Participants in this year's Marmotte faced temperatures nearing 50°C, leading to many dropouts along the way. Tom Weymes shares his struggle through the day, when many others would have given up far sooner, he battled on!

Burnt by the Sun

Tom Weymes

This is the title of a classical Russian film, in which bad things happen to the protagonists. It nicely epitomises the 2015 Marmotte – the 34th – which was unusual in a number of ways, most of them not good. As all the world knows by now, the traditional Glandon/Télégraphe/Galibier route had to be changed for civil engineering reasons, leading to at least one significant difference: whereas the route in between the first two big hills used to look like this:

It now looked like this:

And what it actually looked like was like this:

This is the now-famous Lacets de Montvernier, used this year in the Tour de France for the first time. In reality, it’s just a hot, narrow little hump, a sort of micro-Alpe d’Huez, about 3-400m worth of climb inserted in the route to bulk up the total ascent – no more than minor diversion for serious contenders, but a nasty surprise for me, who’d been counting on the traditional flattish trip along the Maurienne valley to recuperate after the Glandon climb. And there were other nasty little kinks that made this replacement route, in most people’s opinion, more severe than the classical Marmotte.

The other feature of Marmotte ’15 was, of course, the temperature. Shane Phelan’s extended piece in the Indo carried a photo of a Garmin purporting to show 47°C on the Alpe d’Huez climb. Even that hardened cyclist Martin Birney, head man of SportActive which has supported many Orwell participants in the Marmotte, thought the conditions were well beyond normal experience. Orwell’s Maeve Quigley describes how the only thing that kept her going up the Alpe was being doused with water by a compassionate housewife. (This charitable service does seem to be a regular feature of summer sportives on the Alpe – I remember being grateful for it on the 2011 Étape).

The practical consequence of these non-standard conditions was that of 7,500 nominal starters – the number at which the entry is capped – there were 4,673 finishers, i.e. a 38% dropout rate. In 2014, by comparison, the dropout rate was only 15%. All hail, then, to all the finishers, but particularly to the only two Orwell representatives, to my knowledge, who finished – Maeve Quigley and Greg O'Donnell, whose 450th place – out of 4,700-odd from all over Europe!! – must have had him up amongst the semi-pros. And let’s not forget Mary Brady and Seamus Connolly, who coped determinedly with the conditions to finish the shorter Mi-Marmotte.

I'm most reluctant to bracket myself alongside these biking heroes. I fetched up with the SportActive party in Alpe d’Huez, borne on a tidal wave of goodwill from Orwellians and others, and buoyed by memories of the Orwell Magnificent Thirteen who disposed nonchalantly of the classical route in 2014. (Garret Connolly’s novella on the subject is being turned into a musical - links here).

Released from the pens: threading through the streets of Bourg d’Oisans to the start line

The goodwill wave broke against the pitiless slopes of the Col du Glandon and the Col du Mollard. Nobody who’s waited patiently for me on top of every hill in Wicklow will be surprised that it took me just over 3 hours from the start to summit the Glandon (Martin Birney: ‘Two hours would be a good time’). I did of course get to evaluate for myself Billy Parker’s reported comparison of the Glandon with the Embankment, of which the kindest thing to say is that Mr Parker’s impeccable legal judgement must have deserted him. The last enjoyable part of the day was the neutralised descent from the col – apart from its length, no more and no less dangerous, in my view, than any Wicklow descent.

At a water stop at the top of the Lacets I was surprised to meet jerseys from the Kildorrery Cycling Club. (Kildorrery is a hamlet on the Caher-Mitchelstown road, infamous for my having been given a speeding ticket there at dead of night twenty years ago). I don’t know how the Kildorrery lads made out, but by the time I’d got down into the valley again, heading for the Mollard, the wheels had begun to come off my day, and it was abundantly obvious I wasn't going to make the 6.30 pm cutoff time back to the bottom of the Alpe at Bourg d’Oisans. This led to a collapse of moral fibre – always a commodity in short supply with me – to the point where a campsite bar on the outskirts of Villargondran, at the foot of the Mollard, was an irresistible temptation. I stuck to a soft drink, but a beer might have been more in my line, because starting up the climb, I spotted a shady patch of grass, crawled into it and, I think, actually slept for 20 minutes.

After inching painfully up the Mollard for a couple of hours, a text came in from the SportActive people stationed at the col, offering to pick me up. At that point I was still 400m below the top, with a further 800m of climb to the next col, the Croix de Fer, and I graciously accepted the offer. When the wagon came to me, round 5 pm, it contained two other refugees from the SportActive party, and we picked up two more on the way back up! From that point, about 93 km into the route, back over the two cols, down to Bourg d'Oisans and up the Alpe, there was a constant stream of exhausted cyclists, most of whom would have had no hope of making the cutoff but who presumably had no pickup possibilities. For the record, I had only spent seven-and-a-quarter hours on the bike, and the rest of the time since the 7.30 a.m. start drooping in the heat by the roadside.


A few postscripts:

The Lanterne Rouge, a man called John Simpson, took fourteen-and-a-half hours, catching a timekeeper about to pack his gear at 11.30 pm at the Alpe. He has his own tale to tell...

John Simpson

The Thing is a Brompton – handmade, we’re told, in London, with hub gears (Sturmey-Archer, anyone?) and a chain tensioner, which fell off on the way DOWN the Mollard, costing him, he thinks, 2 hours+ in fruitless repair efforts. (If that’s so, he could have been 4,200th or so instead of the Lanterne Rouge). What on earth would we say to him if he turned up at Joe’s one morning for a winter Sunday spin??

A final bizarre reflection: there were precisely the same number of Irish finishers in Marmotte ’15 as there were Germans - 46. Go figure.

Spot the winners!

Shane Phelan, Maeve Quigley, Seamus Connolly, Tom Weymes, all fully recovered back at Alpe d’Huez.