Darlington Cycling Club

The Marmotte 2008; A bit tougher than the Barny café run....

Nick, Andy and Oli in the clouds.

As I grovelled on the gravel in front of the Millar family Espace (commandeered as team car for the trip) I thought, 'Never again'. But that was exactly what I thought as I wretched up the last of my coke, in just the same way, onto the self same gravel last year. The difference this year was the sound of Oli (Andy Oliver) laughing at me. "Ugh, Nick, are you alright. Um, obviously not...Get out the sun, if I were you." "Thanks, but a bit late Oli!"

My only consolation was that this young athlete, had parted company with his half eaten 'recovery' pasta, somewhere in front of the Palais de Sport in Alpe d'Huez, a few minutes earlier. The final member of this illustrious triumvirate of Darlington cyclists, Andy Edmond, fared no better, in the stomach department. What had we done to our bodies?

Well, we had done it. We'd finished the glorious ordeal of the Marmotte. Widely regarded as the hardest Sportive ride in Europe, this is a beast of a ride. The distance seems innocuous at about 109 miles. That's not much more than our local "Hell of the North". The problem is the lumpy bits are a tad more severe. The cols of Glandon, Telegraph, Galibier and the 21 hairpins of Alpe d'Huez add up to about 5000m of climbing. It's like going up Ben Nevis 4 times.


Riding those roads, over those legendary cols, you know you are in the tyre tracks of the greats. You are fighting your way over the climbs that Coppi, Gaul, Pantani, and Armstrong made their own. In the rarefied alpine air you can imagine yourself floating up the hills with the polka dot jersey on your back; until you look at your speedo and realise you are doing less in mph than they did kph. But you can dream.

marmotte start At seven that morning, as we rolled into Bourg d'Oisan to take our place at the start amongst the 6000 riders, the first phase of 1000 were let loose, in our direction. This wave, including all the elites, swished past us with that extraordinary sound of hundred of tyres on smooth tarmac. Shooooosh, and the 30 mph multi-coloured snake was gone. I was getting excited.

Once the road was clear again we found our way to the chaos of the holding area before the start. We all had "chips" and everything was timed from the moment we crossed the start line, so theoretically the start position should made no difference to our ride times. So we just stood there with British patience talking about the weather, and watching some, very un-British attempted queue jumping, which was being severely dealt with by a Dutchman with scary eyes, and the look of one recently released from Broadmore.

7:50 and we were off, and quickly following wheels at 25 mph. I kept telling myself to relax, this was just the start, don't be silly. But, what the heck, all these six foot four Dutch guys just pull you along on the flat, but their genetic advantage turns to nothing as the roads point upwards. This was the plan. Take a tow on the flat and ride at my own pace on the climbs.

Oli had started a little behind Andy and me, but a mile or two into the first climb up the Glandon, he caught us up. OK, first real choice of the day. Stick with the two Andy's and risk going into the red too early, or easing back and letting them ride away up the climb. Uncharacteristically I chose the sensible option and settled in to what is a wonderful climb.

Arm warmers were now off and I could see the sun starting to hit the upper slopes of the mountains as I settled into my 34:23 and looked for a rhythm up to the Rivier Allemond. There were bikes all over the road, and you had to watch out for the wobblers or the 5 abreast brigades. Oli apparently had more trouble than me, but that might have been a factor of relative velocity.

At Rivier, where the road levels off for a bit, the gilet came off, this was going to be a warm day. I took some time to drink. This year I would not get dehydrated, and I would make sure I ate enough.

The gilet removal seemed a bit premature as the road dropped away through a series of switch-backs, cutting to the other side of the valley to avoid the rock-fall, which had wiped out the old road that used to run up the left side of the valley. After 10k of climbing this short sharp descent seems great until you notice the stream of seemingly stationary bikes strewn all over the road ahead. You swing off the last hairpin at 30mph sweep across the bridge, and bang; you hit a dead straight 1k ramp, which is the steepest section of the whole ride. 30mph becomes 6mph, and I am thankful for a compact chainset, a glorious Pinarello, and that it will become less steep soon.

As we climbed on, the sun found its way over the mountains and I revelled in the beauty of the place. As you approach Glandon the valley opens out to a high alpine meadow, which is stunning.

marmotte glandon
Heading to the Glandon / Croix de Fer. It doesn't get better than this!

The route used to pass over Croix de Fer which lies about 3k beyond Glandon. Cresting Croix de Fer is breathtaking, but that would have to be for a later day, today the 1924m of Glandon would be enough. I felt fresh still, but I was a bit head-achy from the altitude. Anyway, one of the best white knuckle rides you could ask for was just waiting for me.

Theoretically there was a feed station at the Col, but all I saw was a sort of bike-scrum. I had a pocket full of fig-rolls, so pressed on. This was going to be fun.

The first sections are steep, technical, and frankly a bit scary. The most worrying, is the sharp left hander about 3 hairpins down. The road surface breaks up, the camber goes against you, and a 12 inch wall is all that separates you from eternity. I took it easy this year. Last time I had rolled wider than I had planned, and as I breathed deeply thinking, "That was a bit close", I spotted the chain-ring plaque, which marks where a rider got it tragically wrong in 2006.

marmotte glandon

After the, "Let's be sensible" section the descent becomes very fast, with sweeping curves, for 20k. I tried not to use my brakes too much (only to save warming my rims too much and risking a blow out of course) and grinned inanely as I hurtled down to valley.

The Arc valley is the low point of the Marmotte route, in more ways than one. At just 420 m above sea-level you know you are only 2200 m below Galibier; and that means 30 miles of climbing. But I couldn't care less. It's warm in the valley, the descent was great, and I have a pulse rate low enough to eat. 3 Fig- rolls go down. The road starts to point up a little, as we turn onto the grim main road that runs up the valley towards St Michel de Maurienne. Back to the plan A, stick to wheel of large Dutchmen, and get this drag over with.

I was looking forward to the Telegraph. I don't know what it is about it, but I really like this climb. Rolling up through woods for 12k or so the gradient is even and the roads good. The only downside to the Telegraph is that it is on the way to Galibier.

The valley road comes into St M de M, where you turn right and you are straight into the climb. As I psyched myself up, and nudged my gears down, I passed two cycle-tourists, with bulging front and rear panniers. "Chapeau", I called cheerily, as I rolled past, grateful of a 7kg bike. They looked at me as if I were the mad one. Maybe so.

My big Dutch windbreaks started suffering as soon as the road kicked up, and I settled into the climb, and found a good rhythm.

Of course it couldn't last. I knew what was coming. Over the top of Telegraph and you're straight into the 4 km drop down to Valloire, which must be a lovely place. All I know is that it marks the start of the hard bit of the Marmotte.

Through the town and the road starts to climb. I hate this bit. It doesn't look steep, almost flat, but the bike tells me a different story and legs feel heavy as they grind out the couple of km to feed station.

Fed and watered I get cracking again. The next ten miles took on a certain dream like quality. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen, or the heat, I don't know, but this had got hard. Very hard. My feet decided my Sidi's were too small, or narrow, or maybe just they were sick of pushing down endlessly. They started screaming at me and only loosening the straps to the point where my feet nearly pulled out of the shoes gave then enough room to breathe.

Apart from screaming feet, a throbbing head, and tired legs I seemed to have got heavier. How does that happen? Either I had got heavier, or my saddle had got harder. Anyway, my butt hurt.

Then as I was feeling resolute and determined; someone who could battle through pain and adversity; I saw something which put my little aches in perspective. A one legged cyclist was pedalling smoothly up to Plan Lachat.

marmotte glandon Then a Marmot ran over the road about 5 m in front of me. "It's a sign", I thought. Although my addled brain couldn't figure what the sign meant.

Then he dived into his burrow. "Not a bad idea, just get your head down for 5 minutes. Just have a little rest, and you'll feel better. Go on, have a little sleep." Pesky rat, trying to break my resolve.

By the time I crested the Col, I was wrecked, and all I could think about was getting down the mountain to somewhere with air. And Coke. I wanted Coke. Sugar, caffeine, cold nectar. The dive off Galibier was fun last time, this time it was a case of, "Keep your wits about you. Focus. Think. Mind the car. Keep light. Relax on the bike."

marmotte glandon
Galibier. Did we really ride up this?

Then to my surprise I spotted the "Ferryhill" top of Andy a couple of bends below. Bearing in mind how tough I had found the climb I realised he must have had a grim time too. This mountain is a beast.

A couple of miles on I caught up with Andy who had pulled up at the roadside. So I stopped to check all was OK. On the way up he ad been plagued by "hot-foot" as well and the altitude was playing havoc with his head too. He was feeling dizzy, and his vision seemed tunnelled (not ideal for flying down an alp at 40 mph). He said he just needed a minute to recover. So I rolled on towards the Lauteret.

Then, when I saw the cafés, I had to stop and buy that Coke my whole body craved. I walked into a café; and realised, I had no money! I thought of the classic Tour trick of simply raiding bars on route, but thought better of it. I should have sent a domestique.

OK, only 20 miles to the feed at Bourg d'Oisan. All down hill. Just get on with it. This road is bad. It's busy, with dark damp tunnels, but it is down hill. So, get on with it.

Andy caught me up on the decent and we worked together (well he did the bulk of the work) until we got caught up in a train, and I just sat in, and wondered how on earth I would be able to get up the Alpe. Then I tried not to think about it, and dreamt of Coke. With Ice. Oh yes, Coke and Ice. Bottled, not canned, Coke in a proper Coke glass. I told you my head was gone. I don't even like Coke.

The last 3 miles or so to the base of the last climb is dead straight, and I just held a wheel towards the back of what seemed a strong group. The big Dutch were fulfilling their purpose in the world again. Andy was near the front looking fine (to me anyway). As we turned off towards the climb, I pulled into the feed. Andy and the group cruised on.

Ok where is it? There was cheese, and cake and banana, and bread, and water and energy drink, and something strange and lurid and green, and lemonade, but where was it? Finally round the side I found it. Coke. Big plastic bottle, plastic cup, no ice, but just what my body needed. I know I have to listen to my body, and this was what it wanted.

With 5 cups in me and a bidon half full of the glorious gloop, I got down to the last job of the day.

alpe dhuez
The Alpe. Always looks better from above!

The miracle cure had worked its sweet magic, and against all my expectations, the legs got back into a fairly smooth climbing action. I seemed to be getting up the hill quite a lot faster than I expected. This was odd, but I wasn't complaining. I had been 15 minutes behind last year's time at the bottom, maybe I might catch up a bit.

Around turn 9 I came across Andy again. He was having a bad patch, feeling sick, and suffering hot-foot. With true comradeship and in the spirit of team-work and mutual support, I wished him well, kept my rhythm, and rode by. It's a marmot eat marmot world up there in the high alps.

Eventually, I was up in the meadows with only a couple of turns to go. It would be over soon and actually this is a beautiful place, and it had been a great ride; a frighteningly hard ride, but what a ride. As I came into the town and things flattened off I realised I might have pulled back that lost 15 minutes.

Nick, last again!
Nick, the final sprint...last again!

In the end I rolled over the line in 8:15:43 a gaping 45 seconds (0.15%!) slower than last year. I also felt quite good, well at least until all that coke caught up with me....

Oli had arrived about 20 minutes before me and Andy made it home a few minutes later. We had all obtained Brevet d'Or (Gold Medals) and although we all think we could shave some time off (obviously!) we were agreed that this is not like anything we had done before, and just finishing it is an achievement we are proud of.

The unanimous view was that this was a once in a lifetime ride, Never to be repeated, at least not until next year.

Nick Millar, July 2008

postscript: Nick's decided against riding the Marmotte in 2009, preferring 10 leisurely days riding the Cent Cols Challenge. That'll be 2,000km and 45,000 metres of climbing..... check out his progress on the Forum

© Nick Millar