Sunrise over Alp D’Huez the morning of La Marmotte
It was the best of days and the worst of days all rolled in to one. I started the 2011 La Marmotte by rolling out of our hotel up on Alp D’Huez at 5.30am on a clear and crisp morning. I was in one of the first waves of riders out of a field of nearly 7000, most of which I was hoping never to see. As it turned out I saw nearly every one of them.
Descending Alp D’Huez is an interesting way to start a day. The wind chill is considerable, and I think I may have chattered a filling out and swallowed it on the way down. On reaching Bourg at the bottom we snaked our way around various barriers and side streets to our start zone, and the waiting began. There was a lot of bike checking-out going on, and debates about who had the biggest veins in their legs (the big fat one at the back of my right knee is a stunner). Eventually there was movement up ahead, and after three failed attempts to clip in I was rolling over the start ramp with someone already bitching in my ear. The warning from our La Fuga crew was a good one, “Beware of men on expensive Italian bikes and wearing white shorts”. Beware indeed.
Clean kit, minus blue latex sealant
The apparently customary 30mph “warm-up” ensued to the bottom of the Barrage at La Fonderie. There were elbows, there was wheel stealing, there was cursing in 6 different languages, but nothing unexpected that you wouldn’t get in a Park race in New York. By the time we got over the two 8% ramps of the Barrage the “White Shorts” with way too much information had burned off the early morning testosterone and things started to settle down. We moved on to the first serious test of the next 108 miles, The Col de Glandon. It is a 23km climb of considerable reputation, and those that had done their research knew to treat it with respect. Pretty much the only sounds around were heavy breathing, the clicking of gears, and the occasional fart, followed by a lot of laughter. All around settled in for a stiff start to the day. Some stopped for the first nature break, standing for an hour in the early morning cold will do that to you. We all wound our way up through the forest to the Isére Savoie at 16km by which point everyone had found their pace and group. I looked up the bends to the summit where we could just see a small line of cars silhouetted on the summit ridge. The sun was out and the arm warmers were pulled down, things were looking good.
One of the 6000 that passed us on the descent of The Glandon
I broke the summit in a shade under two hours and even though I was riding easy, that was quicker than I had expected. I rolled over the top passing the water stop and headed into the first bends of a famously dangerous descent (it was rumored to have been neutralized due to a fatal accident on it last year). My bike felt a bit weird on bend four, it didn’t slow as it should have, even for carbon rims. On bend five the rear end did a strange “snaking” movement under me (I later discovered from the Mavic service guy that was my back rim going “Douce” – soft when I translated it later). Straightening up out of bend five there was a very loud cracking sound, a bit like popping bubble wrap, and then there was no brakes. I wasn’t slowing down, and the bike started to aquaplane at 38mph. Crap! Is what I thought seeing the 38mph on my Garmin, a blind drop-off at bend six was what was in front of me. I wrestled the bike right and away from other riders and into the mountainside verge, hoping that what I could see would be a softer stop than what I couldn’t. After much cursing and grinding of teeth I came to a stop covered in blue latex sealant from my Hutchinson Tubeless tires and a lot of shrubbery from the verge. All in all ok, not really hurt, and blessed from some instinctive bike handling.
On quick inspection it obviously wasn’t just a blow out. My back rim had separated along a carbon seam and the wheel had started to collapse. The separation had then rotated into my back brakes, shredded my pads and locked the wheel up. Race over. I stared up the mountain for a good 15 minutes thinking A) Fuck. B) All that training… and C) How do I get back down, or up from here? I made my way down to the next bend where there was an official and pointed at my back wheel saying “Je suis finis. La voiture balai s’il vous plaît” (In English – I am scuppered mate, let the Broom Wagon know). Ten minutes later the same thing happened to a very tall rider from Belgium on a Focus, well at least I would have company. We sat for 2hrs 35mins on that bloody corner, and watched nearly 6000 riders go by. We also counted 11 blowouts. I had 5 Euros on making it to 15. After what seemed like an eternity a very large coach came slowly down the mountain, closely followed by our La Fuga van. Nick jumped out and shouted something about “We can get you going again! We have wheels, and we can steal these brake pads of that bike”. Was he really suggesting going on? It hadn’t even occurred to me that we might be able to fix this, and I wasn’t feeling particularly motivated at this point. Then Nick said “You didn’t come all this way to go home…” that Nick knows how to press a button. I was back on in 15 minutes and flying down the Glandon with a fellow Irishman who had equally bad luck on the descent. Over 3 hours later we were back in the game. At this point we were the Lantern Rouge.
As we rolled through Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines there were a few surprised looks from the officials as they were shutting down the coarse and starting to take up the time chip readers. We really were last on the road but riding with purpose, to mostly not be the last on the road. The ride along the valley floor to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne was not much fun. We picked up another rider on the way and the three up us pace lined into a considerable headwind. It was a two-thirds Irish to one-third Danish express. It felt endless, and I was out of water. On hitting the bottom of the Telegraph I left my new friends and stopped at a shop to get water and a coke, otherwise it would have been lights out. Refueled I settled in to a nice pace up the Telegraph and started picking up riders. Some people were really suffering. There was a sniper somewhere in the trees as there seemed to be random bodies and bikes lying on the roadside. I kept my head down and pushed on. I was actually feeling really good and the top of the Telegraph came pretty quickly. Bring on more Coke. It is a beautiful climb and one I wouldn’t mind riding again without the tunnel vision I rode up it with.
I stopped at the food stop before the Galibier and filled my pockets with those little sugary sweets and ate 4 “cakes” that really tasted of nothing. The Galibier beckoned. I was worried about the Galibier. I have ridden it before and know it is brutal, but by this point I was amongst a lot of riders and not feeling so bad for myself. I was still riding with a little bit of anger that made me tackle the first part of the climb maybe a little too fast. Then I made that fatal mistake; I stopped. La Fuga had set up our van and feed station about 5 km from the summit. It felt good to refuel and reassure everyone I was still in there and riding. It also made me smile to see our two mechanics sitting on deck chairs in the hotel bathrobes to protect them from the sun. Getting back on I had lost the drive that got me there. That last section to the summit where the air is thin hurt. Pedaling squares I think is the term. After what seemed like a disproportionately long time for the distance covered I rolled over the top and stopped to layer up, I had beaten a large mental block and was confident of seeing the Alp. Now for one of the longest most beautiful descents you could ever hope to ride.
We benefited greatly from the Tour doing both sides of the Galibier this year, with freshly laid asphalt making riding super smooth. It looked like someone had just rolled a big black carpet down an Alp. It was the nicest surface I have ever ridden on, the Pro’s will eat this up. The descent was over all to quickly and I was at the turn onto the D1091, a road I know really well. This was the fastest part of the ride, straight enough to mostly not have to worry about corners, and a gradient that allowed you to push the big ring with a nice high cadence. Plus, the three Belgium guys made for a nice fast pace line. We were flying, and riding like there was money at the end of this thing.
A couple of the La Fuga crew on the warm up day before La Marmotte
Arriving back in Bourg I was presented with a scene of chaos. People were on their way down after finishing. Some were staring up the road leading to Alp D’Huez with shocked looks on their faces…and others were just getting on with it. The first four ramps and bends are long, steep and brutally mind destroying after nearly a hundred miles. It definitely isn’t the hardest of climbs, but what it lacks in gradient and length, it makes up for in reputation and mind games. Numbering the corners doesn’t help; it is like a very slow count down clock to the acid filling up in your thighs. There is also not a lot of change in the scenery, so dare I say it and hurt the feelings of this icon, it can be a bit boring. This one was really hurting people. I started to recognize riders from the start. The guy on the Parlee with the Light Weight wheels had bailed on corner 15. He looked like he was going no further. Some of the “white shorts” that were sprinting up the Glandon were now lying in the shade of the walls on the corners, cooked. I won’t say the going was easy, but I felt better than I imagined I would at this point, until 7 corners to go. Then I died. I ran out of everything, other than stubbornness. It felt like someone was holding a hand on my forehead. I have never sat on at 7mph before, but that was what was required. Thank you to the guy from Melbourne who’s name I missed, you got me to corner 3. From there the sound of the finish village and the end got me home. There is something about the sound of a voice over an announcement system that can lift your cadence. I even managed a little sprint and bunny hop over the finish line. Done.
My time? I am guessing. Point to point on the chip it put me in the 12 hour range, but that included all my mishaps and waiting on the roadside. A fair guess probably puts me in the 8.30 to 9 hour time zone. Riding with a group I might have been able to take at least another 15 minutes off. Calories were interesting, 7,626 of them, feet of climbing, 16,023. It is truly an epic coarse, and for all those that finished, chapeau! That is quite a notch to put on your seat post. Most importantly thank you Nick from La Fuga for getting me back on. I’m really glad you did.