French Alpes, July 2006

I haven't actually been to the Alpes since 1999, so it was about time for a return visit. For a long time I have wanted to ride 'La Marmotte' Cyclosportif; Duncan and I rode the course on that '99 trip, but I wanted to try racing it. Some other cycling friends also fancied it this year, so it all came together, and we got entered as soon as we were able at the start of the year - me from New Zealand! I then of course ended up attempting the world hour record the weekend before in Arizona, which wasn't ideal preparation, but still....

Saturday 8th July; La Marmotte
Jet lag really doesn’t help – I’ve been tired all week, then couldn’t get to sleep until gone 1am this morning, only to be rudely awakened by the alarm at 4:50. Oh well. A bit of breakfast then into the cars for the 45 minute drive to the start. I have wanted to do this race for years, so was excited to finally get to it. The unknown factor was doing an event with over 7000 entrants. It was mad at the start; firstly we had to go and find registration to get our numbers, and then follow the crowds heading for the starting pens. These are organised by number order (if you have ridden the race, sorry, cyclosportif, before, then you have the potential to get seeded in the front group of 400. Otherwise it is in number order from when you entered. With numbers in the mid 2000s, this left us way back from the start line. When the race started, it took almost 15 minutes before we actually crossed the line! There was quite a contingent of us taking part – mostly Oxford and Cambridge old boys (we are staying at Darren and Celia’s place nearby – Darren studied at Oxford and worked at Cambridge Uni). We were a bit split up at the start however, with Digby, Douglas and I lining up together. When we eventually did cross the line, I set about moving up the field. The first 12km or so were slightly downhill down the valley, before turning to start the first climb of the day. Traditionally this is the Col de Croix de Fer; however, with a landslide on the descent, the route was changed slightly to go over the Col du Glandon – the climb is actually the same for both Cols, the summit of the Glandon just turns off a few km before the top of the Croix de Fer. I motored past a lot of people down the valley, but there were sill hundreds ahead as I started the climb. Although it got a little tight at times, nescitating some weaving through the other riders, my progress was never impeded, and I made a good ascent, getting somewhere near the front by the top of the climb. A few km from the summit I was hailed by another rider – it was Steve Perini, Darren’s mate whom I had last seen ten years ago when he kipped on my floor in Cambridge the night before the student 50 mile time trial! He had realised it was me because of my name being on my toptube… we exchanged greetings before continuing at our own pace.

I crossed the Glandon with 1:32 on the clock, and started the descent. Darren had warned us that people tended to go mad and crash on the first downhill, and sure enough there was a nasty looking accident on the first bend. With marshals in attendance, I carried on, taking it easy…. but still catching riders. After a fast 30 minute descent, I got in a group for the uphill valley section to take us to the next climb. This took about 40 minutes, and then we hit the Col de Telegraphe. I paused for quick bladder relief, then got back into climbing mode. The Telegraphe is the easiest and shortest of the day’s mountains, and I ended up teaming up with another rider to storm up it. I was probably going a bit too hard really, but it’s nice to have a wheel to pace off. Over the top the clock said 3:20, and it was a short downhill to the village before starting the big one of the day – the 2600m Col de Galibier. I had just caught a rider at the top of the Telegraphe who turned out to be another Brit – Jim had ridden La Marmotte several times, as well as many other mountainous sportifs. We chatted briefly before I paused at the feed to get more drink. I thought I would catch him up again on the climb, but although I got close and had him in sight, I quickly realised that I was starting to blow – my heartrate was down 15 beats, and I was struggling to turn the gear. Still, nothing for it but to grovel my way up. A few riders who I had previously passed now passed me, which was a bit depressing, but I was just in survival mode to get to the top. The Galibier is a bit harsh because with 6km to go you can see the top – way up in the sky with nasty hairpins snaking up to it. Still, eventually I made it; the clock said 4:40 at the summit. I grabbed some more water and stuffed some cake in my mouth, donned arm warmers and gillet, and then started down the other side. Very cold on the descent, I was getting flashbacks to Italy last year when my arms started shaking so badly I couldn’t control the bike. It wasn’t nearly that bad, but still not comfortable. And my neck was hurting from craning up to see from the drops. Once the road levelled out a bit I concentrated on eating and drinking as much as I could, to try and refuel for the final climb of L’Alpe d’Huez. Again I was fortunate in picking up a group for the fast ride down the valley – the headwind meant you didn’t want to be by yourself.

And so we arrived at the base of the climb. I stopped for a last bladder break, then got into a rhythm. It was good to see my heartrate back where it should be, and I soon re-caught my group and pulled away from them. My good pace lasted until about 4km to go, where I blew for the second time. Back into survival mode, but at least I knew it would soon all be over! In the last 2km my left hamstring started twitching; by the time I crossed the line it was full on sore – I think I must have pulled it a bit in the finishing effort. The climb had taken me 1:03; not too bad considering the rest of the day (I did it in about 50 minutes, but hitting it fresh, seven years ago). This gave me a final time of 6:50 (including my two minutes of stops), to be well inside the Gold standard for my age group. I went and found some water, and after sitting and drinking for a bit, I felt I could face the plate of pasta that was provided. Then, after handing in the transponder and collecting my diploma, it was time to head down. Some of the others had arrived by now, but I decided just to get down the mountain and get home. Getting on the bike was somewhat interesting – my hamstring didn’t want to play; at least it was all downhill so I didn’t have to pedal. After a gentle descent (had to be careful with all the bikes and traffic coming up), I found my way back to the car and drove back to Darren’s. Just about managed to keep my eyes open; happy to make it back.

On the Sunday following the race, we had an extended late breakfast before getting the whole group together for a recovery ride. This started out nice and easily, as such a ride should, spinning gently along the riverside bike path. But then we decided to ride back over the 'hill', and of course with a group of competitive cyclists, the pace ended up being anything but easy for the 30ish minute climb... Ah well. A nice descent, then a swim and a long social lunch. Very civilised.

Most people were leaving on Monday. Darren and Celia took themselves off to work, whilst Steve, Mike and Ben headed off for Geneva airport. Digby and I took one last short ride - 7km up 6000m right out the back of the village - before he packed his bike up. Then I drove him and Katie to Grenoble airport for their flight home. As for me, being without employment to return to, I had decided to stay until the end of the week and get some more riding in. So after loading up, I set off to drive further into the mountains. I had considered returning to Albertville, where I had stayed on previous trips, but eventually decided to head somewhere new, and after a couple of hours driving, rolled into Bourg St Maurice. Darren had also suggested being based somewhere higher to avoid the heat at night - at around 800m Bourg St Maurice fit the bill. A trip to the Tourist Information found me a cheap hotel, which when I got there was run by an English couple. Very basic, but cheap and on the edge of town, so nice and quiet. I was intending to have a few days with good riding followed by plenty of relaxing and hopefully better sleep than I had had the previous week! After a look around town, there was time for a short ride before dinner. Not much choice but to climb, so I picked Les Arcs, which promised about 1000m of climbing. A good choice as it turned out, since it wasn't too steep, meaning I could take it (relatively) easy, and enjoy the superb views of Mont Blanc rising majestically from the North. I turned round before the very top, as I wanted to get down by 8pm to get some food. I stopped for pizza and ice-cream in town before riding back to the hotel to a very welcoming bed - my insomnia had struck again last night, meaning I didn't get to sleep until about 3am, leaving me with about 4 hours kip; hence I was feeling pretty tired!

Tuesday, and I woke up feeling reasonably refreshed, although my legs weren't exactly jumping to get going. After some breakfast and digestion time, I rolled out into another gorgeous, sunny, clear day. I had about three minutes warm up before starting climbing - today I was riding the Cormet de Roselend, which I have been up before, but never from this side. Riding in the shady valley was nice and cool, and kept the sweat levels down until I broke out into direct sunlight further up. My legs were feeling pretty rubbish, so I just took it steady and enjoyed being out in the mountains. The 20km ascent to just under 2000m took 1:20. I then descended the other side to take in the stunning views across the reservoir. I was enjoying being out, even if my legs weren't great, so figured I might as well take in another climb. After riding across the dam, I climbed the short ascent of the Col du Pre. The descent down the other side was much longer, steeper, technical, and with the additional challenge of many patches of fresh gravel! Eventually I got down to Beaufort, and turned back onto the main road to ascend the Roselend from the other side. I think my legs had warmed up a bit now, as I was able to attack it a bit more, and found myself back at the summit 1:14 later, after 20.5km and 1240m. At which point there was just the lovely downhill all the way back - and coming down the Roselend that side really is nice, with lots of tight hairpins through the trees on a smooth and pot-hole free surface. Very nice.
On the way up the Roselend from the East Another 'bike and col sign' pic, just has to be done I'm afraid....

The reservoir was dead calm on a beautiful day - this taken from the dam A minor Col, but a cracking view

I had a slightly slower start on Wednesday, but eventually rolled out about 11am. I was heading down the valley, but had to first climb up as the back road I took scaled the valley side for a while before dropping down to Aime. I then had a few km on the main road, including a 1.6km tunnel, before turning off for the 10km ascent to Notre Dame du Pre. A lovely, albeit steep little climb, with numerous hairpins as it threaded it's way up the mountainside. At the base was a large rock/small hill with a church built on the top; the building of which must have been quite a feat. It was amazing seeing how much smaller it got as I climbed up directly above it - see the pictures below. I was feeling pretty tired from the last few days, so after I reached the top and dropped down the other side, I decided to give the climb to La Plagne a miss - I really didn't feel up to another 16km climb! Instead I picked up the cycle path alongside the river, that took me all the way back to Bourg St Maurice. Before setting off I had attempted to top up the pressure in my tyres with my mini-pump; riding had proven this to be less than successful - I could feel they weren't nearly hard enough. So I called into the big sports supermarket, which has a sizeable bike department, to use their pump. The mechanic put 8 bar in the tubs with the compressor, and even just riding back through town I could feel the difference. That should do me for my last big ride tomorrow.

near the bottom of the climb, just below the height of the church And then it was way down below

I mean waaaaaay down below!

So after a fairly restful day on Wednesday, on Thursday it was time for a bigger day's riding. I had wanted to have a go at the Madeleine whilst I was here - I rode it on both my previous visits in '98 and '99, and wanted to see if I could improve my time to get up it. After breakfast I loaded up the car, checked out and drove for an hour - this got me to a small village where I parked and got on the bike. Rather than just hitting the Madeleine first, I had decided to have a warm up climb first; which actually turned into two climbs. As I started out, a French cyclists caught me, and we had an exchange - I can't really call it a conversation with my pigeon French! When I told him what I was planning on riding - the Col du Grand Cucheron and then the Col de la Madeleine, he told me that he thought the Cucheron was closed. Which would be a bit of a bugger, since I would have to come back down and go right round the head of the valley. Still, he didn't seem entirely certain, so I figured I'd just keep going and see when I got there. Proir to the Cucheron I had to get over the only slightly lower Col de Champlaurent. This was reasonably tough, but I tried to ride it fairly steady, since this was supposed to be just the warm up! Then I had a short descent before turning towards the Cucheron. And sure enough I was confronted with a 'Route Barree' sign saying the road was closed. But maybe I'd be able to get through on a bike. I rode up the 4km climb, and sure enough, just over the top there was evidence of roadworks, but nothing happening, and plenty of space for me to get through. The downhill into the valley was very long, with good views into the morning haze. Once down, I picked up the back road to ride up to La Chambre and the base of the Madeleine. By the time I got there I'd had a two hour warm up, and then it was into time-trial mode for a bit of tempo training up the climb. It was as nice (and hard) as I remembered it, but I was feeling pretty good, and felt like I was holding a good pace. Unfortunately there was a diversion in the village near the top, which probably added a minute or so to my time, but I still hit the top in 1:13 to knock five minutes from my previous best. Lots of cyclists at the summit, some of whom had unfortunately parked their bikes in front of the sign, rather spoiling my usual photograph! I bought and drunk a cold drink, then zipped up my jersey, turned my cap round, and took off back down again. Rather quicker going down, and progressively warmer too - back in the valley it was up around 30 degrees. The ride back took me on either side of the valley, through small villages and with a few little climbs, but eventually I made my way back to the car. 130km in 5:15, with a shed load of climbing, a good day out.

I was now due to drive back to Darren and Celia's. This went fine up until Grenoble, but then I couldn't find the motorway section that bypasses the city, and ended up going through the town. At 5pm. On the day before Bastille day and thus a long weekend. Some time later I found my way out the other side, profoundly grateful that the hire car had airconditioning! Mad traffic. So it was with great relief that I arrived back at the house, and was able to jump in the pool to cool off. I had driven through a couple of bursts of heavy rain, and as the evening progressed the storms arrived with avengence. It was amazing to watch the lightening flashing over the hills, with huge thunder cracks and at times torrential rain; glad that didn't happen whilst I was up a mountain....

The warm up col for Thursday Next!

2km up in the sky

Friday and time to fly home. I got up and went for a nice easy spin down the flat bike path for an hour, before coming back to pack the bike and leave for the airport. Nice to be out early whilst it was relatively cool, but the day was already heating up when I got back at 9am. Mountains and sunshine, couldn't ask for much more.

Full results from La Marmotte are now up. My actual time was 6:50:27, with my scratch time being 7:02:14 (as it took me that 12 minutes to actually cross the start line after the gun). My placing on scratch was 82nd overall, and 29th in my age-group. If, however, I put my actual time into the results then I was 47th overall and 17th in my group - although I don't know how many other people around me also have faster actual times. So somewhere around the top 50 anyway, out of around 7000 starters!

Darren and Celia's village of Noyarey