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La Marmotte guide

La Marmotte – 174km and 4 Alpine climbs totalling 5180m. It is one of the hardest and most famous sportives in the world, taking in the classic Telegraphe/Galibier combo and finishing on Alpe d’Huez.

The Glandon

The Glandon

I did La Marmotte for the first time in 2013. I had never done a comparable day’s cycling beforehand, and found personal accounts extremely helpful in my preparations, so here is mine. I hope that it helps somebody else. Months of preparation come down to a single day, so you simply cannot prepare too much for the event.

Typically November or December sees entries open for La Marmotte on www.sportcommunication.info. It is likely to be booked up within a day or two so you need to act quickly.

My background

I have been cycling for 4 years. I visited the alps in 2011 and had a fantastic 12-day trip. This year, La Marmotte came on the 9th day of an Alpine touring trip, starting in Switzerland and finishing in France. I’m a leisure cyclist, not a racer or an endurance cylist. A perfect day out for me would involve 80-100km and 1500-2000m of climbing. Before I did La Marmotte I had never climbed more than 2300m in a day or ridden much more than 100km in the mountains. I had done plenty of rides around 180km but they were flat.

My goals

When I signed up in December I had the idea of aiming for a respectable ten hour finishing time. I was all fired up. But I knew at the start I wouldn’t prioritise the training and so it proved during the cold springtime. I did plenty of short rides and a few longer ones but there was no structure to it, and motivation dipped in the two months before the sportive. What I did do well was lose weight – I got to within a kilogram of my target weight of 72kg when I left on the trip. Every gramme counts when you are hauling it up mountains on a bike. I changed my goal to merely finishing the course, ideally within the time limit.

The week before

I took it easy on the climbs during the trip – I focussed on just conditioning my legs, eating and drinking right during climbs and getting my thought process right during them. The head and the legs.

Amount of climbing each day up to La Marmotte:

Day 1: 1800
Day 2: Nothing
Day 3: 1700
Day 4: 1600
Day 5: 500m
Day 6: 2300m
Day 7: 1600m
Day 8: 500m
Day 9: 5180m - La Marmotte

There was nothing too taxing. It was a balance between doing enough to make the most of the trip and saving myself for the big day. The legs felt heavy at times, which was both disappointing and ominous. But on the day I felt good on each climb, so this schedule worked well for me.

Preceding day

I rode the last 8km of the Col de la Croix de Fer, climbing 500m, then descended the Glandon and rode the flat 15km to Bourg d’Oisans, getting there before 1pm. I got a taxi up to Alpe d’Huez and stayed there the night before the event. For me this was the perfect preparation, and the next time I would do just a couple of hours riding with a little climbing the morning before the event.

Getting to Alpe d’Huez the day before the event was not ideal – registration, carbing up, preparing the bike and doing last minute checks took most of the evening. Also, I should have gotten up at 6am the day before to prepare for the early start – it was more like 9am. I would have liked an extra day at Alpe d’Huez to get more rest the evening before.

I made sure to eat food I was familiar with – no unusual brands – and grazed on it all evening.

Packing list

Left back pocket: 8 Powerbar energy gels
Middle back pocket: phone with headphones (this was my emergency pack if it all went wrong on Alpe d’Huez) in a freezer bag; jacket; 50 euro note stuck within phone case; route details
Right back pocket: 8 powerbar energy gels
Saddlebag: tube, tyre levers, multitool, puncture repair kit, 10 hydration tablets, 8 powerbar energy gels, 2 powerbars, sunscreen
Under jersey: Last 2 powerbar energy gels

Ideally you would have a small bottle of sunscreen with enough for two applications and a little extra in case it’s needed.

Preconceptions

I had seen all of the climbs, which i think is important. The Glandon I had only descended the day before, and as is always the way, imagining climbing a mountain you have descended makes it seem harder than it is. The thought of it made me a little glum the night before the event. At least it was the first climb and I would get it out of the way early.

The Telegraphe is a pleasure to ride – I had done it two years before and was happy with it.

The Galibier I was confident on. I also rode it two years before and had mixed feelings. It’s a climb of two halves – I suffered like a dog on the supposedly easy first half due to a combination of extreme heat, a big lunch in Vallloire and worrying about the steeper last 7km. Once I got to Plan Lachat, where there is a hairpin and the road abruptly changes, I was fine. At least I knew why I had a hard time on it and could change my circumstances this time around.

Alpe d’Huez – only knew it from the taxi ride the day before. I always figured that there was no point worrting about until I got to it. It would take care of itself.

Eating and drinking

I was determined to eat and drink as much as I could. I don’t usually eat gels – they are more suited to more intense efforts than I would usually do. I tested the Powerbar gels 2 days before and liked them. On the day they felt like rocket fuel which was exactly the effect I was after. I was riding a course unlike anything I had ridden before, so I had to feel different. I brought about 3000 calories with me and finished with 3 unused gels. I would have used them all but I felt a bit queasy in the last hour so I rode on without them and without trouble.

I had a routine on the climbs which I did every 15 minutes:
drink some water
take a gel
drink some more water
climb out of the saddle for 30 seconds or so

For the non-climbing sections I skipped the routine. On the 15km to the start of the Glandon, I didn’t need to eat – it was very fast and soon after breakfast. On both the descents of the Glandon and the Galibier/Lauteret I didn’t eat but I drank plenty on the longer Lauteret descent. On the 22km flattish ride to the start of the Telegraphe I took one gel and drank a lot. I might have taken another gel here.

How much did I drink? about 16 bottles – 12 litres. Ten of those I used electrolyte tabs on.
The temperature reached about 32C – the first half of the Telegraphe was the only part where it felt hot. You spend most of the day so high up that it’s not an issue. I poured plenty of water over my jersey to keep cool, which worked really well. On reflection, I could have probably skipped a couple of bottles and been better off, but it’s hard to judge when you are that tired.

Getting water was never an issue. I was concerned about getting water on the Glandon – I never do a long climb with just 2 bottles, but there was a fountain beside the road in the village halfway up.
Water and food stations:
Halfway up Glandon (unofficial fountain on right of road in village)
Top of the Glandon (food and water)
Bottom of the Telegraphe (water)
Halfway up Telegraphe (water)
Top of Telegraphe (water)
3km up the Galibier (food and water)
Plan Lachat, halfway up Galibier (unofficial fountain on left of road by restaurant)
Top of Galibier (water)
Bottom of Alpe d’Huez (food and water)
Halfway up Alpe d’Huez (water – this may have been unofficial).

Pacing and timing

I felt great going up the Glandon, never dropping below 8kmh (slow and steady, remember!) on the steep sections. The descent is notoriously tricky with a lot of blind corners but there were no incidents of note. Being among the backmarkers helped in that respect, I think. I coasted along the valley section in a couple of good groups. It was boring here. The hardest thing was to not think of the climbing ahead.

I did not look at the time at any point. I decided I only wanted to finish the course, and worrying about time limits wasn’t going to do me any good. I wanted to take it as slow and steady as I needed to, while staying on the bike and keeping moving as much as possible.

The first part of the Telegraphe was pretty hot, but it is a climb I really enjoy, and I did so during La Marmotte.

The Galibier was where I started going past riders, and I saw a lot of people in a lot of trouble here. I still felt pretty good and took it steadily. Nevertheless I was happy to complete it.

The Galibier descent was fun – it really is spectacular and deposits you on top of the Lauteret. That was a different matter. There was a lot of oncoming traffic threatening overtaking manouvres as I was going against them at 50/60 kmh. In the first tunnel (all seven tunnels were well-lit, although the tiny lights given to each cyclist in the registration pack were good to have) the car in front of me had its wing mirror torn off so after that I took it pretty easy – the combination of cyclists, traffic and tunnels put me on high alert. But I reached the bottom okay.

I reached the bottom of Alpe d’Huez about 30 minutes after the time limit. I was mildly disappointed, but handed over the chip and immediately started the climb, which is brutal for the first few switchbacks but is very straightforward after that. Another guy beside me reckoned that staying on the Alpe made the decision to go up easier than if he had a hotel room around the corner in Bourg d’Oisans. Fair point. It took 1 hour 40 minutes to climb it. It was only with a couple of kilometres to go that I was certain I would do it. Hundreds of guys were walking it.

All day I had told myself to hold back, take it easy and make sure I finish the course. On the last hairpin of Alpe d’Huez I was even able to ‘attack’ (well, it felt like an attack in my head) for 30 seconds. Forcing yourself to go slowly on the first three climbs is the single most important thing that you can do to finish the day. Save your attacks for the Alpe.

The finish

I finished after 12 hours and 40 minutes of riding. I was outside the time limit at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez so I got no chip and no certificate. That time includes 40 minutes or so for the break and the Glandon descent that is neutralised and not included in official times. Not a great time by any means but plenty of first-time riders don’t finish the course, and I was happy that I managed to do that, particularly considering that I hadn’t exactly killed myself training over the previous few months.

Positive thoughts

It is vital not to think ahead on La Marmotte. I did a few times during the day, and my legs immediately turned to jelly. But 99% of the time I was fine. I centred my thoughts by breathing in consciously. As I did this I thought of the oxygen that I was taking in giving my legs extra power, and as I breathed out I thought of a place up the road that I would definitely reach within ten to fifteen minutes. Usually it was a kilometre marker, sometimes a hairpin or something else I could see up ahead. Doing that worked really well for me.

I also differentiated between positive thoughts and negative thoughts. It was fine for my mind to stray onto positive thoughts such as “I have remember to tell X about that when I get home”, or doing some bikespotting. But when I started thinking about the Alpe, or the tunnels on the Lauteret descent, I had to snap out of it immediately.

Gearing

I had a compact on my bike, so I switched to a long rear derailleur and a cassette with 32 teeth. Yes, it doesn’t look cool, but it worked beautifully. I wanted to finish the course and this helped greatly. I was able to spin away seemingly indefinitely in my lowest gear. 34-32 is good enough for the pros (even if it’s saved for harder climbs) so it’s good enough for me.

Group riding

I started with maybe 1000 riders behind me. Because the start line is narrow and the road immediately widens, big gaps formed within metres of the start line as people raced off. The only thing to do is get onto a group, or wait 30 seconds for the next one. Don’t strain yourself but it’s fine to put in a little effort to save a lot. If you find yourself struggling, drop back if you see a group behind you. Same thing goes for the ride to the bottom of the Telegraphe.

The time limit

The 8000 riders set off in three groups between 7:00 and 7:50, yet were subject to the same time limit of 18:15 (more like 18:30 in practise) in Bourg d’Oisans at the bottom of the Alpe. I saw hundreds of guys walking up Alpe d’Huez who got certificates for finishing it. In that respect the time limit is disappointing – I had no interest in killing myself to make the time limit and then walking up the last climb.

The food

I wouldn’t rely on it – bring your own for the day. Some will like what is provided, some won’t. But you can check it out on your first time at the event. For something so difficult you need to eat exactly what works for you, and not to make do with what you are given.

Talking to others

The most useful thing you can ask other people is what time they are aiming for. Stick with the guys who look serious and are aiming for a similar time to you. The occasional brief chat breaks up the monotony.

Calories taken

I took 3000 with me on the day, imbibed about 2700, and next time I would take a few hundred more calories in prepared food as an alternative to gels. I think you would need to peel off the route to buy energy gels if you needed them. There is a bike shop in Bourg d’Oisans that sells them but really I would only go there in an emergency, and I don’t know what time they close on the day of the event. There are places to eat in Valloire and Plan Lachat as well as the Maurienne Valley on the way to the Telegraphe but you would need to plan ahead if you are going to stop. I don’t think stopping to sit down and eat is a good idea – it can be hard to get going again and adds a lot of time to your day.

Biggest mistake

My biggest mistake was taking too long at the stops. I should have had a routine for each one and followed it, but I procrastinated. Lesson learned.

Mobile phones

Rode past three dropped mobile phones on the tarmac on the Glandon, with riders skittering downhill in their cleats after them. Secure your phone by putting it in your jersey pocket. It’s not difficult.

The day after the event I did about 50km – it was hard to turn the pedals and I had no appetite for it. This was the only bad part of incorporating it into a cycle trip – wasted days before and after the event. On the second day I felt much better.

Support or not?

Plenty of companies offer packages and support on the day. It’s probably a good idea if you are not a very organised person or you are doing it for the first time, but it is by no means necessary. You can easily carry the food you need and water is plentiful. Just get your preparation right.

La Marmotte guide: Would I do it again?

Yes but not for a while, and I would want to be in a position where I could train for it and do a significantly better time, maybe aim for ten hours. That said, it was an incredible day, and I would recommend it to anyone. Well, anyone who is excited at the thought of spending a day climbing in the Alps with 7999 other riders.