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 and second part already, here's the third!

The 2014 Marmotte Story - Part III

Garret Connolly


D-Day, Saturday

Breakfast of 'Champs'?? Last minute feed before we descend the Alpe to the start line

To my surprise, I wake up feeling fresh and well-slept. I'm used to having just three or four hours sleep before events like the Wicklow 200 and similar so to get five hours was a miracle. (Thank you to the herds of cows outside my window for their therapeutic-sounding cowbells ringing in the dark. The next time I'd hear those cowbells would be on bend 3 on the Alpe, at the very end, as a group of Dutch and French were cheering us on. They didn't sound as therapeutic at that stage!)

We meet at 5:00am for breakfast; demolish some porridge, drink coffee, glance nervously around the room, exchange smalltalk then look out the window at the RAIN!! Everyone asks about the morning's forecast and rushes back upstairs, changes into their gear and meets back down at 6:00am.

Thankfully, it has finished raining by 6:00am, but it's chilly and the roads are wet. All 35/40 of us are under strict instructions by Sportactive General Martin B to be there at 6:00am or be left behind. Nobody has the balls to test him on his word! Martin leads the way on the descent and somehow I end up in second wheel but I'm delighted with that. I always feel safest out in front of a big gang of descenders and especially when it's following the wheel of Martin and his expert descending skills. It's a tricky descent in the conditions but we all make it down safely to the bottom in less than 25/30 minutes where we meet the vans. Thankfully, I wore shoe-covers, long gloves and a raincoat and felt the temperature wasn't so bad coming down. Some of the others were frozen but warmed up quickly in the warming valley air as we approached the 7:00am starting point.

Last minute bike check...quick pee behind the bins...eat a bar...make sure I have my phone...put on my new gloves, then switch back to the other pair...check the air pressure in the my tires...decide I need another pee...put on my arm warmers, take them off again...check the tire pressure again...Jesus! Why do they make us wait for so long at these starts!?! We're all a bundle of nerves.

Eventually around 7:15am our turn arrives and we head up the main street to the start line. The hooter sounds and we're rolling. Amazingly, at this god forsaken hour, there are a lot of locals on the side of the roads cheering us along. Are these French geezers really this nuts?!? We quickly leave the village and we're on the long, flat, wide open road that leads to the Glandon. All fifteen Orwell cyclists are together in one big peleton. A real moment of pride for the club. This would be the last time we all spend together before dinner that evening. Bon voyage l'Orwell peleton! We work well together doing a few up and overs and restrain ourselves from chasing onto the crazy speed of the Belgian and Dutch gangs flying past. They must think it's a race to the foot of the Glandon?!?

Before we know it, the flat 10km is over and the Glandon has appeared in the early morning sky. At this stage, we knew that we'd all split up and we may not see each other for the rest of the day. In theory, myself, Adrian, Diarmuid, Barry, James and Paul would be climbing at somewhat similar speeds and we planned to do as much as the Glandon as possible together. These plans were shelved within a few minutes.

Glandon: 23km, at 6% average.

The view at the Glandon

The Glandon is a stunning place. I would love to come back to it on a non race-day and spend the day cruising up it. It starts with a climb through a forested area and finishes at a very grassy, barren looking place 23km later. It's a mix of dark and moody, tree-covered roads, valleys that go on and on, crystal clear lakes and finally, beautiful pistes at the top of the mountain. It was a joy to climb but it was much harder than we expected.

Billy Parker had described this as 'like the embankment, around 4-5% only 25km'...easy right? It was in me b%@$#x! Nearly the whole first 20km felt like 8-10%. The odd downhill bit clearly brought the average of the whole climb down to 5%, but it felt much harder than anything in Wicklow. It also felt long. I had never cycled a hill for 23km and this was no joke.

I had promised myself I'd treat monitoring my heart rate all day like a military exercise. After Billy's 2013 elevated heart rate fest in altitude, I was nervous to see how my heart would react to the mountains. Paul Perry passed me very early on. Soon, James O'Callaghan did the same. I try to follow them in tow but the heart was shooting up to 165bpm and I had to let them go. I think Paul was on a one man mission to beat every strava record set on the Glandon and I had expected James to pass me early, so it was no surprise to see him fly by.

My rough mental plan for BPM on each hill (for all you cycling nerds out there) was:

  • Glandon: 140-150 bpm (70%-75% of max)
  • Telegraph: 150-160 bpm (75%-80% of max)
  • Galibier: 160-170 bpm (80%-85% of max)
  • Alpe: 170-185 bpm (85%-92% of max)

I was pretty confident that by sticking to these parameters, I would make it through the day in one piece without bonking, so long as I ate right and drank plenty.

I realised that I was needed yet another 'nature break' and let the lads go ahead. Then I remounted the bike and pedalled once more. Soon after, Barry came along, shortly followed by Dave Hendron. And so began approximately nine hours of myself and Barry shadowing each other across some of the biggest climbs in France.

After 1.5 hours of constant climbing we were getting close to the top of the Glandon and the vista completely changes. Gone are the trees and forests and out come the tops of the mountain with miles and miles of grasslands and rocks with a constant climb of 5%. We reached the top and witnessed the scrum of cyclists crossing the timing mat with a mad scramble for food, water and respite. Fortunately, we had Flora in her car about 100 metres past the melee of bikes and we grabbed our bags with sambos, gels, waters etc. The descent from the top to the bottom of the Glandon is neutralised due to a few fatalities over the years, so we knew we could take our time eating, resting and descending, before our time would start again.

After setting an Irish national strava record on the Glandon, Paul Perry clearly decided he fancied his chances of setting a Telegraph record too and so, he charged off on his own. We missed him on the top of the Glandon so the five remaining cyclists, who weren't part of Sportactive's Martin's group, set off down the Glandon to regroup at the foot. It quickly becomes clear why the descent is neutralised as we go round the various hairpin bends. There are no barriers and drops of a few hundred metres onto rocks wait for us on the other side if you mistime them. It's pretty scary and we all go down it at no more than 40kmph. The descent lasts around 20km and by the time we get down, our hands are cramping pretty bad from the pressure we've had to put on the breaks.

We regroup as a group of five and head over the time mat. Everyone who has done the Marmotte before recommends getting in to a group at this stage and riding protected in a peleton across the valley floor. We tried several times to hitch a lift on the back of a Dutch or Belgian peleton but each time, they were going too quickly. We eventually settled in for a good old-fashioned Orwell up-and-over session with just the five of us. After about twenty minutes, I looked around and saw that there were about one hundred wheel-suckers behind us doing no work! I think I said to Adrian to ease off to make them come around us. At this point, we were about 35km from the base of the descent of the Glandon and it worked for a while until we hit Saint Michel de Maurienne - the signal point for the real serious climbing to begin at the base of the Telegraph!

1 down 3 to go. Food stop at the Glandon. Billy described it as like the Embankment for 25km. Here we are plotting what to do with Billy when we get back to Dublin after 1.5hours of hurt!

Col de Telegraph: 12km, at 7% average.

Myself, Barry, James, Diarmuid and Adrian all started together on the foothills of the Telegraph. This is the stage of the day that makes or breaks you. A solid 35km stretch that includes the Telegraph for 12km, a downhill stretch for 4km and then the mighty and much-feared Galibier for 18km. Three angst-filled hours for most of us. Our five-man group broke up again. That was it for cycling together for the five of us. Next time we'd see each other would be back home on the Alpe. Myself and Barry soon realised that our pace on the day was remarkably similar. James was close by, within about 20 metres, for most of the Telegraph with Diarmuid and Ado a few minutes behind him. Again, Paul Perry was lighting up the road ahead.

The Telegraph is probably the least talked about climb of the Marmotte and it doesn't register many nightmare stories from past participants when compared to the horrors of the Galibier or the Alpe at the end. This completely fooled myself and Barry! It was a huge test for us. For one, the heat suddenly jumped up. It felt like I was like cycling through a wall of heat with no breeze or cloud cover. We soon found ourselves cycling away in tempo not speaking very much and wishing for the kilometre markers on the side of the road to hurry up and get to zero already! It seemed like an eternity climbing it. Also, the road had recently been stripped off and the once smooth surface had been replaced by a jagged covering that wouldn't allow you to get into a rhythm. It was extremely uncomfortable climbing for just over an hour. An experience I don't want to ever repeat.

As a certified baldy, I'm always conscious of sunburn on the noggin and tend to apply suncream fairly liberally before such events. Although sunblock was needed, the amounts I put on proved to be huge downfall on the Telegraph. As the sun melted the tarmac below it also decided to melt the suncream above, which began to stream into my eyes. For those of you who don't know how this feels, it's a close cousin to the feeling of salt on an open wound...a killer pain! I looked to my climbing 'buddy' Barry (buddy is probably the wrong word right now) through my tiny slits of eyes as the water pours from them and explain I'm having trouble seeing and how it hurts like hell. He starts quoting rule no.5 back to me - “Harden the f@#k up”. Colm Egan has a lot to answer for with these poxy rules! He also mentions that putting vaseline on your forehead works wonders for melting suncream. Brilliant advice if I had vaseline! I make to note to bank these moments of cruelty by Barry for later on.

We continue on and on and on, through the heat, over jagged road surface and eventually get to the top where Stephen of Sportactive is waiting. I say to him it felt bad...terrible in fact. He says the hardest bit is still to come. Oh Jaysis, I forgot about the Galibier. At the top, we regroup with James and Paul. James whispers something about not feeling very well. Paul wasn't whispering! He's leaning against the wall and shouting that his legs are cramping up!!! Myself and Barry are trying to diagnose his problem while nailing a mini can of coke...”Have you eaten?” “Ya, I've eaten loads!”...”Have you drank plenty of water?” Ya, loads....I can't stop peeing!” I ask him what was his heart rate going up the Glandon, expecting his answer to be approximately 145bpm, he responds around 165-170bpm....oh shit! I say to him to slow down or he won't make it. Talk about pointing out the obvious! At this point, Barry has decided that we can't wait any longer and wants to ditch the patients. I protest (well, very mildly) but we proceed down the very short Telegraph descent to Valloire and the official start of the feared Galibier.

Col de Galibier: 18km, at 7.5/8% average.

The Galibier at 2645m above sea level lined with July snow

Valloire is such a picturesque town. Situated right between the Telegraph and Galibier, it's a winter and summer vacation dream for skiers and cyclists alike. Without a doubt the most beautiful town we cycled through on the day but Barry and I were so nervous for the Galibier, we barely even noticed the locals shouting “Allez! Allez!” to us. We knew we had an 18km monstrous climb ahead. Many had already abandoned on these slopes due to tiredness and I knew that pace was incredibly vital at this point. Having Barry there was brilliant. Mentally, I don't think I would have had the toughness to do this on my own without someone to speak to every few hundred metres. We kept each other's pace in tow with both of us asking the other to slow down a notch at different points as we felt our heart rates pop too high.

We see the Galibier in front of us and it's hard to fathom how the hell are we going to cycle up there. We break the climb into three. Every 6km we stop for 30 seconds, nail a gel, drink plenty, get the heart rate to drop by 20bpm and then carry on. It works wonders. We stay together for practically the whole mountain only splitting up by accident with around 2km to go. The Galibier starts with a 5km hill, approx 5%, that seems to go and on. I even remember saying to Barry that this is pretty easy isn't it? We didn't expect that to come back and bite us in the face like it did. The next 10km is one of the toughest stretch of roads that a cyclist can attempt. The only thing worse than that? The following 3km gets even tougher!

From about kilometre 5 to kilometre 13, it is one long slog. It is easily 8-10% nonstop, down beside the river with a turn around to climb the cliff face. From the 5km mark, you can see the lines of ant-like cyclists on the side of the mountain. How do they expect you to climb that?!? What made the climb manageable was the constant cloud-cover and the cooling breeze that seemed to come off this beast. I could only imagine how hard this would be in the sun.

Again, sweat becomes an enemy as it temporarily blinds me! I stop and wash off the suncream with my bottle and wipe it away with my arm warmers. I'm beginning to feel like Billy Parker on the Alpe but thankfully it's suncream related and not old age as it was in Billy's case!

With 3km to go until the peak of the Galibier, the snow banks appear. Less fearsome looking than David Fitzgerald's Stelvio extravaganza but still pretty eerie. Here we are, at 2500m, in shorts and t-shirts sweating our asses off and everywhere you look are huge banks of snow that look like they have been there for years if not decades! A natural beauty that's hard to describe. Why try when a photo can! It's a sight I'll never forget and when I got to the top, I felt strangely emotional and, dare I say it, tearful. A mix of tiredness, pure elation to have finished the 35km of hell and the feeling that we were very, very close to the top of the world.

I managed to miss the Sportactive car which was parked 2km from the top of the Galibier and when I got to the top, I had a mild panic that I didn't have enough food for the rest of the day. James Magann arrived shortly after and gave me a bar to settle the nerves. We waited for Barry (who definitely wasn't at the top already, as he has claimed on numerous occasions!) to rejoin us before we started the descent. I'm sure we all looked pretty knackered at this point. Time to try to look our best though, as the famed descent camera shot is close by, just off the Galibier...The unofficial Velominati rule is to always look cool!

Galibier: 45km descent.

The longest descent I'd ever done in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter, was probably the Wicklow Gap heading towards Laragh. This is not enough to prepare you for the length of the Galibier downhill. It's 45km long and brings you from a height of 2600m+ all the way to Bourg d'Oisans at 719m. It's the equivalent of doing the Sally Gap to Roundwood downhill 9 times in a row!

Truly one of the greatest cycling moments anyone could experience. Hairpin bends at the start lead into a glorious, easy descent that is neither difficult nor dangerous. Even the most nervous descenders could just let the breaks go and enjoy the view. It's magic and worth the entry fee on it's own. The tunnels are the only tricky bit (I think I counted somewhere between four and seven). You go from very bright sunlight into very dark tunnels that, although lit well enough, are still tough for the eyes to adjust to. Also, my eyesight in the dark isn't great so I decided to hug the right hand side of the road and if anyone wanted to get past they could get around on my left easy enough. However, one clown decided to pass on my right, missing me by an inch or two, and scaring the bejaysis out of me for a millisecond.

After roughly 50 minutes of glorious descending we found ourselves on the valley floor heading towards Bourg at a slight downhill, but still whipping along at 45-50kmph. Barry, James and myself make easy work out of it and are almost relishing the sight of Alpe d'Huez ahead. Reaching into our back pockets we realised we were down to the last 2 gels each and a water stop was a must in Bourg. We were convinced that José from Sportactive would be at the foot of the Alpe but no joy! This time, we hadn't just missed him however. We later heard he had gotten delayed on the Galibier. Paul Perry had made it to the top but then needed emergency manipulation on his legs, whilst James O'Callaghan lay on the back of the van with cramping chest muscles and Adrian asked José where he could go for a crap! All this happening to a fella from Majorca with little or no English. The three lads were all laughing about it later on at dinner but it would have been hilarious to be there at the time to witness the carnage, the cramp and the crap!

We stopped briefly at the water stop and refilled our bottles. Thanks to Billy P for making the mistakes, we promised ourselves we wouldn't let happen to us this year. Around the corner we went and we were greeted with the surprise of the day - Dan Coulcher and his family had camped out in the sun on the first corner of Alpe d'Huez for five hours with bottles of coke for us! Incredible performance by Dan, Paula and the rest of the family. One of the most selfless Orwell acts I've ever witnessed. Chapeau to the Coulcher family! Final words by Dan as he waved us off was never to turn down a glass or bottle of water if passed to you...pour them over your head...merci beaucoups Dan!

Alpe d'Huez: 12km at 8% average.

Alpe d'huez Corner 1..the last ramp up to the finish!

So onto the Alpe...the Croke Park, the Wembley, the Stade Francais of the cycling world. 12km of man against nature. Orwell's very own Olympian dream! Or nightmare, depending on how it goes...At this point, I knew I was going well and had controlled my heart rate to within the zones I had planned. I knew if I simply kept that under control, I would make it. As we left the Coulcher family, myself and Barry, alone by then, simply said let's do this. With huge determination and confidence from our Thursday reccy, we reached corner 16 with very little fuss. Our plan was to do bends 21-16 in one go, stop for water and a gel, then head to bend 12 for the same and then aim for home. It's a creepy feeling climbing up the mountain with thousands of others because it's practically silent, bar the odd gear change and gasp of air from the struggling cyclists. The heat was nearing the middle of the day peak at this point. Although less than last year's 40 degrees, it was still 35 degrees and baking hot as myself and Barry struggled up to bend 12 which is roughly the half way point. One brilliant thing about the Alpe? The corners that ease off at a gradient close to 0% for around 25-30 meters, allowing you to comfortably drink a few gulps. It means that you can get into a good rhythm and drink every 1 or 2km no problem, if you remember that is...The signs on each corner are also brilliant. I've included a pic of corner 1. Basically, they list off all the winners, one per corner, of previous stages to the top of the mountain. For a cycling nut this is pure gold, as you read off names of the former greats from Hinault to Pantani.

Myself and Barry stop at corner 12 for our last gel and a quick drink. The heart rate is pretty high at this point and it's a nice chance to go down from 180 to 155 within 30 seconds. We drive on again and suddenly, after nine hours together, we somehow split up! This is where things go a bit haywire for me as I drifted off into a daydream. I carry on in body but my mind is somewhere else. I snap out of it around bend 6 but I am completely confused where I am and ask this English geezer where we are and in a strong cockney accent, he tells me “Alpe d'Huez!” I see corner 6 and I'm fully back on track. I let out a sigh saying “yes, 6!”, thinking I'm saying this in my head, but clearly not as the cockney geeza comes back to me saying “Great to see mate innit?!?” I take another gulp of water while trying to figure should I wait for Barry or push on. The latter wins out as I couldn't risk being out-sprinted by Barry 'O'Cancellara' O'Donnell as he became known in the W200 on the last 2km race to Greystones. I see bend 5, then 4, then 3. Suddenly on 'Dutch' Corner, bend 3, there are loads of Dutch fans with cowbells shouting “Allez! Allez!” I realise that I haven't gone into the red all day and if I don't, I may well end up finishing with a few kilojoules of energy still in the legs.

I say to myself, now or never....and quickly, I'm out of the saddle and for the craic, I whip it into the big ring and just go for it! I'm at full pelt now, passing plenty of others and I suddenly realise I can see the town just ahead. One more effort and I'll be at the bars. They come along quickly and there are huge crowds lining the road and cheering us on (well, drinking outside the bars but who cares?!). I take the last few bends and see the crest of the hill ahead. I'm almost dizzy from the effort I've just put in and I can feel my heartbeat in my eyes it was so much in the red. What was I thinking?!? The last 200 metres suddenly arrive and it's a downhill run of glory to the finish line for all the competitors. The finish area is mobbed and I cross the line, arms aloft for the photo (in reality, it was barely one fist aloft – my head was spinning from my final effort and I feared I'd fall off if I attempted a no hands pic!). The feeling of euphoria on finishing is hard to describe.

Fourteen months earlier, I'd just had my second hernia surgery in four weeks. A total of four hernia in my abdomen had been operated on, a triple on one side, a loner on the other. My consultant had told me I'd have to give up the bike! The surgeon after the second operation said to give up the hard cycling and concentrate on the flat. Within four weeks of that second surgery, I was back on the bike. Within ten weeks, I was back up Sally Gap. It had been a long hard struggle over the last year and in particular the last 6 months of Marmotte training. But it had worked out and here I was on the top of Alpe d'Huez after 175km and 5200 metres of climbing. I definitely felt a fear tears well up in my eyes as I went over the finish line....La Grande Marmotte? Tick!

Within minutes of finishing, I bump into Gráinne, after her glorious Mi-Marmotte triumph, and Emma Convey, who had come along to cheer us over the finish line. In my delirious state, I wondered aloud where I hand “this chip thing” in and get my certificate and medal. Emma calmly said to “relax, put the bike down and get your pasta and beer!” Chapeau Ms. Convey for putting my priorities in the right order!

The View from the Climb on Alpe d'huez

Over the next few hours, we all finished and regrouped at the finish line and hotel. The look of pure pleasure, relief and post-carnage bliss was written across all of our faces as we hugged a beer and smiled as if all the ills of the world had faded away. 'Bike Brain' had well and truly kicked in. We had dinner booked for 10:00pm and our table grew to twenty as some of the other Sportactive cyclists joined us for steaks, wine, chips then more wine.

As the night wore on, some retired early, some couldn't stay awake and some of us joked about performing an 'all-dayer' and stay up until 4:30am, a full 24 hours after getting up. A mythical achievement that even Orwell cyclists in full fitness would struggle to do. Without giving away too many salacious details, a crack-team of six of us partied the night away in the pubs and clubs of the town, sampling an array of local shots, varying in colour, strength and disgustingness, as we went. Eventually, we retired to bed at around 4:45am – a full 24 hours 15 mins after rising! 24 Hours: Marmotte, 4 HC Cols, dinner, wine, pints, nightclub, shots and dancing. Challenged accepted and completed.