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TRAVEL STORY. La Marmotte: To see 'The Alp' and die

La Marmotte. There is something magical about that word. Drop it in the company of cycling enthusiasts and you are guaranteed to attract attention. It is the oldest cyclosportive on the calendar, one that already at its first edition in 1982 was labelled 'legendary'. La Marmotte is a concept, a challenge that is on the bucket list of many a driven and adventurous cyclist. Also on that of the author. He took up the challenge and returned from the Alps with this story. And he could immediately scratch off two boxes on his 'Iconic Cols of Europe' scratch card...



La Marmotte is hard work, but also enjoyment of a trip with breathtaking views through the French Alps.

What makes La Marmotte still the cyclo of all cyclo's? In the first place, the extremely tough course. From Bourg-d'Oisans you bridge four Alpine passes, of which three are considered 'hors catégorie' in the Tour de France. 173 kilometres and 5,000 metres altitude: these are figures that inspire awe. The best way to describe this ordeal is as a chance to experience for yourself what a tough mountain stage in the Tour de France feels like. For years, the event, which always takes place on the first weekend in July, has been full well in advance.


The number of registrations is limited to 7,500 participants, who come from all over the world. Every year, a few well-known (ex) professionals are at the start. Laurens ten Dam is on the list of winners, just like Laurent Brochard, Patrice Halgand and Sander Armée. Tim Wellens once rode along too, although without ambitions. That is also the mindset for my debut. I choose to travel to the French Alps well in advance to saddle myself with as little stress as possible. I want to be optimally prepared at the start of my biggest cycling challenge ever. The equipment has been checked to perfection before the long drive and the suitcase is bulging with far too many clothing combinations, sports nutrition and spare parts.

The minibar of my hotel room, well stuffed one day before the departure.

DOUBTS, DOUBTS, DOUBTS


The things you read about La Marmotte on the internet do not help you to live for 'D-day' with peace of mind. Stories about dehydrated and exhausted participants being taken away by ambulance, ugly crashes and even deaths start to make you nervous during the long drive. Have I trained well enough? Is my resistance not too heavy? What should I eat the day before? How much food should I put in my back pockets at the start? What about my arms and legs? I try to convince myself that my choices are the right ones and push the accelerator a little harder.

The bike, ready to tackle the 5.000 meters of altimeters.

Eleven hours later, my car journey ends with perhaps the most famous hairpin bends in the world: the 21 of Alpe d'Huez. Upon arrival at the top of the mythical col, I decide to pick up my start ticket before heading to my hotel room. We're writing two days before the event and there's already a bustle at the small bike expo at the Palais des Sports in Huez. Ride the legend' is what it says on the cap I get at the registration desk with my race number. I will ride the legend', I tell myself resolutely, and I fill the remaining time with unclenching my legs and especially with lots of flat rest. To get the climbing feeling going, I ride the last 3 kilometres of Alpe d'Huez in the late evening. These go quite smoothly with fresh legs. My self-confidence increases. Let the Marmotte begin!


'La Marmotte' did not steal its name ...

TENSION IN THE AIR


4.30 am, Sunday morning. An alarm clock at this time of day would normally make me snooze at least five times, but now I find myself standing with both feet beside the bed only seconds after the first signal. A bit like children who have to get up for the arrival of St Nicholas or a school trip. This healthy dose of stress makes it difficult to have a hearty breakfast. A good hour and a half later, I follow the long line of riders who have started the descent from the Alp to the start in Le Bourg-d'Oisans. It looks like an army of soldiers heading for the front. I have received the start number 764 and may therefore leave in one of the first groups. I quickly pee, eat a banana and see from the clock on my bike computer that the start is in twenty minutes. Those minutes pass agonisingly slowly. There is tension in the air. Some take a last selfie before the start. This is the moment they have been looking forward to for months.


Ready fo the start in Bourg d'Oisans.

The adrenaline takes over from the nervousness when the announcer enthusiastically starts counting down through the microphone: "Trois!", "Deux!", "Un! Et c'est parti!". La Marmotte Granfondo Alpes 2019 is officially underway. It will be a while before the masses before me have left and I too can start my journey. Driven by my enthusiasm, I jump from wheel to wheel and it's off to the foot of the Col du Glandon, the first of four Alpine giants, at breakneck speed. This is followed by the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier and the arrival at Alpe d'Huez. It is a tough four-course menu that only the strongest stomachs can easily digest.


Those who finish La Marmotte successfully, can immediately scratch off two cols from the 'Iconic Cols of Europe' scratch map.

DANISH-SCOTTISH ALLIANCE


I have made up my mind not to exceed my transfer pulse on the first pass, but after barely a few kilometres of climbing, my resolve threatens to crumble. The lightweights rush past me on all sides. For a moment, I am tempted to follow their wheels, but wisely I keep cycling at my own pace. The road to Alpe d'Huez is still long. I notice that a group of Danes and a Scotsman are riding at exactly the same pace as me, so I decide to stay near them. I read 'Do Epic Shit' on the fluorescent socks of one of them.


Climbing the Glandon is already pretty 'epic' as far as I'm concerned: an average gradient of 5.1% for 22 km may not seem much, but knowing that this includes a bit of a descent, we can say with certainty that this is simply a very tough and long climb. I use the last part of the descent to launch myself for the steep final kilometres and realise that at this point I have actually used too much energy. In the meantime, my attention is drawn by a van at the side of the road, next to which stand two pretty girls. Under a flying Basque flag, they encourage us, to the tune of a nice tune and dressed in cheerleader outfits.


Cheerleaders on the way to the top of the Galibier.

It makes my grimace turn into a smile for a moment. At the top of the Glandon, my odometer already reads 1,200 altitude metres. I have never managed that before, so early in the day. The technical and dangerous descent of the Glandon has claimed several victims in the past. That is why the organisation wisely decided to stop the timekeeping there for a while. It gives me the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful view and to refuel at the first supply point.


My Danish-Scottish alliance is lost this way, but fortunately there are so many riders participating in La Marmotte that you always end up in a group of your own level. The descent of the Glandon may be dangerous, but if you approach it carefully, the 'fun factor' is great. The map of the ride shows that we then go through the valley towards Col du Télégraphe. The 20 kilometres between the two cols, however, turn out to be tougher than expected on false flat roads and with a headwind. Fortunately, there is a good rotation in my group and in no time we are at the foot of the second obstacle of the day, the Col du Télégraphe.



STRANGE PEOPLE ON THE TÉLÉGRAPHE


With its summit at 1,561 metres, the Télégraphe is actually part of the Galibier. In this way it heralds its big brother. On this nearly 12 km long col, which meanders mainly through the woods, I meet a duo on a tandem and someone on a singlespeed. Not exactly passers-by that I had expected on this demanding terrain, but that only increases the respect for these mavericks.


Impressive straw sculptures then surprise us at the foot of the Galibier, a col on which books full of cycling history have been written during the Tour de France. It creates a certain excitement, but that is quickly quelled on the first few stretches of the climb. They make me realise that there is not much 'gravy' left in the legs. A British spectator at the side of the road tries to keep our morale up by shouting "Keep smiling guys, there's a beast waiting for you!


On the slopes of the Galibier, the landscape becomes more and more impressive.

A beast, that is an apt description for this legendary climb. On a sign by the side of the road, I read that there are 16 difficult kilometres left to the summit. That is not encouraging. However, there is only one option: keep pedalling. I try to forget the pain and enjoy the scenery on one of France's toughest cols, a scenery that becomes more and more impressive. I also take courage from the many words of encouragement painted on the steep road surface, even if they are not addressed to me. Every little helps, right? With character, I try to drag myself to the summit at 2,623 metres, but it is disappointing. Above 2,000 metres breathing becomes more and more difficult, and the last and steepest kilometres do not dip below 7.5%. They hammer down with sledgehammer blows and the lactic acid pours out all over my body. Even my arms feel cramped, but giving up is not an option. The will to reach the finish is too great.


The last kilometres of the climb up the Galibier are the toughest.

TOGETHER TO THE SLAUGHTER


After the descent of the Galibier, I am passed in one of the dark tunnels by a group of about ten riders. I am lucky to be able to rejoin them. We turn around in the valley, and when I read on the arrow that Le Bourg-d'Oisans is only 10 kilometres away, I realize that the end is near. I decide to quickly take the remaining food out of my back pockets and put it behind my teeth. That way I can start the final climb with enough energy. In no time at all, we turn right at the roundabout in Le Bourg-d'Oisans to overcome the last obstacle of the day: the slaughterhouse called Alpe d'Huez. From the first few metres up the hill, I immediately feel acidification. In the bends, it seems as if I am riding against a wall. It promises to be a long and agonising road, so I decide to take a quick energy gel.


A smile or a grimace? Without a doubt the latter! The Alpe D'Huez as a final climb of La Marmotte is a true horror.

It turns out to be a fatal choice, because three bends after my courageous start I completely block. Abdominal pain, cramps and dizziness overcome me. I even have to sit down on the concrete edge and try again five minutes later. At this point, I have already put a possible gold or silver certificate completely out of my mind. Crossing the finish line is my only concern. Every 100 metres feels like a kilometre, and when I see the sign with a big '14' in a bend, my courage sinks back in. It means I still have seven bends and many steep kilometres to conquer. A mental uppercut.



The end is near on the steep flanks of Alpe d'Huez.

Exhausted, I sit down at the side of the road again - this time at the spot where lovely fresh water splashes down from the mountain top. I put my head under it, take a few large sips and slowly feel myself reviving. The encouragement of the other dying swans who see me stumbling around helps me get back on my bike. I count down the bends and when the chalets of the famous ski resort come into sight, I take fresh courage. The numerous spectators at the side of the road shout me up. Everything hurts, but the idea that I am now near the finish gives me wings. I make a last sprint and cross the finish line completely cramped. After 174 kilometres and 5,000 altitude metres my calvary has come to an end. However, the pride and satisfaction outweigh the exhaustion when I receive the medal around my neck. It says 'Marmotte Finisher 2019' on it. Never before was I so happy with a tiny piece of metal. And with me probably thousands of others.



Happy as a child after finishing La Marmotte.



La Marmotte is one of the oldest tours on the calendar. Have a look at this nostalgic video from ... 1988.



Would you like to share a travel story or your experience on one of our 20 cols on the 'Iconic cols of Europe' scratch card? Mail to info@yourquest.be.

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