This weekend sees some members of the club heading to France where the Etape du Tour and the Marmotte are taking place on the same day but in different parts of the Alps! In 2013 Billy Parker wrote this article which inspired me to do my first Marmotte and as we wish good luck to everyone taking on either challenge I though it was time to share this epic read once more!

La Marmotte 2013
Or how a furry little animal becomes a beast, by Billy Parker

A marmotte is a cute little furry squirrel like animal which inhabits the slopes of the Alps especially in the region of Alpe D’Huez and it mainly eats grasses and greens. Au contraire, there is nothing cute little or furry about La Marmotte, which is a towering beast of a sportive that devours any passing cyclist who is not sufficiently well trained or prepared or indeed possessed of sufficient pace to out run the damn thing.

La Marmotte is thought to be the first ever cycle sportive and also remains one of the most popular today in Europe, with interest exceeding the 7000 places available. Covering a distance of 174 km (108 miles) and with 5,180 m (16,990 ft) of climbing, the route is considered to be one of the hardest of any one day cycle sportive and comparable to any of the most challenging high mountain stages of the Tour de France. Several famous Tour de France mountains are featured, a veritable who’s who of classic French cols; the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and after a mere 160k, the final ascent of the legendary Alpe d'Huez.

Three years ago, before my world was invaded by Orwell Wheelers, carbon frames and cycling bling I had heard of neither the furry animal nor the sportive or indeed the word “sportive”.

Now, in the cold and crisp mountain air outside our hotel at the top of Alpe D’Huez at 6am on Saturday 6th July 2013 as the rising sun begins to paint the surrounding snow capped peaks , I find myself mounting my carbon framed, compact chain ringed, 11/28 cassetted, personally assembled from a bike box, annoyingly emitting noise from the front derailleur, road bike and heading down this famous climb to the start of La Marmotte in Bourg.

At 1800 meters the thin dawn air tingles the surface of the skin and though we are acutely aware of the rising temperatures that lay ahead of us as the day would unfold, most wear arm, leg warmers and jackets for the descent. The event has not even started and I am a bundle of nerves as I contemplate the possibility of missing a bend, getting a puncture or having some other disaster as we speed down and around the 21 bends of the Alpe D’Huez in the certain knowledge that assuming all goes to plan, these same bends will be awaiting us in the torrid heat of the afternoon, with the gradient exactly reversed. Not to mention whether I needed another visit to la toilette pour le crap.

The only sound is the swishing of wheels, the rubbing of brakes and the intermittent bang as a tube explodes. Too much pressure in the tyres (and probably in the cyclist as well). I counted 6 punctures as we hurtled down. It seemed ridiculously disproportionate given what lay ahead, but I was surprisingly relived to simply get down in one piece and have that part behind me.

And not a furry marmotte in sight. I expect they fell fast asleep last night in their burrows hooting with laughter at the thought of what these so called intelligent humans were about to put themselves through. At that moment I was surprisingly inclined to concur avec le petit feckers.

We were travelling with SportActive, a company well known to many Orwell members. As a debutant I felt I needed the safety net and comfort blanket of a support vehicle, an experienced leader and a mechanic. They had two support cars, one which would be well forward of the group to accommodate the fast riders and the other available to the remainder. Paul O’Neill, my fine travel companion was aiming for a fast time and I was aiming not to be timed out (6.30pm at the bottom of Alpe D’Huez was the cut off).

The cars pulled in at the base of the Alpe where we placed our arms warmers and any other items to be discarded from the chilly descent into our bags which we had earlier packed in the appropriate car (mine was in Flora’s slow vehicle and Paul’s in Stephen’s fast van). A good root in my bag would have revealed my shiny clean and carefully folded Orwell jersey all ready for a fresh change at the top of Galibier, some spare gels, 3 neatly wrapped slices of fruit cake purchased in the Spar beside our hotel, 2 bananas, some extra electrolyte tablets and a spare tube.

We then rode as an 18 strong SportActive group comprising 7 Irish, 5 English, 4 Dutch, 1 Welshman and 1 American to the starting pen where we all had numbers for the 7.30am roll out. Earlier numbers leave at 7am and later ones at 7.50. I lingered nervously amongst the other thousands of starters, checking and re checking pockets, feeling the tyres and refusing to turn on my Garmin lest my sight of my heart rate gave me palpitations. It had been abnormally and worryingly high since my arrival in Bourg d’Oisan. I was putting it down to altitude.

Myself and Paul had arrived in Bourg the previous Monday evening where we stayed at very comfortable lodgings (Le Petit Catalan) about 4k outside the town. We assembled our bikes that evening both of us equally proud of the fact that they resembled the real thing when we were finished with no odd bits left over. Our plan was to climb Alpe D’Huez the next day, take on part of Galibier on Wednesday, drive the entire course on Thursday and then head up to the hotel in Alpe D’Huez to join the SportActive crew and relax until the start on Saturday.

Tuesday morning was bright and sunny as we headed at a leisurely pace to the bottom of the first climb, Glandon, just to warm up the legs before heading back to take on the 21 bends of Alpe D’Huez. All was dandy apart from my heart rate which was way above normal and my gears which were way below normal performance. We headed back to Bourg where I called into the local bike shop which had a snaking captive queue out the door as cyclists like myself anxiously waited to have last minute adjustments attended to. Paul said he would head towards Alpe D’Huez just to see the famed ramp up to the first bend. I stood and waited impatiently as the shop’s 4 mechanics performed what appeared to be open heart surgery on 2 bikes. Paul rang. He was at the third bend (no. 19). He sounded surprised at the steepness of the gradient and equally surprised at the fact that it wasn’t getting any less so as he looked upward.

He said he would keep going and I replied that I would see him at the top. Intriguingly, about 15 minutes later and before you could spell Marco Pantani, Paul appeared at the shop. Either he had unknowingly consumed the finest substance every delivered to the body of a cyclist or he had changed plan. The latter was the answer and we would head up together. About one hour later I got my bike seen to, Paul got some new brake pads and off we rode, up to the roundabout at the end of the town (and through which we would arrive from another direction on Saturday) take the turn marked Alpe D’Huez and then about one flat kilometre to a sweeping left turn to be met by a serious ramp marking the beginning of the climb.

Jasus. This was a steep to be sure. And where I wondered was the first bend numbered 21, I must have missed it as we turned left. Indeed I did not. The first bend is at the end of this quite unnecessarily difficult long ramp. At last I reach a genuine bend and see my first number, 21, with the names of previous winners and the altitude engraved. The countdown began. I managed to stay with Paul for about 4 bends and as my heart rate reached close to its maximum I told Paul to head on and I would see him at the top. I crawled upwards trying to keep my heart rate under 180. It should not have been more than 165/170 at that point. I knew I had an hour of climbing ahead of me and unless the gradient eased considerably I was going to struggle all the way. It didn’t and I did. Let me say now that the first 21 bends are the hardest and then it eases off a bit, past the summit. 1 hour 20 minutes later, beleaguered and pummelled, I joined Paul who had made it a full 10 minutes and at least one coffee and coke before me. Good Lord I thought, how was I going to tackle this baby after 160k and 3 hors category climbs on Saturday? While I certainly believed in miracles I had regrettably and as I get older, come not to rely on them.

And now it is Saturday and as we edge towards 7.30am we start to edge forward out of the pen and onto the streets of Bourg and then, somewhat unexpectedly, we are rolling out bang on time and to the applause of the locals, family and friends who lined the streets. I had promised myself that I would enjoy this flat easy section until the bottom of Glandon and try to relish the atmosphere and sense of occasion. I believe I did so although in a mildly unconvincing manner, as my narrowing eyes were now drawn to my active Garmin and my elevated heart rate.

We gently rolled out of the town as many competitors whizzed past at warp speed, only to be passed by us kilometres later on the first climb. I smiled as we passed our lodgings from earlier in the week and I wondered how our good friend John Hannin was faring with his 7am start. John H, Denis Gleeson, John Twomey and Peter Gargan all fine fellow Orwell members, were in many ways my inspiration for doing this event. They had completed the Marmotte in 2012 and their stories, descriptions and photos encouraged me to have shot at it. Indeed John H was now back for a second time, knowing the punishment that lay ahead and with less training in his legs. Clearly he is blessed with good health and a bad memory, a wonderful combination we all envy.

The words of our main mentor John Lanigan, a veteran of the back to back double last year of La Marmotte followed by the L’Etape du Tour, rang in my ears. Take it very easy up the first climb. As it happened I had no choice as my heart would only behave itself if I kept my pace very gentle. As so our group arrived at the foot of the first climb, 25k of average 5% gradient. In the pleasant early morning sun we slowly snaked our way up the mountain in the company of hundreds of likeminded cyclists. Many passed us and we passed many along the way and so it would be, for the entire day. We stopped to take off some now surplus clothing and at that point Paul headed on. I knew I would not see him again during the day and wished him well. We had worked out his various timings at various key points in order for him to have a real chance of a gold medal (8 hours 38 mins for his age category, 9 hours for mine) and the top of Glandon was an important first marker.

I found myself in the good company of Darragh Hammond from Wicklow, a strong steady climber. We had a similar pace and so climbed Glandon together. I was feeling better as the climb progressed and would have to say that it was unexpectedly enjoyable. There are a few flat sections and thus it is not a relentless grind all the way. A short steep ramp left at the junction for the Croix de Fer and the summit of Col du Glandon, at 1924m, is upon us as are hundreds of other cyclists as they all pile over the top and dismount into the vortex that is the first official food stop.

I find Flora’s car, find my bag and take on some food and drink. Paul has passed through 10 minutes ahead of us which is good news. The descent from Glandon has had so many bad accidents that they have neutralised the time. You pass a timing mat at the top and again some 25k below at the next village, Sainte Marie de Cuines. You can linger as long as you wish in this twilight neutral zone where time stands still (save for the requirement to be at the base of a certain mountain by 6.30pm. After 15 minutes we form a group. Myself and Darragh (and Derek and John from SportActive) and we headed down the mountain at a respectable but respectful pace, carefully negotiating the tight hairpin bends and narrow roads. Unlike the Etape, the roads for La Marmotte are not closed. We passed 3 ambulances attending to casualties. You instinctively slow down as you pass and pray the poor soul is not seriously injured.

While your legs are largely inactive on the decent your fingers and hands are working overtime on the brakes and in many ways it comes as a relief to reach the bottom and start to peddle again. Over the timing mat we pass, a reassuring beep means we are all systems go and we glide through the next few villages until we reach the busy main road in the knowledge that there is now a 30k drag to the base of Col du Telegraph. All the advice is to join a peloton at this point and if none is conveniently available then, like a bus, wait for one to pass by and jump on. We follow the advice and find ourselves in a reasonably fast group which quickly swells to about 100 riders doing about 30/35kph.

A few groups pass us by going at a lively pace and while I am tempted to hop on board I remind myself of the considerable mileage and elevation ahead and so resist. We sweep along as cars and trucks buffer by. This is the most unremarkable section of the course but it passes quickly and within an hour we arrive in Sainte Michel de Maurienne. There is a water stop as we enter the town which myself and Darragh elect to skip. I reach for my water bottle as we speed through the streets and misjudge it’s replacement in the bottle cage. It bounces out of my hand and splatters onto the road. I shout a warning to the riders behind me and quickly calculate I have to retrieve my stricken bottle if I am to have any chance of survival. I signal to pull over as does Darragh. I quickly dismount and head back up the street hoping that I can rescue my fallen vessel. A marvellous local Frenchman has walked amongst the swirling bikes to recover my bottle and I bow to him as he hands it to me with an understanding glance. I expect he knows better than I what lies ahead.

Col du Telegraph does not mess around. It starts abruptly outside the village and is straight into 7% where it remains for the next 12k. When myself and Paul did our road trip on Thursday we were somewhat perplexed at the steepness of this climb and the fact that it had not merited much comment in the literature of La Marmotte. A car can create a false impression of the gradient. It can exaggerate a climb and minimise a drag. From the vantage point of my bike I can now confirm that it is a steady, manageable, intermittently sheltered, constant 12k climb which, at a gentle pace, is very feasible.

I was relieved to encounter a water station half way up and so stopped to replenish my wounded bottle. There was a swarm of cyclists around the water taps. Suddenly we heard the loud crunch of metal. A car, coming down the hill, had run over a bike left lying in the grass verge on the other side of the road. The owner of the bike was immediately apparent. He was the cyclist with a half full water bottle in one hand and his other hand placed over his mouth in horror as he stared at what remained of his mangled wheels and frame. What a bizarre end for him. As the various assembled nationalities expressed outrage in the many tongues, I mounted my thankfully non mangled bike, found Darragh and pressed on up the mountain.

We came upon a Dublin Wheelers member and in the brief conversation he informed us that John Hannin was up the road a bit. And so he was. Spinning away in a nonchalant fashion as if out on a Sunday jaunt. Bonjour Monsieur H. Flora’s car awaited us at the summit where we stopped for more food and some drink. She confirmed that Paul was going really well and had passed through 15 minutes earlier. Great stuff.

Next is the descent to Valloire beyond which is another official food stop and the start of the Galibier climb which had been closed until June because of the snow. The descent is not technical however neither is it very long and within 10 minutes we are rolling through Valloire and over another timing mat, which I presume is there for the start of the mini Marmotte. This is the shortened but still extremely testing course as it involves the major climbs of Galibier and Alpe D’Huez. Rosie and Emma from Orwell, who we had met earlier in the week, did this version and it is not for the faint hearted.

We reached the food stop. Myself and Darragh elected to press on as we had already taken a break at the top of Telegraph. The first section of Galibier is something of a false flat. Your eyes inform your brain that the road is flat or even downhill but your legs have an entirely different conversation, instructing your brain that the road is in fact about 5% or more. Legs always win these debates and so our legs feel the strain as we battle through the valley. From the comfort of our vehicle a few days earlier this section seemed handy enough. Not so. I allow myself the occasional glance upwards. I remember from the car journey that the snow capped peaks in the impossible distance is our destination but my mind cannot comprehend that such a twisting spiralling weaving road could reach so high into the infinity of the blue sky and beyond.

Each kilometre on Galibier has a stone marker with the number left to the summit laughingly emblazoned on it. I am despairingly aware that at the 8k marker the road will rise from this draining irritating and endless 5% gradient up to 8%/9%and eventually over 10%. After 10k we arrive at the said marker. Meird and feck. The real monster that is Galibier has now awoken and our pace drops accordingly.

I notice that on these long climbs you find yourself in the company of roughly the same bubble of cyclists, each silently suffering in their own world of pain and doubt and each sharing the same pace and cadence. There exists the occasional one whose pace is similar but whose cadence is much higher. Such ones are possessed of a larger than average ring at the back, a 30 or perhaps even a 32. Your mind wanders and at this altitude (over 2500meters) it can wander into strange places. As I become more and more envious of those bigger rings I start to empathise with Gollum and his desire for his Precious, his Ring. Ah yes, the Lord of the Rings has a special place on Galibier.

It is hard to describe how the road just keeps on winding its way ever upwards and how the tiny moving specks in the far distance inching skywards at glacial pace through the snow are indeed cyclists. It is even harder to imagine that you will become such a speck until to look back and see a line of ants behind and below you as far as the eye can see. I learnt on Galibier to look back more often than upward.

Flora’s car was due at Galibier and I was dearly looking forward to a change of jersey, my fruit cake and a long cool drink. For some reason I thought she was going to be parked about 3k from the top. This seemed hugely sensible as it would give me the boost to get up the final few ramps which I knew were the steepest. We passed the 3k marker which was now sniggering at my pathetic pace and no sign of any car. Regrettably it was now firmly in my head that I would be stopping around every next bend and mentally this is not good as the mind is starting to weaken and thus you are on borrowed time. Darragh breaks the dreadful news. He thinks Flora will be at the 1k mark. My brain finds this hard to accept and without consultation with me, passes this thought immediately to my legs who in fairness feel they have being doing all the work. They protest and I sense a mutiny on board my tired ship. 2k in the ordinary scheme of things in say, the Wicklow mountains, is but a scratch, a mere flesh wound. Here, surrounded by snow on Galibier, 2k is a near fatal blow.

My brain seizes back control and I count each pedal stroke, 1 all the way to 10 and then start over. I am back in my rhythm, damaged but not destroyed, down but not out. I finally see the summit and below it, surrounded by snow, some parked cars. I scan frantically for Flora’s car. No car. Then I recognise Stephen, our mechanic who is in the lead van. Darragh bravely carries on as I pull in and Stephen walks over with a big grin. He tells me I am well ahead of schedule and Flora, who has my bag, is miles behind. He also tells me Paul is flying which lifts my spirits. He fills my water bottles but alas no jersey, fruit cake or other delights. In true pro fashion he pushes me off and tells me the worst is over. The brief respite gives me enough energy to make it up the final very steep kilometre where I join Darragh at the summit. We are both shattered and I take some time to recover and consume almost an entire bottle of water, surrounded as we are by other shattered bodies in the bright sunshine and the glistening white snow. At 2800 meters this is the highest and coolest point of the Marmotte.

I grab some food which I find hard to digest and having got lost in the stunning beauty of the place I come back to reality and realise I have now lost Darragh. I search around and no sign. Perhaps he headed down. I scan the moving sea of cyclists for a few more minutes and conclude that he must have left. I reach for my rain jacket to keep me warm on the descent. There are very few heading down at that moment and I realise this is a good time to go with such little traffic. I clip in and point my bike down the mountain. As I approach the first hairpin bend I realise that I forgot to refill my bottle. I now have only one full one. This would later prove to be a costly and somewhat comical mistake. I blame the altitude.

The descent is unforgettable and will live long in the memory. Once the first few bends are negotiated the road opens up slightly and with so few cyclists around me I can let the bike roll and at the same time take in the breath taking scenery. It has that unreal picture postcard feel and I try to take some snap shots in my mind. One hour of effortless but thrilling biking is nearly but not quite enough to make one forget about the last remaining climb. I was going reasonably well and was in good time but the memory of the struggle the previous Tuesday put me in a protective mode and I declined the temptation to jump on the various groups that hurtled past me.

Billy descending off the Galibier

And so I rode this section alone including the feared dark and dangerous tunnels where accidents had taken their toll in previous years. Thankfully, because of our road trip, I knew that these were now well lit and I had cycled through some of them with Paul on Wednesday without trepidation. Within about 5k of Alpe D’Huez I drank the last of my water but was not concerned as I knew there was a water stop at the base and also that either Flora (hopefully with my bag) or Stephen would be there with a refreshing supply.

I arrived at the big roundabout outside Bourg where we swing right for the flat kilometre before the horrible ramp at the base of Alpe. There were large crowds gathered at the roundabout and also at the food/water stop right beside it. I confidently cycled past, grateful not to have to queue in what was now 35oc baking afternoon sun. I peddled along the flat section scanning either side of the road for the support car and accepting the encouraging cheers and handclaps of those lining the road. I arrived at a barrier in the middle of the road and was directed over the timing mat. My comforting beep sounded and I was very pleased to note that I had arrived at 4.30 a good 2 hours before the dreaded time out. I calculated that if I could get up Alpe D’Huez in around one and a half hours I would finish in about 9 hours 30 minutes, outside my gold medal time but well inside silver which is 10 hours 46mins.

I proceeded past the mat and towards the spot where the support cars had parked that morning. No cars. Sacre blue. I carried on until I was starting to climb the wretched ramp and still no cars. With no water it would be suicidal to head up. I asked a marshal about a water stop up the mountain and gathered that it was many bends ahead. I now had no choice but to return to the roundabout. Jasus , what a waste of time and energy. I turned and headed back, getting the odd curious glance from some of the crowds who had cheered me minutes earlier. Quelle damage.

As I crestfallenly ride backwards, dehydration now taking its grip, I pass the barrier for the mat and then I spot the SportActive van coming towards me. It whizzed past without stopping. Shite. I quickly turned around again and chased after Stephen. I forgot about the marshal at the barrier but he was alert. He pounced on me and tried to drag me back over the mat. I refused as I knew this would cause consternation to my timing chip and suddenly this was very meaningful to me. When I finished beating off the diligent and enthusiastic Frenchman, I looked up and Stephen was driving around the sweeping left hand bend towards that bloody ramp. Surely he had spotted me and would stop. Of course he would. So off I went after him, past the same crowds who were now wondering if this pauvre homme was suffering with sunstroke and had lost all navigation skills. Or perhaps he was undecided about his ability to get up this last mountain and was having a few runs at it just to test himself.

I rounded the bend expecting to see the parked van. Mais no. Instead I see the van disappearing off up the loathsome ramp and vaporising in the shimmering heat. Perhaps I was suffering from sunstroke mixed with altitude sickness, this was all a farcical dream and I really had two full water bottles on my bike. At least I should check. I despondently took each bottle from its cage and gently shook it from side to side and upside down like a man in a desert with the vultures hovering as the last drips of water tumble out and then sizzle in the burning sands under his feet.

Groundhog day . The roundabout again. With slumped shoulders and trying not to catch the eye of the now less than cheerful crowds who are staring at me with great curiosity, I give the barrier and the marshal a wide berth and arrive back at the water/food stop. I join a queue for water, gulp down as much as I can and fill both bottles. I help myself to a banana and a sugar coated sweet. Twenty five minutes after I first went over the timing mat I am back there again for the third time. This time he recognises me and with furrowed eyebrows and a tight lip, he impatiently waves me past. I stare at my front wheel as I pass, also for the third time, the onlookers at the base of the climb.

So, at last, here I am at the bottom of Alpe D’Huez with two full water bottles, two empty legs, my original unchanged sweat laden cycling jersey and a fried brain. And that hideous ramp is now under my wheels chuckling away at the futility of my efforts. But I will not let its mocking gradient defeat me. I had got this far with a mixture of aspiration, perspiration and determination and while I pondered repeatedly if I had confused ability with ambition I was still moving forward. I round the first bend, number 21, with some degree of hope. I am met at the apex of the bend by a photographer pointing a camera at me. I am about to beat him off as well when I realise it is none other than the grinning Stephen who had parked his van around the corner. Christ.

I manage two more bends when a totally unexpected disaster strikes. I suffer from a curious and seemingly unique eye allergy which, despite extensive investigation seems to be a mystery to medical science. It had not afflicted me to any great extent this summer and while I was anxious about it before La Marmotte, to be honest I had not thought about it all day. For reasons unknown, it chose to remind me of its presence in my system as I headed towards bend 18. It usually attacks one eye and on a very rare occasion both eyes simultaneously. This was one of those rare occasions. As I was quickly becoming completely blind, I located some shade near the bend and got off the bike. Closing my eyes is the only option as the pain and discomfort if opened is unbearable. I could feel my system fighting the intruder and my heart pounded as it battled the heat, the exertion to that point and now my eyes. I was beginning to feel that my race was over. During the worst attacks it can take up to 3 hours for the symptoms to ease. If Stephen had passed at that point, I would have gladly hopped in his elusive van.

I reached for my phone. I could not read it. I asked a neighbouring seated and equally exhausted German to find Paul’s number. He kindly did so and I rang. No answer. With hindsight I have no idea what I expected Paul to do but at the time I needed to talk to someone. I spoke to the German.

After about 15 minutes I sensed it was easing. Another 5 minutes and I was able to open my eyes. Progress. However my heart rate was still at 125 even though I had been stationary for 20 minutes. I thought about what I had been through to get to this point. I knew that doubt kills more dreams than failure does. I smiled to myself as I repeated a favoured phrase: Me transmitte sursum Caledoni: Beam me up Scottie and that is what I need right now, a beam, some teleportation. As I forlornly looked at my phone I glanced at my Garmin and noticed 105 on the display. I got a surge of hope and decided if it fell below 100 I would have a go at a few more bends.

At 99 on the shiny glass screen, I walked the few yards to the wide part of hairpin 18 where I had the best chance of clipping back in without falling over. I was back on the bike and back peddling. I slowly got past 17, followed by 16 when the miracle happened. There on the side of the road was a metal barrier with a series of taps welded to the top. Out of these taps emerged the most beautiful stream of cold water this wonderful planet has ever placed at my disposal. Cyclists were stopped before this altar of refreshment, being hosed down and having containers of water poured over their heads. I gleefully joined in the merriment and spent about 5 minutes indulging in the most welcome soaking I have ever experienced. I also drank a full bottle of water.

I was back to abnormal and back in the game. Re infused and reinvigorated I headed up the mountain, bend after bend and noticed that my heart rate was now 160/165, much more acceptable. I now knew I would make it. My time was irrelevant. Just to complete was my goal. I stopped again at bend 10 to take a drink and my remaining third gel. There was carnage all around. People getting sick, lying prostrate in the shade, leaning over handle bars and as many walking as cycling. I press on however I am struck by another attack, in my right eye this time. I pull in at bend 7 and sit on the wall. I can sense this is not a serious attack and if I rest for a few minutes it will pass. And so it does and up I go. I know I am tantalisingly close.

There is now a large number of cyclists coming down the mountain having finished. There is also a river that flows down the Alpe and makes fleeting appearances as it cascades under the hairpin bends. At one of these points there is a cyclist filling his bottle from the fresh mountain stream and offering passing cyclists a drenching. I gladly accept and feel the shock of cold water at the back of my neck. It jolts me forward and soon I am moving with more energy than I had a few hours ago. As I climb around the final bend I can see the crowds at the top of the last ramp, sitting outside restaurants and bars in the evening sunshine cheering and shouting encouragement to every passing walking and peddling participant. Their presence gives me a huge boost and out of the saddle I rise and power up the ramp to great applause. Brain and legs are as one again and all differences set aside as the finishing line approaches.

One final rise in the road, a welcome turn right and a downhill roll to the barriers that lined the road just like on TV. Music, photographers, cheering and the finish line. Over I go and I rejoice. Even more so because I thought it was all over for me an hour ago. My official time is 10.35. As it happens just about 10 minutes inside the silver medal time for my age.

A big thank you to Paul, with whom I shared the pain and joy of it all in his capacity as a quality travel companion and quality cyclist and who finished in a fantastic time of 9.06, also to Darragh who waited patiently for me at the top of Galibier only for me to head off without him, a brilliant time for him of 9.58 and John H whose finish was exceptionally brave given his shortage of training. Thanks also to family and friends for all of the encouragement, support and patience while many sacrifices were made.

I am very proud of the achievement and can only say to anyone even contemplating this event… do it. If you can manage the Wicklow 200 this event is within your capacity with sufficient training. It is an extremely well organised, very challenging and hugely rewarding experience. The main lessons learnt – training, pacing, hydration and self-belief.