With the Marmotte recently passed, and L'Étape just gone by, we've dug this one out of the archives - Stephen McNally's diary of an epic week of cycling in the French alps with Stephen Surdival and Dave McLoughlin which culminated in a very successful assault by the Stephens on the 2007 edition of the fabled Marmotte sportive, rated by many as the toughest of them all. Read on to admire and be inspired…

A week in the Alps: The Marmotte 2007

Stephen McNally

I was collected in Dunboyne by Surdival/McLoughlin express (Stephen's van) at 7pm on Saturday 30th June, and after 24 hours of non-stop travelling, including a ferry crossing to the UK, a channel tunnel train to France, and 960 miles of driving using almost two tanks of diesel, we finally arrived in Bourg d'Oisans at the foot of the fabled Alpe d'Huez, shattered, on Sunday evening. After dinner and a couple of welcome beers, over which we planned the following day's spin, it was time for the scratcher.


The next morning, we drove to Briancon, and cycled an anti-clockwise loop of about 90k, out on the main road south towards Gap, left towards Guillestre and back towards Briancon again over the Col d'Izoard (2360m) following a portion of the étape '06 route. We had a vicious headwind heading out of Briancon, which turned out to be a nice tailwind once we started on the climb itself. From the southern side, the Izoard really is a stunning climb. 

After Guillestre it's about 17km of gradual climbing through a forested valley floor with a river on your right. It kicks up then for the last 15km after a right turn just before Chateau Queyras with some kilometres averaging between eight and ten percent. About three km from the top there is a slight descent with the stunning cliffs of the Casse Deserte on the right, a truly incredible sight. The bulk of the climbing is done at this stage and after passing the famous Bobet/Coppi monument, it continues on for another couple of kms before the final left hand bend and the huge stone column at the summit comes into view - sure was a welcome sight, I can tell you…

The two boys were kept in check until about 2km to go, their testosterone levels just short of boiling over, so I let them off then and watched them disappear off up the climb, bouncing off each other all the way to the top. So much for this being a week of tapering before the Marmotte!!?? I passed some tourists with less than a kilometre of the climb remaining and one of them stopped taking photos and ran alongside for a few metres (actually 'walked' would be a better description!) offering a push. I declined his kind offer, thinking 'Christ - I must look like I'm dying here!'

The descent was great fun, quite a few sharp hairpins at the top, but once below the tree line, there were quite a few long straight sections where 80kmh plus was the order of the day!

Myself and Dave stopped in Briancon for dinner, but the savage Surdival still had some energy to burn off (may be it was all the driving he did the day before?) so he headed off up the 11km climb to the ski-station at Montgenevre close to the Italian border, and was back in Briancon in less than 50 minutes! The man is on form…


Some folks like a bit of gentle exercise, a short walk, bit of stretching, maybe even a short run or a cycle before breakfast, but not our two boys - Next morning at 8.00am, it's 'Let's do Alpe d'Huez before brekkie'! I declined the offer to join them, thinking - This is supposed to be a holiday, isn't it!? Anyway, they were up and back by 10.00am seemingly non-the-worse for wear.

As it was about the only climb on the planet that he hadn't cycled up before, Dave's suggestion for that day was to tackle the Col d'Iseran (2770m), which is apparently the highest mountain pass in Western Europe. Only problem was that the climb was 75km in length and the starting town, St Michel de Maurienne, was over 80 kms from Bourg d'Oisans. 

So we jumped in the trusty Surdival van again and drove to St Michel de Mne, parked up outside the local train station and headed off. The route was a straight forward 75km up and 75km straight back down again. Luckily the first 45-50km are fairly gradual most of it through forests with several bits of descent on the way. Descents like this, although enjoyable for what they are, are not good news when you know that you have to be at 2770m within a fixed distance, as every metre you lose has to be made up again! 

We were also blessed with a nice tailwind which made the early portion of the climb quite pleasant. It really only gets nasty with about 25km to go. With a strong wind blowing and the sky quite cloudy it got colder and colder the higher we climbed, so much so that we put on the gilets and jackets on the way up! We also had to stop several times for a few minutes for roadworks which cooled us down even more. Eventually we reached the summit, and within the last km of climbing, it started misting over and a light rain started to fall. We gulped down some coke and turned to go back down again, no time for even a quick photo, as it was freezing by this stage.

What can I say about the descent to St Michel de Mne? The rain got heavier and heavier for the entire descent and the nice pleasant tailwind we had on the way up became a horrendous headwind right in our faces all the way down. Despite our best efforts to push the pace on the descent to keep warm, and welcoming the few gentle climbs en-route, we were frozen solid in no time. Braking and changing gears with frozen fingers all the way down, and continuously trying to prevent our shivering bodies from inducing frightening speed wobbles as we descended was pure hell - It was a descent none of us will forget for a long time. 

This was particularly true of McLoughlin: About 5km from St Michelle de Mne he hit a small but sharp pothole at about 55kmh and one of the stem bolts holding his bars snapped when he was on the hoods, pitching the bars forwards and downwards in an instant. It was an absolute miracle that he managed to hold on, but he somehow managed to control the bike to a stop despite some serious wobbles under braking. 

After several minutes of a stop to regain composure and to get his heart-rate back under 250bpm, he managed to roll the rest of the 5km down at no more than 20kmh, the bars just about held in place with the remaining stem bolt, and his left foot out of the pedal for balance… It was one hell of a sobering moment - What would we have done if the bolt had gone further back up the descent? I'd say that on a steeper or twistier section, the chances are that he would have nose-dived straight into the road under the same circumstances. Luckily it happened on a smooth straight section of road with no traffic around…  Also, riding the bike to the finish for any significantly longer distance would have been out of the question!  So despite the miserable weather on the descent, perhaps someone was looking down on us after all!

Luckily, myself and Dave had put some dry clothes in the van that morning for ourselves, so we could change straight away. Ever the improviser, Stephen rummaged around in the van for a few minutes in desperation, and finally stepped out in nothing but a huge ski-jacket and a towel. It was so dressed, Surdival in his towel, and the two of us in track-suits, that we dashed across the road through the puddles into a café, where we drank them dry of hot chocolate over the course of an hour or so, and 3 x steak haché, s'il vous plait! The weird thing was that the old local boys in the cafe didn't even bat an eyelid when we came in - It was as if the sight of a grown man coming in out the pissing rain for a drink, wrapped in a towel was an every day occurrence?!


Wednesday was a wash-out, it didn't stop raining all day, so the day was spent in Bourg d'Oisans, mainly eating and drinking as I recall - All a blur really... Dave decided to brave the elements and head off up to Villard-Notre-Dame and back for a short spin. He needed his full lights on the bike for that climb/descent, as the tunnels are long, twisty and totally pitch black inside, with water streaming from the roof in places, and the road surface in bits for most of the way.


Thursday, as promised, brought better weather and the day-off on Wednesday obviously left Surdival in need of more pain so he headed off to conquer the Col de Glandon (1924m), and follow up it up with Alpe d'Huez. It being only two days before the Marmotte, myself and Dave took a slightly less daunting route up Alpe d'Huez (1850m) and on up to the Col de Sarenne (1999m), descending back down through Mizoen to the Lac du Chambon which is on the Lauteret descent towards Bourg d'Oisans. We then took a left turn at the village of Freney and climbed back up towards Auris-en-Oisans, taking a left turn towards La Garde (which is about a third the way up Alpe d'Huez climb) just before we reached Auris. From La Garde, we just descended the last few hairpins of Alpe d'Huez for home. The road from Auris over to La Garde is a stunning road, slightly downhill, and literally cut out of a cliff face several hundred metres above the valley floor, with amazing views of the town of Bourg d'Oisans and the entire valley. From a scenery standpoint, coasting down this road was one of the highlights of the week for sure!

We drove back up to Alpe d'Huez that afternoon to register for the Marmotte, and Dave got a late entry, so that was it - We were in!


Friday was a total rest day. We just rode up and down the flat valley floor for about an hour or so to loosen the legs for tomorrow. Surdival managed to book himself in for a relaxing rub on Friday morning. From his description afterwards, it sounded like anything but relaxing as he spent the entire hour thinking very unglamorous thoughts and stressing about not embarrassing himself when it came time to "Turn over please Mr Surdival"... Weather forecast indicated plenty of sunshine for Saturday with practically zero cloud cover. Hmmm… Great that is wasn't going to rain, but not sure I fancied another inferno on Alpe d'Huez, the suffering endured last year is not something easily forgotten… After gorging on pasta that evening, it was early to bed.


As we both had relatively low start numbers in the 600's, myself and Stephen S.' rolled over the starting mat at about 7.05am the following morning. Dave's late entry meant he wouldn't actually cross the starting mat until about 8.30am. It was 40-45kmh all the way down the initial 12km to Rochtaillee in a large group to where the Glandon climb began. The group fragmented at that point and Stephen drifted up the road in a group. That was the last I'd see of him all day.

I settled down to climb the 30km to the 1924m summit at my own pace. Luckily the low start numbers meant that there were no problems with congestion on this climb, and I finally made the summit just before 9.00am and refilled one bottle with water before pushing on. The 22km descent off the Glandon to the village of La Chambre is very tricky at the top with zero margin for mistakes. Apart from coming across one guy hauling himself out of the ditch much further down, the descent passed without incident and soon I was sitting in a small group heading up the valley towards St. Michel de Maurienne, resting, eating and drinking as much as possible for the 35km double whammy of the Telegraph/Galibier to come.

The Telegraph (1570m) is about 12km long, starting at 8-9%, but easing off to 6-7% towards the top, and again, it was a case of steady does it, conscious of the need to keep plenty in reserve for the Galibier (2650m), which follows on after a short 5km descent to Valloire. I grabbed more water, some fruit cake and banana pieces before starting off on the long 8km drag up to Plan l'Achat. Even though this is the easy half of the Galibier climb from this direction, it sure ain't easy! It starts out at about 5-6%, but steepens up to about 8% at Plan l'Achat itself where the road turns sharp right and the fun really starts. From there, it's about another 8-9km to the top, and it never really dips below 9-10% all the way. It's just relentless, and as much a mental challenge as physical, especially as the summit itself is visible for the last 4-5k. 

Finally made the top, where I could pour some cold water onto my aching feet. I refilled the bottles, grabbed some food and took off within 2-3 minutes down the descent on the Southern side towards the Lauteret. From the summit, it's a total of 49km of descent all the way down, past the Lauteret summit, and on down towards Bourg d'Oisans. Very typically, though, most of this is done into a strong headwind coming up the valley and this day was no exception. It's therefore critical to get into a group as early as possible on this descent and get sucked down the road, rather than battling away at the front, or alone.

I was passed by a big Dutch guy soon after the Lauteret and I locked onto his wheel immediately. After a few km I looked around and saw a group of at least 10 people lined out behind me. Unfortunately the big fella' looked around soon afterwards and as soon as he saw that he was towing such a long line of riders down the descent into the wind he sat up straight away leaving muggins in front. I did my bit, and after another couple of km, pulled over, determined that I shouldn't need to go near the front again given the size of the group and the distance to Bourg d'Oisans. That's exactly how it panned out, and we rolled into Bourg d'Oisans at about 2.00pm.

On last year's Marmotte I had taken 1hr, 45mins to get up Alpe d'Huez, so I figured that worst case, I'd do the same time this year and that would give me an overall time of about 8hrs, 45mins which I'd have been happy with as, at 85kg, I'd consider myself anything but a climber!! The climb started fine and I tapped away up the first five or six hairpins in my 39x26 without any undue suffering. However, it was somewhere between there and Huez village, about 5km from the top, that the legs finally died. A combination of the climbing, coupled with the overpowering heat brought me to a stop in the shade of some trees, my head spinning. I didn't know whether I was going to collapse on the ground where I stood, or throw up, or just cry! I sat down on a wall for 5-10 minutes, squirting water from a bottle over myself several times to try and cool down. Eventually I got back to my feet and continued on, relying on my bale-out 39x29 at this stage. I stopped once more for a few minutes at a water station at Huez village, to douse myself in water again, and pushed on, determined to make it to the summit with no more stops.

Eventually, after almost 1 hr 30 minutes of climbing the Alpe, I entered Alpe d'Huez village where the gradient eases considerably for the last kilometre and a half to the finish. Although I hardly saw them as I was in my own little world of pain and suffering both McLoughlin and Surdival were sitting at a roadside bar, ice-cold beers in hand, shouting support as I came into the village - Now what more incentive do you need to get to the finish line than that! I knew Stephen was ahead of me, but how did Dave get there before me? I would have surely seen him pass me… and he was changed out of his gear? Anyway I clicked it up several gears, went in under the famous tunnel in the village and powered up over the last little drag, into the big ring for the last swoop down to the roundabout and across the finish line, wrecked!

Fair play to Dave Mac. He came up to the finish area after me, took my food tickets, handed them in and got me sorted with grub and a coke. He handed in my timing chip for me and while we ate explained that he hadn't actually done the full route. He had cycled to the top of the Glandon, sat there for several hours watching the multitudes pass by, and then descended back to Bourg d'Oisans. After changing he cycled up Alpe d'Huez where he had spent the afternoon in the bar, drinking beer and watching the thousands of cyclists struggling up into the village. After eating we rolled back down to the bar where himself and Stephen S' had spent the last while and I was handed a most welcome and even more beautiful pint!

Stephen had done under 7hrs 30mins, which was a phenomenal time, taking over an hour off his time from last year. This left him 185th overall ! I had done 8hrs 28mins, which was also an hour quicker than last year for me, and well inside my gold medal time of 9hrs 15mins and about 840th overall, so I was delighted too, and immediately vowed never to return for a third Marmotte! Stephen was on his 2nd pint when I joined them, and Dave was on his 5th or 6th.

To cut a long afternoon short, we spent several more hours in the bar, eating and drinking until, at about 8.00pm, we decided to head down the hill. I think Dave was concerned that any more than 10 pints and he may actually be a danger to himself and others on the descent... So off we went, settling our not-inconsiderable bill with Vicky and Vito at the 'O' Bar in Alpe d'Huez before we left. After seriously over-cooking the first couple of hairpins, I decided to slow down, and myself and Stephen descended safely all the way to the bottom. McLoughlin, on the other hand, was out of sight in a matter of one or two bends, probably over-cooking every single turn on the way down. He stopped twice en-route to take photos and was still sitting waiting for us at the bottom - Lunatic!

Following dinner in Bourg d'Oisans and another few celebratory beers, it was time to hit the hay. The following morning, we packed up, checked out and hit the road. Stephen drove us to Lyon, from where I was flying home and Dave was to get the train up north to get a ferry to the UK.

All in all, a great week, despite the mixed weather, some more mega-climbs ticked off the list, and another gruelling Marmotte to top it off. Must think of something easier to tackle for next year though!

McLoughlin, McNally and Surdival atop the Col d'Izoard