With talk turning to the Marmotte 2015, it's time to start publishing Garret Connolly's opus detailing the 2014 edition. 16 Orwell members tackled it, which is coincidentally nearly the number of pages in Garret's piece. We've published the first part already, here's the second!

The 2014 Marmotte Story - Part II

Garret Connolly


The Trip Itself

We all flew over to Lyon on the Wednesday before the event. In hindsight, it was a great decision as it allowed us to settle in and unpack on Wednesday, do a recce cycle on Thursday, chill out Friday and go hell for leather on Saturday. Bear in mind however, it definitely leaves you with a lot of time for nerves to build before the big event.

We travelled with Sportactive - as many, many Orwellians have on previous trips to Majorca and elsewhere. Although you could do the trip for cheaper on a solo run, we all wanted the structure of an organised trip where the airport transfers, hotel, bike mechanic etc. would be there waiting for us. Most importantly, Sportactive provide invaluable support on the day of the event itself and have three vans/cars on the route across the tips of the Glandon, Telegraph and Galibier. Although some would prefer to use another company or do it on their own, I found them organised and efficient. It's a weight off the mind for the day itself to have a variety of support vehicles on the road. I also really liked the idea of a Sportactive leader (Martin) pacing a group cycle to get you to Bourg d'Oisons before the cut off point. It means, excluding any disasters, if you keep to his pace on the day you'll finish within the time limit.

The crew in Dublin Airport...nervous anyone??

The Fear Factor

I would advise you all to close your eyes when getting the bus up the Alpe on the way from the airport. It's truly a horrific looking climb when in the bus, rounding each corner. Gasps of “Sweet Jesus”, “Oh my God” and “oh crap” were clearly audible among the Orwell contingent as we cornered the first six or seven bends of the infamous twenty-one hairpins. It looks like you have to cycle up the Wall in Enniskerry for approximately twelve kilometres of the fourteen total of the Alpe. There's no doubt it's a tough climb, but the bus makes it look much harder. When you actually cycle it, thankfully, it's much, much easier than you expect.

We stayed in the Hotel Dome at the top of the town of Alpe d'Huez, on the very peak of the mountain that the race finishes on. Staying in Alpe d'Huez, although quieter than Bourg, was brilliant for the Marmotte. The last thing I would've wanted to do when finishing would be to turn around and descend the mountain we'd just climbed! A nice cold beer at the finish line is much more civilised!

Alpe d'huez village-The view from the Hotel Dome room where we stayed.

The Alpe is a small, quiet, sleepy and very Alpine town with a few streets and plenty of hills. Basically, there are lots of chalets, bars, restaurants but not a lot of people. It's the type of place that is hopping when it snows but is quiet for the Marmotte. On the night of the race itself, town was busy but it had been very sleepy otherwise. Despite this, nightclubs were found – but more on that later...What the Alpe lacks in nightlife, it makes up for in views. The vista from the top of the village overlooking the Alps is stunning and will remain in my memory for years to come.

The crew arriving on the Alpe on the Wednesday

Recce Day, Thursday

The Thursday Recce…still shocked Tom hugged me!

We planned, planned and planned some more about what we'd do when we got over there. Once we all saw the Alpe itself, these plans were discarded as the intensity of the climb was witnessed on the bus. Everyone was warned against doing the full climb on the Thursday in over 35 degree heat. The only one nuts enough to even think about it was the legend that is Tom Weymes. I think his words were...”ah Jaysis, I haven't come all this way to do nothing!” (or something equally grumpy). For those of you who don't know Tom - telling Tom not to do something is like poking a wild vicious animal...with a red hot poker...while dangling a raw piece of meat in front of him. He's likely to attack!

We set off on various routes after lunch. Tom went for the full monte; all 21 bends of 14km, 8% average, 13% max of the Alpe in 35 degree heat, just 40 hours before doing the Marmotte....and he's not in his twenties! Two hours later he was making the rest of look like wimps! Most of the crew opted for a spin around the village and a spin up to the base of the Glandon. Myself, Barry and Dave were determined to just taste the Alpe and marked out bend 16 as the target, meaning we were to do approximately 5km of the base of the climb. It was torture in the heat, but invaluable for us to know what it was like. I would fully recommend anyone doing the Marmotte to do the first six or seven bends on the Thursday. You won't regret it. It gave us a huge psychological boost on the day itself when we left Dan Coulcher on the Marmotte on ramp one, myself and Barry simply said to each other, “right...we've done this before...now, let's nail it.”

The climb up Alpe d'Huez is very difficult to compare to Irish roads. The first six ramps are, simply put, pretty horrific but do-able, if that makes sense! The average % gradient from the bottom until bend 16 (it counts backwards from 21 at the bottom, to 1 at the top) is around 10-12%. It doesn't ease off until you hit bend 16. I suppose the road that would be most similar in Wicklow would be the WALL for 5km. However, the road surface is perfect and it's manageable in the saddle. The heat is the killer with the Alpe. I had drank a full bottle of water by the time I got to bend 18 (around 2.5km from the bottom.) On our recce, myself, Dave and Barry regrouped at bend 16 and we wondered out loud was it possible to do another 8km on the day in this heat??

I wanted to know if it was true that it eased off somewhat after bend 16, so I left Barry and Dave and went off to bend 13 just up the road. Thankfully it does ease off to around 5/6% for a while before heading back to 8%. All of these are manageable when used to Wicklow roads like Shay Elliot/Sliabh Mann etc. so I descended again and gave the lads the good news. For a brief few seconds, I felt like going on and finishing the climb but thankfully I gave up on that thought and descended once more.

After the recce climb, I could feel our confidence levels rise a notch or two by the time hit our village on the top, having been given a lift back up by Flora from Sportactive. We filled the others in on our adventures and shared tips for water consumption, pointing out the bends that flatten out slightly which were the best spots to eat and top up on fluids.


Sinead and Barry taking tapering to a whole new level

Our official rest day, with no plans as such...although, it didn't work out that way! We woke up, ate and then I decided to go out and do the top five bends of the Alpe. Again, I wanted to know what the last few kilometres of the Marmotte were like. Information is power as they say. I already knew what to expect from bend 21-13 and felt knowing bends 5-0 would give me a big boost on the morale front. Most of the other lads had done this already and nobody was coming back with horror stories. Indeed it was described as ‘manageable’. Mostly 8%, with a final kick up to the village of around 5%. It meant the last kilometre was similar to the Featherbeds - a climb I've done about five hundred times in the last five years so happy days. Perhaps the time on the day for one last big push in the big ring??

Once the cycling recce was over, we all headed for lunch. The local restaurants all had cycling specials which included a three course meal with lots of pasta. Eating a three course meal would be rare for me but I was getting use to all of the carb-loading and was almost looking forward to the pasta. By now, the town is really filling up. Sleepy Alpe d'Huez starting to gain a real carnival atmosphere with lots of nervous cyclists. We head to the tented village area to register. The French really are experts in this field. The queues move quickly. We could all learn a thing or two when it comes to organising large participation sportifs.

The only task we had in mind this afternoon was to buy the obligatory marmotte cuddly toy and a Marmotte cycling top. Tick Tick. Then off to the shops to buy food for tomorrow and back to the hotel to give the bike a last look-over and pump up the wheels before tomorrow. Tick, tick, done.

I head up the room to lay out everything I need for the cycle including clothes, waterproofs, gels and food. The full list is mind-boggling and it hard to imagine where I was going to fit it all. How did I expect to eat all of that?? My kit included:

  • Breakfast: porridge, chia seeds, Berocca, Bananas
  • Clothes: shoes, shoe covers, socks, spare socks, seal skin socks, jersey, spare jersey, gillet, raincoat, gloves, full length gloves, shorts, spare shorts, glasses, sunglasses, helmet, arm-warmers,
  • Food etc: 2 bottles, 8 bars, 2 bananas, 12 gels, 4 isotonic powders and food vouchers. My plan was to have enough food in my pockets and the three vans to survive without the official food stops.

My pre marmotte night bundle of stuff to bring along.

Most importantly, my stash also included a Romeo & Juliet No. 2 Cigar to have when we finished! Why I was bringing that with me instead of collecting it later on is still a mystery but I got it into my head that you needed something with you that represented the finish...daft or wha'??

Earlier on in the day, Sportactive supremos Flora and Martin had given us the pre-Marmotte meeting/prep talk. All seemed fairly straight forward: three vans, four mountains what could possible go wrong?! Martin informed us all that his job was to get the riders who wanted simply to survive, back to Bourg d'Oisson before the cut off at 6pm. Six of us decided to do our own thing, while nine decided to stick with Martin on the day and finish in the time.

Later that evening we head to dinner, eat more pasta, (there's no wine in sight bar Tom W's sole breakaway effort), relax and then head to bed early. Nobody is saying it out loud, but we're all a bundle of nerves about tomorrow. What if we do this? What if X happens? What if Billy Parker was right?!? Lots of questions and very little time left to think about the answers. Special thanks to the World Cup, who kindly scheduled Brazil v's Colombia for that night at 10:00pm French time. Naturally, I start watching it without thinking about my 4:00am alarm. I watch half the game and somehow, despite zero tiredness, kill the TV and knock off the light. Five hours to wake up time...sleep god dammit, sleep!