This is the Part II of the heart-racing (for me) tale of racing La Marmotte, a 108-mile cyclosportive race in the French Alps. This was my second attempt at this race after my disastrous effort three years before.
Where Part I left off, I was a bit more than halfway through the race, and about three quarters of the way up the infamous Col du Galibier, a brutal 11-mile climb to a summit of almost 8,700 feet. I hadn’t cracked like in 2003, but I was really tiring out. My legs were getting heavier and heavier. I was having trouble keeping up with a Belgian guy I’d ridden with the whole race, who was smooth and consistent and whom, not long before, I’d actually suspected of holding me back. Ha! As if.
Return to La Marmotte Part II – July 8, 2006
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 first horrible trial on the Galibier, I knew exactly what he was going through. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t blown up this year. At least, not thus far…
Three kilometers from the summit the Belgian was incredulous. “How long does it stay this steep?” he asked. For some reason it gave me some relief to say, “It actually only gets harder from here to the summit.” I guess I was reassured to know that everybody else on this mountain was suffering too. Of course I’m dying! Everybody’s dying! That’s just what you do on the Galibier, you die! That’s what it’s for!
But even if my spirits were restored slightly, my legs were as bad as ever. Gradually I began to slip back from the Belgian. I was on the ropes. But I still hadn’t cracked … thank God I’d been pacing myself. (Looking at my performance graphs later, I see that I hadn’t really slowed that much. My power went from 242 watts on the first half of the climb to 232 on the second; my heart rate dropped from 154 to 151. Not huge losses, considering the cumulative effort and the sheer altitude of the Galibier.)
About a kilometer from the top (I was thinking in metric units now, probably because they’re smaller), the Belgian had a clear gap, but he looked back, saw me, and slowed up a bit. I’d been completely wrong earlier—he was stronger than I, after all—but I was also right: he knew he’d benefit from my help on the descent, and now he was willing to lose a few seconds on the climb to get it.
We crested the summit and I checked my stopwatch: almost exactly five hours. In terms of our goal of finishing in under 7 hours, we were fifteen minutes behind schedule. But who said it takes an hour fifteen to get to the base of Alpe d’Huez? It was a friend of the Belgian’s who’d said that, and he was probably a climber, meaning a smallish rider. I knew full well from team time trailing that the biggest guys are best suited to flat or downhill terrain. I wasn’t ready to concede my goal of seven hours for the race—not here, forty miles from the finish. I decided to hold nothing back on the descent, and then take my lumps on Alpe d’Huez.
We flew along the road, beautifully carving up the corners. The Belgian was fearless, and—better yet—skillful. We started passing guys, and they latched on. We took a sharp right after the summit of the Col de Lautaret and the grade lessened. I hammered at the front of our group to keep the speed up. Very few guys in our group, which numbered about ten, were willing to help. I gestured, silently exhorting the guys to take their turns, but largely in vain. The Belgian and a couple others took some pulls, but I was driving most of the time. I wasn’t bitter: I didn’t think anybody was taking advantage, per se—they were just fried. Besides, it didn’t really matter; if I could rest even a quarter of the time, that was a huge benefit. My legs felt really good. Not counting a couple of short climbs, the average grade was only about 3%, yet we averaged about 28 miles per hour.
But that second short climb . . . ouch. It really slapped me down. It was only about three quarters of a mile at 4%, but I almost got dropped from the group. My legs were burning and alarms were going off in my head. I was right on the edge, trying to keep from getting gapped, when the Belgian came by. (He’d actually gotten dropped from our group earlier, and had had to claw his way back on.) “Don’t give up,” he said. I dug deep and stayed with the group. Thankfully, I was fine again once we resumed descending.
Through the last tunnel, I forgot to put my sunglasses up. It so was poorly lit in there, I couldn’t see a thing, and to stay in my lane I had to sight along the headlights of oncoming cars. A big gob of sludgy water dropped from the ceiling of the tunnel right through a vent in my helmet, and oozed over my head like a cracked egg.
Shortly before the base of Alpe d’Huez, we caught a large group, at least twenty riders. As I’d seen before, on the flat section before the Télégraphe, nobody wanted to pull hard. This time I didn’t mind—I appreciated the short rest before the big climb. I certainly hadn’t held anything back; the question now was, how much would I have left in the tank? We turned right, to begin our final climb. I looked at my stopwatch: 6:02:00. We’d made up a ton of time.
Before I could attack Alpe d’Huez, I had to stop to refuel. My bottles were empty and I’d eaten all eight of my gels. I don’t know how the guys in my group had managed to save anything in their bottles, but almost all of them, the Belgian included, blew right past the feed station. I never even considered doing that—it would be like ignoring the oil light on my car’s dashboard. I handed my bottle over and asked for Coke. It was handed back filled with about two inches of Coke and six inches of foam, and I had to beg for more. I got my other bottle filled with water, and, hands shaking, poured in powdered drink mix from a baggie I’d brought along. The stop took me less than two minutes but felt like a lot more.
Right away I knew I wasn’t going to make it up Alpe d’Huez in anything close to an hour. My legs were toast. I couldn’t get my heart up to 150. Still, I didn’t have the sensation of having cracked. I was like a flashlight when the battery is slowly dying and the bulb burns orange instead of white. The important thing was to hold out hope, to keep my head together, to fight off despair. I thought back to my last Marmotte, and how for the entire Alpe d’Huez climb I had Ravel’s “Bolero” stuck in my head—that plodding, repetitive prison sentence of a song—and now I searched around my brain for something more upbeat, more energizing, more inspirational. I came up with Soundgarden’s “Like Suicide.” There is of course nothing suicidal about bicycle racing but this song had the right energy.
It’s hard to describe the rush that comes from being an American amateur getting to race on a legendary French climb like Alpe d’Huez. I suppose it’s like a Little League baseball player getting to play in Yankee Stadium. The problem is, it’s like that Little Leaguer is also batting against a professional pitcher, swinging wildly at a ball that’s going 100 mph—yeah, like I’m going to hit that! After three other brutal climbs, getting past the first switchback of Alpe d’Huez felt like enough work for the day. And I had twenty more?
Still, I wasn’t beaten yet. Occasionally my spirits were lifted when I’d need to shift into a higher gear. After each switchback, the grade eases slightly, and if you can overcome the instinct to rest on these sections, you can shave some time and increase your speed slightly. Shifting up really helped my morale, by reminding me that I still had some control over my pace, instead of simply trying to survive.
There were a lot of spectators. Not the mobs you get at the Tour de France, of course, but it’s impressive that anybody at all turned out to stand along this sweltering, exposed road and watch a few thousand amateurs flogging themselves, with nothing on the line but their pride. I was also struck by the low-key response of this audience. Though the event was enough of a spectacle to bring them to the mountain, it wasn’t enough to draw them into the emotional swelter of the racers’ collective psyche. It’s a real contrast to what I’m accustomed to; American spectators scream and yell and clap, no matter who or where you are, as though they’re conditioned to do it. At La Marmotte, spectators seldom yell; they seem to be quietly witnessing the athletes’ progress up the hill, occasionally clapping softly and murmuring appreciation (I heard one man say “Chapeau”). If spectators were pets, Americans would be dogs—barking, jumping around, tails wagging—and the French would be cats, coolly observing from a comfortable perch.
The entire time I cranked up Alpe d’Huez I felt I was on the verge of cracking. I wasn’t even thinking about seven hours anymore; that milestone came and went without my notice. Every few minutes I passed somebody; a little more often somebody passed me. The oppressive heat gradually subsided as I gained altitude.
[The photo above is at the penultimate switchback, about two miles from the finish. Note the spectator kicking back in the lawn chair.]
Finally I passed the last switchback sign and started the final slog. When I saw the last uphill section, there were three or four guys struggling up it, and I poured on as much power as I could muster, passing them just before the top. Now I’d done it—I’d have to hammer the flat stretch to the finish to stay ahead of them. I put it in the big ring and sprinted along, riding on fumes, trying to will the home stretch to come into view. I was more than blown, more than knackered. I’d had the stuffing knocked out of me. I was . . . rendered.
I hit the downhill, fenced-off section and felt like I was flying, until I came around the final left-hand turn. To my surprise and horror, the final straightaway was slightly uphill this year, and I could barely keep the big ring turning. I was underwater. I heard my mom cheering, and I crossed the line.
I looked at cyclometer: my riding time was 7:18:00: about five minutes faster than the last time. A bit better, but just a bit. Then I looked for the patch of grass I’d collapsed on last time. But everything was changed around. I found a plastic chair and slumped into it. My mom came and found me. She was excited; I was relieved. For well over an hour I’d felt like I was going to fall apart, but here I was intact. No tears like last time; no medical tent.
I had no idea how I’d finished. Of course I’d hoped for a faster time; the question now was, given the detour in the course, was this even an improvement? My mom was convinced I’d finished higher; she guessed around 150 riders had come through before me. It was a long time before I found the gumption to go check the results.
I had butterflies in my stomach as I approached the postings. I scanned down the time column, looking for 7:18:00, and found my name. My mom’s guess was darn close: I was 155th. That’s 34 places higher than I’d finished before. Not bad. I scanned up the results list, honing in on the “pays” (country) column, looking for “ETA” (Etats-Unis)—and, happily, not finding it: no American had beaten me. Being the top American had been one of my goals for the race.
Turning from the board, I encountered a fairly large cyclist, vaguely familiar, grinning from ear to ear. He thrust out his hand. “Great job,” he said, in an accent I couldn’t place. “I was one of those guys you towed along on the descent and I wanted to thank you for all your work.” Man. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, or why. We shook hands and parted, and now I had a big grin of my own.
Still, I was surprised that after all my training and my greater knowledge of the course, my result was so similar to the time before. My official time was 07:19:42, vs. 07:27:23 in 2003. Three minutes of this improvement was a simple logistic matter of getting to the start line earlier and avoiding traffic. Pondering this has settled me into a fatalistic view: I could probably approach my conditioning for such a race, and my pacing during it, in any of a hundred different ways and chances are, with more or less pain or anguish, I’d achieve about the same result—a result that was predestined by my genes, and by the circumstances of the first thirty-seven years of my life. I guess I can live with that.
My brothers were a long time in showing up: not long after I passed the grizzly crash scene on the descent of the Glandon, the Marmotte organizers had shut down the race for an hour and a half so they could get an ambulance up there. Geoff and Bryan had been stuck behind the road closure. But now they arrived intact and in great spirits. We all had stories for days about our ride in the French Alps….
- Placing: 155th out of 4,134 finishers (62nd in my 30-39 age category, out of 1,295); about 2,000 riders dropped out
- Diploma: Gold
- Real time: 7 hours 18 minutes 0 seconds rolling time
- Real average speed: 15.0 mph
- Official time: 7 hours 19 minutes 42 seconds (includes stops and time spent getting from my staging area to the official start line)
- Official average speed: 14.7 mph
- My climbing stats:
- 3,565 ft/hr on Col du Glandon (262 watts, 0.35 horsepower) at 157 bpm;
- 3,381 ft/hr on Col du Télégraphe (264 watts, 0.35 hp) at 158 bpm;
- 3,002 ft/hr on Col du Galibier (237 watts, 0.32 hp) at 153 bpm;
- 2,941 ft/hr on Alpe d’Huez (226 watts, 0.3 hp) at 147 bpm
- Time heart rate above 160 bpm: 19 min (compared to 1 hr 44 min during Marmotte ’03)
- Average heart rate: 152 beats per minute (80% of maximum), not including descents (vs. 153 bpm, 81% in ‘03)
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