Nick Broome shares his experience of an incredibly gruelling Marmotte, the toughest Granfondo of them all.
This version is abridged; Nick's full, epic account is available at the bottom of this blog.
5am, alarm bell rings, it all starts here...
My Dutch companions and I fed until we could feed no more and began to ready ourselves for the roll down to Bourg d'Oisans. The half an hour it took to get to the start line was spent mulling things over in my head, how I was going to take it easy for the first climb, keep my powder dry until the Col de la Croix de Fer and then attack at the foot of Alpe d'Huez and give burn whatever fire I had left. What a foolish boy I was. The queue at the start line was a hive of activity, 4000 nervous men and women, stretching, taking on gels or taking a last minute call of nature and then, we were off.
Col du Glandon
All the locals had gathered at the start to wave and cheer us off towards the first climb of the day, the Col du Glandon. Tacking along at a decent 35kph I was shocked to see that groups were forming trains at what must have been speeds up to 50, with adrenaline coursing through me and pushing my heart up to an unnaturally high 130, I knew I could not afford to let testosterone waste my precious energy. The Glandon begins with a gentle set of switchbacks that take you out of town and up onto a dam at the stunning Lake Allemont, every man and his dog seemed to be lining the road and no sooner than we started climbing, we were back on the flat and our large peloton was making short work of the day’s 'easiest' climb. It had only just gone 8 o'clock and it was already well into the 30s. Leaving the lake we were relieved to be entering the shaded slopes of the almighty Glandon, this is where the good news ends. The shade introduced us to the first of a series of punches that litter the course of the Glandon, double digits for the next two km and we were only just getting started. Its inconsistencies lull you into a false sense of security, with any short relenting in the gradient, you are soon met by another sharp rise, that just goes on, and on, and on, you get the drift. Already people are dismounting and what was meant to be the day’s easiest climb, is turning into a rude awakening. However, take a moment to look around you and the Glandon's savagery is matched, if not succeeded by its beauty. As you leave the shaded walls and begin a stunning set of switchbacks, you arrive beside another crystal blue lake and if Carlsberg did mountain passes, they wouldn't come close to what lay before me, like somewhere you would picture the Von Trapp family, almost ironic that such a tranquil setting can inflict such brutality. Leaving behind the lake, the last 5 km become more manageable and are equally beautiful. Whilst we are approaching 2000m, the seasonal heat meant that we are blessed with a lush green landscape, the cattle, with their traditional bells only add to the flavour of this stunning Alpine backdrop. The summit itself lies at the junction from with the descent of the Col de la Croix de Fer, which seems an eternity away with less than 40km completed and still another 3500m to climb.
Downhill as the Temperature Climbs
The sheer number of people waiting for a refill meant that I was stopped a little longer than I would have liked, as the temperature was already reaching the late 30s and I still had a good 6 hours left in the saddle. Over the tannoy, a warning message sounds, reminding riders that their times are neutralised to the bottom of the descent. At almost 30km, the descent towards St Jean de Maurienne threw up a number of dangers. With temperatures soaring into the 40s down in the valley, the roads were becoming very slippery as the tarmac began to melt. Pretty confident going downhill, I liked to give myself some room on the road, so pushed on around the switchbacks, only for my progress to be halted with the rider in front of me suffering a rear tyre explosion coming out of the bend. As I managed to safely round him, the next 20km down into the valley were a welcome break and I tried to soak up the kms as stress free as I could. Whilst I managed to make it safely down into the valley, there were a number of reminders of those who did not. Whilst I did see a number of crashes, it has to be said that the volunteers marshalled the course brilliantly and were able to get the vast majority of us riders round safely.
Lacets de Montvernier
After a rolling 15km I was approaching the Lacets de Montvernier, debuting in this year’s tour, the road is an engineering masterpiece. Taking some 15 years to complete, it is carved into the cliff face and its 18 hairpin bends come in under 4km. However, don’t let those numbers fool you, as some of these corners delve into double digit gradients and with the sun reflecting off the sheet rock, riders are slow cooked as they make their way to its summit. Depending on which article you read, temperatures were anywhere between 45-47 degrees on the way up. In spite of this, it was perhaps the climb I enjoyed most. Not least because I seemed to be passing a great deal of people who had come past me earlier, but also as I remember it being the only climb where it didn’t feel like I was turning over legs made of steel. The top of the Lacets gives you a great view of what could be mistaken for an army of ants making their way up the rock face. The second feed station was placed by a huge fountain at the heart of Montvernier, which by now had a number of cyclists sat down inside, taking every and any possible measure to cool off. I chose to pass through this station and make haste for the next serving, the Col du Mollard. As I approached Villargondran, the town that signals the start of the rise, I attacked the Mollard with the belief that my legs were beginning to wake up. However, within the first 3km of this 10km climb, I was slapped back to reality in the most brutal of fashions. Like the Glandon, the Mollard’s tame 6% average can lead you to believe this to be a manageable pitch. However, coupled with its farm road surface, the switchbacks pack a mean punch with my Garmin reading 15% as I made my way slowly but surely. We were now half way, more and more riders were starting to pedal squares, with many choosing to dismount to catch a breath. The Mollard’s only saving grace is that it shelters you in a tunnel of trees, the whole way to the summit, but don’t let that fool you, this tunnel does not offer any sort of escape, what lies on the other side is equally fierce.
Col de la Croix de Fer
Standing in the long line for my third refill, attitudes around me were becoming more disillusioned and desperate as riders told of their disbelief of the conditions. The sheer number of riders seeking more sustenance meant that I was standing in the queue for the best part of 45 minutes, doing little for my enthusiasm for the penultimate climb, the Col de La Croix de Fer. This climb is all about the last 5km, the previous 5 being comparatively tame and giving the riders a reminder of the beauty of this part of the world. Entering the town of Saint Sorlin d’Arves, you are reminded how deeply rooted cycling is in the culture of this region. I was taken aback by the hordes of locals taking the time to stand out and cheer us through, even kind enough to offer a complimentary soaking from the garden hose. After being offered a cup of water from one of the local children, a wave of positivity washed over me and I was just starting to sense the finish was within reach. How foolish was I? Turning left out of the town, a wall up into the rock face greeted us and a sign by the road tells me the next km is back into the double digits. Things don’t get any easier as you leave civilization behind and re-enter the cruel alpine rock. The last 3km is another set of switchbacks that give riders an unwanted view of what is to come, with many choosing to abandon. Buses were now leaving from the village below, with hundreds simply unable to continue. With it rarely dropping below 10%, I began to wonder whether walking may in fact be the quickest way to the top. With its narrow roads, it became quite the balancing act to pass those who chose to dismount and at the same time, let the countless numbers of buses and ambulances past. After what seemed like an eternity, the top of the Croix de Fer was in sight, almost 7 hours in the saddle, it was here that I was hit with the realisation that I was not going to hit my target of 8 and a half hours. However, with the beauty of hindsight, just finishing seemed like ample reward. As it was at the top of the Croix de Fer that Ronald van den Eijnden, a 51 year old Dutch cyclist, collapsed and despite the best efforts of the medical teams, could not be saved. A harsh reminder of the dangers that these events pose, to even the most accomplished of riders.
Like on the Glandon, the summit of the Croix de Fer stands at over 2000m, 2068 to be exact and with temperatures still in the 40s, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the empty water tanks at the feed station. Fortunately the generosity of more locals meant that I was able to refill my bottles and begin the long descent towards Bourg d’Oisans and the day’s final climb, L’Alpe d’Huez. Aside from the few short sharp rises, the stretch down to Allemond was less technical than the Glandon and produced the day’s biggest numbers, with speeds close to 90kph. Looking back on the ride, I don’t remember a great deal of the descent, as I think I was so fixed on the realisation that I still had L’Alpe to climb and I was running far past empty. All I really remember was following an ambulance down to Lake Allemond, until I slipped a chain and had to dismount, almost coming to grief with a less than pleased Italian gentleman.
The drink stop at the foot of the Alpe allowed me to catch a breath before the final assault. I even bumped into one of my Belgian friends from the chalet, who was suffering from a severe bout of oxygen debt and was unable to continue. After a quick pep talk he wished me well, I shoved a foul tasting Espresso gel down my disapproving gullet and I was on my way.
As anyone will tell you, the first 3 switchbacks are the worst and let me tell you, they’re not wrong, but they’re not entirely right. It is not until you reach the town of Huez, after switchback number 6 of 21, that the gradient relents, with it floating anywhere between 8 and 12%. Whilst this is only 4km into the climb, by the time I had reached it, it felt like I had been going for an age, that’s because I had. Like the previous descent into town, much of the next 6km was a blur. Most of the time was spent concentrating exclusively on each individual pedal stroke, each turn my legs screaming at me to stop. I always see cycling as a calculated suffering, a measured effort that requires one to enter a zone or mind-set that listens only to your body and tries its best to block out the instinctive negativity in your head, that wills you to stop and abate the pain. For what was almost an hour and a half, all I was focused on was turning each pedal round and apply an even amount of pressure, lessening the chance of aggravating the venomous bite of cramp that was just waiting to strike. However, the sight that will be engrained in my brain was the number of people sat, or lying down on the switchbacks, gasping for air and trying to find a reason to get back on the bike. Some even chose to sit under the small waterfalls to escape the afternoon heat, dignity long forgotten on this day. With just 5 switchbacks remaining the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez is in sight and the last 3km begin to ‘flatten’ at a 5% average, however, after 9 hours this did little to increase my speed or help my legs turn. With each kilometre more difficult than the last, adrenaline kicks in after bend number 20, a quick hose down by a couple of British lads told me that it was almost over, it was at this point when I realised, “I’m going to finish this thing!”
Riding through the last kilometre was as emotional as it was painful. The unrelenting cramp is drowned out by the hundreds of people lining the town, like on TV, opening up ahead of me as I flew under the bridge and switched into the big ring. For just those few seconds you begin to understand what it feels like for those guys who make a living out of this, simply beautiful. As I sprinted to empty every last ounce of energy, the finish was a very surreal moment. As I stood hunched over my bars, the chorus of cheers and thumping barriers escaped me, nothing, as I stared at the floor. Only once I turned around to make my way back down did I start to realise what I had just done. Whilst my time of 9 hours 28 mins, was almost an hour down on what I had wanted, just finishing was starting to feel like more of an achievement. As I made my way back down the Alpe, my heart bled for the thousands who still lay on the road side on every corner. I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say this, it was like a warzone and as I arrived back for dinner with the sun soon setting, there were still some poor souls descending the Glandon, yet to begin the Alpe. Many of those were denied the chance as darkness fell, and at the end of the day, of the 7500 that started, over 5000 did not reach the summit of the Alpe.
Whilst a large number of those abandonments were undoubtedly a result of the torturous conditions, such routes must never be underestimated. This event was like nothing I had ever partaken in. Having completed the Etape in 2013 and also prepared myself with a week in the Alps in May, the number of hours climbing took its toll on me by the end of the day. Proven by the fact that the very next day, in the TT up L’Alpe, I was 27 minutes quicker. Let this be a word of warning, there is nothing this side of the channel that can prepare you for that level of hurt, old Fred Whitton may be hard, but this, well I dare you to find out. All joking aside, I would recommended it to any cyclist, just because, well it was beautiful in its own way. Would I say I enjoyed the ride? Perhaps not. So am I going to do it again next year, you’re damn right I am! Why? I’m not really sure, I just love it.
Click the PDF icon to read Nick's full account.