I used to be an occasional contributor to the Daily Peloton . A few years ago, server problems took the magazine offline. Since then it’s come back up, but all of their archives are gone. I don’t know if these will ever be restored, so over time I will re-post my Daily Peloton stories here. What follows concerns my return visit to La Marmotte, a brutal bike race in the French Alps that crushed me like a grape my first time out. (Update: Part II now posted!)
What is La Marmotte?
La Marmotte is a “cyclosportive” (like a granfondo), which pits riders against each other but also scores each rider according to his or her time. The top riders really race, while the less sportive aim for a bronze, silver, or gold “diploma.” Many of the 6,000+ riders are just hoping to finish. The Marmotte route is a 100-mile circuit over three of the toughest Alpine passes of the Tour de France, followed by the 8-mile slog up the legendary Hors Categorie Alpe d’Huez, for a total of about 17,000 feet of climbing.
I rode La Marmotte in 2003 and completely cracked about halfway through, limping for some fifty miles to the finish as rider after rider passed me. I returned to France this July [i.e., 2006] to have another crack at it. (You can read my 2003 story by clicking here.) I finished that report with this declaration: “Now that I know the course, and what not to do, it seems a shame not to put that knowledge to use … so I hereby resolve to return to France one day to settle my score with La Marmotte…”
In 2003, this race punished me severely for overestimating my condition. This year I decided if I trained harder maybe I’d get off a little easier on race day. I developed a standard weekday training ride featuring over 4,000 feet of vertical gain in under 25 miles, with two one-mile climbs averaging 10% and a third climb of two miles at 11. I nicknamed this ride the “Hill Climb Extravaganza,” or “HCE” for short, and a number of my teammates either adopted the format, decried it as needlessly difficult, or both.
When the weather sucked (we had a record 29 days of rain in March alone), I rode through it, or endured a couple hours on the trainer. Several times I was turned around by snow on Mount Diablo. My new training regimen brought to my mind a notion from the novel The Body Artist by Don DeLillo: “You are making your own little totalitarian society ... where you are the dictator, absolutely, and also the oppressed people.” (Quote used by permission of the Wallace Literary Agency.)
Of course I had to keep my regimen from cutting too far into my home life, so I made a tradition of heading out just before dawn. I’d get home just as my kids (age three and five) were getting out of bed; often, one would bring me juice and stretch out with me on the living room floor afterward.
This time around two of my brothers joined me for the race, and our mom came along to support us.
We arrived in France five days before the race so we could ride some of the climbs beforehand. We learned that, due to roadwork, the course would take a detour near the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer, heading instead over the Col du Glandon. The descent of the Glandon is trickier than that of the Croix de Fer. We heard from a fellow hotel guest that a very accomplished amateur racer died on this descent the previous year, having crashed on a switchback.
On the Tuesday before the race we rode up Alpe d’Huez. In my training run prior to my first Marmotte, I rode the climb in 47 minutes; this year, it took 55. After all that training, what could be the problem? Alas, this practice ride confirmed what I’d been trying to ignore all year: my endurance had improved, but I wasn’t climbing that well. I was a good seven pounds heavier than in 2003, and felt it.
Determined to master my dread of Col du Glabier, the mythic mountain pass that so destroyed me last time, I rode it with my brothers the next day. For the most part we road easy, but near the top hammered a bit. It was cold and windy up there, and just starting to rain . . . totally epic. By the top my heart rate climbed precipitously even as my power was dropping off, but it didn’t matter. I was controlling my pace, feeling like I was in charge instead of the mountain. Maybe the Galibier was just flesh and blood like me, I thought. Oh, but wait—of course it isn’t. It’s rock, and harder than any man. I was making no sense. Must have been the altitude.
Race day: July 8, 2006. I slept poorly the night before, because my brother Geoff was snoring. He slept poorly too, because I kept hitting him. After a pasta breakfast we made it to the start good and early. Based on my top-200 finish in 2003, I got to start in the third group, numbers 400-2,000. (My brothers were way farther back in the 4,000s, so I wouldn’t see them until the finish.) I waited around in the cold for an hour. You’ve never seen such a frigid bunch of low-fat racer types. Goose bumps, shivering, chattering teeth….
The race started, and I went out hard. At the base of the Col du Glandon, I could see the leaders, minutes up the road, led by a car with flashing lights. Well, maybe I could catch some of them.
On the Glandon, I kept in mind what a couple of Marmotte veterans had advised me: keep your heart rate about five beats lower than you normally would. I did about 157 bpm, putting out 280 watts, instead of 162 bpm and 300 watts. The riders were fluid around me as I passed some and were overtaken by others. Some guys I’d see several times, like they couldn’t figure out a good rhythm.
I came upon a rider who looked especially accomplished. His pedaling was fluid, his back straight, his posture relaxed, and above all I had the sense he was holding something back, not straining himself. I rode behind him awhile, judging how consistent his pace was. Sure enough, my heart rate and power were totally steady. It was like cruise control. I figured I’d pace myself on this guy.
We passed a couple of spectators who called out encouragement. We both said “Merci,” and the guy looked at me. In that one word I’d showcased my terrible French pronunciation. “Nederlander?” he asked me. In a way, I was flattered. Being recognized as American is, to me, somehow like being recognized as a tourist. I paused. How to answer? In French it’s “Etats-Unis,” but where was this guy from? “No, America,” I answered. I immediately wished I’d said “United States.” I felt like a redneck saying “Amer’ca.” The rider didn’t seem to care, though. We chatted a bit. He said he was from Belgium, from the Dutch-speaking region. “Like Boonen,” he grinned.
The Belgian and I kept the same pace the whole way up the Col du Glandon, and though I had the strange sensation of loafing, I held my position and felt I was still pretty close to the front of the race. I’d followed the five-heartbeats rule … was this holding too much back? I wasn’t too worried—the rest of the course would give me plenty of opportunity to use up any “extra” energy.
Toward the top, despite the surprisingly thick mass of spectators, I spotted my mom right away in her bright orange East Bay Velo Club jersey. We’d forgotten to practice passing up the musette bag, but it went without a hitch. I was so relieved—there were so many things (e.g., parking, congestion) that could have prevented my mom from making it up there. I stuffed my pockets full of gels and put fresh bottles in my cages without losing a pedal stroke. I heard my mom call after me: “Go, tiger!” Where’d she get that? I guess it had been about twenty years since she’d watched me in a race. (My mom would go on to have her own Marmotte adventure, rocking out to Pink Floyd while threading past throngs of cars and straggling riders and navigating a shortcut to Alpe d’Huez that took her over a road barely wider than the car, with a sheer cliff on one side.)
I got a slow start to the descent as I put on my jacket, and lost contact with the Belgian. Coming around one of the early switchbacks I came upon a chilling sight: a rider had crashed and was sprawled on the side of the road. He wasn’t moving, and blood pooled beneath his head. A couple course marshals were attending to him. The race was pretty split up at this point, as lots of guys had grabbed food or water. I passed a number of racers on the winding road, and though not all of them were going blindingly fast, everybody looked confident and capable.
I pushed on, and after a while had the strange sense of being utterly alone. Nobody in sight ahead of me, and nobody behind. What the hell? Had I taken a wrong turn? It was eerie.
Eventually I caught a few more riders, a really fast guy caught us from behind, and as the road flattened and straightened we started to gather into a small pack. At the bottom of the descent, near St. Jean de Maurienne, we caught a very large group, at least sixty guys. Oddly, they weren’t going that fast. I realized why: we had a bit of a headwind, and there was little incentive for anybody to drag this giant group along by himself. Nor was it easy to motivate a small number of guys to pull hard. Say I got five guys to hammer with me: we’d each do a fifth of the work for the next ten miles, getting us only incrementally closer to the unknown number of riders ahead. Then we’d hit the base of the Col du Télégraphe with sixty daisy-fresh guys behind us. But going it alone would be even worse. I tried riding off and opening a big gap, hoping some guys would jump across, but nobody did.
Once I resigned myself to rolling along at 20 miles per hour with the group, it was pretty fun. It wasn’t hard, of course, and I got to hear idle chatter in half a dozen languages. This brought home the fact that I was actually racing in another country, in a truly international field—exactly the kind of thing I’d fantasized about as a kid. I’ve never really gotten over the notion that what we call bike racing in the U.S. can feel like a facsimile of the real sport as it’s practiced in Europe. Sure, we have our big races, like the Tour of California, but those are for the pros. The average amateur event in the U.S. is a rinky-dink criterium in a business park, with nobody in attendance who isn’t himself racing. Sure, it’s fast, and hard, but you never feel like you’re involved in something big. We have our epic courses, of course, like the Death Ride, but those aren’t races. People start whenever they feel like it, most just hoping to finish. It’s hard to feel like an elite racer when you’re passing some guy on a mountain bike who hit the road at 5 a.m. What the U.S. needs is a cyclosportive circuit, and maybe 10,000 more superb riders. Then I wouldn’t have to cross the Atlantic to get this rush.
Just before the start of the Télégraphe, I came across the Belgian guy again. We started the climb in the front of the group. “This is good,” he said. “Just keep an even pace, and most of these guys will fall away.” Sure enough, as the climb progressed our group thinned out until we were basically alone, occasionally passing somebody and occasionally being passed.
We discussed our strategy: he, too, had been advised to ride at five bpm below his normal level. We both had the same main goal: to finish in seven hours or less. This was his first Marmotte, but he’d discussed the race at length with an experienced friend who said that it takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to get from the top of the Galibier to the base of Alpe d’Huez. Leaving an hour for that climb, we’d have to reach the Galibier summit at hour 4:45. We weren’t sure how long the Galibier would take, but by the top of the Télégraphe we both had the feeling we were a bit behind schedule.
I still had a full bottle of energy drink, and had been diligently eating my gels. We both stopped to fill a bottle, losing no more than ten or fifteen seconds. We flew down through Valloire to the base of the Galibier and started to climb again. I was feeling a bit stressed: it didn’t look possible to reach the summit by 4:45. Was I going too easy? I felt great, like maybe I’d held too much back. Maybe it was time to pick up the pace. On the other hand, my goal of seven hours was somewhat arbitrary; who ever said I could achieve that, anyway? Maybe I was pacing myself just right; after all, last time I’d done this race I went out too hard and paid dearly. What to do? I took it up a notch. My heart rate immediately began to climb. Was I being foolish? I wished I had some Yoda figure to come to me in a vision and tell me exactly how to proceed.
Instead, I heard from the Belgian, right behind me: “Not too hard. Keep it even.” I paused. Who was this guy, anyway? Sure, he was smooth and everything, but how could I know he wasn’t just taking advantage of me? Maybe he just needed my size for the descent. He wasn’t one of those tiny little climbers (the Dutch call them “pocket climbers”) who can’t roll downhill worth a damn, but neither was he big enough to punch through the wind like I could. (We’d both noted this on the short descent to Valloire.) What if he realized he wasn’t as strong, and that his best bet was to get me to hold back, just enough for him to keep up? On the other hand, maybe he was smarter. I finally decided to hold back. I wasn’t going to crack again and limp along for the rest of the race. Not again.
Well, a lot can happen on a long climb like the Galibier. Ten or fifteen minutes after my tactical crossroads, I found myself struggling to keep on the Belgian’s wheel. He hadn’t sped up—he was as consistent as ever. I was simply tiring out. My legs got heavier and heavier and I no longer felt like the master of my pace. The mountain was getting the better of me. I took the lead again—a psychological game, fooling myself into confidence. (After all, I told myself, how could I be weak when I’m leading this guy?) I tried every trick in the book to shore up my psyche. I tried to smile, like Ivan Basso and Chris Horner (and George Mount before them). But doubt kept creeping in. Not despair—I was still in the game—but serious doubt. A climb like that can really crush your spirit.
With about five kilometers to go I was really worried: how far would my performance slip? I really needed a race radio with Johan Bruyneel reassuring me: “Come on Dana. Come on. Okay, Dana, don’t panic, don’t panic, eh? You can do this. You’re the best, eh? Okay, 5K to the summit. Very good. Very good. Come on. That’s it. Yes.” Instead all I had was my own inner voice: “Who said you could climb? Look at you. You’re huge. You weren’t made for this. What are you doing here, anyway?” I was having an epiphany on the mountain: I was going against nature—the Galibier, to be precise, which was the evil Mother Nature of the margarine commercial.
We passed a guy who had cracked. I could tell by how he was slumped over the handlebars, and by his sunken face, and by his expression. Poor bastard. He looked miserable, and hateful. He hated me for passing him. He hated himself for having cracked. He hated the mountain for what it was doing to him. My heart went out to the guy. Thinking back three years to my horrible trial on the Galibier, I knew exactly what he was going through. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t cracked this year. At least, not thus far….
To be continued…
Check back next week for the second half of my tale: the heart(rate) of darkness!
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