La Marmotte 2012 Report
Like the amphetamined fuelled, white knuckled ride of Dean Morriarty’s and Sal Paradise’s boot to the floor exit from New Orleans, pumping every ounce of juice out of their 1949 Hudson in Jack Keraouc’s On The Road, we gunned out of Lyon pepped up on power bars and isotonic energy drinks, all leaning forward to maximize aerodynamics in our Renault Traffic 9.
“Radio, who needs a radio” flashbacks to Dumb and Dumber – between 5 lads we had enough mp3s to rival Napster but with no connection and no CDs we were forced to rely on the serenading of the French airwaves. Mojo and such hipster magazines would have a person believe that any musical note with even the remotest connection to something French is the epitome of cool. Well if that’s the case such cool tunes must only reside in the playgrounds of the Parisienne Dionysuses because such sophisticated melodies certainly weren’t being broadcast on any station our Renault could pick up. Any self respecting road trip would at least feature some ACDC, we couldn’t even get Vanessa Paradise.
A tiny village on the road up to Col Ornon was to be our base for the week. We were about 10 ks from the village of Borg D’Oisans, starting point of the La Marmotte 2012, and base point of the famed Alpe D’Huez climb. One of our crew had audaciously turned up at the airport with no bike box, only his bike and some token bubble wrapping, and simply wheeled his bike onto the oversize luggage area (note for next time). Only for his bike on view, with the other 4 bike boxes stacked on top of each other, peering into the back of the van as we headed for our base camp we could have been mistaken for a bunch of vigilantes heading up into the mountains looking to test some ground to air missile launchers. Thankfully Irish passports would spare any such accusations.
For anyone considering staying in around Borg our accommodation turned out to be superb: http://www.kingofthemountains.co.uk/. Breakfast and dinner was perfect food for any one looking to do an active holiday but for cyclists in particular their set up is exceptional. Out the back, with a backdrop onto a mountain stream, there’s a decking area where bikes can be mounted, cleaned and nursed back to life. They even a full garage of bike equipment that would rival any local bike store. One of our crew was so inspired by the set up, after a year of having his bike and never cleaned it once, he spent 2 hours and half a can of WD40 to resurrect that showroom look.
The 5 days before the big race we spent scouting out all of the route and before we knew it Saturday 7th July, 7:50 a.m. arrived and it all kicked off – 174ks and over 5000m of climbing in store. But before getting into the dramas of the race, two people in particular need to be thanked. Firstly our recently anointed directeur sportif – Joey “The Wag” Keane. Unfortunately a combination of a bad back injury, a unique training programme that involved 10 days in Poland at the Euros and a rumoured allergic reaction to saddle leather scuppered our directeur’s best of intentions to do the full Marmotte. Even the mini Marmotte had to be ruled out. Instead he was forced to gracefully sunbathe by a lake on race day. Ah well, at least he went home with his bike as if it had just stepped out of a salon. His moral support, cycle pep talks and waiting patiently in car parks for us while we cycled – stoic is the only way to describes this man’s demeanour.
Secondly I need to pay tribute to St Tiernan’s very own fashionista Richard “Blue Steel” Gallagher. The combination of 1) his much sought after “colour me beautiful” fashion sessions and 2) the eurocylists bible by which he lives made sure I was turning out in an ensemble suitable for the smooth tarmacs of the Alps. And as for the perilous path of a man first shaving his legs…..well this particular link has some very wise words (be warned your teeth risk falling out you’ll laugh so hard at some of these reviews):
And so to the race. Being one of the late bookers and late arrivals it was about 8:10 when the 4 of us clocked officially over the timing mat. 3 renegades from the hell hole town of Naas and one gentleman classing it up from the sophisticated side of the tracks Newbridge (this neighbouring town Springfield/Shellbyville parish rivalry had formed a motivational cornerstone of our 5 mth training programme). We split up into pairs. I being the honourable type from Newbridge even offered to help my Naas colleague Herr Gal learn how to read (standard schooling wasn’t the norm for our Naas brethren). Our target was to get round in 8.5 hours including stops and snatch a gold medal time. While Chuckie & Bogger we’re aiming to get through alive.
Food race day strategy was to carry all needed for the planned 8.5 hours on the bike – 7 Gels and two power bars. Water strategy was to avoid the main water stops and use the smaller water pumps in the little villages in between the various climbs (having scouted all the route beforehand it really helped knowing where these were). There was great debate in the guest house about the kilo saved by having only one bottle filled and where on the route this could be done. Personally I went for keeping both filled where possible up until the bottom of Alpe d’Huez as I didn’t want to risk running out. One is plenty for heading up the Alpe as there are loads of people handing out cups of water at various stages. For the majority the strategy worked out good. Looking back it ended up being 15min of stops. I reckon about 10min was queuing for water and this would have definitely been longer going to the main stops. If a person was out on one of the earlier releases, I don’t think there would be as much of a need to avoid the main water stops and some time could be saved.
The first stretch was about 13ks to the base of the Glandon. This blazed by in a blur of nerves, excitement and adrenalin. En route there’s a stunning James Bond style reservoir and then swiftly onto the first climb of the day – The Glandon. 24 ks with an average gradient of 5%. At this stage of the morning the route up to the Glandon was jammed with people. It was hard getting into a steady rhythm as we had to weave between people getting up to the top. Unfortunately this weaving resulted in myself and Gal getting split up. Our best and most experience rider within the group gone from sight. The nerves were a little frayed but in these dark moments the spirit has to grasp onto the positives. Naas people tend not to be known too well for their personal hygiene so at least the mountain air would be somewhat purer. Onwards to the top, target time 2hrs. Ended up clocking in at 1:56…on track.
The top of the Glandon was bananas. Once you passed over the timing chip, the road was completely full of riders. There is an official food/water stop on the top. Also a lot of bike companies have their set up there making for absolute mayhem. I ended up having to pick up my bike and hike round over a small hill to get back onto a clear stretch of road. I’d recommend definitely not counting on this as a food and water food/water stop. Once on the descent it’s pretty clear why this section is neutralised and not counted towards the overall time. Having sadly previously claimed people’s lives this descent is steep, twisty and fast. Passing several ambulances reconstructing some limbs makes sure concentration is kept on the road ahead and not on the stunning surrounding views which I hear are fabulous! The neutralised descent gives an opportunity to be a bit strategic with food/toilet/water stops. These can all be done before you reactivate the timing chip when you pass through the far end of St Etienne de Cuines.
It’s about 25ks’ to base of the Telegraph. The road for the majority is flat with a bit of a drag as it pulls up towards the start of the second climb. It massively helps if a rider can get in with a group. Luckily I was able to hook in with a Dutch train of about 8 people which pulled all the way up to the base. Something to keep an eye out for is the railway crossing in St Michel de Maurienne. An unsuspecting wheel could easily get caught in the tracks. As we were approaching about 300 yds from the crossing the barriers started to come down as a real train was en route. The dutch cycling train then broke into an all out sprint. By the time we hit the tracks the barriers were down but speeding through, short of reaching back to pick up our helmets and hearts, this bunch of Indians Joneses made it through. Looking at the length of the train we probably saved between 5 – 10 mins. The heart rate went well above the target 150-160 beats for that stretch!
The Telegraph is 11ks of climbing with an average gradient of 7%. Out of all the 4 climbs this is definitely the ….not sure what that right word is….”easiest”…is too blasé…”bearable” is probably the best description. It never gets too steep, rather a very consistent gradient where you can keep a steady pace without getting a nose bleed….a bit like 2fm’s Larry Gogan’s Golden Hour. From the Telegraph there’s a 5 k descent into Valloire and then it’s onto the beast that is the Gallibier….
The Gallibier is 18ks long, average gradient 7% , through a stunningly beautiful glacial carved valley. Ice capped peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, mountain streams – a geography teachers delight. I didn’t see one but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t even an oxbo lake to top it all off. Tackling the ascent, for those running the one bottle gauntlet, this is definitely one place to make sure you have two full water bottles. The summit is 2600m and by the time you’re at the top, the body is gasping for air and water. There are no water stops in between the last town and the top of the Galibier. If you run out your looking at mountain streams which with everywhere being an opportunity for a wee stop, possibly not the ideal day to be drinking Bear Grylls style.
The first half of this descent is a long steady climb. You can see the majority of the road snaking ominously up the valley, constantly shouting out how far you have to go. At the 9k mark the road shoots dramatically up with gradients pushing 8 and 9%. Climbing higher and higher, the swithbacks get steeper and steeper. The last k on this climb is damm tough. Between the altitude and steepness, scaling this peak is a relief. En route to the top of this people are starting to flail, cramp, puke, collapse. Target time to get to the top of this was 6 hrs. Clocking in at 6:01and seeing the decimated state of some people, I was relieved to be at this point in one piece.
And so to the descent back to Borg– Wow, Wow, Wow. It was that same exhilaration of being a kid in the queue for the slide in Trabolgan soaked, cold, tired, wondering would you ever get to the top. But there you are, standing on what feels like the top of world and off you jump. Sweeping, flowing, round and round, over taking cars, eyes in the back of your head… this descent is nothing short of sensational….and there’s near enough 50ks of this! Looking back on the Strava descent for this, speeds were clocking up towards 80kmphr. Probably just as well I didn’t know this at the time. Our lead rider from Naas clocked in at close to 90kmphr – only for his flux capacitator was broken he’d have ended up back in 1955 with Michael J Fox.
On the road to Borg it’s worth being prepared for the the tunnels. First thing I’d recommend is not wearing your sun glasses…. There are 5 long tunnels in total. When we test drove this part of the route, tunnel 1 was on me before I knew it. Like any mad scientist to make sure the hypothesis could be disproved, I kept the sunnies on for the second tunnel….not a good idea. These tunnels are long and very dimly lit. Unless you’re Jason Borne or Andy Lakes,definitely take them off. The second tunnel also has a sharp right at the end that’s worth bearing in mind. The third tunnel is near pitch black and the poorest lit out of them all. Most people won’t be wearing a light on their bike so I can see why some people had forewarned that these tunnels could be sketchy. On race day itself, luckily I ended up catching them on a spell when there was very few people passing through.
3 down and one more climb to go. One of the most famous and historic climbs of the tour – the awe inspiring Alpe d’Huez. 21 hair pin bends, 14ks, average gradient 8%. There was an episode of Fr Ted where they enlisted the help of the “Matty Hislop’s 10 Steps To Redemption” to help them give up the booze, fags and rollerblading. Self flagellation was a major theme of his self help guide….he was honorifically allergic to cats, so he carried one in his pocket. Well ol Matty would have appreciated what become a regular feature of our training programme…. 3 rounds of Shay Elliot out and back. 12 climbs, 12 descents – over 3600m of climbing. Horrific stuff but it definitely got us through the Marmotte. Facing into Alpe d’huez, whether psychologically or delusionary, I’d still choose the 21 bends ahead of facing the last 2 climbs on that triple loop to get back to Laragh.
Before hitting Alpe d’Huez there is a good flat 5kish section that’s ideal for spinning out the legs and getting fluids on board. Once on Alpe d’Huez, the first 3 ks are very tough. It ramps right up. One of the k’s averages near 11%. With the descent from the Galibier going better than expected I was in the very fortunate position, that bar a disaster I knew I was going to make my target time. Given there’s 160k’s in the legs at this stage, this isn’t a hill I’d like to have to be pushing it on. I could definitely not enjoy but more somewhat appreciate the occasion of the final climb. Some of the hair pin bends were crammed with people where if they got any sort of reaction from a participant they erupted. I stopped short of what I believe was a trademark move of Brian Hayden in his hayday – blowing kisses into the crowd (any number greater than two constituting a crowd) but there was some good fist punching in the air and chanting of “Allez Irlandais” for good measure!
Once over the first 3ks, the climbs get marginally less ominous. There are numerous people handing out water at the various stages to the top. Wet t-shirt competition Alpe d’Huez style are also on offer (being doused in water….a little slice of heaven from a world of hell!!). As you come into the Ski Village of Alpe d’Heuz the crowd gets bigger and bigger and the gates/road get’s narrower – all adding to the drama of the occasion. Coming in over the finish, the atmosphere was electric!
Both our team Sensai and I ended up sneaking in the Gold medal time (8:13 with the neutralized descent). Gal was 8:15 overall and 7:43 with the climb neutralized. I was 8:26 and 7:50 with the climb neutralized. The other pair, didn’t just pass through alive but aced it coming in for silver at 10:20! Sport can be the most ficklest of temptresses. We’d put in a lot of work but consider ourselves very lucky with the conditions we had on the day. It never got too hot, wind was very moderate and crucially it never rained. Weighing myself that night I’d lost half a stone! The following night out in Nice did wonders for replacing those lost calories. Doing something like this gives an even greater admiration for what the pros do over the three week period on the Tour. The trip also did wonders for improving cross boarder relations between the towns of Newbridge and Naas. Hopefully vandalism rates in Newbridge will be down as Nass people don’t feel as resentful of what is the cultural jewel in Kildare’s crown.
And so what now? What of this sport that since last year has managed to consume pretty much every waking hour of my life? Admittedly there are times when I miss the sheer simplicity of being able to put on a pair of football boots or runners. Not being blessed with the most mechanical of minds – this world of sprokets, crankshafts and bar tape can often be bemusing. As I throw another alan key off the wall, I meagerly attempt to consol myself at my incredible lack of engineering ingenuity, that even Einstein claimed imagination is more important than intelligence. How come I didn’t watch more Blue Peter? Yet never before has a sport offered such freedom, escapism and camaraderie – it’s certainly something special. The giro de delomittes is starting to look very appealing. Now if only I could figure out how to tune gears…