The Marmotte – Redefining the Envelope
We’ve probably all played that favourite pub game of “name your top 5 ”X’s” of all time”. Favourite lists include the best 5 albums ever (Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” is clearly Number 1), the best 5 films, the 5 best sportspeople, the 5 toughest races and so on. Part of the charm of the game is that no-one’s list is ever the same or rarely so. Even now, you are probably thinking that Dark Side of the Moon is OK but it’s not the best. That’s fine as that’s the point of the game really, unless of course you have Justin Bieber in your Top 5. In which case, we’re afraid there’s very little hope.
Back to the game. When it comes to the 5 best cycling sportives in Europe, that’s also one guaranteed to get a variety of different lists. But ask someone to list the 5 toughest sportives and well, that’s maybe a different matter. We’d like to suggest with some confidence that one sportive will be on the list of pretty much everyone who is informed about such things and probably near the top of their list as well. It’s called the Marmotte Granfondo Alpes (to give it its full title and not to confuse it with the Marmotte Granfondo Pyrenees or Marmotte Granfondo Valais).
And it is, frankly, quite mad.
The stats are enough to make you sit up a bit. It’s 174km long and packs in three Hors Categorie climbs en route (each one bonkers in its own right). With 5,180m of climbing, it is one of the toughest sportive courses in the world, never mind Europe.
It begins with the Col du Glandon, packs in the Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier and, after a 47km descent, then serves up the 21 Hairpins of the fabled Alpe d’Huez to finish the whole thing off. Although we rather suspect there’s many a rider who feels that the whole experience has finished them off. Scenes of men and women sat by the side of the road on Alpe D’Huez sobbing uncontrollably are not unknown.
A couple of the climbs merit further attention. The Col du Galibier is one of the most famous cycling climbs in the world and together with Col du Telegraph delivers a punishing, almost continuous, 35km climb at an average of 5.5%. Just to really top things off, literally, the gradient near the summit is around 15%. When it’s windy, it’s one of the toughest climbs there is.
It’s Alpe D’Huez man…..
Yet even then, it’s important to remember there’s Alpe d’Huez to look forward to. The beginning of that climb is the steepest section and once the first few bends are negotiated, the remainder of the climb is not too bad. At least it wouldn’t be if you hadn’t got more than 100 miles of cycling in your legs already and the thick end of 15,000 feet of climbing. Plus, by the time you get to Alpe D’Huez, the temperature will have warmed up nicely. The 2013 Marmotte saw riders enjoying a temperature of 44 degrees centigrade on the climb. Splendid.
So it came as something of a surprise when Criterium’s very own Paul Bowker announced that, along with Bob & Steve (good friends of Criterium) as well as Graham and Glen (good friends of good friends), an assault would be planned on the Marmotte 2019. Naturally, the Criterium Blog took the opportunity to spend a bit of time with Paul to discover why on earth he had decided to tackle this most brutal of rides.
We all know the Marmotte is especially tough. Why attempt this particular ride?
There are loads of classic cycle sportives and to be honest, many of them are much of a muchness. But the Marmotte is different. First, you can’t wing it, especially if like us, you want to put in a really good time. You have to train for it and train hard. Second, it is really is the Alpine Classic with Glandon, Telegraphe, Galibier and Alpe D’Huez. Third, and this is also really important, the chance to do it as a team really appeals. I suspect we might need a fair amount of team support and encouragement on the day!
Most people might be happy just to get around the course and survive. But you are going for a ‘time’. Why is that?
I’ve been undertaking competitive endurance events for 30 years and whilst some of them have been quite tough, I’ve always done pretty well. On the Mountain Bike it’s been events like Tour de Ben, Glentress 7 and 10 Under the Ben. On the Road, being based in Scotland, it’s been great rides like Loch Ness Etape and Ochill Hills Sportive. But this summer, Bob, Steve and I did the route of the Fred Whitton and I had something of an Epiphany. I realized that in all the other events I had done before, and as someone who had reasonable cycle fitness, I could get round pretty easily without too much of a sacrifice preparing for them. But the Fred Whitton made me realise that to get round something like that, as well as do myself and the event justice, I couldn’t just pedal round. I had to approach it in a completely different way. I wanted to set myself a challenge where to do it justice would require a big change, and an holistic approach, to lifestyle and training.
Some would say that rather sounds like a mid-life crisis! Is this just about scratching an itch?
Well perhaps, and I don’t know how I will feel having done it. But bear in mind, we’re not approaching this with a view to keeping the broom wagon company. The super fit guys in my age group need to hit a time of around 8 and a half hours to get a Gold Medal, with the Silver Medals around 2 hours behind them. I’m looking to be close to Gold and if I can, then I will have got myself in the best shape of my life to get there and I’ll probably want to stay there for years to come!
OK, so how do you go about preparing and training for something like the Marmotte?
First thing you have to do is commit! Whilst on a cycling holiday in Cyprus this summer, a group of us made that decision and within 24 hours, 5 of us had committed, we had entries confirmed, flights booked and accommodation sorted. Having done that, we were definitely committed and we knew had to do it right. This would be no cheap trip with flights, car rental, accommodation and 4 days out of Criterium.
Then it’s a case of really studying the route and what it is likely to throw at us. One of the intriguing things about these classic Alpine routes is that they tend not have barmy ramps like the 30% we experienced on Hardknott on the Fred Whitton. But they are relentless with epically long ascents, mega descents such as the 47km off Col du Galibier, altitude, wind and heat with dramatic and rapid variations in all those factors. One can move from blistering sunshine to rain on the tops in fairly short order.
So I chose to adopt a very technical approach to training. I decided that if my base level of fitness was superb with a high FTP (Functional Threshold Power) and a high baseline level of Watts per kg I would give myself the best possible chance.
Sounds very technical. How do you go about achieving that?
I’ve signed up to a 28 week programme using Trainer Road. I like Trainer Road because it’s a bit nerdy (and I love the techy side of all this), there’s no fancy VR to distract me plus the disciplined calendar approach to training meant I could fit it round my work and social life.
Trainer Road breaks the training plan of 28 weeks into segments that allow you to create a core, baseline position (‘Base’)then build from there through ‘Build’ and ‘Speciality’ phases followed at the end by a ‘Tapering’ phase.
It’s all very structured and requires remarkably little equipment – a smart trainer, a bike and a computer or tablet. Oh, and as it has turned out, a fair amount of willpower. But then, I committed to this so I am determined to see it through.
We’ll look into Trainer Road and the programme you are following in a future blog but for now, is there anything else you have had to commit to in order to prepare for the Marmotte?
I’ve decided to take a whole different approach to lifestyle, especially in terms of nutrition and hydration. I’ve cut right back on the alcohol (and feel a million times better for it) and I’m taking greater care of what I eat. I’m not going mad but a balanced diet, tailored to my training plan, will make a significant difference.
I’ve also looked into a considerable detail into the science of sweating and discovered that all of us lose a different amount of sodium in our sweat. The result is that a one size fits all strategy does not work for hydration and on something like the Marmotte, making sure my hydration strategy is personalized to me is really important.
The science of Hydration is another area we are going to be covering in a future blog because Criterium has some really exciting plans in that area. But for now, how much are you looking forward to Christmas? With some trepidation presumably!
Not at all! I’m going to have a few days away from Criterium and also the briefest pause in the training programme. I might even allow myself the odd glass of wine. After all, it’s Christmas!
But as soon as it’s over, it’s back on the training programme in earnest.
Over the coming months, we’ll be following Paul’s progress as he prepares for the Marmotte in July. We’ll be delving deeper into Trainer Road and performance hydration as well as other aspects of preparing for an event such as the Marmotte.
In the meantime, a very Merry Christmas to all. And who knows, maybe Paul will be smashing Alpe D’Huez the same way G did last year? OK, perhaps not….