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LA MARMOTTE GOLD with Louise Clowes


Well, health it’s a long time since I wrote anything about cycling adventures. Life gets in the way sometimes, but I thought at least I should get two things off my chest and out of my brain

1) La Marmotte; and
2) GPM10 Chamonix Nice trip.

1) La Marmotte
La Marmotte was the focus of my entire season really. You might remember from my earlier post that I’d decided this might be a fun thing to do! Once I’d employed the services of a coach, Richard Simmonds, I set about training in earnest. A big help was the GPM10 Mallorca trip. No need to say anything about this, other than “it was great” and you can read all about it on Julian Wall’s blog here

I had in my mind that, on a good day, I could get round La Marmotte in just under 10 hours. At any rate, Brevet d’Or (sub 10:17) on my first attempt being the main goal.

The Marmotte trip kicked off on Thursday 1st July with a flight to Geneva with a shuttle service to the hotel provided by Chamonix Shuttles. The trip was organised by GPM10 and we were staying in a hotel called L’ancolie just off hairpin 6 of Alpe d’Huez. About 30 of us were on the trip including Soren Jensen (also blogging here) and his friends. I was a bit worried about being the only girl, but everyone was brilliant.

Hotel L’Ancolie

Friday was registration day at the top of Alpe d’Huez so it involved a quick spin up the last 4km of the climb to the village. Registration was very organised and efficient and we weren’t queuing very long at all, so once that was done and dusted, a few of us stopped for lunch at the restaurant by the helipad before whizzing back down the mountain to the hotel.

Friday’s race registration

Lunch by the helipad

Bike fettling of epic proportions followed with everyone flapping about stuff like tyre pressure, clothing choice and what to put in each of their bags for the two GPM10 support vehicles. I also started to feel ill with a dodgy stomach (marvellous) and went to bed shaking at about 3pm in the hope that it would go away. I managed some dinner later on and was in bed just after 9pm, but was up several times in the night.

Saturday saw a VERY EARLY breakfast – I think about 5:30am but I was not very awake and felt sick and don’t remember much. Bikes were dragged out of the hotel garage, loaded up and prepped to go. A quick descent to the start followed and we found our way to the VIP start pen at the front, having ditched arm warmers and gilets at the GPM10 van at the bottom. The weather was amazing so it was shorts and jerseys only – even at 6:30am.

Race morning – bike fully loaded

It was really weird looking behind and seeing thousands of cyclists behind us, all packed in. Our pen was comparatively roomy so I lurked at the back, not wanting to get flattened at the off. After what seemed like an eternity the starting horn sounded and we rolled over the timing mats. The faster riders, mainly ex pro’s and the like, went blasting off at an alarming pace. I just sat tight and tried to keep out of the way.

VIP start pen

The first climb of the day was the Glandon, which was very scenic and enjoyable. However, the start of cramps kicked in a few km from the top. Surely the upset stomach wasn’t going to end my day already. I would really have to watch this. Everyone seemed in good spirits so early on, and as I crested the top, Mark was waiting with the GPM10 support car. A quick refuel, refill of bottles and stuff my pockets with Bikefood bars and off I went. The descent was supposed to be very sketchy but I LOVE descending and this had me laughing out loud. Others were evidently not so enthralled with the terrain as the sound of squealing brakes filled the air. I picked my way round them and tried to look encouraging. As I neared the bottom it was clear that there had been a rather nasty accident on one of the bends as one poor chap was sitting up on the verge in the classic broken collarbone pose, being attended to by a medic. An ambulance just below was obviously ferrying off another victim to hospital. I actually managed to catch it on the descent and got a nice tow on the flat for a bit before it sped off.

I ‘sat in’ on a few groups on the flat section before the Telegraphe, remembering coach Rich’s words “don’t try and hang onto them if they’re going too quick. Sit up and wait for another group”. Job done and up the Telegraphe we go. It was at this point that I first started to notice the heat. I also felt slightly nauseous and dizzy. Like an idiot, I had forgotten to pick up any energy drink sachets, safely stashed in my bag in Mark’s GPM10 car. It was water only all the way to the top as I had drained my bottles from the Glandon feed station and eaten my bars on the flat section. The water station at the top of the Telegraphe has to be seen to be believed. There is no such thing as queuing here! Ditch your bike out of the way on the other side of the road, sharpen your elbows and wade in. I’m ashamed to say that being female and very small I probably got away with a bit more pushing in than was polite but it’s survival of the fittest (and those with the pointiest elbows) from now on.

The descent off the Telegraphe is over and done with in a blink and I soon hit the feed station proper at Valloire. This is very spread out and superbly stocked with no bun fights (literally) and no queues for water. I couldn’t eat anything there though. I half heartedly picked at some jelly sweets and sugary mini cakes but couldn’t swallow them, so I put a couple in my jersey pocket and set off again.

Then it started to rain, just gently. It was not cold, so I didn’t mind too much, but I did wonder what going up the Galibier would be like. I would soon find out. The relatively flat road out of Valloire allowed me to gaze around at the scenery. Approaching an auberge on the left, my attention was distracted by the road turning sharp right over a stream. I gazed upwards, following its snaking path I could see tiny moving dots up in the snow and ice towards the top. Fixing my gaze I realised in horror that they were cyclists, and yes, that is where I was going too.

I remember very little of that climb, apart from the fact that it’s steep and there is no letup. About 1km from the summit, Warrick Spence, the GPM10 guide, was waiting with the van and more supplies. He tried to help. Apparently I was rambling incoherently at this point, couldn’t string a sentence together, and spent 5 minutes wandering aimlessly up and down. Luckily Warrick is accustomed to looking after people in this condition and force fed me, emptied my jersey pockets of rubbish, refilled them, swapped my bottles over, and pushed me off on my way. The snow banks are incredible and must have been three metres high in places, right up against the road. You could reach out and put a handprint in them.

I felt like I was in a lone breakaway on the Tour de France going over the summit. The crowd support was incredible and the elation passing through the notch in the mountain at the top was unbelievable. For all this climbing you are of course rewarded with one of the best descents I have ever experienced. Within a couple of hairpins I could feel the sun on my back and the temperature rising once more. No pain now. A quick check on time and I realise that I’m slightly up on my target. Concentrate, don’t crash and for heavens sake eat something girl. This was a sweet descent. Utter silence but for the swish, swish, swish round the tighter hairpins then tearing full pelt as the road opens out towards the bottom.

Now back in familiar territory, I recognise the road we came in by on Thursday. Alpe d’Huez is not far away. Just before the right hand turn to start the climb proper, I spot Mark with the GPM10 car and slither to a halt. He has made it off the Glandon and repositioned himself, as promised, before the final assault of the day. I am now at about 8:25 ish total running time. That is not a lot of time left to get up Alpe d’Huez within the desired 10 hours if you’re having a bad day, with 160km or so of alpine riding in your legs.

Little did I know that this wouldn’t just be a bad day, this would be the climb from hell.

I race about Mark’s car, grabbing bits and tossing empty bottles into the boot. “Lou – SLOW DOWN – sit down for five, steady on!” Mark implores. I don’t listen “no I’m not bloody sitting down I’m trying to get round in under 10 hours and it’s going to be tight” jabbing my watch angrily.

Off we go again, turn right to face the last climb of the day and BANG! My legs stop working. The heat is indescribable. The contents of my bottles are the temperature of bathwater within 20 minutes. I stop at the first water station at La Garde. The wheels are really coming off now. I stagger back to my bike and try to get going again. At least the gradient lets up a bit now. I am so dizzy that I can’t even let go of the handlebars with one hand to grab a bottle from its cage, even on the flats of the hairpins. Every time I need to have a drink, I have to unclip and stop. I allow myself to do this every 10 minutes. The heat is now crucifying. Every time I stop, I suffer horrific waves of nausea and dizziness and dry retch over the handlebars. The time is just ticking by, all dreams of my Brevet d’Or are disappearing in the heat haze of this vile climb. In despair, I get off my bike by one of the little waterfalls cascading over the wall into a ditch and start crying. I am going to miss my dream by a matter of seconds. A fellow cyclist grabs me by the arms and literally shoves me under the waterfall, from which he has just emerged. This lovely kind Dutch chap holds me steady as the freezing water cascades over my head and down my back. I get instant cracking head pains like an ice cream headache, but the nausea disappears like magic. I thank him, we wish each other luck, and he is on his way.

Back on the bike I feel a new lease of life. The drop in body temperature has an amazing and instant effect. I’m absolutely knackered but I’m now going to ride the rest of that climb without getting off again.

I ride past the hotel on hairpin 6. 4km to go. My brain has now cooled sufficiently to consider rudimentary maths and I work out if I can continue at my current pace, I am going to make it round in time to get my Brevet d’Or. This realisation has me crying (again!) as I go through the village of Huez. Spotting the ski station I try to keep my emotion under control but it’s like a runaway chemical reaction at this point. Psychologically I’ve now conquered this climb – I rode up this bit to register on Friday – but my mind is all over the place and I’m struggling to hold everything together. The Italian lads alongside me are up for a sprint finish. I start laughing – the prospect of sprinting is beyond ridiculous. Off they go!

The last few hundred metres through the ski village at the top are eerily quiet as I pass under a bridge and snake back towards the summit. Passing between the crowd barriers and over the finish line is a strange experience. My mind is just empty – completely devoid of emotion. I check my Garmin. It looks like I’ve just scraped a Brevet d’Or by a matter of 3-4 minutes. No real joy or elation, just utter relief.

I stagger off to the queues for certificates. My number is punched in and the printer kicks into action. The lady behind the desk hands a certificate to me. All my hopes and dreams are confirmed.

Gold

The descent back to the hotel is one of sheer pleasure. The rush of alpine air is thick and sweet. I shout what I hope are encouraging words to the exhausted souls slogging their way up the climb. Back at the hotel I spot Soren and a few others who have immersed themselves in the local water trough. I wave as I go past, throw my bike into the garage, and collapse in my room. After staring at my certificate for several minutes I decide that I really ought to phone people and let them know that a)I’m alive and in one piece; b) I made it round; and c) I struck gold!

Alpine ice bath

Emerging from the hotel, the lads who’ve already made it back are now drinking beer. I traipse up the road to the water trough, recovery drink in hand, and sit in it for about 20 minutes. The water is straight off the mountainside and feels freezing but I know the legs will thank me for it tomorrow. More people are now arriving on their bikes. A few of us walk to the bottom of the road where it meets the Alpe d’Huez climb, to cheer on those still riding. There are still hundreds of cyclists coming up. Ambulances go up and down, sirens wailing. It’s a bizarre sight. There are people just keeling over off their bikes into the road all along this stretch. It is pitiful and soul destroying to watch. Eventually I decide I’ve had enough. Dinner and bed for me!

The next morning, everyone makes it into breakfast in various states of disrepair. My legs are wrecked. However, I have plans…

I had mentioned to Mark that it would be pretty sick to ride the Grimpee d’Alpe the following day. This is a time trial up the Alpe d’Huez and is a separate race in itself. Mark had given me one of his looks and said “er, right, yeah”. The time trial starts about 9am, at which point I had just finished breakfast, and was still idly thinking about it. Mark came over “so much for that time trial then!”. Right well the gauntlet was thrown down as far as I was concerned. I discreetly slipped out of the breakfast room, ran (well staggered) upstairs, threw fresh cycling kit on, grabbed some money, bottles and my phone and went back to the garage. My bike was right at the back so I had to move precisely 17 bikes to reach it.

First find your bike

Just as I was about to set off, out came Mark. “where the hell are you going?”. Trying to look nonchalant I replied “oh just off for a bit of a spin out – might go to the top and check things out”. Off I went, end of the road, make sure no-one’s looking and head down the Alpe again. Am I really doing this? I’ve no idea where I’m going or what the procedure is. I don’t even know where the start of the time trial is, but logically, if I keep going in the reverse direction of the riders now coming up, I’ll find it.

Sure enough, at a car park on the left, there is the familiar sight of a line of riders and some starting marshals. I swing in and find a lady sitting under an awning with race packs and general time trial paraphernalia. In my broken French I explain that I would like to race, I am not already registered and can I please pay to ride. She is perfectly happy with this, so there I am with yet another timing chip round my ankle and another number on my bike. It’s pretty informal, you just take your place at the back of the queue and start at 10 second intervals.

My legs do not really want to do this, but the climb today is beautiful. The first half of the climb is completely in the shade, and the air has a refreshing coolness. There is nothing of the carnage of yesterday on the Alpe today. I’m not too bothered about time – I just want to lay some demons to rest and get all the way to the top without stopping. No problem. I can’t believe this is even the same mountain that I rode up yesterday. There are a few spectators along the way, all cheering and shouting in various languages.

I make it up the climb in about 1:24, nearly 30 minutes faster than yesterday – brilliant! Whizz back down to the hotel and everyone is either loafing about or packing, depending on when their flight is. “where’ve you been?” from various people. I can’t stop grinning. “I just went and rode the time trial”…

Seriously this a ‘must-do’ adventure and I would recommend it to anyone up for a real challenge!

For more photos you can find me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter @Queenofthecols for (mainly) bike-related general rambling!

Louise Clowes