La Marmotte

July 9, 1994

I got up at 3:30 a.m. My cousin Jacques drove me from their place in the mountains above Grenoble to Bourg d'Oisans, the starting place for the ride known as La Marmotte. This ride is the most difficult in the cyclosport series known as Le Trophée d'Or -- the Golden Trophy. The ride is 174 km (112 miles according to my cyclocomputer after the ride) and climbs more than 5000 meters (15,000 feet). The climbs are, in this sequence, le Col de la Croix de Fer, le Col du Télégraphe, le Col du Galibier, and l'Alpe d'Huez.

The number of starters was estimated at 3600 to 3800, estimated 45 were women. I know 41 women finished. We were all listed in the newspaper le Dauphiné Libéré three days later. 34 women finished the whole ride, and seven chose not to do the last climb, which was l'Alpe d'Huez. Of the 34 who did the whole ride, I finished 29th.

The ride started at 7:15 a.m., but with so many starters it was at least 15 minutes before we were rolling enough to keep both feet in the pedals.

Climbing the Col de la Croix de Fer with several thousand people was a study in avoidance: avoiding getting in the way of faster riders, avoiding being stuck behind slower riders, avoiding all the men who stopped at the side of the road to pee, avoiding the cars and motorcycles, since the roads were not closed to traffic. The climb began with some ups and downs, then up for a long time, then seemed to flatten out for quite awhile, at which point a cold head wind materialized. At elevation in the Alpes, the air is very cold. The first food stop was at the top of this col. It was a mess of energy bar wrappers, Isostar water bottles, other garbage, bikes, and people. I stopped only to drink and to have my water bottle topped off with Isostar. The descent was very, very cold, and was steep with hairpin turns. I went slowly because the wind chill factor was less the slower I went, the steepness and hairpins made it dangerous, and there were hundreds of cyclists descending the same road. I did my best not to get in their way.

Between the bottom of the Col de la Croix de Fer and the start of the Col du Télégraphe there is actually some flat terrain among the up and down stuff. For awhile I was struggling into a head wind on the flat and could manage no more than 12-13 m.p.h., but then I felt stronger. Unfortunately, my chain came off just then as I was shifting into the big ring, and because I had to stop completely to put it back onto the pulley, I lost the guy I had been briefly riding with.

The Col du Télégraphe seemed less steep, more wooded, and generally more pleasant, though just as long, as other cols. I caught up with the guy with whom I had been riding and rode with him, generally behind him, up the Col du Télégraphe. We conversed a reasonable amount, considering we were climbing, which made the climb more pleasant than just concentrating on its negative aspects. At the top he had to wait for a friend. I thanked him for being my poisson pilote, and descended to Valloires, to the food stop.

By this time it was around 2 p.m. I had eaten a Power Bar at 5 a.m. in the car on the way to Bourg d'Oisans, and another one and a half Power Bars so far on the ride. I wanted to get some food at this stop and soak my socks in water, since my feet had started to hurt on the climb up the Col du Télégraphe. The food stop was not in Valloires -- it was on the other side of the town, with more climbing to reach it. I was quite hungry and tired by the time I reached it. I soaked my socks, ate some candied fruit and honey bread, and filled my large water bottle with Isostar. I decided to drink water while climbing the Col du Galibier and save the Isostar for later when I might need more energy.

There was a tail wind on the lower part of the Col du Galibier, but as the climb became switchbacks, it was sometimes a head wind. The Col du Galibier is barren of trees. Toward the top, the snowbanks at the side of the road were melting, and the road was covered with water. Names of Tour de France riders are still written on the road. I saw the name Lucien Van Impe a couple of times. Partway up, my feet started to hurt. A little while later the pain was unbearable. I decided that it was OK to walk -- other people were walking -- but I wanted to get as close to the top as possible before getting off the bike. As it turned out, I rode all the way to the summit, but once there, I went immediately to the medical truck. The guy there directed me to the medical tent. The people in the tent rubbed my feet, put balm on them, and made me drink water. I was in the tent at least an hour.

Climbing the Galibier
Descending the Galibier

There was a strong, cold wind on the summit, which came even into the tent, so by the time I was ready to leave, I was very, very cold. A sign at the summit warned riders that the descent was dangerous. I descended slowly, and was so cold that I did not notice the Col du Lauteret, which I passed on the descent. Part way down I lost the feeling in my hands. I think it was due to the cold and to the pressure on my hands because of the steepness of the descent, but it happened again a little later when it was less cold and less steep. At the bottom of the descent I stopped to warm my hands. Two women who were walking by stopped and talked. They said they admired my efforts and encouraged me to complete the whole ride (that is, to climb l'Alpe d'Huez) because not many women do this ride. By the way, all these conversations were in French.

Between the bottom of the Galibier and the town of Bourg d'Oisans, the road is a main auto route, two lanes with no shoulders, which descends and goes through several tunnels. These tunnels are scary because of the amount of traffic, including trucks and large busses, and because the tunnels are dark. If there is lighting, it is inadequate, especially when it is negated by the glare of oncoming headlights. One tunnel with no lighting had a sign at the entrance warning of uneven pavement.

On the flat approach to Bourg d'Oisans I felt strong. I passed some guy, who then drafted me. I made the right turn onto l'Alpe d'Huez, ignoring my cousin Jacques, who was waiting at the bottom of the climb. After all, what is the point of coming to France to do this ride if I do not complete it? Apparently Jacques got a kick out of my going right by him, and repeated the story several times later to friends and relatives.

Alpe d'Huez has 21 hairpin curves, which are numbered in descending order from bottom to top. I started noticing the turns at number 19. Apparently the lower part of the climb is steeper than the upper part, but it did not seem so to me. Between the numbered hairpin curves are lesser curves. Alpe d'Huez is 13 km long with an average grade of 8.4 percent. On this ride, you climb it after you have ridden more than 100 miles and climbed three cols that are at least as long or steep as l'Alpe d'Huez itself.

As on all the cols, the air became colder toward the top. My feet, which had begun to hurt as soon as I started climbing, became unbearably painful again, the Isostar, which was the only drink remaining, was upsetting my stomach, and I became very cold. I stopped toward the top, between turns 4 and 3. I put on my windbreaker, took off my shoes, and rubbed my feet. I had to stay there awhile before my feet felt as though they could go on. When I got up I walked the bike 10 or 20 feet before I got on. Then I could not get my left foot in the pedal, no matter how hard I tried. I think it was a combination of fatigue and the fact the cleat was wearing out. I had to finish the ride with the left foot unclipped.

Just after you enter the ski village at the top of l'Alpe d'Huez, a sign over the road indicates the finish, but that is not the real finish. The real finish is located farther on, into the village. Apparently it is the same finish as the Tour stage. It seemed like a very long way. After I was checked in I went directly to the medical tent for attention to my feet, and rested there awhile.

I finished the ride after 8 p.m. I spent 11 hours 26 minutes on the bike, and another 1 hour 9 minutes at stops, for an official time of 12 hours 35 minutes. After I changed my clothes in Jacques' car I bought my medal. They sent us certificates, but we had to buy the medals. By finishing the ride in the amount of time I took, I qualified for a bronze medal. The bronze medal itself is prettier than the silver or gold. It comes in a display case and is a nice souvenir.

La Marmotte is a wonderful ride, and it is great to climb the famous passes of the Tour de France.

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Barbara Leonard