Sunday, 3 August 2014

La Marmotte 2014 by Ian Webster

La Marmotte Cyclosportive 2014 by Ian Webster

Before I forget the details, I thought I would write down my experience of the La Marmotte for posterity and for anyone who is considering doing it. For some, there will be too much detail for others, not enough. Anyone wanting more information or too pass comment please contact me on
La Marmotte was one of the original cyclosportives first run in 1982. If takes place on the first Saturday in July from Le Bourg d'Oisans near Grenoble in the French Alps and finishes on the Alpe d'Huez, the famous 1000 metre climb often used in the Tour de France. It is 174 kilometres (108 miles) in length, but more importantly, and worryingly, includes over 5000 metres (16800ft) of ascent over the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraph, Col du Galibier and the Alpe d'Huez. All of these climbs are often used in the Tour de France and are all "hors categorie". In other words - long and hard! It is named after the large ground squirrel often seen in the high Alps. It is a cuddly and docile looking animal so not a lot in common with this event!
I have been cycling for last 4 years, having been a classic overweight, stressed middle aged man who ate and drank too much. I managed to get fit and get my weight down to just less than 80kg  from 97kg four years previously. I have entered a number of UK Sportives up to 100 miles in length and had enjoyed cycling in the Alps for previous 3 years. I always said that I would do the Marmotte when I was 60, so here I was, committed and about to be in France on the 5 July when most of UK was in Yorkshire watching the Tour. I lost count of the number of times that I had to explain why I was not in UK when I was "supposed" to love cycling and lived 15 miles away from the greatest event of the year!


Some people just want to complete the event in any time; others like this year's elite winner, Peter Pouly want to do it in under 6 hours. For me, I want to make the gold standard ( under 9hrs 27 mins for my age group) and preferably get close to 8.5 hrs.
There was two elements to my training - start winter training early to build up my endurance and make sure that I included some serious amount of climbing, preferably in the Alps, prior to the event. I am very fortunate that I am retired, so could devote time to both aspects. It is not essential to do the latter, indeed a luxury for many, but, I find that unless you are especially fit, it is important to complete 2/3 long climbs to acclimatise your body and back! That is not easy to do in the UK as we do not have similar length climbs of several miles. I find the gradient isn't the problem, most of them are between 7% and 8%, but getting used to over an hour of continual climbing takes it's toll.
I steadily increased my mileage to 1000 miles a month for May and June having done 600 - 800 miles in March and April.
I was also concerned that I had not ridden more than 10000 ft of climbing in one day, and then found that I struggled on the next 2/3 climbs especially in the Alps. I would need to pace myself better. I have a habit of "clogging it" up the first big climb and then suffering especially as temperature goes up in the afternoon. This was my biggest concern - reaching the bottom of the Alpe d'Huez after 100 miles and 4000 metres of ascent to be faced with an unrelenting 8% gradient and 1000 metre ascent in 30 degrees of heat. For me, this meant using a heart rate monitor and ensuring I kept to about 135 - 140 bpm - about 85% of max (162 ) on the climbs.
Incidentally, making sure you get into the event takes planning, as it sells out in 24 hours. You need to make sure you know the opening entry date which us usually about end of November.

The Event 5 July 2014

We managed to get into the French Alps three weeks previous to event and did several climbs with my wife Marie. Two ascents of Mont Ventoux, Col de Bonette, Col d'Allos and Col d'Agnel plus a few smaller climbs in the Drome were great preparation along with 34 chainset and 29 tooth granny gear. I got used to ascending at about 135 bpm or 6-7 mph on on most climbs.
We have a campervan and arrived in Bourg on the Wednesday before, camping at the base of the Alpe. This is ideal. Some people stay in Alpe d'Huez which is great when you finish but not much fun when descending to start at 7am in 8/9 degrees.
I decided to cycle up the Alpe on the Thursday to register but took it easy. Rested on the Friday.
With 7000 entrants, it's a busy start but well organised. The elite go off early at 7.15; old gits like me much later! I went through the start at about 8am.
I took two water bottles filled with energy drink plus several bars. The weather forecast was looking good - sunny spells with 22 degrees.
You need to have your wits about you for the first few miles as people overtake and are overtaken on both sides of road. I stayed in middle mostly and kept safe. By the time you start the climb of the Col du  Glandon, 10 miles later, it is usually more settled. There is a steep climb to Le Rivier followed by a descent and then a very steep climb out of valley. Be ready for this and engage granny gear quick! A lot didn't and it wasn't easy to circumnavigate the casualties with crunching gears and attemps to re-cleat!
One of the best bits about the Marmotte, is that due to safety reasons, the descent off Glandon is neutralised so you can eat and drink at summit without worrying about time. Just as well really, as it is a bit chaotic with so many riders arriving. Just remember to cross timing mat.
Felt OK as had kept to my 135 bpm guide on ascent
The descent down Glandon to the Maurienne valley is beautiful, especially when not pressurised by the clock. Once in the valley at Sainte Marie de Cuines, you cross another timing mat and then up the valley to St Michel. You would think with so many riders, getting into a group would be easy, but found myself on my own just out of reach of group ahead by about 100 metres and pushing hard to catch for some time. I thought I was on my own until I looked around and saw 50 riders in a line behind me!
Eventually a Spanish guy did his turn and I arrived at base of Col du Telegraph not as fresh as I would have liked.
The climb from the valley at 500 metres to top of the Galibier at 2650 metres via the Telegraph is one of the iconic  climbs in the Alps and a must for most cyclists. The Telegraph climb is at about 7% for most of its length and then a short descent to Valloire and the feed station at the beginning of the Galibier ascent. I overtook about 40/50 people on the climb and was feeling reasonably comfortable, although any feelings of discomfort would have been an indulgence compared with the one legged cyclist who amazed everyone with his efforts.
Having eaten, and refilled my bottles at Valloire I started ascent of Galibier. The first half is not too bad but the climb from the Le Plan Lachat is at about 9% for 7 kilometres. Starting to see some cyclists suffering now, but kept my rhythm and overtook another 30/40 people.
There is a feed station at the summit but I decided to miss it, as I roughly calculated that I could possibly finish in less than 9 hours allowing for roughly an hour to Bourg and an hour and half up the Alpe if I just allowed for one more feed stop in Bourg.
The descent from Galibier makes the climb more than worthwhile. The views of La Meije glacier are stunning and the closed road means you can really let go on descent to Le Bourg. I often freewheel on descents but was determined to get down as quickly as possible averaging about 27mph. I wouldn't like to go through some of those tunnels at that speed when there is traffic!
A quick refuel at base of the Alpe and resisted temptation to pop into campsite for a coke, then start final ascent to finish.
Using granny gear, managed to keep up good rhythm and, again, overtook many cyclists on ascent. Even managed to really push on final kilometre when it gets easier. Crossed line in time of 8 hrs 26 mins, having taken about 1 hr 15 mins on climb.
Well pleased. My wife said I looked ashen but actually felt ok although very emotional. I think it is the anticipation, training, worry and then relief that wells up.
Picked up my certificate and went back down the mountain as more and more cyclists continue to climb to finish. It was reasonably warm but not as hot as some previous years, but a number of people struggled with the heat. There were lots of willing supporters with water thankfully.
My position was 2450 out of 6400 so in top 40%. The winner in my age category did it in 7 hrs!
My average heart rate was 75% of max.

In summary

Iconic event but I think you need to train for it if you want to complete without too much trauma. It is well organised but busy. Nervous riders may want start off later. Fast riders earlier.
Minimise stops by carrying food and drink if you want best time, but not Glandon! Looking back I could have managed with just Valloire after Glandon if I had filled both bottles.
It may be obvious to many, but finding a comfortable climbing cadence and heart rate made all the difference to me. It filled me with with confidence and I actually approached the Alpe feeling good!
Even climbing the Alpe to register and taking it easy gave me confidence.
On returning to UK I decided to do faster shorter training runs as was worried that I would have become one paced. That coupled with Alpine experience meant that, at next sportive ( Etape Pennines) I did better than I expected.

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