First came the Etape du Tour. It has been popular among UK riders for some time, and many base their season around conquering the long distances and inevitable mountains it offers each year.

However, its point-to-point nature means it can be logistically tricky, and it has also become more difficult for us Brits to enter of late. Additionally, some people have noticed that some Etapes are easier than others, and don’t demand the kind of eye-popping agonies that tend to leave one bed-ridden for a week afterwards.
So enter the Marmotte.

Over a fixed loop of 175 kilometres, climbing 5,000 metres over the famous Tour de France cols of the Glandon, Télégraphe and Galibier before finishing atop Alpe d’Huez, it has been providing riders with a day of pure sadomasochistic fantasy every July since 1982. It is widely considered to be the hardest cyclo-sportive on what is a rapidly expanding calendar — considering which, I can’t for the life of me work out why I chose to do it. Probably for exactly that reason — I rode the Etape back in 2001 and it was pretty much purgatory; the idea of tackling something even harder was just too tempting to pass up.

Perhaps I should have taken note of the warning signs, though — the racing season wasn’t going too well; the needle on the bathroom scales was veering alarmingly upwards by the week — wasn’t this a little foolhardly?

Food for thought
I just told myself that as long as I kept eating and drinking, I’d be OK with my 34×25 bottom gear. Surely I wouldn’t need to go any lower?

The morning of the ride itself began, for our posse of five at least, with a descent from our hotel on top of Alpe d’Huez. At half-six in the morning, the fact that we didn’t freeze on the way down was a pleasant surprise, but perhaps it should have alerted us to just how hot the weather was shaping up to be that day. It was going to be hot as hell’s kitchen — and we had 80 kilometres of climbing ahead, ouch.

As is the custom with cyclo-sportives — particularly ones of this size, involving around 5,000 participants — first there was the waiting. Shuffling, quick ‘number ones’ in the bushes, final equipment checks, and last-minute energy bars scoffed. Then suddenly you’re part of a mass of moving colour, pelting along at 25 miles per hour (and the rest) through residential streets.

A massing peloton, very eager and very nervous, many who lack any experience of such situations, makes for a pretty scary place to be when you’re riding down a high street at nigh-on 30mph. It’s only once you’re survived those initial first miles that you can settle in and concentrate on your ride.

Chris, who looked like doing the best time of the five of us, sprinted up the pack as we left Bourg d’Oisans. He’d professed to feeling pretty sick at breakfast, but he seemed to have found his legs now. The rest of us wished him luck and huddled protectively together.

After seven very flat and fast miles, everything changed as we hung a hard right towards the day’s first climb — the col du Glandon. As we hit the lowest footslopes, disaster struck for our man Wozza. About to swipe his first-cat road licence, he’d looked like the second star of our group after Chris. But as the road went upwards, he went backwards. He’d been complaining of feeling ill the whole of the previous day, and nearly hadn’t started the ride.

In the end he decided to give it his best shot but after less than 10 miles it was becoming clear he wasn’t up to it. We slowed down for him, encouraged and cajoled him, but he was already burying himself while the rest of us were barely breathing. He turned back, gutted. We all were.

Early pressure
The Glandon is a long climb — 20 kilometres. It’s a pretty road, climbing for a large part up through forest before opening out at the top. It’s also damn steep. I was feeling OK, but I was already down in 34×25 — a gear I was hoping to save as an Alpe d’Huez bail-out. Some way off in the distance, the warning bells began to ring.

Eventually, atop the Glandon, we arrived at the feed. An excellent one at that. I topped both bottles up with energy drink and loaded up a few baguette slices with cheese and ham — these all-day epics do put you in a savoury mood.

Our group’s third man, Rich Hallett, had long since twiddled away, leaving just me and clubmate Stephen Roach together from our group. We watched riders mass at the feed but never really disperse, and, as a huge crowd began to form, it was obvious some incident had taken place. Squeezing through and moving up the road we learned that a pretty serious pile-up involving around five riders and at least one ambulance had happened. They were ‘clearing the road’. It sounded sinister. What was this descent like?

Lost time
We eventually lost around 40 minutes at the top — though some people lost a lot more, including our mate Hallett. The descent turned out to be innocuous enough, but let’s face it — riding a bike downhill at 40mph, plus corners, plus a mixture of descending abilities, will always equal the potential for a stack.

After the descent came 15 miles of main valley trunk road, heading for the foot of the Télégraphe. It was a chance for the big lads to wreak some havoc and regain a little time lost on the long climbs. When I say ‘big lads’ I don’t mean those guys who (like me) are only big because they ate too many pies; I mean those with big bones and even bigger legs — the ones who probably heat their living rooms in winter by hooking up a 3kW electric fire to a turbo-trainer.

As they went to the front, I went to the back — despite cajoling from Stephen — and chewed handlebar stem all the way to the foot of the Télégraphe.

Easing up through the town of St Michel de Maurienne, I’d barely started picking the metal out of my teeth when the road went drastically upwards again. The Télégraphe is a cat-two climb, but don’t be fooled — it’s hard, and doesn’t offer any respite anywhere. Put in the middle of a ride like this, it’s eight miles of pure suffering.

By this time, approaching mid-morning, the heat of the day was really starting to kick in, and Steve and I wove back and forth across the road, searching out the shade of the trees as the sweat trickled freely off the ends of our noses.

Over the Télégraphe is a short, three-mile descent into the small town of Valloire, where the ride immediately commences with the joys of the Galibier.

At this point hunger knock was coming on fast, overtaking me like darkness does daylight on the equator. I knew there was a feed in Valloire but it refused to appear. Rapidly losing strength, and the will to live, I asked the French guy passing me how far it was to the feed. “Five hundred metres.”

Eating dust
Five hundred metres? We were already on the lowest slopes of the Galibier so it was all uphill. I couldn’t do it. I got off my bike and flung myself on the floor, breathing heavily. Just relieved not to be riding the bloody thing any more. It took me a few minutes to regain a little composure and extract the last trickle of liquid from my bottles, before the lure of food became too much. I remounted and headed to the feed at a slow walking pace. Ten minutes later I was feeling surprisingly rejuvenated, having stuffed my face, had a good drink, and recaught Steve.

I’d ridden this 18-kilometre, 2,700m, hors-category beast before. But I seemed to remember that the Galibier’s first 10 kilometres weren’t so bad. They meander up the valley road at a reasonable grade before the road hangs a hard right with eight ks to go and literally climbs up the valley wall and over the top. Sounds pretty hard, but I’d been there before and I wasn’t too worried about it.

I won’t string it out it all its gory detail but needless to say my initial confidence was predictably and entirely misplaced. My bonk had been cured, but that made no difference as I found myself reduced to a princely 3.5mph within a couple of kilometres, winching my 34×25 gear along at somewhere in the region of 50rpm, the searing heat only exacerbating the ever-present smell of farts in the peloton brought on by excessive consumption of energy bars.

On the snail trail
Adding to the misery was the fact that out of the thousands of people on the mountain, I was down there with the very slowest — I passed one person, but all the rest went past me — even someone wearing trainers riding a mountain bike. It was a very long, very painful climb.

The first five miles of descending off the Galibier are quite scary. They twist and turn on a narrow road with truly precipitous drops and blind bends. And when you’re in the kind of state that I was in, they become even scarier. I was mighty glad to get down to the main road of the col du Lauteret for the long descent back down to Bourg d’Oisans.

Picking up a coherent and fast-moving group, I began to come round a little. We hared down through the amazing valley scenery rising so majestically around us, held our breaths in white-knuckle tunnels and whizzed through the pretty village of La Grave in a flurry of colour. Even the few short, sharp rises along the way weren’t a problem and I allowed myself to look forward to Alpe d’Huez, even if only because it represented the day’s final hurdle.

I’d become separated from Steve but as I crunched across the stony car park to the Bourg feed another familiar face appeared — that of Hallett, who professed to be entirely spent and not particularly looking forward to this last climb.
This was presumably nothing more than psychological warfare, seeing as once we were round the second hairpin he simply rode me off his wheel and I couldn’t muster even the faintest of replies.

Alpe d’Huez was pretty bad, just like I knew it would be. But at 13.5 kilometres it’s not as long as the Galibier, and there was a great solace to be found in the fact that this would all be over at the top.

I got through it by dividing its 21 hairpins into three sections, and allowing myself to stop at the end of each section to have a drink. This provided an amazing amount of relief, not to mention the opportunity to find some shade from the overpowering sun. Halfway up, a kind-hearted spectator poured chilled water down my neck; bliss.

At my next stop, two thirds of the way up the mountain, Stephen caught me back up — he’d stopped at the top of the Galibier a little way ahead of me and I’d not noticed. We wended our sub-5mph way up the final handful of kilometres together in silence. We crossed the finish line side by side, 10 and a half hours after we’d started at 7.30 that morning, utterly spent. In admirable shape, Hallett finished 20 minutes earlier, but for me at least, it’s a case of ‘never again’.

And in a saga that became as big as the ride itself, our star performer Chris was struck by debilitating sickness on the slopes of the Galibier, and he showed tremendous courage to struggle to the finish in 11 and a half hours. On the way home our van became an international ambulance service, ferrying the poor guy (who was getting worse and worse) back to Blighty, punctuated by unscheduled stops in various maize fields.
Chris has got unfinished business with the Marmotte. Maybe he’ll be writing this next year — because I certainly won’t.


HOW TO DO LA MARMOTTE
Are you sure about this? If you’re unfit, or overweight, or both (ahem), you may have a torrid time. But cycling’s all about the challenge, right?

The Marmotte, despite the misery detailed above, is certainly worth doing. If you’re in good shape you might even enjoy it. Whatever shape you’re in, you’re certainly left with a sense of achievement. World’s toughest sportive? I can’t imagine anything harder.

Some of the scenery is outstanding, and the feeds and organisation are up there with the best.

The start in Bourg d’Oisans and the finish at Alpe d’Huez are near each other, so the logistics are fairly simple on that front, and it’s a mere 35 euros to enter. Bargain!
It is run by Sport Communication, which organises a comprehensive series of events
across France each year. For details visit www.sportcommunication.com.

You have eight months to train up — I recommending starting tomorrow.


ROUTE DETAILS
Starting in Bourg d’Oisans at the foot of Alpe d’Huez, you’re allowed a flat warm-up of seven miles before the fun starts. The Glandon is taxing but you’ll be fresh so avoid pushing hard — save it for later.

After the descent is a long main road haul to the Télégraphe, which is relentless but only 12km long. You’ll be glad of some in reserve for the Galibier — long and steep. Enjoy the descent to the Alpe and then just disengage your brain and grind to the finish. Easy!

This article originally appeared in Cycling Weekly, October 26, 2006