Mike Cotty on the Col du Galibier

It’s funny, I’ve always thought that time flies when you’re on two wheels and despite the fact that I was literally just wobbling my way down the garden path (or more likely hanging on for dear life) as my first trike “led the way” it’s reassuring to know that in that same year, back in 1982, an event was born in the heart of the French Alps that would not only inspire thousands of cyclists over the three decades that followed, but would also pave the way for the mass participation challenge rides that would go on to be known as “cyclosportives”.

Roll forward the years and the lure of La Marmotte is still as strong as ever with over 6,000 online entries regularly being snaffled up within the first 24 hours of going live, so what’s the attraction?

Well, the beauty of La Marmotte is that it leaves very little to the imagination. A quick glance at the profile is enough to have your stomach doing summersaults even before you’ve coined out the 60 euro entry fee. With 5,180 metres of climbing over its 174km (108 mile) route and featuring a who’s who of Tour de France classic cols – namely the Col du Glandon, Télégraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez – whatever your inner chimp tells you there’s only ever going to be one conclusion…

without question, this is one serious challenge.

If you’re lucky enough to be heading out to Bourg d’Oisans for this year’s event on July 6th then now is the time to make your final preparation, ensuring you get the most from yourself and the event on the day.

Mike Cotty on the Col du Glandon

Fit For Purpose

So let’s put all that climbing into perspective. If you were to start off at sea level, start pedalling and tilt yourself directly skywards until you reach 5,180 metres elevation where would you end up? Well it’d put you at the same altitude as the northern base camp on Mount Everest for starters! Needless to say, that’s a heck of a lot of climbing!

Col du Glandon

I think sometimes the Col du Glandon can be overshadowed by the prospect of tackling the Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez later in the day. Whatever you do don’t under estimate this little monkey, pace yourself accordingly for the 25km ascent and take note that the steepest section at, over 10% gradient, comes just after a short downhill 12km’s in.

The first part of the descent to St Etienne is viciously technical off the top before it opens up.

Whatever you do don’t push too hard on this part or you could find that your day ends early as the road suddenly runs out and you’re still doing 70kph with nowhere to go.

Be very aware of everyone around you and hold your line as you carve the bends. It sounds obvious but I’ve seen some crazy maneuvers by riders cutting from one side of the road to the other across the apex of the bend with absolutely no consideration for those around them.

Col du Telegraphe road sign

Col du Télégraphe

The Col du Télégraphe is all about finding a good comfortable rhythm and sticking to it. It’s a constant gradient of around 6-7% over its 12km length which means you don’t have to worry about changes in pitch that can sometimes unsettle the legs… the next climb on the menu will do that!

Col du Galibier

From Valloire the Galibier is 18km long, with the first handful of kilometers gentle in gradient.

For me the climb really starts with 8km to go as you see a sharp right hand hairpin ahead of you as the road ramps up and snakes back on itself.

I’ve ridden the Galibier a fair few times and every time on this corner, just to make matters worse, I’ve been met with a loving headwind. There’s no other way but to grind it out. The gradient rarely drops much below double figures until the last couple of kilometres when it pitches up even more just to give the legs another wake up tweak! At 2,645 metres elevation the views are breathtaking as is the sheer magnitude of this fantastic mountain.

The view from the Col du Galibier

Alpe d’Huez

It may seem like it’s all downhill until Bourg d’Oisans and the foot of Alpe d’Huez and, whilst for the most part it is, there are a couple of cheeky little drags and tunnels to watch out for following the warp speed descent of the Col du Lautaret. Make every effort to eat and drink at any given opportunity throughout the day. The valley section before the Télégraphe and this point are good chances to re-fuel whilst it’s also a advisable to familiarise yourself in advance as to the location of each of the feed stations along the route.

Alpe d'Huez

Alpe d’Huez needs little introduction as one of the most iconic climbs in the Alps and a frequent centre piece of the Tour de France. At this point in the day it could be stiflingly hot, the first two kilometres are the steepest at over 10% gradient before the road eases back a touch and you can start to think about trying to turn your legs in circles once more.

With each of the 21 hairpins named after the stage winners from the Tour it’s a welcome distraction as you trace your way up to the finish at 1,815m.

Fatigue will no doubt be starting to set in to every part of your body by now so it’s important to try and relax, remind yourself that this is one of the hardest cyclosportives in the world and just to get to this point is an admirable achievement.

Stay focused. Just a little bit more and you too will be a La Marmotte finisher!

Be Prepared

With less than a week to go now is not the time to start stressing about last minute training. The most important thing to concentrate on now is good quality sleep, food and hydration to make sure your body is fully recovered.

Keep the legs supple with gentle rides that are geared towards recovery as opposed to what you may normally refer to as training. A couple of short sharp sprints in an easy gear can be used to keep your system awake but you should be finishing a ride feeling good not goosed.

As a rider that likes to maintain a high cadence when climbing I normally ride in the mountains with a compact 34/50 chainset and a 25 sprocket on the rear.

Compact bicycle gearing

Now is the time to make sure that you have the right gearing set-up for your riding capability and preference. Don’t be afraid to run a larger cassette and lower gears than you would back home. I can guarantee you’ll have the last laugh in doing so.

Think ahead

Pack a lightweight shell even if it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful sunny day ahead.

The forecast can only predict so much and I’ve seen summer turn to winter in a matter of minutes when in the mountains.

Keep a watchful eye on the weather in the run up to the event and make sure that your kit bag is equipped accordingly. Even on the warmest days the chill at the top of the Galibier, and following descent, have meant every time I’ve ridden it a packable shell and arm-warmers have been essential.

Conquer la Marmotte shell armwarmers

Travel

If you’re driving over remember to take regular breaks to stretch your legs. In other words don’t make the same mistake I did with driving from Calais to Bour d’Oisans in one hit, only to wake up the next morning with glutes like harp strings and a strained Achilles tendon from keeping my right foot balanced on the accelerator pedal for far too many hours.

For those flying, make a point of getting to the airport early, not only is there less stress knowing that you have time in hand before departure but I always think that if any luggage is going to be left behind it’s going to be a late bike box turning up at check-in minutes before they’re about to close.

Don’t let it be your bike that’s left behind. You may be able to live without your wife or husband for a few days but the bike… not a chance! :-)

Final Tips

Equipment on Mike Cotty's bike
Tyre liner and bicycle light

Check that all of your equipment is in good working order. Replace tyres and pack a spare just in case. As well as the regular saddle bag essentials such as tubes, chain splitter, multitool and money throw in a little something that can be used in an emergency to line your tyre should the unthinkable happen and you hit something harder than you should. Fit bottles and pump to the bike to leave pockets free for food, phone and essentials.

I see the light

Although you may not need it on the ride itself, I always throw a little torch into my kit bag for two simple reasons -

  • I have the bladder the size of a gerbil which means multiple trips to the toilet each night. Not so easy when trying to negotiate the landing of an unfamiliar guesthouse or gîte in the dead of night.
  • With a 7am event start you’ll need to be thinking about rising and shining (well, rising….you can leave the shining until after the coffee has brewed) at around 4am for breakfast. Once again your handy little light becomes a best friend as you prepare for one of the greatest days of cycling ahead!

Make a note of the key points on the course (feed stops, summits, distances) and stick them to your stem. It may look like a little crude taped to your handlebar but it’s amazing how information that’s been in the front of your mind for days beforehand suddenly eludes you as fatigue starts to creep in.

Conquer la Marmotte stem notes

Last word

Yes, La Marmotte is a monster, there’s no denying that 174km with over 5,000 metres of elevation and four iconic climbs is a massive challenge but whatever happens on the day you have to remember – take your time, relax, don’t get carried away at the start and above all enjoy the experience. It really is one of the most satisfying and rewarding rides you’ll ever do!

Bedtime viewing

For further information and a full “on the road” analysis of the route a digital download or DVD is available courtesy of Cyclefilm.

Bon courage!