In October 2013 Sportive.com publisher Joe Saumarez Smith challenged Dan McCausland to ride a sportive for the first time. He suggested the Marmotte, perhaps the toughest sportive in Europe. Here's Dan's account of riding the 2014 Marmotte...
Six months is a fair amount of time I had thought when accepting Joe's challenge to do the 2014 Marmotte. Okay, I'd had more than a few glasses of wine when he posed the question, had only been back on a bike with drop handlebars for about 18 months after a 25 year "rest", had not done much at all in the previous couple of months, and was the wrong side of both 16 stone and 40. But, still, six months was a long time if I trained hard, wasn't it?
Apart from the last three weeks when knee pain had derailed the programme, I had put in the miles and the hours of the turbo with the help from an experienced cyclist friend now in Singapore and I'd lost two-and-a-half stone. Even so, driving up Alpe d'Huez for the first time on the Wednesday before the race, six months now seemed like no time at all.
Alpe d'Huez is not a bad place to spend a few days even if your apartment suffers in comparison to a phone box and nerves about the looming Marmotte are multiplied by a partially rehabbed knee. The air certainly seemed less thin by the time the race rolled along, my knee seemed to improve miraculously on the day before the off and we had time to adjust to the startling number of Danes everywhere.
I was race number 976 and in the front start pen requiring an early start on Saturday morning thanks to a press pass. Those nerves that had meant fitful sleep were turned up to 11 by having to change my front tyre after managing to extract the valve while unhooking a strange track pump. Joe did wonderfully well to stay calm and a smooth and a not too cold descent to Bourg d'Oisans meant we were still in position well before seven o'clock.
I was certainly out of place as I surveyed the press of riders around us up at the head of the race. My build, unshaven legs, mtb shoes and Specialized Secteur stood out. The sea of lycra was also a vivid reminder that, with a few marked exceptions, cycling is the sport that taste forgot - or perhaps never even knew existed.
Bourg d'Oisans to the base of Col du Glandon
To read most accounts, the run to the bottom of the Glandon is something approaching a two-wheeled cross between Ben-Hur and Mad Max, so it proved a little disappointing given the build-up, or at least it did once I'd twigged that on the Continent it's best to keep right as slower traffic rather than left. I stayed with a small group of others who had ended up in the front pen despite not being in shape to finish by lunchtime and had a good run to the reservoir.
The nerves had largely disappeared as I crossed the timing mat at the start line and I repeated a mantra of "you've done the training, the aim is to finish, be sensible". One other thing disappeared as Joe took off up the road like a scalded cat - so much for riding together to the base of the Glandon I thought as his bright pink Pantani tribute shirt was consumed by a sea of adverts for Danish management consultancy firms and French consumer products.
Col du Glandon Time: 2:31
My first Alpine climb ever and it was great. Though the longest climb at 23km, the Glandon is the least steep on average, although this is distorted by the decent descent about halfway up. After the kick up the reservoir wall there's a flat section before the climb proper begins. In among the trees, everyone settles into their own climbs and the shouts and chatter of the cavalry charge from Bourg are replaced by a remarkable quiet with heavy breathing the background soundtrack. It was at this point that the fast riders from the later starts began to come past on the left and it was the crawler lane on the right for the rest of the day.
Having scared myself silly reading blog accounts including phrases along the lines of "I was going to pay for this later" and "in hindsight I went out too fast", I settled on a relaxed pace and made it to the top in just over two and a half hours.
Descent and across to the base of the Col du Telegraphe Time: 4:08
Just the first Alpine descent now and after a bit of a scrum to grab a sandwich and refill bottles I stuck on the rain jacket and set off at what I thought was a sensible pace. Descending is one of those irregular verbs where, depending on whether you are overtaking (not so much in my case) or being overtaken (whizz, there they go), it goes I descend sensibly, you descend cautiously, he/she descends like a wimp; or I descend sensibly, you descend fast, he/she descends like a lunatic. And, yes, there were some great female descenders who flew past me.
Safely down to the bottom the inevitable happened for a slow rider with a low starting number and I rode solo pretty much the whole way to Saint-Michel de Maurienne despite trying to latch on to three or four of the groups that swept past. They were all just too fast for me to hold on without my heart rate spiking into areas far too high. I took the decision to sacrifice time for effort. It was not ideal, but I felt decent at the bottom of the Telegraphe and after a quick water stop I started up. This wasn't so bad.
Col du Telegraphe Time: 5:35
As on the Glandon, I kept a lid on my HR and tried to sit behind people of a similar speed rather than finding myself sucked into overtaking. I made steady progress and went over the top of the 12km climb without taking a break. The heat had got to me, however, and the last few kilometres were tough. With the Galibier a short descent away, for the first time since Bourg I started to wonder whether I was even going to make it to the bottom of Alpe d'Huez, let alone the top. Given the benign conditions it shows just how lucky I was that it was not a hot day.
I had always planned to ride straight through the top of the climb as there was a feed station in Valloire, just five kilometres from the summit. It was a slightly nasty surprise to find that the supplies were a bit past and above the village and it was during this extra drag that I made a conscious decision to change my tactics and build stops into the plan. The cost would be paid in time and the benefit, I hoped, would be protection against blowing up and blowing the chance of finishing. The new gameplan was thirty minutes of climbing followed by a quick break, however good or bad I felt.
I took my time at the Valloire pit stop and removed my shoes for the first -- but not the last -- time to release the heat and discomfort. There are few better feelings.
Col du Galibier Time: 8:43
The Telegraphe is really the first half of the climb to the Col de Galibier and the second half, the Galibier itself, neatly divides into two as well. The first section is the climb up the side of the valley to Plan Lachat, following the contours of the valley parallel to the river below. From Plan Lachat it feels like you are zig-zagging up the valley wall itself with spectacular views to the loops of road below and, worryingly, to the tiny cyclists criss-crossing above your head into the snow.
I ended up stopping five times over the 18kms with steadily decreasing gaps. The final break saw me standing astride the bike just 600m from the top (road distance not height) trying to gasp in what felt like non-existent thin air.
The Galibier is spectacular and it is at this stage that I saw the first walkers and people in real trouble as cramps and spasm claimed victims.
It was also cold at the top and I shivered despite a jacket as I sourced drinks from the French Army detachment and scoffed a mixture of salami and sweets. I could not face the large chunks of brie.
To Bourg d'Oisans Time: 10:10
The shivering continued on the way down with cold and fear contributing. The higher hairpin sections before the road opens out would have been fine (it was dry and there were not too many people on the road) if the drops over the edge had not been quite so steep and long.
I descended like a wimp.
The tunnels were fine and the only surprise on the way down was the uphill section that was harder than it should have been. I even ended up towing a couple of people into the food stop at Bourg, where I took my time.
Given how I'd felt on the Telegraphe I should have been pretty pleased to be at the bottom of the last climb at all, particularly without any cramp and feeling okay as far as hydration. At the same time, it had taken me a long, long time, I was very tired (in part because it had taken so long) and, despite all my focus being on completing the course and constant reinforcement to myself that I was there to finish and not do a time, I was disappointed that it had taken quite so long.
I started up the Alpe with 10.35 on the Garmin. Surely I could make it from here.
Alpe d'Huez Time: 10:35
As everyone knows the first couple of bends of the Alpe are the steepest and longest. The other 19 are pretty steep and long as well and I struggled to make much headway up the mountain.
Bikes were propped against guardrails and kerbs along the 13km climb as their owners drew breath and summoned the energy to climb back on and continue the slog. Growing numbers were walking and I saw the obligatory grown man in tears around bend 13. I was close to joining him when I received messages from the family who I had been keeping up to date on progress in the latter stages.
In the end there was no burst of energy or heroic head-down push through the tunnel of suffering for glory, just a tired grind up through the last few turns and the resort to the relief of the finish and more holding back of tears.
It is all a bit of a blur. The Garmin printout shows I stopped seven times on the final climb to the Palais de Sport and there was 12.42 on my clock when I stopped pedalling finally with an official time of 11:51:26. And zero other Secteurs seen.
I took the challenge of the Marmotte seriously and was lucky enough to have some expert guidance and the time to put in what I really thought was a good six months of training.
Even with the advantage of an early start, zero mechanical problems, no injuries and pretty perfect weather it was a brutal test and I am under no illusions that even finishing would have been impossible if any small component had gone against me.
I'm framing my number.
Many thanks to Sports Communication for a superbly well organised event.
Read Dan McCausland's article about Training to ride La Marmotte.