Humbled by the Giants

Before riding La Marmotte I was quietly confident of a good showing. After all, I’ve ridden more kilometres this year than ever before and, even if my early summer racing had been made up of time trials, the extra strength I’d gained from the testing ought to pay dividends in the mountains.

Take it easy, I said to myself. Ride steady up the Col du Glandon, sit in through the valley to the foot of the Col du Télégraphe, notch it up a gear or two on the Galibier and leave something in the tank for Alpe d’Huez. As it was, I managed one of my goals (the first one). Ignoring all advice I’d been given, I worked hard into a headwind along the valley to the base of the Télégraphe, and that was pretty much the end of me.

The tank was empty. A défaillance, the French call it. I had almost 6hrs still to ride at that point. It wasn’t that I was going backwards, it was just that I was going forwards much slower than the rest. And on climbs like the Galibier, every small detail is magnified. Every single pedal stroke suddenly breaks down into 10 different components; every twinge in your muscles is analysed as the onset of cramp. You open your mouth to breathe and suck down only warm air. You’d pour your water from your bidons over yourself, but you know it’s already warmer than soup.

Forget what people tell you about the top of the Galibier being the hardest part; it’s simply not true. The toughest part is grinding your way up the lower slopes not being able to see the summit, and asking yourself why you’re going so slowly on a road that looks to be flat. On paper, the Galibier is a harder climb than Alpe d’Huez. Having ridden them both in the past, I know it’s harder. But it’s nothing compared to arriving at the bottom of the Alpe after more than 7hrs in the saddle, it’s 36°C at the foot of the mountain and you still have to haul yourself up the 21 hairpins.

It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Every few metres, there were riders slumped over their bikes at the side of the road. Each of the famed 21 virages saw people leant up against the walls, taking any small amount of rest they could. There were queues for the alpine streams that traverse the mountain, with riders taking ice-cold showers to try and cool themselves down.

Every ounce of sense I had willed me to stop and join them. Just take a small break. But there was no way I was going to let this mountain beat me. I stubbornly pedalled on, thinking of nothing but each new pedal stroke, overtaken time and time again by the same riders who had stopped at the streams or on the hairpins. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden so slowly up a climb.

The longest hour and a half of my life later, I reached the top. Put it in the big ring, sprinted for the line, and came in with a gold medal time. As I collapsed in a heap on the ground, I swore I’d never do this race again (which means I’ll probably be signing up again for next year).

As cyclosportives go, even in France La Marmotte stands far above other events. No other race can offer participants the chance to test themselves against mythical giants of the Tour such as the Col du Glandon, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. 174km in distance with more than 5000m of climbing, and if that amount of attrition isn’t enough for you, La Grimpée de l’Alpe takes place the following morning, with a timed test up Alpe d’Huez. It’s that kind of challenge that attracts riders from all over the world, with more than 80% of participants coming from outside France. This year, over 7500 riders started the race, and some 2500 wouldn’t reach the finish.

The last official rider came in almost 14hrs after starting, but I saw riders walking their bikes up Alpe d’Huez in the dark at 10pm that night, still determined to finish come what may. Still refusing to be beaten by the giants.