La Marmotte 2010

Dave Kirton with Rob Carter, Graeme and Stephen Hatcher.

Despite saying “I’ll never do it again” here I am on the A19 with Rob Carter heading for Liverpool airport, Geneva, then Alpe d’Huez for my second Marmotte. All thoughts of last year’s pain, suffering and difficulty replaced by an insane optimism for what is allegedly the hardest sportive in Europe. This includes 108 miles of relentless back breaking climbing over the giants of the Alps, culminating in the eight miles at 9 % up Alpe d’Huez in the blazing afternoon heat.

Rob and I are entertaining ourselves exchanging Sean Kelly and Paul Sherwen one liners such as, “We are going to be in difficulty” and “Have you packed your suitcase of courage”. Yes we are sad!!! I then inform Rob that I am going to isolate him in the mountains. The truth is the only person I will be isolating is myself as I fall away from Rob’s back wheel on the first climb like a spent booster rocket falling back to Earth!!

Anyhow on this optimistic note we hit our first and fortunately only major hitch of the holiday, My normally super reliable Peugeot 306 suddenly loses power and all the warning lights come on, we manage to roll over Clack Bank on the A19 and come to a stop on the Osmotherly slip road. I know straight away it’s serious and a quick decision is made to get the RAC to recover the car and we call upon Boro Taxis. Eventually we arrived at Liverpool Airport £150 lighter but just in time to catch our flight. PANIC OVER!

Rob and I arrive at “Hotel Chamoix” at the top of Alpe d’Huez about 8 pm on the Tuesday after the three hour drive from Geneva. This is the great little English run hotel we stayed in the year before, the tea is on the table waiting for us so we settle in for a few days of acclimatizing and steady riding before Saturday’s difficulties begin. On Thursday we are being joined by Graeme and Stephen Hatcher, we are just missing Ian Tyreman who is busy with his new “daddy duties”! And also Ian, unlike me, remembered that he said he would never do it again.

Dave (left) and Graeme practising on Alpe d'Huez
Dave (left) and Graeme practising on Alpe d’Huez

We spend a few days kicking about the top of Alpe d’Huez. On the Wednesday we take the bikes in the car down to Bourg d’ Oisans. We have a ride up the very pleasant Col d’Ornon (1371m), a nice steady eight km climb. We drop back down and then climb the first and most difficult part of the Col du Glandon. I start to suffer a bit after my earlier enthusiasm on the Ornon, so we stop at the scenic café at Le Rivier d’Allemond (1254m) over looking the mountains and the valley below.

On the Thursday we descend down Alpe d’Huez and then head about 15 km up the road to the scenic Barrage du Chambon, then return to Bourg for a café stop. Looking around there are cyclists everywhere, there must be millions of pounds worth of cycling machinery in the area. We then have a steady 1 hour 10 min ascent of the Alpe. I end up wishing I could go up in that time on Saturday.

Graeme and Ste are due to arrive today but have so much bad luck. Firstly their flight from Manchester gets delayed for two hours, next they get diverted mid flight to Lyon, then they have to catch a bus to Geneva airport. Finally at 3 am they have to sleep on the floor at Geneva airport until the car rental opens at 6.30 am. Anyhow they finally arrive looking relatively unscathed and just in time for breakfast, they even have enough energy left to go out to register and then out on the bikes for an hour before returning for a well deserved catch up sleep.

Rob went for a spin on the morning, then I go for a short spin on the afternoon. I discover that if you cycle past the Tour De France finish line on Alpe d’Huez you can in fact continue up over on a small rough road for about 4 km to a height of over 2000 m to a ski station with spectacular views over the resort. After the sightseeing we all retire for the night contemplating the big day ahead. Unlike last year at least this time I actually get to sleep, well at least until the alarm goes off at 5 am! Now its time for action!! Getting ready is like a military operation, we get loads of coffee in and try to get the food down, we are all struggling to eat at that time of the morning, all except Rob who seems to be eating for six men! Rob is anxiously eyeballing the Germans to make sure they don’t take all the bread rolls again!

Once ready with our energy supplies we roll on down Alpe d’Huez, the descent is great, if only my ride to work could be like this at half six in the morning! As we enter Bourg we break off into our start pens wishing Rob good luck as he goes into the 401-2000 pen. I, Graeme and Ste filter off into our 2001-4000 pen with the remaining 4000-8000 behind us.

The form and the running is this. Rob is hoping to finish in 7 hours after completing it in 7 hr 37 last year, and he’s calculated all the key times throughout the course. Rob has just had his first road race victory and finished in two Premier Calendar events so he should do well. Graeme is a seasoned road race big hitter with the Isle of Man race team, and about to attend his third Commonwealth Games, and he’s last year’s Isle of Man TT champion, so he should get around the 7 hour mark like Rob. Then there’s me! Well I’d like to improve on my 9 hrs 27 from last year and get into the gold cut off time of 8 hrs 49. And my palmares? Well I do have a number of second and third placings in Cleveland Wheelers’ events, not to mention my victory in the 2008 Free Wheeling competition, well that should help on the descents shouldn’t it? Then there’s Ste. Ste’s a bit of an unknown quantity. A couple of years ago he was about the same ability as me. But then he disappeared over winter and emerged as if from a chrysalis in Chapters’ racing gear and two stone lighter! Ste’s now a strong road race rider but he’s not sure how he will do here. I think he will be around the 8 hr mark.

As the time ticks away the 0-400 group are all out at 7 am, Rob gets away at about 7.10 am in his group, then me, Graeme and Ste squeeze out over the line at exactly 7.30 am. My plan is to unashamedly grab onto every wheel, tree and branch that I can to claw myself around and gain as much time as possible! I latch myself onto Ste and Graeme’s wheels to get a free ride, as Graeme uses his vast racing experience to cut a swathe through the riders. We quickly complete the first 6 km to the climb up the side of the dam at the base of the Glandon, I thank Graeme for the lift and as he accelerates off then Ste and I settle into our own pace. We climb up the first difficult 6 km of the Glandon. I’m not riding as cautiously as last year but just trying to keep within myself. The road plateaus off at le Rivier d’Allamond and I need to take a natural break. I tell Ste to press on as we had agreed earlier that we wouldn’t waste time waiting for each other. I have a quick stop then carry on up the next section. I target various riders who are just a little faster than me and keep latching on, this system seems to work well for me and I arrive at the top of the Glandon (1924m) in 1hr 53m, 15 minutes ahead of last year and feeling good.

Dave looking fresh on the Glandon
Dave looking fresh on the Glandon

I stop at the feed station to fill my bottles then press on down the descent. I pass many riders until I eventually settle into a good descending group. On the valley road to the Telegraphe I get into a low gear and spin for a while. The road is heavy and slightly uphill for a few km, Last year I stopped at this point as I thought my back brake was stuck on. I also spend the next 10 km trying to chew through a ‘Go bar’ I’m finding it difficult to get enough food down. I’m in a good group all along this road, even though I sit in all the way, the heavy road still starts to wear me down by the time I reach St Michael de Maurienne. I make up two bottles of energy drink at the feed station, take my old base layer off, throw it away and after a bar and a gel am back on my way in less than five minutes.

I start my ascent of the Telegraphe, this warm up climb for the Galibier isn’t as easy as it should be. It’s 12 km or one hour’s worth of Clay Bank! I climb up it nicely and arrive at the top (1570m) just over the hour after being stopped by road works and a traffic jam 1 km from the top. At the next feed station there are dozens of riders wrestling over the few water taps provided. Once refilled again I set of on the short descent to Valloire using the time to get a bar and gel down. After my terrible time on the Galibier last year I start the climb extremely steady to try and ride myself into it. Just outside Valloire there’s the 17 km sign for the top, the countdown begins! I reach the water stop at the 10 km to go sign and my plan seems to be working as I begin to feel good. Many riders are stopping to put their capes on as the rain starts to come down, I continue straight on as this weather suits me just fine. It feels like the normal weather over Castleton to me! I wish it could stay this temperature all the way round.

As I climb through the hairpins over the top section of the Galibier the kilometre signs tick away. It’s very difficult going, but I’m feeling okay and manage to keep 6-7mph all the way. I take time to enjoy the climb looking at the scenery and long line of riders stretching all the way down the valley below. This climb is so dramatic as I count down the final few steep kilometres, the huge backdrop of mountains rise above me, there is snow at the sides of the road, rivers of water and gravel spilling across the road and the dark clouds rumbling with thunder above me.

It’s fantastic!

I roll over the top of the mighty Galibier (2642m) in 6hrs 10m, still well ahead of last year. As I descend down to the Lautaret I do some quick calculations, I’ve got 2hrs 40m to make it down to Bourg and back up Alpe d’Huez if I’m to get inside the gold time. “It’s going be tight!”

I reckon at this point Rob should be well on with his climb up Alpe d’Huez, and Graeme should be off the descent of the Lautaret, Ste’s maybe ten minutes ahead of me. I settle into a good group on the descent from the Lautaret back to Bourg, we have to pass through several tunnels on the way. These are dangerous as the road surfaces are wet inside and you can’t see much. As we enter the first tunnel the lights are off and we’re plunged in to complete darkness, lots of riders are shouting “Woo Woo!” I whip off my glasses and point the bike to the light at the end of the tunnel. I emerged safely, but it wasn’t pleasant.

I complete the descent of the Lautaret okay including the several small hills towards the end. I even manage a few turns on the front of the group which has swollen to about 20 riders. As we do the last few kilometres into Bourg the pace steadies off as all the riders prepare themselves for the final big push up Alpe d’Huez.

After stopping at the feed station at the bottom I start my ascent of the Alpe. This is by far the hardest part of the ride. 35 degrees C and a 10% uphill for the first few kilometres. Last year I climbed it well in 1hr 20, I need to climb it in 1hr 30 this time to get in the gold time, so I should be okay, but then disaster strikes. At 4 km into the climb at La Garde I slow down to grab water at the watering station, and then scream out as the back of my legs go in to full cramp. Lots of people are looking as I straddle the bike unable to move! After a short while it eases off and I manage to cautiously pedal off. But I continue cramping up again every kilometre. This is now serious! I can cope with being out of energy as you can always crawl along at 5 mph, but cramp is a complete job stopper. The minutes fly by as I keep having to stop and stretch my legs.

I look up at 5 km to go and I can see the top, I need to be up there now but just can’t do it. As the gold time comes and goes my legs finally settle down and I manage the last few kilometres without stopping. I felt good at the bottom of the Alpe, now 1 hr 40 later I crawl over the finish line absolutely exhausted and in pain. The good news is that I’m 29 minutes faster than last year with a time of 8 hrs 58 mins, the bad news is I’m just 8 mins outside the gold time.

I decide to walk my bike back to the hotel, I clamber up to the fourth floor! Ste’s laid out on the bed, he’s completed it 8 hrs 44. Unfortunately for Ste his gold time is set at 8.29 as he only just fell in to the age category below at the time when he put his entry in. Rob and Graeme return to the room after finishing and getting showered some time ago. Rob did a fantastic 7 hrs 04 but is disappointed to be over the 7 hrs. Graeme has finished in 7 hrs 16, I can’t tell whether he’s pleased or not as he doesn’t give much away! But it doesn’t matter anyway as he suddenly produces a box of beers from a bag! Good lad.

I greedily neck a few beers to ease the aches and pains as we all contemplate the ride. Although we all did very well we are all sitting around looking rather disappointed, why is it I wonder that we set such targets for ourselves? Then when we still do well but just fall short of the target we feel so disappointed? We should be just glad to get round in good times. Even my time is within the top 25%.

After some recovery time we go out for a walk to cheer ourselves up and watch the stragglers coming in. We stand on one of the last hairpins where there’s a steady flow of riders still coming up. I really admire these people who have taken 12 and 13 hours to complete it, some of them look much fresher than I did at the finish, and maybe they have just had a nice steady day out with just the aim of completion. Maybe not a bad idea for next time!

At the moment I can’t see a next time for the Marmotte. I would recommend it to anyone who loves to ride in the high mountains, but it is extremely difficult and if I’m to expend this kind of effort again then I’d like to do something different and perhaps a little easier, maybe the Etape or a Grand Fondo in Italy. Or maybe a nice ride to Sandsend tea shop. Now that would be easier!

Dave Kirton – December 2010