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.
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream
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
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.
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
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
Placing: 189th out of 4,516 finishers (87th
in my age category, out of 1,546)
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
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
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
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
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:
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