La Marmotte: A War Story

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 couple of women who beat me up the Alpe after 8 hours in the saddle (that’s right, I was ‘chicked’).

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.

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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.

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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’).

lacets700

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.

Style, Cramped

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)

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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).

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50 thoughts on “La Marmotte: A War Story

  1. Great result, very well done Gerry – even better in those temperatures. I’m hoping it’s cooler for the Etape!

  2. You are being modest as that is a great result. The canicule has hit our way too and I’ve laid low with only 1 ride this week. So it’s impressive for all the starters and finishers in that race. Well done.

    • You’re right, Luc. Just finishing was a big achievement for many. One guy at the guest house came back at 11 pm, having ridden 15 hours!

  3. Hi Gerry, I am a fellow Haute Router…. I did the Marmotte and also had a suffer storm which I will have nightmares for a few weeks to come…! I do think the change of course for the Alps HR will potentially bring the same story…. 5k of climbing, in summer = FUN!! 🙂
    I will be writing a blog about the ride too (its still too early for me), enjoyed yours and assures me I was not the only one who was in a right mess! 🙂

    • Paul, I’m glad you found some comfort in this article! I just heard about the HR change and got a bit frightened by the look of at least Stage 4. Why on Earth do we have to do that again??! Send me the blog article when it’s done. Would love to read your take on things.

      • Hi Gerry, yes comfort was found!
        A guy who I know who is doing HR this year as well, he went out and did the Marmotte route in reverse yesterday and it was even hotter…! Least you will have a few weeks till you do it again!!
        Yes, I will send it over to you. Will be similar to yours but more swearing i believe….

  4. Well done, Gerry! Very impressive.

    I take it the Edcos are ok now?

    Salami sandwich? I don’t know why, but I thought you might be vegetarian…

    • I’ve been meaning to tell you about the Edcos and keep forgetting. After a hub tighten at the shop and new skewers (the old ones were causing noise to lots of people, I gather), the wheels are just fine. They’ll be even better once I put on my new Reynolds brake pads. Apparently they’ll add much more braking efficiency than what I already have, which is pretty good.

      Shoko’s a vegetarian, which means I am most of the time. I don’t shy away from flesh on the road, though!

  5. Congratulations on completing. Climbed Huez in super hot conditions as well, found I was wandering dangerously all over the road so hid under a bush for 15 minutes recovery. Waterfalls helped as well. Next time was earlier, cooler and better.

    • Didn’t you have a photo of you climbing the Alpe as your profile picture before? I’ve climbed it in mostly hot conditions, but it sure was a pleasure the one time I did it in the cool, as you said.

    • Great account, Paul. There were many similarities and plenty of differences (like your tendency to get stronger when things get ‘long’) between our outlook on that hell day. Nice to read someone else’s take, that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing the link and see you at HR.

  6. Incredible ride. I’m amazed only 30% abandoned. The heat last week was insufferable.
    (Possibly stupid leisure cyclist question: what support do you get if you puncture? Are there any support mechanics? If you’d have a second puncture, would there have been any cars with spare tubes?)

  7. Thanks Gerry….! I think writing it was part of re assembling myself mentally!.. Only today have I felt “ok” and went for a ride!! Legs feel part of my body again.
    Yes, absolutely! If you spot me give me a shout.

    • I’ve got a head cold or something now, which I’m sure was due to my immune system being trashed on the ride. Really did a number on us!

  8. Good job finishing. I came in 299 in 7:31, but it felt like I was going backwards on Alpe.
    As for L’Etape, it is forecast 20 and rain, so it could turn really dicy on downhills, especially Col du Chaussy. Very narrow and techical (we won’t be going up the Lacets du Montvernier on the way up though). Mollard downhill is worse surface than 3 years ago as well. So, plenty of fun to be had for all of us. See you there.

    • Adam, nice results! ‘Luckily’ I won’t be riding the Etape this year because we’ll be running a tour there. I’m going to resist the urge to look at the meteo right now, but if what you see is right, it’ll be a ‘fun’ day for our clients. You aren’t doing Haute Route, are you?

  9. Sums it up for me. I was one of the 15hrs people having come to a complete stop at the bottom of AdH. Extra bonus was I ended up Lantern Rouge and made it onto the web site (wiki page). I makes me laugh everytime I think about it now 🙂

    • Excellent! The Lanterne Rouge is a prestigious position in the peloton. Good on you for finishing. It takes fortitude to plug on up that climb after so many hours in the saddle.

  10. 14 women were faster than you (fastest at 6:58), not a couple. It’s a tough person’s race, not a man’s. Aside from that gripe with the casual sexism, good ride. My garmin recorded 44 degrees C on Alpe d’Huez so it was certainly warm!

    • Hi Vicky

      I apologise if my comments came across as a sexist. They certainly weren’t meant to be. I think you should read again though because I believe I said a couple of women passed me on the climb up Alpe d’Huez, not the whole race. There is a difference and I am fully aware how I fit in the hierarchy of these events, which is usually behind plenty of women.

      Plus, the ‘man’s race’ comment wasn’t mine but a friend’s, and I meant my following comment to reflect my admiration for the strong women riders I always see in these events. I can’t see anything sexist in this, but perhaps I’m wrong.

      Anyway, at least we agree that it was stinking hot out there 😉

  11. I DNFed at the bottom of Alpe D’Huez due to stomach pain – probably overdid the gels etc but the heat earlier was fearsome and didn’t help. 42 degrees C in the valley – insane. What a day. Glad I went though. Well done for finishing, Gerry.

    • I think you’re right re the gels, Richard. At least with me, heat and those things don’t mix well. Good on you for making that far. See you next year!

  12. GREAT WORK ,Gerry !!
    exiting read !
    I am a Japanese cyclist started at 7:30 on La Marmotte and my result was 13:04.
    Here is the my marmotte movie, it’s in Japanese,but please enjoy.
    Chihiro

  13. Thanks, Chihiro and congratulations on finishing this super-hard event! Nice video, too.

    ところで9年かん日本に住んでいました。いまフランスのみなみのほうにいます(Nimes)。

  14. Great write up mate
    It was my first Marmotte and I’d entered it before the news of the Galibier being closed…. I was a little bit gutted, but the new route was epic !!
    Best day out on a bike ever !!!!
    The top of the Mollard was like a scene from “Saving Private Ryan” and the feed at the bottom of Ad’H was hell !!! I saw a guy lying in a puddle….
    The Alpe was amazing right ? I saw a guy fall off with exhaustion and two guys being sick….. I crossed the line at the Dutch Cafe hand in hand with a guy who I had towed up the last 2km !!!
    Amazing….. See you next year ?????

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