field scattered around.
The Col du Glandon (West side) segment on Strava is 29.7km with a 4% average incline (https://www.strava.com/segments/618625). In reality, the first 5-7km is almost flat and then it picks up to the usual alpine climb of 6-8%. Once over Le Rivier peak the road turns downhill briefly before the final 7km push at 8%. I must admit that I got carried away at the beginning, feeling fresh and trying to stay with the fast group. My time of 1 hour and 29 minutes at almost 20kmh placed me 385 out of 9,793 on Strava, "only" 15 min behind pros. I would pay for this pace later, but in the midst of the excitement I enjoyed overtaking riders who started in earlier waves. Overall, the climb of Col Du Glandon is almost pleasant, allowing the rider to set the pace. A brief descent in the middle also provides a welcomed break.
For safety reasons the descent from Col du Glandon was neutralised. Riders could complete a 20km downhill course at the own pace and the time would restart at the bottom of the hill. Still, one thinks about the flat 20km section that follows it. It would have been nice to find a big and fast enough group to get a free ride. The descent is technical and fast. I completed this section as a climb at the last year's L'Etape and remembered it quite well. I followed 4-5 guys whose pace was similar to mine, and at the end clocked a safe 44km average speed for the descent.
I should have stopped before the time mat at the bottom of the descent for a refill, but I didn't want to lose a wheel up front and still had half a bottle left so I thought I would refill after the flat section before the start of Galibier. In hindsight it was a mistake as the flat turned out to be a long 1.5% drag and the big group I ended up in didn't want to do any work. At the end it was the same 4-5 guys rotating and pulling the rest of the 20. Anyway, no complaints, it was still better than doing it solo. By the time we arrived to the bottom of the next climb I was thirsty! I drank a full bottle on the spot, refilled my two bottles on the spot, made a quick pee and off I went to the next climb.
On the subject of nutrition. Over the years I figured out the best refuelling strategy for me during a race is to eat something every 30 min. I set an alarm on my Garmin to go off every half an hour and then religiously (climb, flat, or downhill) eat something. Normally I go between a GU gel and a small bar (normally oats). Works for me every time.
The next climb was the monster of the day Col du Galibier. The Strava segment shows it as 34km at 5.3% average incline (https://www.strava.com/segments/1253794). In reality it is two peaks; Col du Telegraphe with 1,570m of climbing followed by a 150m drop and then du Galibier to tack on 2,645m of climbing! It is a consistently steep above 7% climb with the top section above 8%. The first part flew quite quickly, I kept a good pace and was eating and drinking and before I knew that I was descending to Valloire and starting the final monster section of the climb. The views at this point become spectacular as the valley opens up and becomes just huge. With the road snaking uphill one can only feel insignificant.
As the valley opened up the wind picked up. The higher I went the stronger the wind blew. As I came around the next switch-back a gust of wind almost blew me off my bike bringing me to a complete stop. It was certainly a new experience tackling a 9% climb and having such a wind that it felt like a 20% climb!! That was perhaps my lowest moment throughout the day. What kept me going was knowing that I'm approaching the pass and that the weather was holding. Yes, it was cold, yes, it was windy, but there was no sign of rain. My major concern of the day of getting stuck cold and wet at 2,500m didn't materialize. I knew I had a chance to push through the descent while the weather was okay.
Sasha gets out of the saddle to pummel the incline into submission.
By the time the tunnel at the top section came into the view I had forgotten that the organizers cut out the last 1.5km climb. I didn't complain :). My time for the overall time for this monstrous climb was 2 hours 18 minutes. Very modest if one considers the world’s best like Romain Bardet’s time of 1 hour 35 minutes!
The wind at the top section of the descent was so strong that I was all over the road and couldn't go faster than 50kmh average (or so Strava tells me). Honestly, all I could think of was that with every kilometer I was closer to the warmer valley and the "only" climb left was Alpe d'Huez.
The transition to the bottom of Alpe d'Huez wasn't as flat as I hoped, but a reasonable size group got collected on the way and it helped to press on. I was tired by then, but I knew it was “only” one 12km climb left and that even if I had to go slow I would finish it within an hour. I made a refill stop at the bottom of climb: sweets, sandwiches, dates, and drinks were on offer. I got two fresh bottles of drinks, stuffed my mouth with sweets and went off.
The climb seemed painfully slow. The 12km segment of 8.6% average incline up Alpe d’Huez took me 1 hour 6 minutes (https://www.strava.com/segments/652851 ). As I was going over the famous 21 switchbacks the heavens had opened and rained hard (and cold!). But I didn't mind any of it. I had a big smile on my face, knowing that I beat the weather and had less than 10km to the finish. Rain or snow I was going to finish it.
Despite my slow pace I was still overtaking riders which gave me a boost of morale. And then finally you are into the village, under the bridge, which you may have seen so many times on TV, and all way up through the village to the finish line. At the end I even had enough power for a small sprint to the finish.
Happily exhausted. Done. 7.5 hours. Official time (with neutralized descent) 6h59m. Good enough for 357th overall place putting me in the top 5% of participants.
Our intrepid author still has reserves to crack a smile for the camera despite the weather, incline, and tiredness in his legs.
The winning time was a pro-level 5 hours and 40 minutes. The last finisher completed the course in just under 13 hours. Now, 13 hours on the bike with 5,000m elevation gain in challenging weather is a very tough day out. I thought that my 7.5 hours was the slowest competitive time where one could press on focusing on racing. Having said that nothing would stop participants from treating the event as it should be treated – a sportive – enjoying a day out, benefiting from top quality organization, making stops at feed stations, and enjoying the views. It would still be a super challenging, but rewarding day out.
If you ever completed a 150km ride with 3,000m elevation gain you will have no problem completing La Marmotte (just pace yourself!) If however you are new to cycling and most importantly conquering mountains on a bike… then start with something bit more modest as La Marmotte deserves respect and some awe.
For more information on La Marmotte and their challenging series of gran fondos you can check out their website at http://marmotte.sportcommunication.info/index.php.
Remember I talked about L’etape du Tour in the beginning of this post. Well, after La Marmotte L’etape with its less than 3,000m of climbing was a walk in a park (or more like a full on race!)