La Marmotte Sportive - Advice for Riders

I make no claim to being an expert cyclist.  The Raid Pyrenean and La Marmotte in 2013 were the first of the big road cycling challenges I’d undertaken, so I was pleased to just finish.  

However, I am a planner.  I think about how I’ll do things in advance.  Afterwards I’ll ponder how I could have done it better.

I’m also a sharer hence this blog, and there are also loads more captioned photos on my Flickr site.

(Read my event description and entry written the day after the event)

I claim no monopoly on wisdom, so please add your contributions by commenting below.  I'm sure more experienced riders can add to my suggestions.

Hopefully this will be helpful to anyone considering riding La Marmotte for the first time.

The event is run by Sport Communication whose confusing website calls it the Grand Trophee Cycling Event.  Once entries open around 1st December they sell out within hours. People stay up past 1am to book their place.  If you don’t get an entry (on 3rd December I didn't) you can turn to tour operators who offer guaranteed entry.

Fri queue to register - took 20mins
There are smaller (more expensive?) operators such as AlpCycles, who were highly recommended by a friend of mine, but who had sold out of places before the event website went live.  

Such operators take about 20-50 clients and offer a bespoke service, driving clients down the Alpe d’Huez road, better (sometimes more) feeding stations to supplement the official ones which are frequently dreadful, and generally a more personalised, knowledgeable service.  

For the first time at an event like this, if I could afford it, I’d go with a smaller experienced bespoke operator.

Instead I went with a large tour operator Sports Tours International, who were the opposite in almost every way.  They had around 250 clients and nice representatives but they were not very knowledgeable of the event.  

Ours couldn’t explain how the start worked, gave wrong information about the buses on the Alpe road, and crucially, gave wrong info about the “cut off” time riders had to start the Alpe d’Huez climb.  

Our coach, not the delayed coach
He thought it was when traffic re-started.  It’s not.  It’s an absolutely crucial deadline – miss it and your timing chip is cut from your bike.

Some competitors travelled to La Marmotte from hotels in Annecy so they could ride l’Etape the next day. After a 3am start (!) they almost missed this event because the coach driver did not know how to load their assembled bikes into his trailer.

According the the guy I sat next to on the plane home, there was no Sports Tours rep on board to sort it out and they were frantic when the gendarmes stopped them from going down the already closed road to starting pens of La Marmotte.

Somehow they made it to the start with just seconds to spare.  Very stressful.

Sports Tours International are cheaper than the bespoke operators.  They offer transfer for bike box and rider from the airport, and the hotel and food the provided were good enough.  If you know what to expect of the event, and do not rely on the tour operator too much, then they're arguably the better option.  

We call this a Sportive. The French call it a race.  Not officially of course, but that’s how it’s viewed.  

Hotel bike store
When you talk to UK insurance companies many are aware of this being ‘against the clock’ and standard cycling insurance won’t cover you on race-day.  If in doubt - check.

I used house insurance for the bike (covered all risks) and my personal travel insurance comes with my bank account.

I took a specialist policy at £15.80 from JS Insurance for the one event day, just in case I needed medical treatment. I booked this over the phone so I could ensure I had the correct cover.

In case the insurers want to know, this is not a totally closed road event.  From the start, over to the bottom of Glandon is car free, as is the initial descent of the Galibier, but the rest you share with vehicles.  Oh, the Alpe d'Huez climb is traffic free until after the 6:30pm cut off.

Ideally you’d drive to the event, but that takes time and costs even more.  In my limited experience EasyJet seem OK with bikes.  When you make your booking just add them under the sports equipment, pay the money, and there’s no drama at the airport.  BA please take note.

Rented Polaris bike pod
In the past I’ve packed bikes, heavily padded, in cardboard boxes to fly.  I won’t get into the relative merit argument here, I’ll just ask you to consider one thing.  

Seven thousand riders do La Marmotte.  Many drive, but thousands still travel through Geneva airport before and after the event.  

There is no way your bike will get special, gentle treatment just because it’s in cardboard.  

A rider on my flight opened his soft bike bag to find a snapped derailleur hanger (always carry a spare hanger when travelling) and had to find a rental bike for the events.

I rented a Polaris bike pod (£8 a day) removed the derailleur on the way out, and left it on for the return trip.  Having looked at a few of these boxes, if I bought one it would be the Polaris or Bike Box Alan.  The problem is storing them at home and when on holiday, especially if touring, hence the rental.

Aim to arrive at your hotel, apartment or campsite with at least one free day before the event.  Travelling takes a toll on the body as does staying at altitude (if you’re in Alpe d’Huez).  Friday morning I had the squitters and it took until evening before I could stray more than two minutes from a loo.

The choice is either Bourg d’Oisans in the valley, where the start happens, or the Alpe d’Huez ski station where the registration and finish are located.  People can make a case for either being the best location.

British run Beau Soleil Sport Hotel
If you stay in Bourg, you have to go up the Alpe road on Thursday or Friday to register, but there is a bus.  

If you stay in Alpe d’Huez you will have a chilly 45-minute descent to the valley on the morning of the event because you need to be n your starting pen by 6am.  However, you finish nearer your hotel and there's more happening in Alpe d'Huez.

If you’re with a tour operator, you can drop your warm clothes after the descent with them at the bottom of the Alpe road.  

Wearing arm warmers, gillet and light rain jacket (for the Galibier descent – I anticipated it being much colder) I was warm enough in the holding pen.  

I stayed in a quiet corner of the large Alpe d’Huez resort, in the British owned and run Beau Soleil sport hotel.  It had good, basic rooms.  The food was tasty although portions could have been slightly bigger.  I took my own breakfast cereal for race day so there were no surprises.  The all English staff were very friendly and helpful.

No more than 100psi.  On the descent of the Col du Glandon I saw so many punctures I stopped counting at thirty.

Most seemed to be front wheel blow outs, and those that happened at speed resulted in crashes and injuries.  

General opinion is that these explosive blow-outs are the result of too high pressure and over-heating rims caused by braking.  I saw several riders being loaded into ambulances, one on a stretcher. 

Gearing is very personal, but my Specialised Roubaix came with a compact set-up.

I had my local bike shop change the rear derailleur and cassette from a 28 to 32 tooth ring.  "I keep trying to change into a lower gear", was a comment I frequently heard on climbs from riders on standard compacts.

Tiny lights are provided at registration and are compulsory for the tunnels on the main road from the Galibier to Bourg d'Oisans.

It’s probably going to be very, very hot.  Unless it's not.  There's no way of predicting so take a range of clothing with you so you can adapt to forecast conditions at the last minute.

Be aware that  in misty conditions, descending from the altitude of major cols like the Galibier can chill you to the bone, even cause hypothermia.

Which seems bizarre when you've been baking on the way up, but that's the way it is.

My Garmin recorded a maximum of 37 Celsius and minimum of 12 Celsius.

People I spoke to who were wearing black shirts regretted their choice.

A full zip down the front is also a good idea and, if you like to remove your helmet when climbing (against the rules) take a light cotton cap to keep the sun off. Otherwise arm warmers and a gillet might be enough, unless there’s the chance of fog or rain on the Galibier when a light jacket would be nice.  

I carried a tiny rain jacket, the size of a small apple, but only wore it for the descent from Alpe d'Huez and while waiting for the start. Arms and gillet were enough for all descents.

The organisers post details on their website of how the start will happen, but essentially it takes place in three huge waves based on starting number.  At 7am 1-1999 start; at 7:30 it’s 2000-3999; then at 7:50 it’s everyone else 4000+.

So that last wave has three thousand riders in it!  In the holding pen there’s a little jockeying for position, but you can’t really squeeze past the barriers, either in the pen or in the main street.  Your event time doesn’t start until you cross the mat on the starting line, but if you're a slow rider, being near the start is an advantage.  Not only can you jump on the end of a train of faster riders, you also have more time before the 6:30pm cut off - see below.

The video is shot from the front of the 4000+ holding pen.

The people to the left, as I pan, are part of the second wave (a lot more came later) while those directly ahead are the first wave, stretching down the high street and out of sight. Behind me are the 4000+ riders of the third wave.

Despite avowed intentions to ‘take it easy at first’ the opening flat stretch is a great place to speed. With 4000+ riders starting together, it’s inevitable faster trains will be coming past you, so if you can hope on the end and wheel suck it’s worth it. 

Timing mat at start of neutralised Glandon section
But what do I know?  I cocked up!  

Three weeks before this event I had ridden the 750km Raid Pyrenean covering 11,000m of ascent in 100 hours (four and a half days) so I thought I’d be taking good fitness into La Marmotte.  

But for this event you climb 5,500m in one day, exactly half of what I did on the total Raid.

Analysis from my Garmin shows me getting slower and slower on the progressively steeper climbs.

My biggest mistake was to fail to appreciate how long I’d take overall.  

The descent from the Col du Glandon is neutralised – timing stops at the to and restarts at the bottom – to try to cut the number of accidents.  

Neutralised descent from Col du Glandon
So I’d lingered over this descent, snapping photos and taking it easy, resting my legs.  

I did the same in Valloire, between the Telegraph and Galibier.  

I’ll not repeat my tale of woe, you can read that here.  

But I only just made it to the bottom of Alpe d’Huez before the all important 18:30 deadline, after which your timing chip is removed.

I spoke to several riders who'd been to training camps in the Alps, frequently with the tour operator they were using for the event, or had made independent visits just to ride a few cols.

As there is nowhere in the UK to prepare for climbs like this, it would seem a sensible idea.

If hell really is other people, then you can find it on top of the Col du Glandon on event day.  Actually this freaked me.

I felt sorry for the poor volunteers who were trying to hand out bread, cheese, fruit and especially water, to thousands of riders.

Glandon zoo - 2hrs in
Look at the photos.  If you don’t like crowds (I don’t) don’t come here.

The next water stop at the bottom of the Col du Telegraph was not much better, with just two people trying to cope.

The field was stretched out now, but it was still a scrum.

See the comments on my first article for people’s views on this.

During the Raid I’d learnt not to rely on bars, gels and carb drink.

So I made a couple of sandwiches on flat sunflower bread I'd brought with me - flat so they'd fit in my back pocket.  I ate the first on the Glandon, and I sought out bread and cheese in Valloire as well as dried fruit and nuts.  At the top of the Galibier just could not face another sandwich.

I had a TriBag behind my head tube to carry a variety of bars, gels and sachet of SiS Go Electrolyte.

After my Raid experience, I was confident I had a range of things to eat and would know when to go for one or the other.

Yet after a few hours on long climbs in searing heat I couldn’t stomach such energy products.

I knew I needed energy but just couldn’t face eating a bar or, as I saw it at the time, a sickly sweet drink.  Yet coke seemed to slip down just fine, and I bought two cans from cafes.

Looking back, I would have performed better if I had planned and stuck to a precise eating pattern.

My Garmin says I was out for almost thirteen hours and used nearly 10,000 calories.  I know I ate nothing like this amount and I paid the price.

So during training, when you tackling rides over ten hours (which you should be) I suggest work out your eating strategy.  Don’t dive into cafes.  Practice how you’ll fuel yourself for La Marmotte.  Don't make my mistake.

Two different clocks are running during La Marmotte – event time and time of day.
Nearing the end

Event time is how long to take to travel between start and finish, although remember, the timing is switched off between the summit of the Col du Glandon and the bottom of the descent.  

There’s a Gold standard and a Silver standard event time, which vary depending upon your gender and age group.  

As a 50-59 year old man, Gold was 9hours, and Silver 10hrs 44mins.  I secretly harboured hopes for Silver.   

Some hope!  My event time was 11hrs 34mins.

For slower riders, the time of day clock is particularly important because is you reach the bottom of the Alpe d’Huez climb before 6.30pm French time, you can continue and finish La Marmotte, even if you push all the way up.  

But if you reach the bottom of after that time, you are out of La Marmotte.

Your timing chip will be cut from your bike and your certificate will say La Marmotton (or something like that). 

So for slower riders I now realise it is important to start as early in the day as possible and in particular, do not dawdle in feed stations or cafes.
Bronze medal
Other numbers - according to the results, there were 6,288 finishers of which I was number 5,930, the bottom 5%.

If there were 7,000 starters then I'm in the bottom 11%.  Which is OK for my first event like this.

And the bronze medal looks rather like a gold one, don't you think?

Although my event time was 11:34 I was out for 12hr 48min (remember the neutralised section).  That's a long ride.

I’ll add more thoughts as they occur to me.  If you can add to what I've written here, please make a comment.

If you’ve found this useful, please click on a few of the ads – it really does help to  keep the website going.  


Unknown said...

How does one get to start at 7 am? With the first wave. Ill ride the race this summer, would be great to know!


Simon Willis said...

Hi Kristofer - you start according to your allocated race number. How those numbers are allocated is only known by the race organisers, so they're the people to ask.
Good luck!

Unknown said...

Ok, Ill wrestle the french for it then, it'll be interesting considering the state of their homepage... could there be less information on a website?! :)

Thanks so much for the info, cheers!


Simon Willis said...

It is a truly apalling homepage!

That's why I didn't realise there was a cut-off time until I was half-way up the Galibier. I found SO little info online and certainly no rules etc.

One thought - you could try some of the companies which sell travel / accommodation / race entry packages. They must have contacts within the organisers, or perhaps know more about the way things work. They could have better customer service.

Sports Tours International is the big one in the UK, but I suspect the smaller companies offering guaranteed entry and support will be easier to deal with.

Again - and I mean it - Good Luck!


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.