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Return to La Marmotte - Part 2 Race Day
By Guest Contributor
Date: 11/12/2006
Return to La Marmotte - Part 2 Race Day

Return to La Marmotte - Part 2 Race Day
Race Day In France: "There were a lot of spectators. Not like you see in Tour de France coverage, 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 private pride."

By Dana Albert

The Race
Race day: July 8, 2006. I slept poorly the night before, because my brother Geoff was snoring. He slept poorly, he complained, because I kept hitting him.
Pauline, hotel proprietor extraordinaire, had arranged for her husband Perry to make his delicious pasta Bolognese for the racers; which meant almost every guest at the hotel at 5:15 a.m. We made it to the Casino parking lot good and early.

When registering for the event, I’d humbly appealed to the race organizers to give me a good start position, based on my top 200 finish in 2003. I was started in the third group (numbers 400-2,000). My brothers were way farther back in the 4,000s, so it was understood I wouldn’t see them during the race unless I had problems and/or they had a really, really good day.

I was early enough getting to my group’s start line to be up in the second row, saving myself from being stuck among some 1,600 other riders when the race started. Rider traffic had cost me about four minutes in 2003. The downside of getting to the start this early was that I had about an hour to wait around in the cold. All those around me were clearly very serious racers—they had narrow, muscular physiques with very little body fat. You’ve never seen such a frigid bunch: goose bumps, shivering, chattering teeth….

The race started, and I began hammering. I wanted to actually see the leaders this time. They had started from a different road than my group (the organizers do this now to prevent "group-jumping"), and had a good lead. At the base of the Col du Glandon, I did actually see them, way up the road, led by a car with flashing lights. They were far off, minutes ahead, and most of them stronger than I anyway, so I didn’t expect to catch them.

On the Glandon, I kept in mind what a couple of Marmotte veterans had advised me: to keep from going too hard, keep your heart rate about five beats lower than you normally would. I rode at about 157 beats per minute, putting out 280 watts, instead of my normal 162 bpm and 300 watts. The riders were fluid around me: some passed me, some I passed. Some guys I’d see several times, as though they couldn’t figure out a good rhythm. (At one point, I was in a small group that passed a couple of women; half a dozen guys in the group surged at that point, apparently acting on the wrong instinct.)

I came upon a rider who looked better than the rest. How could I tell? A veteran rider just knows. It’s an automatic response to countless subtle clues, honed over years of experience. This guy’s 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 became totally consistent. It was like cruise control. I figured I’d pace myself on this guy until presented with a good reason not to.

We passed a couple of spectators who called out encouragement. We both said "Merci," and then the guy looked at me. In that one word I’d demonstrated 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 "America." I’m not ashamed of my country, but I’m well aware that the U.S. government isn’t very popular with the Europeans, and that it’s an easy mistake to judge a people by its government. 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, but had I held too much back? This crossed my mind, but 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 actually 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. 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 a large pool of blood was forming beneath his head. One or two course marshals were attending to him. I heard him moaning.

Now, you might think I would take it easy on the descent after seeing that. In fact, it didn’t really affect me. This was a race, and I went as fast as I felt comfortable going, putting the crashed rider out of my mind and focusing on the road ahead. (For an essay about this kind of compartmentalization as it applies to cycling, click here.) 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.

Except this one guy I caught up to. The first thing I noticed was his brakes were squeaking. He also just looked awkward and off-balance. I decided to wait for a nice long straightaway to pass him. It was a good call: sure enough, he overcooked a curve and went off the side of the road, just managing to avoid rocks, keep upright, and make it back onto the road without crashing. I got by him and hammered harder to keep him off my wheel. A couple minutes later I looked back. Then looked back again. What the hell? I could see pretty far back, and pretty far ahead, and there wasn’t a rider in sight. 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 or seventy guys. The reason we caught them was pretty simple: they weren’t going that fast. It didn’t take long to figure out 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. 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 actually 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. is really just a more or less realistic 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 only open to top professionals. 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 and many only seeking to complete one or two passes. 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 cyclo-sportif 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 beats per minute 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 gut 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 with water, 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: "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 just as strong or stronger, and had a better instinct about pacing. 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 in the lead?) 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 rocked with 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 Johan Bruyneel talking in my ear: "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, 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 so 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 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.

Near the summit of the Col du Galibier. That’s the Belgian rider behind me.

We crested the summit and I checked my ride time: almost exactly five 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 said that, and he was probably a climber, meaning a smallish rider. I knew full well from my success in team time trailing that it’s always the biggest guys who are best suited to long, consistently fast efforts on flat or downhill terrain. It’s a physical fact: our ratio of mass to surface area is more favorable aerodynamically than that of a smaller rider. It’s no benefit on climbs, but it’s a solid benefit on the flats, and we’re just made for descending. 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. After all, powering along a shallow downhill uses slightly different muscles than climbing, doesn’t it? And if nothing else, my standard training ride had given me daily practice taking downhill curves fast.

We flew along the rode, beautifully carving up the corners. The Belgian was fearless; actually, better than fearless—he knew what he was doing.

We started passing guys, and they all 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 and kept the speed up. Very few guys in our group, which numbered about ten, were willing to take a pull. 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 hurting. 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 small 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. Oddly, I was fine again once we started descending again.

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 could use a short rest before the big climb. I certainly hadn’t held anything back; the question now was, how much would I have left? We turned right, to begin our final climb. I looked at my stopwatch: 6:02:00. The descent from the Galibier had taken just over an hour.

But before I could attempt a sub-one-hour climb up 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.

It didn’t take me long to realize I wasn’t going to make it up Alpe d’Huez in anything close to an hour. My legs were fried. 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 I had Ravel’s "Bolero" stuck in my head - that plodding, repetitive prison sentence of a song, and I searched around my brain for something more upbeat, more energizing, more inspirational. I came up with Soundgarden’s "Like Suicide." Perfect, actually.

It’s hard to describe the rush that comes from being an amateur from America 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 beat 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 like you see in Tour de France coverage, 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 private pride. I was also struck by the low-key response of these spectators. Clearly the event was enough of a spectacle to bring them to the mountain, but it didn’t seem enough to draw them out 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, like they’re conditioned to do it. At the T-Mobile Grand Prix in San Francisco, posers on bikes would sometimes defy the course marshals and steal some riding time on the course, and they got cheered just as enthusiastically as the real racers by seemingly oblivious fans. 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, tail wagging - and the French would be cats, coolly observing from a comfortable perch.

Suffering hard on the penultimate switchback, about two miles from the finish. Note the easygoing spectator.

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. 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 all of them by 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 alone, 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.

Going for the line

The Aftermath
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 crying like the 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 went to check the results. This is something I’ve always hated about time trials: you don’t even know how you did until you get enmeshed in the crowd around the tacked-up paper.

I had butterflies in my stomach as I approached the postings. What if I did worse than last time? What would that say about all that training I’d done? I scanned down the time column, checking the names, and found my name. My mom’s guess was darn close: I was 156th. That’s 33 places higher than I’d finished before. Not bad. I scanned up the results list looking in the "pays" (country) category, 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. I felt relief bordering on satisfaction.

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 it did. We shook hands and parted, and now I was grinning hugely.

Still, I was surprised that after all my training and my greater knowledge of the Marmotte 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.

From left to right: Mom, Dana, Bryan, and Geoff

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 had arrived intact and in great spirits. We all had stories for days about our ride in the French Alps...

All Photos (c) Dana Albert
2003 - Riding La Marmotte by Dana Albert
Return to La Marmotte - Part 1 Preparation
Return to La Marmotte - Part 2 Race Day
Return to La Marmotte - Part 3 Notes & Climb Profiles

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