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Riding La Marmotte by Dana Albert
 
By Staff
Date: 8/19/2003
Riding La Marmotte by Dana Albert
 

By Dana Albert

What is La Marmotte?

La Marmotte is a Cyclo-Sportif, which is a type of race popular in France that not only pits riders against each other, but also scores each rider according to his time. The top riders race against each other, while the less sportive aim for a bronze, silver, or gold "diploma." Since more than 6,000 riders do La Marmotte, many of them are simply hoping to finish. The ride does a 100-mile circuit over three of the toughest mountain passes of the Tour de France and then climbs about 8 miles up Alpe d’Huez, for a total of about 17,000 feet of climbing. It has been held for some thirty years, and according to a Belgian journalist I talked to, La Marmotte is a rite of passage for any Belgian who wants to call himself a cyclist. It is most popular among the Dutch and the French. This year it was held on July 5.

My Background

I began bicycle racing at age eleven in 1981, in Boulder, Colorado. From 1984 to 1985 I worked for the Coors Classic bike race. I moved to California in 1987 and continued racing, mostly at the collegiate level, with the highlight being a national title in the team time trial in 1990, riding for the University of California at Santa Barbara. (The TTT was my best event, which isn’t surprising given that at 6’3" I’m too big to be a climber, but at 165 pounds don’t have the build for sprinting.) My last year of racing was 1991, riding for University of California Berkeley. Since then, I have continued to ride and recently joined a local Berkeley-area club, East Bay Velo Club. My brother Geoff, who lives in The Netherlands, told me about La Marmotte early this year, and it became my excuse to get as fit as possible this spring and then return to racing for one day.

The Course

The Tuesday before La Marmotte I drove, with my mom, my wife, my 18-month-old daughter, to Le Bourg d’Oisans (from Annecy, where we’d been staying) so I could ride Alpe d’Huez, which is the last climb of the race course. Even this long before the event, the road was full of cyclists. I suppose they were either training, doing reconnaissance, or simply wanting to be seen. It was starting to sprinkle when we stopped just outside of town to unload my bike. By the time I started up it, it was raining in earnest, which seemed fitting weather for such an epic climb. The Alps are not like any mountains I’ve ever seen. They are much more abrupt than the United States' Rockies or the Sierras and have no foothills. They’re like cartoon mountains that kids draw; steep and spiky and sharp.

After just a few of the 21 switchbacks, I could look down at the town below as though I were in a helicopter. It was very motivating to be on such a famous climb, especially with all the other riders—and went really hard all the way up. It was a grueling climb, rated Hors Categorie. My time to where the climbing ended (a few minutes shy of where I later learned the finish line would be) was 47 minutes (I’m told Pantani did it in 38).

On Thursday we drove the course so I could ride the descents. I’d read much on past riders’ web pages about how difficult and dangerous these were, and wanted to see for myself. Driving up the Col de la Croix de Fer, the first of the four main climbs on the course, we couldn’t believe how long it was, and how steep: no way, I kept thinking. As I only learned long after the race, this is an Hors Categorie climb. At the top it was sprinkling, and very cold, and it took some gumption to get out of the warm car and begin the descent.

The first section was very technical, steep with lots of hairpins, but smooth. About halfway down the road passed through some villages and changed to a lousy chip-and-seal surface with lots of loose gravillons, as the signs warned—very loose, coarse gravel. I slid around a bit and learned that you cannot brake or steer when on the loose sections—you have adjust your course beforehand and roll over these sections as smoothly as possible. It was raining a bit more now, and had been raining earlier, so the road was slick and became very treacherous.

Though it wasn’t sunny, there was enough glare to produce a terrifying effect: when I entered the first tunnel I suddenly became completely blind. There were no lights! I felt like I was falling through space for several terrifying seconds before my eyes adjusted. The next few tunnels were lit, and I quickly learned why: the French will light tunnels if (perhaps only if) there are sharp curves in them. In many cases the curves are sharp enough that you can’t see the end of the tunnel until you’re almost out of it. Another tunnel had a sharp turn right after it. It was really one of the sketchier descents I’ve ever done. The idea of doing it in a pack, especially given the range of skill levels represented by an event that draws from totally flat places like Holland and the UK, was frankly pretty scary. I decided to ignore the advice of a Belgian team staying at the Panoramique, and to do the Croix de Fer good and hard on race day to get free of as many of the larger groups as I could.

After the descent, the route follows some narrow, flat roads through a couple of towns and then heads up the Col du Telegraphe, a 2e Categorie climb that again impressed ups with its steepness. It peaked near the town of Valloire, to which it descended briefly before we started up the Col du Galibier. (The climbs are practically contiguous.) The Galibier, another Hors Categorie, is the most formidable of Marmotte’s climbs, and peaks at almost 9,000 feet It was very cold at the top where, with an air of resignation I took the bike out of the back of the car and assembled it again for the descent. The pavement was very good, very clean and fast, though with lots of curves, some of them very tight. After descending past the summit of the Col du Lautaret, about halfway down, the road straightened out a bit and went through several more (lighted, straight) tunnels. This brought us back to Bourg d’Oisans, where the race picks up the road to the finish at the summit of Alpe d’Huez.

Just to drive the course was oddly exhausting. In fact, after a large lunch on Friday at an outdoor café in Bourg d’Oisans, when I had that totally sated post-gluttony feeling and was idly watching cyclists go by, I suddenly had a strong feeling of dread and began to wonder why I ever wanted to do this thing. It was a pit-in-the-stomach impression, a vague realization that I’d made a huge mistake. Strange how such notions come over you. I really think it had to do with the large meal; mere hours later, I was as amped up as ever.

The Race

I slept poorly, more nervous than I’ve perhaps ever been for a race, and was awake before the alarm. The saintly proprietor of the hotel had arranged a pasta breakfast for the riders at 5:15. My wife Erin and I parked the car a quarter mile from the starting point (the Casino supermarket at the base of Alpe d’Huez). I offered Erin a ride over there on my bike, but she wouldn’t have it. I explained that the larger, specially shaped tubes of my Orbea Lobular would provide better comfort than the small diameter steel tubes of my older bikes, but no dice. This stubbornness would prove very unfortunate. I arrived at the Casino and was routed to the area for numbers 400-2000. I was number 908, a relatively low number based on my early registration, and had been told previously that this would put me in the first group of riders to start, meaning I could find the most serious racers, say the top thirty, and stay with them at least to the first climb. Otherwise, a fellow racer had warned me, I’d never see them.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the race organizers actually fill the first box of 400 with the top finishers from the previous year. This means that first-timers like myself, even ones who register early, are at a significant disadvantage. Though the race organizers calculate actual ride time based on the timing chip that each rider wears strapped to his ankle, the official time (and thus placing) is based on the start time of 7:15 AM. So, if it takes you several minutes to get to the start line, tough luck. Moreover, I couldn’t tell how many riders were ahead of me at the start—only that they numbered somewhere between 400 and 2,000. Riders stretched as far as I could see.

Stupidly, I still had the key to our rental car in my pocket, and when the start time approached, and Erin hadn’t shown up, I began to worry. Without the key, she would be stranded in Bourg d’Oisans, my mom and daughter would be stranded in Mizoen, and nobody would be waiting for me at the top of Alpe d’Huez. I found some fellow riders (Americans, surprisingly enough) who were willing to hold my bike, and I took off looking for Erin, running through the throngs in my cycling shoes. Between riders and spectators, there were thousands upon thousands of people crammed into the parking lot and its feeder roads, and I was despairing. At about 7:05 I finally spotted Erin, running toward me. Since she too thought I’d be in the first group, she’d gotten directions toward the start line, which was way down the road from where I was. We got back to my bike with just minutes to spare before the start. Kind of a strange warm-up.

About four minutes went by between the start of the race and the moment I actually crossed the start line. Once I got onto the road and began hammering, it was like one of those racecar video games—I was passing people continuously, weaving through them and the countless support vehicles. All the way to the bottom of the first climb, I was in my top gear, going thirty. At the base of the Col de la Croix de Fer, I could see streams of riders several switchbacks up ahead. Demoralizing, given that the best riders were far ahead already and I had no reason to expect I could close the gap. I set a very high tempo all the way up the climb, continuing to pass massive numbers of people.

The farther along I got, the higher the caliber of the rider. My legs were very good and fresh, and I was keeping my heart rate at about 162, which is about 87% of my maximum heart rate. (I thought this should be sustainable because during the Markleeville Death Ride in 2001, I was above 160 for 2 hours and 25 minutes.) At the top of the Croix de Fer, my average rate of vertical gain was 4,260 feet per hour, which the cycling coach Stefano Ferrari lists as equivalent to the rate necessary for a peloton finish in a Tour de France mountain stage. Things were going splendidly.

Toward the top, it was less steep but very windy, and I fell into a small pack, maybe a dozen guys. It wasn’t a perfect group: too many of the guys didn’t pull fast enough. I wanted to be going faster, making up more time on the unknown numbers ahead of me, but needed some shelter from the wind. I decided to pull about half the time at my pace, which the other guys could handle if drafting but who weren’t willing or able to keep when leading. When the summit was in sight, I decided the group had taken enough advantage of me. I accelerated and punched all their tickets.

The descent began just as well. I caught a small group, maybe eight guys, and was relieved to see that they were all great descenders, streaming single-file through the turns without breaking stride. There were still patches of gravillons, but the road had obviously been meticulously groomed since I’d last ridden it. Even the first, unlit tunnel didn’t freak me out nearly as much as it had earlier in the week. Then, just before the mouth of a subsequent tunnel, I saw a pretty bad crash. Two guys, way over on the left-hand side of the road, had collided. When I saw them, they were grinding to a stop on the ground, one of them still attached to his bike, its rear wheel high in the air. A third rider was stupidly stopping in the middle of the road but I made it past him and into the tunnel. There was one other close call: I came out of a fast curve and found that an emergency vehicle, taking on a crashed rider, was stopped right across the road from another stopped vehicle; the road was very narrow and there was but a small gap, perhaps four or five feet, between them. I made it, as did the riders immediately behind me, but if anybody had had a lapse of attention it could have been very ugly.

After a fast flat section through a couple of towns, I began the Col du Telegraphe alone after shedding a couple of guys I’d worked with to get across. The race seemed to have shaken out a bit, with more individual riders and fewer groups. I continued to pass riders, but only here and there; they were all of high enough caliber that I was frankly psyched to be passing them at all. Moreover, nobody was passing me. I had reason to be content with how things were going; my heart rate was still holding at 162 without significant muscular difficulty, my average rate of vertical gain was still over 4,000 feet per hour, and my average speed was on track to bring me in well before the seven hours I’d set as my goal. Still, it was unnerving not to know how many riders were up the road from me, and hard to be patient when my legs were so good.

Thus, when a very lean, compact rider passed me, and I admired his smooth, consistent form, I found myself deciding whether to step up my pace still further and try to stay with him. My inclination was to do as I always have and ride at my own pace, trusting myself to know when it’s not wise to push harder. This policy has served me well in countless races; however, my performance in those races, while generally solid, was never brilliant. I’ve often wondered if my tactical sense has always been too conservative to be the stuff of champions. I’ve known a number of real winners, the eye-of-the-tiger set, who seemed too obsessed with victory to assess the risks of overextending themselves. Without much time to make up my mind, I rashly decided to try for something really special. I got the guy’s wheel and hung on there.

He was indeed smooth, and kept a completely consistent pace, and a saw my heart rate go from 162 to about 165-166. This was a very intense venture - I was well aware of being at the redline - but the rewards were immediate. Now we were catching riders at a far better rate than I’d been, including a wiry young fellow, a born climber, who stayed with us. I was starting to get a bit concerned about fuel -I’d given up trying to eat an energy bar earlier in the climb because I was low on energy drink (given the relatively poor support on the ride, I’d had to make do with two bottles for two climbs) and didn’t have enough to spare to wash anything down with. When some spectators handed up plastic cups of water, I took the opportunity to have another go at the energy bar. I realized I was going far too hard to eat, and had to spit out most of what I’d bitten off.

Still, my energy was good and I stayed with the two riders for most of the rest of the climb. About three fourths of the way up we caught a group of about eight riders. By this point I was feeling the burden - though it’s not considered one of the harder climbs of Marmotte, Telegraphe is very long and never lets up - so I scaled back my efforts, letting the two go and staying with the small group to the summit. By this time, my bottles were completely empty, but I knew we had the first feed zone in just a few miles, after a short descent to Valloire at mile 60. The race seemed to be going just about perfectly: my heart rate was back at 162, my average speed at 16.7 (with 4,000 feet of descending earned but not taken), and here I was in a small group of very elite looking guys, exceeding my expectations for the day.

There was just one problem: it was here that I cracked.

This wasn’t the same as being dropped, that moment at which point you give up trying to do one thing (hang on) and instead do something else (cut your losses). Nor was my demise quite as abrupt as the sentence above, but rather it dawned on me over a period of maybe a minute that something had given, some bodily threshold had been exceeded, something had gone wrong with the machine. There was no sound of the transmission dropping out and landing on the ground, but I did feel that sudden loss of power your car suffers when the timing belt breaks, leaving you just enough juice to get over to the shoulder if you’re lucky.

But I wasn’t lucky: I had half the race to go. One moment, my legs could go forever; I was so amped on adrenalin they didn’t even hurt; my heart was pounding away happily. The next moment, even though the gradual descent required little of me, I realized my body was no longer capable of any intensity at all. Perhaps one day sports medicine will have everything figured out, and the exact cause of such a meltdown will be easily and precisely diagnosed. All I know is that something went. Maybe my muscles’ ability to process lactic acid went south. Maybe it was related to blood sugar (though I didn’t have the fluttering stomach feeling that invariably accompanies a real bonk). Whatever the cause, I did not simply wear out - no, something broke because I pushed myself too hard.

It was a horrifying realization: what had felt like the race of my life - indeed, what had been the race of my life - had become a doomed struggle just to keep going. The short descent to Valloire and food had become long, and felt like a climb. In fact, the road did start to go uphill again and still no sign of food. I asked a couple of guys in the group where the food was; actually, I tried to ask, but in my turmoil couldn’t form the sentence properly in French. Or maybe the words were right but the volume was too low. Finally a guy seemed to understand, motioned toward his mouth, said "manger?" I think French wasn’t his first language, either. I nodded. "One kilometre," he said. It ended up being two, and two very long ones at that.

The feed station was a couple of card tables. The guys working it kept asking if I wanted water. They’d evidently not heard of Gatorade, the word I thought would best convey the idea of caloric drink. I started shouting, "Sucre, sucre!" and one of the guys finally got the point. He filled my bottles with this clear liquid that looked like either weak lemonade or dirty water. I grabbed a few handfuls of dried apricots, which was the only food that looked reasonable (other offerings were ham sandwiches and dried prunes, each representing trouble at one end of my digestive system or the other).

I was the only rider at the table - it seemed every other guy had gotten his feed from a friend long before, and the pack I’d been in was now far up the road - and in my psyched-out anguish I felt frantic to get rolling again. I pedaled on, beginning the bleak climb up the Col du Galibier, and I cannot recall the last time I felt so despondent. Where was my body, the good one that had worked so well? What was happening to me? And how could I possibly make it all the way to the finish?

The energy drink was mixed so weak I couldn’t be sure, at first, that it wasn’t just water tainted with the aftertaste from a poorly cleaned vessel. I plodded along, already in my lowest gear, not quite believing what I still had to do. My legs were now impotent wiffle bats, and either my heart wasn’t being asked for more than 145 or so beats per minute, or it couldn’t fill a bigger order. Everything had gone slack; pedaling hard was like trying to pluck a broken guitar string. Riders began to pass me - not a steady stream, and not terribly often - but continually. Where had I gone wrong? I stared miserably down into the ravine off to my right, perhaps finding the road ahead too depressing to contemplate, and saw an actual marmot down there. It was running, half tumbling, and I was surprised how big it was. Shaped like a groundhog, it was the size of an obese dog. It finally tumbled through a hole in the ground into its underground lair. Where could I go?

I ground my way up the switchbacks, looking down occasionally at the switchbacks below, seeing rider after lone rider, the original packs having exploded long ago. Though many of these riders looked as wretched as I felt, others had doubtless been pacing themselves, biding their time, and would take advantage of the climb to better their standings. Occasionally I would marvel at how quickly I was gaining elevation - the Galibier forces you to - but at other times I would look up at the mountain ahead, the dizzying switchbacks, the increasingly stark landscape, and feel despair beating at my door.

It was an amazing road, very exposed, rather bleak but oddly pretty against the backdrop of formidable snow-covered peaks. (It reminded me of the album cover of Radiohead’s Kid A.) As I passed above the timber line, vegetation became sparse and the air grew increasingly chilly; though it had been hot on the Telegraphe, there was still snow up here. I ate apricots as often as I could (even in the cold air, the sweat leaching through my jersey had completely rehydrated them), and kept working on my bottles until they were again completely empty. The road narrowed. Signs posted by the race organizers taunted me with the number of kilometers remaining. The remaining switchbacks, of which there were quite a few, were all laid out before me, in plain view, connected by fiendishly steep roads, like a parking garage, and I began to bitterly resent the very idea of subjecting humans to such a thing. This climb is sick, I thought. The whole enterprise seemed an abomination.

At this point I began to experience the deeply disconcerting feeling of my calf muscles trying to cramp up. I’ve never actually had a muscle cramp in my life, but I know from witnessing them how a once pliant muscle suddenly turns to rock and becomes worthless. At a certain point in my pedal stroke I would begin to feel my calf start to harden, and I would instinctively relax it and it would go back soft again just before my limited forward momentum was exhausted. This happened again and again, and each time I was on the verge of panic, fearing this was really the end and one or both legs would simply cease to function. I never did cramp, though. (Either I have some rare physiological gift or it was the salty French food I’d been eating all week.)

Toward the top - only toward, I was still a long way from it - spectators began to appear. There is a certain breed of French spectator, maybe not even a breed but a single one, though I felt his presence long and often enough to assume a whole race of men, who is a connoisseur of suffering, who studies it intently like a sommelier sampling a fine wine. I encountered one such fellow, a small man with a dark beard, on the last kilometer of Galibier. To say he cheered me on isn’t exactly right: he saw right into me, toured my pain as if exploring a dark cave. To borrow from Poe:

Deep into that darkness peering, long [he] stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.

He made a gesture, holding his hands low, palms up, fingers curling and uncurling, and made a gentle murmuring, a throaty rumbling sound incorporating the burbling coo of a pigeon. It was encouragement, to be sure, but scaled to the nature of my endeavor, so much more attuned than someone shrieking "Go, go!" or "Allez, allez!" I don’t know that I felt inspired, but at least I felt appreciated, felt that I hadn’t suffered alone.

The very top of the climb finally came into clear view, and I realized this was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, on as perfectly clear a day as could possibly be. The somewhat distant snow-covered peaks looked like you could reach out and touch them. The whole atmosphere, though completely free of glare, fog, and mist, seemed to shimmer somehow, and sparkle. And yet, I couldn’t enjoy it - imagine trying to take in a masterpiece of landscape painting while somebody strikes your head repeatedly with a hammer. As I crested the top, cheered by a large handful of what seemed, at least in my quasi-delusional state, to be a group of old French peasant women from the countryside, I felt that I would weep, if only I had the energy.

Once I began the descent from Galibier, I felt like a bike racer again. For maximum aerodynamic advantage, I didn’t put my jacket on. Sure, it was frigid, but what’s a little cold when your entire body is screaming out in anguish? I took the curves good and fast, and though I only passed a couple of guys, I’m sure I extended my tenuous lead over many of the riders behind me. Moreover, I was going fast, and for awhile could forget how weak I was. I didn’t kid myself that the resting would do me any good—that would be like "fixing" a TV with a burned out tube by letting it sit awhile. But as the road flattened out somewhat and a group of six or eight guys caught me, I was able to do my share of the work and we were making good time.

It’s close to 30 miles from the top of Galibier to the base of Alpe d’Huez, and I was relieved to be in a pack as we were fighting a stiff headwind. One of the guys in the group was massive - I reckon he was a Dutchman - and he and I did the bulk of the work. Since climbing uses different muscles from powering on the flats, I was riding fairly well and my spirits improved a bit. (Going through tunnels in a group, by the way, is kind of a trip. Needless to say you have to have complete trust in your fellow riders; you can’t see each other too well in the dark and have to be very smooth. I enjoyed the visual effect of seeing only the silhouette of the rider ahead of me, like a paper cutout against the light at the end of the tunnel.)

About 10 or so miles from Bourg d’Oisans (my grasp of distances, in fact of numbers in general, was shaky at this point), we hit a small climb steep enough to require the small chainring. To my horror, I threw my chain. (There’s no excuse for this, of course; it was misadjusted. Looking back, I must have been - uncharacteristically because of fatigue - using the largest cog in back and the big ring in front at the same time, which forbidden "crossover gear" I evidently hadn’t included in my shifting tests back when I’d done my adjustment.) A guy in the pack pushed me along while I tried to shift the chain back on. This was certainly a nice gesture, though also very pragmatic (he needed my pulls), but it was in vain. I had to stop to put the chain back on, and watched miserably as the group rolled away without me. Fighting the headwind by myself the rest of the way to the base of Alpe d’Huez, still with empty bottles, losing even more time to the crush of riders behind me, brought my morale all the way back down to Galibier levels, maybe even lower.

I rolled into the second feed station, drank a big bottle or two of water, and ate a million orange slices while a woman filled my bottle with Coke. This was the same woman, by the way, who served the hot lunch back in elementary school, whom I would watch slopping the food grumpily on the tray on those rare days when I forgot my sack lunch. The intervening decades have done nothing to improve this woman’s cheerless attitude. But then what was I expecting, Mary Lou Retton? I hit the road again, pleased at last to have a full-strength sugary drink to help me up Alpe d’Huez.

Then I remembered my emergency medical stash: two Tylenol and a No-Doz in my jersey pocket. I reached in there and felt around, and all my fingers found was a paste of completely dissolved drugs. I considered smearing this into my mouth, but the day had become very hot and I couldn’t risk nausea. Just before the road started to go up, a large pack of riders, maybe 10 or 12, passed me at a good clip. It was a menacing reminder that, poorly as I’d been riding, I still had a vast number of racers behind me and a potentially decent position to defend. My ride time at this point was about 6 hours and 15 minutes; if (hypothetically speaking) I rode Alpe d’Huez as fast as I’d done it in training, my goal of 7 hours was still within reach.

I can’t recall exactly when I got Ravel’s Bolero stuck in my head. Normally, of course, my brain accompanies my cycling with rock music. A short climb on a training ride might be assigned the guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb"; on a particularly good team ride recently my mental deejay chose Beck’s "Loser" (apparently for ironic effect), and on the Col de la Croix de Fer earlier in this race I’d somehow dug up "Gates of Steel" by Devo. Classical music is quite rare to have in my head. But the utterly repetitive, plodding dum-de-de-de-dum-de-de-de-dum-de-de-de-dum-dum-dum foundation for this piece matched my cadence and my eternity of rote suffering pretty well. In fact, my fried brain left out most of the more interesting melodies laid on top of this backdrop, and created a new extended dance mix of just the dum-de-de-de-dum business. It was the quasi-musical equivalent of a prison sentence, and thus perfectly appropriate.

Rider after rider passed me. Looking for some vestige of athletic dignity, I made a habit of checking their numbers. A low number meant a high finisher last year whom I’d caught and dropped earlier - slightly less demoralizing than a high number, indicating someone who’d not finished high before, maybe a first-time Marmotte rider like me, and moreover someone who may have started well behind me, maybe even minutes behind me, who had paced himself perfectly throughout the ride and would use the entire Alpe d’Huez climb to improve his placing. The majority of the riders passing me did have low numbers, and were obviously class riders I couldn’t be ashamed of losing to. But among them were also high numbered riders whose form wasn’t even that good, whose bikes were older and lesser than mine, who didn’t have team jerseys - riders I know wouldn’t be passing me had I not completely botched the race by going too hard on the Col du Telegraphe.

Alpe d’Huez had a lot more spectators than the Galibier, but many were there to cheer specific riders, and others seemed to be observing the spectacle without really seeming to engage with it emotionally. Sure, a great many did cheer, but I couldn’t help notice others who seemed to be looking at me with pity. Others seemed to consider me almost contemptuously, as you would look upon a scabby, humiliated dog wearing a giant satellite-dish collar.

Here and there I encountered the connoisseur-of-suffering type, always a small, bearded Frenchman, always making the finger-curling gesture and the rumbling burble of encouragement. (Could it have been one guy, somehow zipping ahead on the course? Or maybe a hallucination?) In most cases what I was seeing was not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather a kind of restraint, as though spectators were thoughtfully letting me die in peace. One fellow told me, in French, that if I would sit down in the saddle he’d give me a push. Unfortunately my sluggish brain only parsed the sentence some 10 or 15 seconds after the fact, so I didn’t sit down; even so, he did give me as good a push as possible without crashing me. The climb went on and on, and finally after the last switchback I knew I was near the end. At this point saw two riders in my sights and decided to drop them. After all, I had to feel like I was beating somebody. I managed to get by them, but they weren’t exactly fighting.

Finally I reached the top. Alpe d’Huez had taken more than an hour and fifteen minutes, almost half an hour longer than it had in training. I hit the flat section at the top and began sprinting, not for any particular reason other than perhaps to get the last bit over with. There was fencing set up along the sides, and some turns, and thick crowds, and I did have the thrilling feeling of going pretty fast. Not because I was, of course, but because I was finally on a flat road—it’s the same phenomenon that produces the feeling of floating over the ground after you’ve been on a treadmill for half an hour. Some 500 meters from the line I even had the presence of mind to zip up my jersey. The road was slightly downhill now and I flew toward the line, spotting Erin and Mom right there on the sidelines, cheering me on. I crossed over the black pad that stopped my timing chip, but was so disoriented I didn’t realize its purpose. For some reason I expected some official to come wave a wand of some kind at my ankle. I tried to pose a question to the riders around me and got nothing but exhausted, blank stares. Finally I realized I was really done.

The Aftermath

My family found me right away and my mom conjured up a ice-cold Coke. I straddled my bike for awhile, trying to figure out how to begin recovering, and then slumped on a patch of grass. I wasn’t even prepared to deal with the Coke. Erin was excited, figured I’d had a great ride, had no idea how emotionally crushed I was. She asked me how it went and after I regained enough composure to talk, I tried to answer her. But what could I say? "I blew it," I finally said. A wave of feeling poured over me, something between relief and awe and despondence. After six months of intense training, countless hours of climbing, after burning off more than twenty pounds of needless body mass, and all the psyching up for this one event, I almost had a brilliant ride but instead fell far short. What difference might a bit better judgment have made? I was having difficulty explaining, and difficulty trying to eat some orange wedges I’d forgotten about in my jersey pocket, and eventually found myself sobbing into my orange slices.

Erin couldn’t understand. I’d looked pretty fast to her, having finished before she’d really expected me to, especially, she said, since the form and physique of the riders who’d come in before me seemed to her to me much better suited to such a course. I lay back on the grass and she held a jacket over me to block the sun. She was a little concerned. I’d lost a fair bit of water—my face was sunken, skeletal. My lips were blue, my eyelids red, my irises strangely clouded over. After I rested awhile I felt better, and was able to smile a bit, but Erin insisted I get checked out in the medical tent. The first guy looked me over and called in another guy, a big bearded dude with yellow teeth and cigarette breath, who explained that my body was having trouble reoxygenating itself. He talked for some time, and the odd thing is I understood everything he said, though he was speaking French and at a very fast clip. He prescribed pasta. Within half an hour felt well enough to pick up my gold diploma and medal, turn in my timing chip, and make it back to the car.

Looking back now, I’m not completely displeased with my performance. As badly as I blew on the Telegraphe, I did manage to salvage the ride somewhat, and I only missed my (albeit arbitrary) goal by 23 minutes. And to have achieved the fitness I needed even to compete in such a thing is something I haven’t done in 12 years. Ultimately, I don’t have a single overall feeling about the race. On the one hand, I rode a good race. On the other hand, I know I didn’t ride the best race I had in me. Now that I know the course, it seems a shame not to put that knowledge to use. I may have to return to France to settle my score with La Marmotte….

 

 

 

My Stats

  • Placing: 189th out of 4,516 finishers (87th in my age category, out of 1,546)
  • Diploma: Gold
  • Real time: 7 hours 23 minutes 8 seconds
  • Real average speed: 15 mph (14.75 mph including food stops)
  • Official time: 7 hours 27 minutes 23 seconds (includes about 4 minutes of being stuck in traffic before crossing the start line)
  • Official average speed: 23.56 kph (14.6 mph)
  • Distance: 108 miles
  • Vertical gain: 16,920 feet
  • Rate of vertical gain: 4,260 ft/hr on Croix de Fer; 2,880 ft/hr on Alpe d’Huez
  • Time heart above 160 bpm: 1 hour 44 min (compare to 2 hrs 25 min during Death Ride ’01)
  • Average heart rate: 154 beats per minute (81% of maximum), not including descents

Notes

The winner, Laurens Ten Dam, was from Holland and finished in 6:07:04, a new course record. According to Belgian journalist I talked to, Ten Dam rides for the Rabobank amateur team and has signed with the Rabobank pro team for next year.

The second place rider was also Dutch, and finished only 41 seconds behind. Third place went to a French guy, 3½ minutes behind second. Last year’s winner, a Dutchman named Bert Dekker who also won in 2000, was fourth, 3:19 behind third place and 7½ minutes behind the winner. Fifth went to another French rider, 3½ minutes behind Dekker and 11 minutes behind the winner.

The top woman finisher was French, 36 years old, and placed a very impressive 50th with a time of 6:55:19. There were 72 women finishers under 40 and 36 who were age 40 or older.

The top finisher in the men’s 40-49 age group was a Frenchman, 42, who finished in 10th overall with a time of 6:29:14. The top men’s 50-59 was 54, from Andorra in a stellar time of 6:49:35 (31st overall). The top men’s 60+ was 62, from France, in 8:03:04 (496th overall).

The youngest men’s finisher was 16, from France, in 10:00:43 for 2,475th place. The youngest woman was 20, from Holland, in 10:32:40 for 3,039th place. There were two 71-year-old men, one from Belgium and one from France, finishing in 11:50:47 (4,036th place) and 12:52:26 (4457th place) respectively. The oldest woman was 48, from Holland, in 13:05:39 (4,486th place).

The last finisher (some 1,500 dropped out) finished in 13:49:40, an average speed of 7.9 mph.

One other American beat me: a forty-two year old who placed 91st (20th in his age category) with a time of 7:07:21. I’d hoped to be the top American. But then, I’d hoped for a lot of things.

Here is a breakdown of where the finishers hail from:

  • Holland 1757
  • France 1299
  • Belgium 706
  • Spain 205
  • Denmark 193
  • Italy 144
  • Switzerland 63
  • UK 60
  • Germany 30
  • Poland 17
  • Luxembourg 13
  • Andorra 13
  • USA 7
  • Australia 5
  • Ireland 2
  • Japan 1
  • Norway 1

For more information on La Marmotte, check out http://www.sportcommunication.com.


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