Criterium Cycles at the Marmotte 2019
Cycling is cruel. Indeed, some would argue it is the cruellest sport out there citing plenty of circumstantial evidence to support this fairly dramatic claim. Take a 3 week Grand Tour for instance. Where else would the competitors undergo 20 ‘full day’ stages of mental and physical anguish, where even just the slightest loss in concentration can be terminal, just to lose out to the tiniest of margins at the end of it. They have two rest days of course, though this being cycling, those rest days always involve a long stint out on a bike. Well they would, wouldn’t they?
This year’s Tour de France was, according to the majority of the pundits, pretty much the best edition of the race for 30 years. This seems a fair enough claim given that we didn’t know for sure who was likely to win until the very end. Even then, cycling delivered one of its especially cruel moments when Thibaut Pinot had to abandon the race on Stage 19 taking with him the home nation’s best chance of victory for a generation. And the reason he abandoned? Because he had whacked his thigh (admittedly very, very hard) on his handlebars a couple of days earlier. Quite why his thigh was anywhere near his handlebar, I never quite understood, but the outpouring of emotion he displayed when he climbed off the bike was real enough and it was a genuinely heartbreaking moment for all true cycling fans whichever country you call home.
It’s the climbs though that leave me lost for words. How some of these guys can be riding up a 10% gradient at a speed not dissimilar to what I can do on the flat and then attack, again and again, is quite extraordinary. Watching these climbs on the telly can be somewhat misleading as well, since the perspective distortion caused by the camera can make the climb look less steep than it is. Occasionally, a building by the roadside provides a much clearer sense of the relative steepness but if you’re still unsure, go and find a road with a 10% gradient and then imagine what it must be like riding up it full gas, in the red and constantly attacking (and being attacked) when you’ve already got 3,000 km of riding from the previous 3 weeks in your legs, your lungs are on fire and your heart is beating twice as fast as normal. Like I said, cycling is cruel.
The life of a pro rider, living a monastic life at altitude for months at a time and sucking the water off a lettuce leaf for sustenance, all so you can experience this utter hell on earth for 3 weeks at a time is not for everyone. But if you want to experience something of what it must be like, there are plenty of sportives and races out there that provide the amateur rider with at least a sense of the pro experience. And one of the premium ‘experiences’ to try out is the Marmotte.
In our blog back in December 2018, we set the scene for the Marmotte Granfondo Alpes (named so as not to confuse it with a number of other rides organised by the same group of self confessed lunatics) so we won’t repeat the background here. Instead, you can check out the scene setting and the sheer madness that Paul, Bob, Steve, Glen and Graham signed up to by clicking on the link HERE.
Here, we pick the story up as the intrepid team fly out to France on the Friday morning (the race being on a Sunday) and their date with destiny ……
With the team being split between Edinburgh and London, logistics necessitated Paul and Steve flying to Geneva and the other guys flying to Lyon. Paul and Steve had the joy of the Edinburgh to Geneva route and with bikes safely packed away in Bike Box Alan bikeboxes from the excellent guys at Tweed Bike Boxes (for whom Criterium Cycles are a hub), everything went smoothly. On arrival in Geneva, the rental car was collected and it was off to L’Alpe D’Huez and a rendezvous with the London – Lyon team.
The guys had booked a large apartment for the 5 of them and it seemed this was the first Top Tip from this particular trip. “The first thing you should do as soon as your place in the race is confirmed is book flights, accommodation and rental car as required.” said Paul. “We met a couple of guys who had left it bit late to do that and had to stay on the other side of the valley. So after finishing the race, they had to cycle back down Alpe D’Huez and up the other side of valley – I suspect it took the shine off the day a bit!”
After building the bikes and purchasing gallons of water, the guys headed off to registration. “Really straightforward process” said Glen. “the event village was really well organised – couldn’t fault it.” Then it was carb loading in the form of Burritos (always a winner) and a sensibly early night.
The next morning, a hearty breakfast and a shortish ride beckoned. “Really important to keep the legs turning” observed Bob “and anyway, we really wanted to recce a little bit of Alpe D’Huez”. So a quick blast down about 5 hairpins and then along the Balcony Road before returning and of course ascending those same 5 hairpins. The trick is to do something the day before but not too much, not get over stressed and enjoy the experience. But sensibly, that evening, the team opted for another early night preceded by another high carb meal.
Although all 5 guys went to France as a team, Bob had managed to get in a slightly earlier departure wave (having been a previous Marmotte competitor) but they were pretty close in departure time and anyway, everyone had risen at 04h30 to be absolutely certain of being on time. There was some logic to this. “There were 3,500 people in our wave.” noted Graham. “we really didn’t want to be the last 4 in the pack”.
The trip down to the start was pretty eventful as well. “Some people were already racing a bit on the ragged edge” said Paul. “not the smartest thing to do before you’ve even begun plus there were a few people with puncture issues and the odd exploding tyre.”
This is another Top Tip. Don’t overfill your tyres at altitude. Paul and the team were staying in L’Alpe d’Huez (alt 1804m) but the race start was in Bourg d’Oisans (alt 719m). The guys wanted to set off on the actual race at around 100 psi but chose to pump up tyres at altitude to 90 psi so as they descended to the start, physics helped out. Those who had overfilled at altitude had a very different experience.
Clothing was another key consideration. Paul chose to wear Bontrager Velocis Bib Shorts, Bontrager Sleeveless High Wicking Base Layer, Bontrager Velocis Short Sleeve Fitted Top, A Trek Team Segafredo Gilet and a pair of Gore C7 Long Finger non-insulated gloves. At the start of the race, Paul elected to take the Gilet and gloves off and only use them again for the descents.
That turned out to be a smart move. “Although I was a little chilly on the start line, I soon warmed up on the climbs but I definitely need the extra clothing for the descents – they are long and you really cool down”. But Paul had one other tip for coping with the weather. “Make sure you take suntan lotion – it got hot and I would have burned otherwise – and glass wipes are a good idea to deal with any smearing.” Good advice for anyone spending this long in the saddle as there is nowhere to get this stuff en route!
At 07h30, the wave set off (Bob’s wave had set off slightly earlier) on a short 1.5km ride to get to the start line itself but buoyed along by an excellent riders’ briefing and, according to Steve, “an awesome sound system”. At 07h50, they were off; “The start is quite open and sedate.” recalled Paul. “and a really good way to get into the groove. In fact, the first section is very flat and you do find people jostling for position. Just need to watch out for that.”
After around 10km, it’s a sharp turn right and onto the Glandon. The climb up to the Col du Glandon is around 23km and takes 2.5 hours. “It’s really important not to allow your mind to tell you that it’s just the first of 4 absolutely monstrous climbs.” warned Bob, recalling the advice he had offered the night before as a previous competitor in the race.
Everyone has their own strategy for coping. Steve and Paul decided before they set off that come what may they would start together, ride together and finish together. That decision was to come in handy during some of the darker moments later on in the race……
The top of the Glandon signifies the start of a neutralised section (in terms of your race time) for the descent. It doesn’t matter how quickly you descend the Glandon, you’ll get 30 minutes so you might as well take the full 30 minutes. There is a very good reason for this – it’s wickedly steep and tricky and although the guys say a few riders were pushing the limits somewhat, the majority took the sensible approach and used the time available.
Then come the climbs up the Telegraphe and Galibier. “It actually feels a bit like one big climb.” recalls Steve “given that it’s the best part of 32km”. Paul was more enigmatic; “it was the high point of the day as well as one of the lowest points emotionally”, a notion that sounded slightly contradictory. “It was the Galibier that really did for me.” he continued. In fact, it’s really three climbs; a 7 – 9% section through beautiful open meadows, a steeper 5km “ish” section of around 9 – 10% that zig zags up a mountain and then phase 3”.
I admit I left out a couple of Paul’s more colourful adjectives when describing this ascent of the Galibier. “What was it about Phase 3 that caused you so much pain?” I asked. “Well, first of all you can’t actually see how you are going to get out of the mountain pass you are in at the top of the second part of the climb. And then you see a nick between two peaks, probably about 7km away and 600 meters above you, with bikes strung out the whole way. I mean, my first instinctive reaction was ‘you have to be kidding’!” (again, further colourful, language left out!).
“But the killer” added Steve, with even now, a slightly haunted look appearing briefly over his face “is the last 1 km must be 15% with very tight switchbacks and absolutely no mercy”.
“And remember”, continued Paul “this is after 23 km of continual climbing at altitude. As I approached the summit, I briefly remembered we still had L’Alpe D’ Huez to come, but even so, the feeling of utter elation reaching the summit of the Col du Galibier will remain with me for a very, very long time.” “And with me” said Steve, albeit the remains of the haunted look are still clearly visible.
Coming off the Galibier proved a welcome respite for what had gone before, although like all Alpine descents, one can never lose concentration. “Actually, part of the descent off the Galibier was one of the best parts of the entire race, certainly one of the most beautiful. We passed through this most incredible gorge with magnificent waterfalls and vistas. Always important to look up and enjoy the view whenever you can!” said Paul.
Then it was to the feed station at Bourg D’Oisans at the foot of the famed climb up to L’Alpe D’Huez. This, according to Paul, was his personal darkest moment. “There’s this brief period when you think I’ve done nearly 160km and 4,000m of climbing and now someone wants me to cycle a further 13km, up 1000m of ascent at an average gradient of 8%. What was I thinking….?”. There’s no doubt in these circumstances that the climb to L’Alpe D’Huez is tough. Even the pros have been known to have the odd ‘moment’ on this particular climb.
Paul recalled the experience in detail. “Everyone says once you’re past the first three hairpins, you’re fine but it’s not true. Every single metre is a lesson in resilience. It was the most wonderful, yet the most difficult thing I have ever done on a bike.”
“We took it steady” continued Steve. “There were loads of spectators, all willing us on, carrying us on up the climb.” Clearly the memories of this fabled climb are still very strong for both of them. “One thing that was really lovely” said Paul “was that at the top, even the guys who had finished 2 – 3 hours ahead of us cheered everyone back home. There was a real sense of camaraderie although the best thing was that we [Steve and Paul] had completed the ride together dealing with everything it had thrown at us. I have never, ever, looked at a finish line with such joy before as I did that one.”
Mind you, the guys still made the climb up to L’Alpe D’Huez in 1h 38m which didn’t seem too bad? “No, it wasn’t really but at the time it felt pretty challenging. We were both completely knackered at the top.”
And the bike [Paul’s Trek Emonda SLR] I asked? “Just epic.” Came the immediate reply. “Remember, this frame is pretty much the same one that the guys in the pro team are riding. By a quirk of fate, this particular frame ended up with me on board rather than Richie Porte which is pretty rotten luck (for the frame!). Having said that, I was running rim brakes, a Campagnolo Super Record 12 Speed Groupset and Campagnolo Bora WTO wheels so plenty enough differences there but this is equipment from world class manufacturers who are at the top of their game. How engineers can produce products like these is beyond me – and overall, the package was flawless.”
Back at the bar over a chicken burger and half a pint, the guys reflected on the adventure. One further Top Tip from Graham was energy conservation on the ‘respite’ sections between the climbs. “If you can, it’s really good to get into a group and if you drop off one group, try to catch the next – you need to preserve all the energy you can. However, be selective; Glen and I hung on to a ‘rapide’ group for the last 5-10 miles to Bourg D’Oisans but in hindsight should have jumped off on to a slower group. Even though we were in a group, we probably used up a bit too much energy with the fast guys which meant we both suffered a bit on the last few km up Alpe d’Huez. You live and learn”.
“You know”, added Bob “As a group, we rode 176 km and 5000m of climbing each (with a stack of high speed descending thrown in) yet 0 punctures and 0 mechanicals. That’s not a bad stat!”
It’s not a bad stat at all and is a testament to great preparation by all the guys. In fact, this ride was all about preparation; the planning, the training, the pain, the sacrifice. But the exhilaration of the event itself made up for everything and more. It is clear that all the team have done something they feel incredibly proud of and fulfilled by even if there were a few dark moments along the way.
So what’s next? I ask. Bob has an idea. “I’m thinking of the Mont Blanc Sportive. The toughest one day bike race in the word apparently. 330km, 8713m of climbing on 9 mountain climbs (5 Hors Categorie in succession) though 3 countries. Sounds fun.”
Paul looks shell-shocked. “I will definitely need the other half of that pint please.”