La Marmotte

I’ve got Ville Depart playing on France 3. It’s like the Today show, but for the Tour. There’s a dewy male host who gives news and color. A Burkina Fasoan moto driver joined the host for light banter, then we saw some local singing and dancing, then Bernard Thevenet interviewed Tom Boonen between shots of coffee mixing with milk. Coffee talk I guess. Next, we got an interview with Thomas Voeckler. After that, we were treated to a seed spitting contest, next a tour of the region, with a breakfast platter of regional specialities, with an explanation from a local—and the host played with the wheel of cheese. Naturally, there’s a crowd gathered behind the host watching. There’s a guy showing off his musette collection.

“Nice marmot” quoth The Dude. La Marmotte is a cyclosportif ride that mimics a Tour stage. A cyclosportif is an open ride/race that usually covers an epic distance and route.

In this case, it’s 4-7,000 people riding 174k over the Cols du Glandon, Telegraphe, Galibier, and finishing atop l’Alpe d’Huez. It’s timed, but because of the size of the crowd, everyone wears a timing chip. Some go to race it, others to enjoy the day.

I wanted both. Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours picked me up in Grenoble Friday. Three of his campers were riding la Marmotte as well. We went to a hotel in Uriage Les Bains for the evening. Peter knew the place well. It was a pretty spot with an excellent restaurant next door. Up at 5:45am, off to the start. We hadn’t counted on the road to Bourg d’Oisans blocked for a long time before the start, which prevented us from starting on time.

We rode 5k to the start, found registration another k away, then started. When we were riding to the start, the ride started to pass. When we got to the start, people were still starting. After we registered and started at least a half-hour late, there were still people starting.

The Glandon starts about 10k into the ride. Pissed at the late start, I took off as if the race was in full flight and I hammered to the foot of the Glandon and kept myself pretty much at threshold the whole way up. We were supposed to stay on the right, but the group owned the road. At the summit, the road was blocked by people grabbing water in liter bottles. Because I was concerned about the cold, I donned my long-fingered gloves and plastic rain cape for the descent. The Glandon descent is less than two lanes wide at the top and was wall to wall people. Passed three ambulances picking up the injured on the way down. After a few k of passing people, I finally found a decent descender. We passed plenty of people on the way off the Glandon.

Just like bike riders everywhere, most people sat up and looked for wheels to follow on the false flat to the foot of the Telegraphe. I wanted to find a group to ride with. I’d catch a group, ride to the front, suggest riding together, no one was interested, so I’d press on to the next group I saw ahead. I must have caught three or four large groups, like 40-70 riding single file. At the last group, there was a guy who wanted to ride. We started working a paceline, but found few were interested in helping. So we just kept it going until the foot of the Telegraphe.

I had assumed that since I couldn’t see anyone in front of me anymore, the start of the Telegraphe would be absent of riders. I was wrong. Pretty much once we turned the corner, there were riders everywhere. The guy making pace with me kept my tempo, even pushing me to go harder, but everyone else was gone. The guy was swiss, must have been around 50, and was riding a polished CaaD whatever Saeco Cannondale. He pulled ahead on the Telegraphe, and stayed ahead when I stopped for water. The people watching get into the ride and I got a Tour-quality push back into action after filling my bottles a k from the Telegraphe’s summit. Over the top of the Telegraphe, and it’s a short downhill zip to the foot of the Galibier.

Once on the Galibier, you climb up a valley for a while. Just when it seems nice and pleasant and doable, I realized that the valley ended and the road went somewhere. I looked left, nothing. I looked right, and up, and up, and up. I could see bodies and vehicles all the way to the top of what I could see. Pain. After a few moments contemplating how steep the roads could be, I just concentrated on keeping going. Each time it seemed like the Galibier was going to get easier, I looked up and it was harder. In the final few k, it’s windswept and barren and there are campers parked, probably in advance of the Tour.

And it’s cold. That’s what you get for being somewhere near 9,000’ in the summer. The French army set up a feed station at the summit. Water, hot tea, spearmint sugar-water, orange slices, some kind of candy. I forced myself to eat a whole clif bar, filled up my bottles, put on all my clothes, and started down.

Don’t know how the racers dress going down, as the descent starts right after you cross the summit, and there’s a switchback less than 400 meters. If you’ve seen the Tour on TV before, you’ve seen the final few K of the climb and the first few K of the descent. Wide roads, no barriers. And it’s very cold for the first several k.

As on the Glandon, I set my sights on picking off as many riders as possible. The slowpokes taking bad lines slowed me a bit, but there’s no way to figure out how much, as I had no point of reference. It was just take the corners as fast as possible, and accelerate out of them. Pass cars, motos, riders, on the left on the right, take the left lane if the sight lines are good.

The ride passes over the Col du Lautarets a good ways down. It was all of a few meters of flat or up before continuing the descent, which I think went on for over 20 miles.

At the bottom, it was finally warm. Off with the jacket, down with the arm-warmers, see a sign saying Bourg d’ Oisans is 20k away. I’m going to make it, and might even be able to make my goal of 7:15.

Just like between the Glandon and Telegraphe, few want to ride. I keep on picking up groups riding to the front, urging sharing the work, and riding on. Finally, I got a group of wheel suckers I couldn’t shake. They refused to pull, but would accelerate on any upgrade encountered—in particular two Italian guys on the same club riding identical CaaD 7 Cannondales. (On the long climbs, it’s hard not to look wistfully at the fancy superlight bikes on the road; plenty of Scotts, tons of Trek OCLV in Postal colors, a pound saved could be minutes earned, no?). I saw there were people still ahead, and some of those guys were willing to ride.

In the 10k before the Alpe, I finally found a few guys willing to share the pace. We closed in on more groups in the final 5k before the Alpe, and were able to get some of them to work.

My goal for the Alpe was to ride it as hard as I could and break an hour. A petty goal was to make sure none of the wheelsuckers beat me. The first few K are super steep, and finally, hot. I stopped at the third switchback (18 I guess), to pull off the armwarmers, kneewarmers, and squeeze everything in my pockets. A few of the suckers got in front. I chased all down, then some stuff fell out of my pockets. A woman grabbed the stuff and gave it to me. I finished off the suckers.

I was having some trouble. My right knee was a bit tender from so many k of mashing on the climbs. And my hip flexors were tight, as if they could cramp. Since I was already in my smallest gear, I chose to soft-pedal the hairpins, since the road flattens there.

The road looks very familiar after years of watching the climb on television. Not that I could tell where I was for the most part, but enough to picture the giants of the road riding in front of me. The switchback at 4k to go brings me to scene—the village starts– where I think I can imagine the rest of the distance to the finish. I had read it flattens here, but I was too tired to tell. I tried to pick up my pace since I might as well finish empty. I pick off rider after rider again. With1k to go, I zip up my jersey and determine to jam all the way to the finish. Up another blip, then down, around a traffic circle and the finish is in sight and a few hundred people are watching. I sprint for the finish for myself and then showboat for the joy of doing it.

Didn’t make my 7:15 goal, but totaled 7:52, 7:36 of which was apparently riding. Something like 5900kj of energy.  Which answers the old question of whether or not pro racers actually burn 6,000 calories or more in a single state.

No one to share the moment with, I inhaled a Coke, put back on my clothes and waited until the guys I started with showed. And when they didn’t appear, I rode down the mountain; found them coming up in the van.

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