Donal O'Connor reports back from the Marmotte 2017. Explaining his build-up and brief interaction with the law.


Prologue: It was all Garret Connolly's fault......

A brief history of my cycling time: I joined Orwell in November 2014 having spent the summer doing some sportives and watching Orwell pelotons leave me for dust. I had been a footballer and weightlifter in previous incarnations so cycling was a new departure. I quickly caught the bug, lost 10kg and in particular became fond of long cycles and audaxes. This was not the most popular hobby to take up in my mid thirties domestically as it coincided with starting a family. So training time was at a premium but I managed the Wicklow 200 in my first year of "proper cycling". I have since completed a 300km audax, a second and even a third WW200. I also dabbled in a few club league races where I learned that I am very slow. However I do seem to have an ability to suffer slowly for hours on hills around Wicklow. So maybe that's why I decided that an Alpine adventure would be a good target for my 3rd year with Orwell. Finally, my wife attended the 2016 Orwell awards night where Garrett Connolly announced that I would be doing the 2017 Marmotte. So that was that I suppose!


View from Bend 12 of Alpe D'Huez.


Part 1: Preparation and 'the collective'

The event is 174km long and involves 5,200m climbing over four famous Alpine cols (mountain passes). The name comes from the little groundhogs that live high in the Alps. It's one of the longest running sportives and is usually held on the first Saturday in July but was moved to Sunday 2nd July this year. The 7,500 places sell out in a few hours each year. When I took up cycling in 2014, I began to read about the history of the sport. I became a little bit obsessed with Marco Pantani, the famous Italian climber and last winner of the Tour and Giro double in 1998. This tragically flawed character is somewhat immortalised in cycling after his Tour winning attack on the Col du Galibier in freezing rain. A year before in 1997 he had set the record for Alpe D'Huez which still stands today albeit that little Marco had some "help". So how lucky was I that the Marmotte would crest the Galibier and finish on Alpe D'Huez. This is the equivalent of a hobby golfer getting to play the 12th hole at Augusta and the 18th at St Andrews all in the one round.

There was still the small matter of training for the event. I had finished the summer season of 2016 in reasonably good shape but my work schedule meant that October to December were a washout. I behaved at Christmas time so at least I kept my weight down. January to March were a little better with some good Orange Sunday 100km spins and a few Wednesday Warrior 50km spins out to Howth. It was on these sessions where I met future Marmotte legends Hugh Butler and Balazs Galambos. 

The Good Friday Monster in the Wicklow Hills was a crucial prep ride for me. I put in several big efforts and coming home shattered later that day, I thought that I could actually enjoy tackling the Marmotte if I could keep this level up. Unfortunately mid April to early June were filled with professional and family commitments and a court case that really drained me. Regular cycling was out the window and I was genuinely thinking of pulling out of the Marmotte. On the WW200 I felt terrible and struggled to complete it. However the Marmotte WhatsApp group was in full flow with plans for the trip and a real sense of group spirit was building. Hugh Butler called it "the collective" and while it may seem corny it was very important for me.  Two weeks before I was due to fly to France I copped on and stopped feeling sorry for myself. On a sunny Sunday morning, I appreciated how good I actually have and went out and did Cruagh six times in a row. Marmotte 2017 was back on like the 1980's video game featuring a gorilla called Kong.


When on Alpe D'Huez, do as the Huezians do.


Part 2: Logistics and Jonesie's Stag

I spent the week before the event en famille on the west coast of France and then joined the largest ever Orwell Marmotte crew of 23 in Lyon airport on Thursday, three days before the event. Like many others my bike had gone ahead in the shipmybike truck. The rest got their bike boxes and we got a coach to our hotel at the summit of Alpe D'Huez. There were a few veterans of the Marmotte and other trips to the Alps among us but many felt nervous going up the famous switchbacks of the Alpe on the bus. Eoin "Zippy" Byrne was waiting for us at the top having completed his 1000km post Leaving Cert cycle from Dublin. I chased women in crappy discos in Kusadasi after my Leaving Cert but each to their own! We then had a late dinner in an empty off-season but still friendly ski resort restaurant. A few beers, bad jokes and even a brief sing-song about an infamous stag party in Temple Bar helped settle the nerves. 

The following day we got our bikes set up and checked out the expo at the finish area. As we were on the SportActive package we didn't have to join the long queues for registration. No offence to Flora and Martin of SportActive, but Garret Connolly was nominated as the real "Gar Furher" and he had decided we would descend the Alpe, have lunch in Bourg D'Osian and then climb the famous 21 hairpins at a leisurely pace. We were now less than 48 hours from the event. There has been a lot written on Internet message boards and in event brochures about avoiding long climbs in the days before the event but I was glad to experience at least one long Alpine descent and climb. I'm the worst descender possibly ever to wear an Orwell jersey and my nerves were not helped by being clipped on the elbow by a car on the way down and witnessing a poor English fellow getting knocked off his bike by the same car. At least I was consoled by the knowledge that on Marmotte day the roads would be closed.

The recce climb was fun and most of us stopped to take some photos beside the signs on the bends of famous pros who have won Tour de France stages on the Alpe. The views on the way up are spectacular. Oh and just for fun, Eoin Byrne broke the Orwell record held for years by, my favourite English man, Dan Coulcher. Back at the hotel we had a talk from the SportActive leader Martin, giving us a breakdown of the route. He's a nice chap but personally I felt it was the worst pep talk ever and made me even more nervous. Lots of tales of sheer drops and bodies all over the road and people choking on gels! The tension was broken by Brendan Lawlor heckling Martin and telling everyone that it was only a bit of fun. We then headed off for yet another pasta dinner for carb loading and most of us took an early night. I was feeling a bit edgy so a couple of beers at the hotel bar chatting with Paraic and Barry helped take the edge off nicely.


Carb loading.


The next day involved more carb loading and I brought my bike down to the expo for a complimentary tune up at the Mavic stand. This was quite cool as the same mechanics servicing our bikes were leaving the next day to go and work on the Tour as official neutral service for the pros. My modest Cube bike felt a little embarrassed beside the €10,000 bikes in the queue for servicing. I also bought some cuddly Marmottes for my sons. Back at the hotel the nervous energy was building and there was lots of talk about food, gabbas, gels, magnesium tablets and heart rate zones. I laid out my own cycling clothes, gels and electrolyte tabs ready for the morning and joined the gang for our final pre-Marmotte pasta dinner. Daragh Connolly treated us to a hilarious parody of the pep talk from the previous evening. I was in bed by 10pm with the alarm set for 0445.


Part 3: La Marmotte July 2nd 2017

Everyone was up early and the breakfast room was buzzing from 5am. The grumpy hotel manager was even begrudgingly making bowls of porridge. We were all meeting Martin from SportActive at 6am sharp to descend the Alpe to the start in Bourg D'Osian. We were at 1800m altitude and it was 0 degrees as we set off. We all got down safely with no punctures. Punctures before the start are part of the event folklore as cyclists pump their tires to 120 and then they pop as they descend 1000m. We gathered around the van and chomped on bananas and made last minute trips to the loo. One of the main advantages of the SportActive package are the support vans where you could leave small bags with food and a change of vest or jerseys for the climbs and descents later on.

We gathered in our holding pen and closer to the start time we slowly made our way down a narrow street in the lovely little French town of Bourg D'Osian. As our start time of 07:30 approached we admired the mountain peaks in the distance and nervous tension increased. Some young French lads still awake from partying the night before wished us well from an upstairs apartment window. In a moment of madness I asked them for a cigarette to help calm my nerves. How the anxious mind works! I spend part of my day job pleading with people to give up smoking. They duly lit one for me but I decided against it at the last minute.

We set off in good humour and the Orwell group kept together as we hit the early gentle slopes of the Col du Glandon after just 10km. This was the last time we would all be in a group until we met for dinner fourteen hours later. There were several agendas within the group. Some like me were just aiming to make the time cut of 21:00 which meant reaching the base of Alpe D'Huez by 18:15. Others like Balazs, Yvonne and Shane were aiming to "smash it" for gold or silver medal times.


Tension building, Gar unflappable.


Glandon is 23km and feels as long and gruelling as it sounds. It's not that steep but the 6% average gradient is misleading as half way up there is about a 2km steep descent before the climbing resumes. We had all being warned about pushing too hard on the Glandon as you would pay for it later. My plan was to maintain normal breathing and conversation all the way up. Eric Davis helped me to judge my effort by calling out his heart rare periodically. Michael Staines told some riddles to break up the inevitable boredom on such a long climb. The early parts are in a nice forested area but the last 3km were in very cold fog and I found that part tough. I passed the timing mat for the neutralised section and struggled for a full 15 minutes in the fog through hundreds of cyclists on the small summit trying to find the SportActive van. Finally I saw it and quickly ate a sandwich and banana and downed the first of many cans of coke. I layered up for the cold descent. It's neutralised for official timing purposes to encourage people to take care as the first few kilometers are on bad, narrow roads with no barriers and plenty of sheep. I was glad it was still foggy at the top so I couldn't see over the edges and get freaked out. It took me about 40 minutes to reach the valley below. Good descenders like Brian Morrissey did it in about twenty-five minutes. I met a small Orwell gang of Michael, Barry, Ken, Paraic and Rebecca at the mat where the timing restarts and we set off for the 25km section before the Col du Telegraphe. This section is mostly flat but there are some drags and it's on wide exposed roads so should be done in a group. However we couldn't seem to find a group so ploughed on ourselves. After a few kilometers I turned around to see we were leading a peloton of about 200. It was like I was reliving Garret and Barry O'Donnell's Marmotte from 2014. We had a quick water stop and prepared to climb the Telegraphe.

The Telegraphe is a wonderful 12km climb on its own but a nuisance on the Marmotte as the Galibier follows so quickly. The weather was lovely at this part of the day, sunny but not too hot. I had my first gel of the day and a few jellies on the way up. I felt great for the first 8km but got horrible cramps in my toes for the last section. I was struggling and cursing in pain as I counted down the little yellow kilometer markers on the road which seemed to get further and further apart. I saw Ken at the top by the SportActive van. As I signaled to pull in off the road to join him, two cyclists descending from the other side did their best to run me over. I shouted at them in my "best French", offending the nearby Gendarme who gave out to me. So I sat sulking like a bold school boy, ate another sandwich and inhaled two mini cans of coke. After five minutes with my shoes off, life had returned to my toes and we descended the steep 4km to Valloire. I was going to have a coffee stop with Michael and Rebecca in this nice little town but I started to worry about cramps again so I went straight onto the Galibier.


On the Galibier.


Part4: Agony on the Galibier

The Col du Galibier is 19km long. It's not very steep until near the end but there are no flat bits. I was tired and a bit nervous starting out but the first few kilometers are relatively easy and I ploughed along nicely. As per Garrets instructions I was drinking regularly and eating a jelly after I passed every kilometer marker. I was wondering how I would feel when I reached 2,600m. I had started with Ken and Hugh but quickly found myself alone. I did most of the two hour climb in silence and hardly any other cyclists who passed me made a sound. Compared to the chat on a WW200 or a Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford it felt almost eerie at times. And we were only going 8km per hour! For the gold medal chasers hitting the top in 90 minutes, it probably feels great but for people suffering like me the two hours can feel more like four. 

There is a small roadside cafe just before a sharp right turn where the final, toughest 7km begin. My toes had cramped badly again before this and although I had planned to climb Galibier without stopping, I had no choice but to take off my shoes and rest for ten minutes until the circulation returned. I had another overpriced but wonderful can of coke watching the rows of tiny cyclists make there way up the steep slopes ahead. Later I found out Hugh had a beer at the same spot. My feet were so sore I might have taken whiskey if it was on offer. The last 7km get steeper and steeper but it's nothing any Tuesday Night Hills regular couldn't handle. The final SportActive van had to leave the summit by 16:00 so I was delighted to arrive at the van with fifteen minutes to spare. I was feeling too sick to eat much by now but managed another mini coke can. We had been fearing freezing weather at the summit but luckily it was very mild although you would still want a vest and rain jacket for the descent. The descent to Bourg is about 35km of actual descent and then an annoying 10km draggy section around a lake that no one tells you about. The Galibier summit itself at 2,640m is small and narrow and I was nervous with all the cyclists milling about on the road so I didn't hang around to enjoy the views. This also meant missing a photo at the Pantani monument. The first few kilometer are very steep with sharp turns and sharper drops. The lower part of the descent is wide open and quite safe.  It was easy to hit 70kmh even as a nervy descender like me and I enjoyed this part in the afternoon sun. There are four tunnels near the bottom which evoke fear and terror on the Internet ...what a load of nonsense. They are not long or dangerous but you should remove or tip your sunglasses to adjust to the darkness. I took mine off to put in my helmet grooves and only then realised I had just come off one of the longest descents in Europe sans helmet. I had accidentally left it in the van on the Galibier summit. All the while in an Orwell jersey ...sorry Denis.


About to Descend the Galibier.


Part 5: Ectasy on the Alpe

Alpe D'Huez is famous for its 21 hairpin bends and iconic Tour stage finishes and it doesn't disappoint up close. As I approached it was hot but no higher than 24 degrees. I missed the last food and water stop as I was concentrating on finding the timing mat you have to reach by 18:15 to be allowed climb the Alpe. I passed it at 17:45. I felt relieved now as even if I crawled up the Alpe on all fours I was going to make it by the 21:00 deadline. I stretched for a while and had a gel and set off at 18:05. I had no water but didn't panic as I knew there would be a water stop at bend 16. The climb starts at bend 21 and from here until bend 16 it's 10-12%. I started to feel better, the breathing was good and the legs and feet were cramp free. It felt like I climbed the first 5 bends in no time at all. When I got to bend 16 I was sweating buckets. I stopped at the water stop, drank loads and dumped even more over my head. My final little strategy now was to get to bend 6, have my final gel there and power on up to the finish. 

It is hard to properly describe how I felt from bend 16 until just before bend 8. I was floating on air, the best experience I have ever had on a bike. Strava would later break the spell as the actual time was only mediocre but I felt like a pro. For the first time in the day I started to pass other cyclists. As the gradient flattened out on each wide bend I would dig a little more and pass another 10-15 at a time. I must point out that at this late stage in the day the cyclists I was passing mostly resembled zombies. It was a mixture of the slower cyclists happy to just get around and some of the early morning heroes who had blown up completely. But as they say, you can only beat your rivals, so I childishly enjoyed dropping the zombies. I even got into the drops Pantani style to attack one of the bends. Alas the toe cramps returned approaching bend 8 and I had to dismount and take my shoes off once more. As I stood there in the early evening sun in my socks, jersey open, no helmet, pasty and sweaty, I no longer resembled a cyclist but looked more like the "I shot JR" character from Father Ted.

From bend 8 to the finish the magic wore off and it was hard work to keep moving after a long day. There was a great atmosphere all along the last 3km with cheering and cowbells ringing. I was digging in and struggling to control my breathing and I may even have been crying. As I crossed the line I was both exhausted and elated. I was also still hyperventilating and this combined with a bit of hypoglycaemia meant I essentially had a little panic attack. In hindsight apart from two gels I hadn't really eaten properly since before the Galibier and that was the likely culprit. So I would advise anyone doing this event to pay particular attention to their drinking and eating. I thought I had this covered but clearly I missed some important refueling during the middle and later portion of the day. As I wobbled around the finishing area disorientated, Shane Phelan spotted me and kindly took care of my bike as I gathered myself. I was delighted to hear he had finished with a medal time as he had cruelly suffered in 40 plus degree heat during his first attempt in 2015.

I rehydrated and got changed and joined the Orwell gang for dinner and drinks. Everyone had gotten around safely and some were deservedly celebrating excellent times. It was a really nice atmosphere at dinner and a few of us had another couple of beers in a little bar afterwards and three clowns even managed a quick tour of the worst night clubs Alpe D'Huez has to offer. Having started my day at 04:45, I finally made it to bed at 03:45, just one hour short of Garret's other target of staying up for 24 hours.


Part 6: Epilogue

Despite not preparing as I would have liked, I'm delighted I did the Marmotte. I would recommend it to any member considering it. If you want a gold or even silver medal time you will have to put in some serious training and in reality probably be a lot more comfortable than I am at descending at speed. However if you just want to complete it, I think if you can do the WW200, then the Marmotte is within your reach. An added bonus for me were the three days with the Orwell group beforehand. Some I knew well and others I only got to know on the trip. It was a fantastic crew with an age range from teenager to early sixties. 

I would not have progressed from getting dropped on Orange spins two years ago to finishing the Marmotte without everyone who has encouraged or inspired me since I joined Orwell. There are too many names to mention but since it's all his fault anyway, a special thanks to Garret Connolly who has been my unofficial mentor since my first WW200 in 2015. Although I spent most of the actual Marmotte cycle alone, I still really enjoyed being part of the gang and it definitely enhanced the whole experience. I hope to return in 2019 with many of this years group and maybe I will hunt a gold medal.


Orwell and SportActive Squad at the begining of the day.