Aiming for Gold...
The morning after the 2014 Marmotte, I began to wonder if I could complete the 175 km, 5,000 m climbing event in a gold time. I had entered the 2013 event as my second cycling sportive but used my endurance racing experience (and lack of real understanding of what I was taking on) to complete the event in respectable 10+ hours. In 2014 I put in some more bike specific training but became unstuck when I laminated my carbon rims on the first descent. Through a combination of stupidity and sheer bloody-mindedness I completed the event, riding up Alpe d’Huez on a flat back tyre to complete in 9+ hours. I knew that I could take 30 minutes off that time if I didn’t have any mechanicals but with a target of under 8 hours, I wasn’t sure where the next 30 minutes going to come from.
I started at wiggle.co.uk – where else? I had heard that getting a turbo trainer was a great way to inflict training pain (and gain?) in the comfort of your own home and a couple of guys at work swore blind that a power meter would work wonders. Packages received and unpacked I hatched a plan. I trained hard through the winter 2014-15, doing some running for variety and entering a few duathlons to boost the motivation. By March 2015 I was in good shape and focusing on big, hilly sportives to fine tune the training. The turbo training had been a real boring chore to start with but that changed when I stumbled across an article about the benefits of interval training. Burning lungs and buckets of sweat became my friends on frosty Sunday mornings and at least one evening a week. The power meter was initially less useful. I would look at my stats on Strava after a ride and notice that I went slower and expended more energy going uphill than I did downhill and that on days when I felt good my power output was greater than on days I felt so-so. Was this just an expensive way of telling me something I already knew? Eventually, I got to figure out that I could maintain a good pace up a long climb by sticking to a maximum power level on a long climb, rather than charging up the first half feeling good only to burn out and crawl up the second half.
Through April and May 2015, things started to go off course. I had a huge project on at work and it involved regular week-long trips to New York. Getting any form of training on these trips was a challenge and jet-lag took the edge off the next few days. Even worse, the go-live date for the project started edging towards the first weekend in July – Marmotte weekend! I was one of the key decision makers on go-live date but knew, deep down, that work wins over play. I kept up the training but without the target it became a bit lacklustre. In June I entered the King of the Downs, stormed round the first 165K in 6 hours, on target for a top-ten finish, then got lost to such an extent that I nearly ended up on the M23 – from personal experience I can tell you that the big roundabout near Gatwick South Terminal is not cycle-friendly! I also did the Dragon Ride in South Wales but my Garmin fell off so I struggled with timing, nutrition and figuring out where I was.
I eventually succumbed to reality and cancelled the Marmotte trip with a heavy heart. I luckily managed to find an alternative flight and hotel in Alpe d’Huez the following weekend so I got 2 days in the Alps. The group I was with were happy to potter about but I wanted to smash every mountain. I did a few big climbs, experienced a near blackout near the top of Alpe d’Huez when I failed to heed my own advice about the power meter and got some great practice going downhill, getting confidence in the bike, brakes and my skill level but without the crowds and excitement it felt all a bit flat (if that is possible in the Alps).
It took a while to get going again. I repeated the running, duathlon, turbo training over the winter 2015-16 and focused on cycling from April. I did the King of the Downs and nearly froze to death (wrong weather; wrong kit) but finished top-ten. I then did the Dragon Ride in blistering heat and blasted round until I missed the final feed station, nearly passed out on the final climb but still finished in a respectable time. I felt ready for the Marmotte. I had learned a few lessons (read the weather forecast; check where the feed stations are) the hard way but knew I had done the training and had the experience. All I had to do was put that together on the day!
The morning of Marmotte 2016 dawned cold and damp – perfect! I forced down the porridge, clipped in and pointed the bike down Alpe d’Huez to the start. It was a great ride down in the gloomy light. I was relaxed on the bike and the hairpin corners, which had been a scary sight a couple of years earlier, were something to be relished. I still had to concentrate hard, figure out the braking points and the best line through the other riders, so I was hardly Peter Sagan, but it felt proper. I had my target timetable taped to my top tube and friendly “wow you’re going for it” comments from other riders made me realise how ambitious it was. Eventually we got going and before I knew it we were on the first climb. I felt great and had to keep reminding myself to stick to the plan and not overdo it.
I got to the top of the Glandon 5 minutes inside target time, took a deep breath and set off on the descent. This was my nemesis two years earlier but this time it was great. I got into a rhythm and relaxed into the curves. Before I knew it, the road was levelling out and I was into the village at the foot of the Col. I paused, took on some food and then put the next part of the plan into action. I waited for a decent size group going at a good speed and latched onto the rear – I was hoping this group would pull me along the long, false flat slog along the valley floor to the foot of the Telegraph. Everyone in the group was Dutch, big, tanned and a bit scary but after some friendly banter I did a few turns at the front and they accepted me into their group. Job done, the group split as we hit the first slopes of the Telegraph. It was starting to warm up but I felt good with plenty of food, water and no mechanicals. I tapped out what I felt was a good rhythm going up the climb and, before I really knew it, I was at the feed station at the top about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I loaded up on drink and set off own the descent feeling good.
The inevitable wobble started at the foot of the Glandon. It was getting hotter and I was struggling to get food down but I stuck at it. I switched from solid bars to gels and having scoffed a couple of double espressos I perked up. I stuck my head down, focused on the power meter for 30 minutes and ground out a few kilometres. As I got to the snow line I started counting down the distance to a feed station at the summit where I knew a bag I had packed with extra provisions was waiting for me. I reached the summit in good shape, downed a can of coke, re-stocked my rear pockets and set off down the mountain high on caffeine and success. I was 30 minutes ahead of schedule and still feeling good.
The descent off Glandon is very fast but not too technical although a heavy shower a couple of km from the valley floor made it “interesting”. The rain got steadily heavier as I charged along the valley floor on a lumpy, twisty temporary road that had been built when the previous road was swept away by a land-slide. I started to think about the final climb. I was struggling to read my Garmin because of the rain (and my 50+ eyesight) but I knew I was within target time and could take nearly 2 hours to get up Alpe d’Huez and still get a gold time. The rain started to ease as I hit the first slope of Alpe d’Huez but water poured down the road - this was my kind of weather! I paced my way up the climb, focused only on the next hairpin. At hairpin 7 I started to think about the finish and began to push slowly at first, then building a decent bit of speed. At the final hairpin, I went for it and sprinted over the summit, raising cheers from the bars along the Alpe d’Huez strip. I began to regret that sprint in the final kilometre to the finish line but I knew I had it in the bag. I crossed the line and slumped over the handlebars – wow, that pain felt good!
I did my best the that evening and the following morning to take it all in. Having achieved the gold time and had the best possible ride so I wasn’t sure whether I would be returning to the Marmotte. I soaked in the sun, looked at the mountains and thought how do you top that?