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La Marmotte REVIEW

by Jonathan Cook

Having ridden The Etape for the last 4 years including both Actes last year. I decided that I wanted a different challenge this year coming in the form of La Marmotte, widely considered to be the toughest one-day Sportive out there.

 After a fantastic trip last year with Alp Cycles I decided to sign up for their reasonably priced Marmotte weekender trip last winter through a sportive and accomodation package from Alp Cycles, which provided the necessary motivation to get out there and train on those cold winter days particularly as I had ridden all the climbs before and knew how brutal they are.

la marmotte

Training had gone pretty well and I've taken more of a scientific approach this year but disaster struck about three weeks before the event when I noticed a crack looming in the frame of my bike, thankfully it was covered by warranty but about a week before I was due to depart it became apparent I wouldn't have my trusty steed in time for the event.

 Not feeling particularly confident about riding my commuter 174kms around the Alps and waking up in a cold sweat on more than one occasion with the thought of said bike disintegrating as I descended one of the formidable descents on the route, I decided I was going to have to hire a bike. 

Alp Cycles were very helpful in sending me links and information on shops in the local area including a new Trek Concept Store.

 However a few days before I was due to depart I stumbled across The Look Unique Ride Program, which for selected events in France, lets you reserve a Look 695 for the weekend for no charge. In return all you have to do is fill in a survey rating the bike. I registered online and received my confirmation, this explained where to pick the bike up from - at the registration - and some other instructions. It all seemed to good to be true.

Summit Of The Telegraphe

Flying out early morning on the Thursday before the event, it was quite nice not having the stress of checking my bike in at the airport, wondering if I would ever see it again in one piece, although I did have my multi-tool confiscated at security, the problem being the screwdriver not the Allen-keys.

 As I began carbohydrate loading with some porridge and a pain au chocolat, Cav seemed to be fairing better on the Eurostar, particularly as Easyjet then announced our flight would be delayed taking off due to an excessive number of bikes on the flight. You couldn't make it up.

Arriving in Lyon I was greeted by Ade, one of the owners from Alp Cycles, with a big grin as the other guests congregated outside the terminal in the afternoon sunshine, before we headed to our chalet for the weekend situated atop Alpe D' Huez. The transfer took just over two hours most of which were spent snoozing. I knew we were getting closer to the cycling Mecca of the Tour De France as cyclists began to line the roads and then we were on to The Alpe itself.

View From Alpe d'Huez

I began to have flashbacks to last year's Etape as the van weaved its way around cyclists toiling on the steep lower slopes before we arrived at our abode for the weekend, Chalet Telemark. Straight away there was an array of goodies on offer in the form of banana cake and sandwiches, which we tucked into to.

 I was particularly conscious of still not having a bike to ride at this point, so I apprehensively headed up to the registration area in search of said mythical Look stand and there it was.

On showing my confirmation email I was fitted out on a Confidis 2011 team bike and spent a good hour with the guys from Look, making sure the bike was comfortable, they even threw some water bottles in, not a bad alternative to riding your own bike and at no extra cost.

Ontop Of The World

On returning to the chalet I was so excited I had neglected to look at the gearing on the bike as I explained the scheme to the other guests. Ade appeared and remarked that the bike looked a little over-geared which turned out to be a huge understatement. They had given me a standard chainset with a 23 on the rear, which sent a shiver of panic through me. However 20 minutes later Ade and the guys had appeared with a 28-rear cassette and swapped it over for me. They also adjusted the brakes, as well as sticking on a pair of Shimano pedals so I didn't need to change my cleats.

I did a few laps around the top of Alpe D'Huez and was now well and truly sorted as I arrived back and we settled into a hearty dinner and I got to know the other riders a little better. Friday was spent registering, eating and generally getting nervous about the event. We also went for a short spin on the bike. I wanted to get used to riding a new bike so descended down Alp D'Huez and headed along the to the bottom of valley to the start of The Glandon and then back to Bourg for a coffee in the sun. I can't remember the last time I saw so many cyclists in one place all making last minute purchases. A lot of cake must have been consumed that day. Alp Cycles then kindly returned us in the vans to avoid cycling up The Alpe the day before the event.

More Hairpins

Over dinner that evening, which was again excellent, Ade took us through the route, explaining the harder parts including where we could make time savings and also where the Alp Cycles feed stop would be with any extra kit we wanted to deposit in the van as well as being copiously stocked with food.

 In reality the whole route is hard. Ade explained the importance of not setting off too quickly and pacing yourself. He remarked that "groups would be going past at 30mph from Bourg and we should resist the temptation in following them, chuckling however if you want to get involved it is great fun!"

Breakfast was available from 5am in the chalet and it was quite entertaining seeing bleary-eyed riders appear for breakfast each with his or her own pre event routine. Shortly after 6:15am several of us made the chilly descent down Alpe D'Huez to the bottom where we deposited layers in our own support vehicle and made our way to the start line.

 Shortly after 7:30am we all departed in the second wave and headed along the valley floor towards the first climb. It is a fast section of road and I resisted the temptation to latch onto to the Orange Alp Cycles train that flew past us with Ade on the front.

 I've ridden all the climbs before so it was quite nice knowing what was coming as we got on to the steeper lower slopes of The Glandon before a short descent and then a very steep section. The climb then opens up nicely as the morning sunshine began to light the roads.

Approaching The Summit

I felt pretty good and paid particular attention to not pushing on too hard.

 The Feedstop at the top of The Glandon was pretty hectic as riders battled to fill their bottles and grab a banana or two. I didn't hang around for long before descending. The top of the descent is very technical and this section of the course is actually neutralised from a timing perspective due to accidents in the past. Once over and around the first few hairpins it does open out but caution needs to be taken with oncoming traffic as this is not a closed roads event and thousands of other cyclists descending at times on quite narrow sections of road.

The drag up to St Michel de Maurienne is quite long and blustery on a main road so it was important to find a nice group which I did as I was joined by another rider Ian from our group. This was a good opportunity to take on water and food before the next climb.

 Coming into St Michel  de Maurienne, I remembered the town from the previous year as this time we turned right over the bridge and hit the Col De Telegraph which is the easiest of the climbs on the route at 12km with an average of five or six percent. However rising up through the trees in the morning heat I found it harder than I had expected on the newly gritted road surface as each kilometer marker seemed to read seven or eight percent.

I didn't stop at the water stop at the summit, instead opting to continue down the four or five kilometer descent to Valloire before a steep ascent to the second main feedstop. Plentiful supplies of water, fruit juice, cakes, sandwiches and sweets were on offer. I basically ate as much as I could and filled my bottles again before continuing along The Galibier. The Galibier is a killer of a climb with over 10km above 2000m, it heads straight along the valley on what looks to be flat roads but in reality is eight percent before turning and winding steeply up through the mountains. The views on offer are truly spectacular as you catch a first glimpse of the weather station reflecting the sun at the summit.

By now I had realised that without a compact on the front I was still slightly over geared as I ground out the last extremely steep two kilometres. Alp Cycles had strategically placed their van at the bottom of the Lauteret so I didn't hang around and headed straight down. Again once round the first few tight bends the descent really opens out and I arrived at the van to be greeted by Rob who filled my bottles and gave me a nice sandwich. It was a welcome relief to get off the bike and talk to someone.

Ian arrived shortly afterwards and we headed off and managed to join an extremely fast group heading towards the last climb of the day. This section of the course goes through several tunnels, which are dark and potentially quite dangerous so caution needs to be taken and an led light on the back is a useful addition just to make yourself at least visible to other riders.
I had been expecting to take food and water on again on this stretch but I was working so hard just to stay in the group that I didn't but it was jolly good fun.

Hairpin 11

As we arrived at the final feed stop at the bottom of The Alpe I had the words of Ade from the previous night reverberating around my head "If it is the first time you have ridden the event make sure you are feeling fresh when you reach Alpe d'Huez". I wondered how anyone could feel fresh after 100 miles in the Alps. 
Alpe d'Huez is a hard climb let alone with 100 miles in your legs and always blisteringly hot particularly at the bottom. The first five of six ramps are really steep and my knees really began to ache and sweat poured off of me. At this point I just wanted to finish and I was so tired that I couldn't even work out the time of day despite the one-hour time difference on my watch. 

As the number of the hairpins counts down and Alpe d'Huez comes into view it was a nice feeling knowing I was going to make it and I pushed on a bit as spectators handed out cups of water and poured water over riders. There was also a water stop but I just carried on passing a number of riders with cramp or bathing their feet in nearby streams.

 Coming into Alpe d'Huez I did check to see if I could see Ian before a lack-lustre sprint to the finish line. Ian arrived a few minutes later and after receiving a recovery drink and timing certificate we had both managed a gold medal which I was pretty pleased about.

We didn't hang around before returning to the chalet and basked in the afternoon sun, watching riders come home long into the evening.

 After returning the bike and sitting down to a great final dinner, chilli con carne, it was great to hear how others had faired out on the route and how we'd all found it tough going, with most suggesting they would be back for more next year.

The final morning saw us watch The Grimpeur, which is a mass start time trial up Alpe D'Huez. Maybe next year. Doing it through a provider like Alp Cycles is a great way of doing the event as they handle all the logistics and entry into the event for you. The food was really fantastic and they catered for your every need all weekend and certainly saved my bacon with that rear 28 cassette. As well as being reasonably priced you get to meet and chat with like-minded people about cycling all weekend, I've definitely got another couple of riding partners now and the guides are a really friendly bunch as well. I will definitely be back for more.

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