An assessment of one of my Haute Route teammates has stuck in my head for the last year or so, since I decided to do La Mamotte: ‘It’s a man’s race, Gerry’. Mark was right, except of course for the many women who beat me up the Alpe after 8 hours in the saddle.
This year’s Marmotte was different; it turns out in more than one way. First, the route changed, keeping the basic math (170 km and 5200 m of climbing, more or less), but with other mountains to go up and down. It was a slower parcours because it lacked the long downhill from the top of Galibier to the foot of Alpe d’Huez, where you can make up some serious time on your average speed. But it was the heat that changed the game and made it hell for most of us this year. France has been in the middle of a canicule for a week now and it was 42 degrees when I hit the beginning of the last climb of the day. These are my two excuses for a 17 kph average speed.
But it all started, as these things often do, with a fresh morning of smiles and hopeful faces.
Okay, not very hopeful. That’s 44|5 trying, and failing, to look tough.
After a surprisingly gentle roll-out at 7:50 we passed right by our very cycling-friendly guesthouse in Oz (Le Chateau d’Oz), so our designated photographer and full-time triathlete Sarah was waiting.
This was just before the first climb of the day – the Col du Glandon. It was cool and we all felt good on this one, with John slowly drifting off the front, as is his way. By the top of the climb I was sure that that would be the last I saw of him.
On the descent of the Glandon (neutralized because of its dodginess) both John and I punctured, making me sweat even more than I normally would have the rest of the race because I only had one spare tube. The next little climb was that crazy one they’ll be doing in the Tour later this month, the Lacets de Montvernier. Looking up from the bottom of these ‘laces’, you just have to ask yourself ‘why’ (or perhaps ‘how’).
It was crowded up there but it was fun. The route climbed to Montvernier then descended another road back to the same valley (at the left of the photo above) before it did some ‘make-up miles’ on the flat, most likely to reach that magic 170 km everyone was expecting.
La Merde hits le Ventilateur
By now it was midday and it was hot, and we had to climb back up the massif we’d just descended down, in two acts: Col du Mollard and Col de la Croix de Fer. At the top of the first climb there was a water station where most of us witnessed at the least ‘desperation’, and at the worst ‘full-on aggression’. People were very thirsty and very hot by now and the trough was pretty small. It was not the best poster for humanity, that’s for sure.
This climb wasn’t too bad for me, but Karsten said he saw two riders throwing up over their handlebars and it is where John began to meet his match as well. It was the Croix de Fer, for me, that started to put the hurt on. I just really didn’t realize how big it was going to be and was a little depressed when its full girth was presented to me at the last village before the end of the climb. Still, I hadn’t put a foot down to this point (unless I was eating a salami sandwich or an orange slice) and although I had little power in the legs, they still turned around for me.
But before I ever reached this badness, John was suffering through a world of something much worse – awful cramps. I was a little surprised to see him before we reached the top of the Mollard, trying to stretch out his legs on the side of the road. He said he was cooked and wasn’t even sure if he could make it to the top of the next col, let alone Alpe d’Huez. I gave him 3 Salt Sticks and hoped for the best, knowing all too well what a bad case of cramps can do to your day.
From the top of Croix de Fer, the route pretty much descended all the way back to the Oisans Valley, where we were greeted by a furnace to ride through till the beginning of Alpe d’Huez, where an inferno was waiting. I have been as hot on a bike before (in Australia), but I don’t think I’ve suffered as much from it. After 4 or so kilometers up the climb my breathing began to be very labored, deep and just generally ‘weird’. It wasn’t really from effort and I got a little concerned. I found one of the many little waterfalls that crash down the Alpe road and stuck my head under the glacial torrent for a few minutes, instantly feeling better. It helped also that there were many very excellent humans all the way up those 21 turns spraying you with water, squirting you with water, offering you water, and throwing water in your face and down your jersey. Faith in my race, restored.
I made it to the top, as usual thinking there was hardly anyone behind me (I tend to focus on those passing me and not the ones I pass), but in the end I feel pretty okay about the results: Out of a potential 7500 riders (no idea how many started)
- Gerry: 1173, in a time of 8:46
- Karsten: 2541, in a time of 10:07
- John: DNF (after Croix de Fer)
- Pierre: DNF (after Croix de Fer)
I had no real idea what to expect in terms of results, but just finishing seems to be a pretty good one for this Marmotte. I’m almost partially cautiously nearly optimistic for Haute Route now.
Postscript: A Dutchman, Ronald Van Den Eijnden, crashed on La Marmotte and died 2 days later in hospital. I’ve only been riding these sorts of things for a few short years, but the number of people who have met their maker on the same events I’m doing is not insignificant (then again, anything over ‘zero’ is significant).