La Marmotte – my brutal experience
La Marmotte, the famous one-day race in the Alps, was first held in 1982, making it the oldest cyclosportive event of its kind. In France, it is often called La Doyenne (“the old lady”) due to the prestige of the climbs this monument features. Year after year, it attracts more than 7000 cyclists for the official event, with many more riding it outside of the event by themselves or with their friends.
In 2021, my girlfriend and I spent our summer in the French Alps. Given it was the year of COVID, they had already cancelled the official event. However, by accident, I heard about some hotels in the region organizing “La Marmotte” for their guests. Luckily, they allowed me to participate, and even though I had concerns about whether I could do it, I just decided to go for it. So, I signed up for 174.4km, including 5180m of climbing, which, to put into perspective, could well be a Queen’s stage in any Tour de France.
The route is basically a big loop covering the most famous mountains of the Alps. Starting in Le Bourg d’Oisans, you make your way up to the Col du Glandon (24km, 6.2%), a deceiving climb as the average gradient gets reduced by a fairly long descent in the middle. After a long descent to 400 altitude meters, you have a 25km false flat uphill section towards Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. From then on, it gets brutal with the Col du Télégraphe (12km at 7.1%) at first, and then the Col du Galibier (17.6km at 6.9%) from its hard side, taking you up to 2642m. The long descent (about 45min of descending) is then followed by the final challenge, the 21 bends of Alpe d’Huez (13.2km at 8.1%).
My own experience
As this edition of La Marmotte was organized by the hotels, you had to bring your own stuff to them prior to the event. They would then stand on each of the Cols, giving you “one package” of the items you brought the day prior. This was actually really nice, as you got to decide what you would like to eat (in contrast to the official event, which just has the standard cycling food). For me, it contained a spare inner tube, some bars, a banana, and a sandwich my girlfriend made for me. Going there, I was still a bit nervous and unsure whether I could do it, but the hotel told me to be there at 7 am the next morning, so I went home, had something to eat, and made sure to go to bed super early.
Getting up the next day was the classic story every cyclist has encountered. You are still tired but have to eat, eat, eat in order to be ready for the day. So I got up at 6 am and tried to ingest as many calories as possible before rolling to the meeting point at 7 am. To my disappointment, there was no “official start.” A lot of riders simply went with their group before 7 am or after 7 am, so I just decided to make my way up the Col du Glandon by myself.
I really tried to pace myself and not go into the red, which is difficult on the Glandon. Especially at the beginning, you constantly have to climb average gradients of 10 to 11%. Being by myself was a bit lonely but helped me find my rhythm and not please someone else, so I was quite happy that the other cyclists just went past me with the occasional “Hello” or “Allez.” 5 km from the top, a nice cyclist started chatting with me. Obviously, he approached me in Dutch, as I’d say 80% of the riders on that day were Dutch. We quickly bonded, though, and managed the last few kilometers to the top as a pair, distracting each other with some good chat. After receiving our first care package on the top, we started the very technical descent. During the official event, they actually do not take the time on the downhill as people would take too many risks otherwise. Even in the unofficial event, people took risks on the descent and took the corners quite fast. I think descending is an experience thing – if you have experience, you will be a lot more comfortable. If you do not have experience or are generally a nervous descender, don’t feel pressured by other riders. At those speeds, so much can go wrong (as we have sadly seen in the Tour de Suisse recently too) that there is really no value in trying to gain one or two minutes by going quicker.
Down in the valley, you reach the little village Saint Marie de Cuines. As our group obviously also fell apart on the descent, we gathered again, and with roughly 20 riders, we made our way to Saint Michel de Maurienne, which is a 23km false flat section. Honestly, this was the hardest part of the day. People in the front were doing super hard pulls, and most of the other riders just tried to hang on somehow. The group was really unmatched, but in this moment you need to make a decision. Do you want to go solo, or is it better to get a slipstream but be at your limit? Fortunately, some of the guys dropped off, and I did not have to make that decision as I joined them to lower my pulse going into the Col du Télégraphe.
The Col du Télégraphe is a very enjoyable climb. It has very steady gradients, you are at low altitude, and there is hardly any traffic. The iconic stones on the side tell you how many kilometers and how steep the next kilometer will be, but often it would just say 7% as it never really exceeds that. That allows everyone to find their rhythm, and consequently, any group falls apart very quickly. My main focus was again to not go too much into the red and enjoy the bends all the way to the top. Once you reach the top, you will see plenty of people taking pictures. But you would be mistaken if you believed those were only cyclists. A lot of motorbikers also enjoy the twisty pass. While we received our second lunch package, you also had the opportunity to have some food or cold coke inside the restaurant, which is directly located next to the summit.
Once the Col du Télégraphe is mastered, you will have a short and not very steep descent into the village of Valloire. Valloire is at the foot of the Galibier, and in the winter, it is a ski resort. From then on, you will make your way up the mighty Col du Galibier. There are two ways you can approach the Col du Galibier, and this is definitely the harder one, simply because you already have the Col du Télégraphe in your legs, and you will face steeper gradients. I stayed with my Dutch friend Martin, and we had a good chat going past the cows, seeing the snow-covered summit very far away. The hard challenge of the Galibier is that you face very long roads, which make it psychologically more difficult than if you are able to focus from bend to bend. During La Marmotte, you will see many cyclists scattered on the long roads, but no one really going with each other, as the draft benefit is so low. It is better to go at your own pace. Halfway through the climb, I also realized that Martin is slightly stronger than me, so I let him go, telling him to meet at the top. And it was still a long climb… 17 km the Galibier is in total, and given I was going at between 8-9 km/h, I was climbing for 2 hours without a break.
Once you go over 2000m, you start to see how the vegetation stops, and smaller and larger stones are lying next to the street. The gradient picks up, though, and is now between 8%-9%. Cyclists are really starting to struggle, also with the noticeably thinner air. A final push, and I was up the Col du Galibier. The top is actually rather unspectacular and offers only a small place to park and the famous Col du Galibier sign. Martin and I linked up again, had our final lunch package, and went down the very technical Galibier descent. You should definitely go slowly if you are a nervous descender, as there are no fences, potholes, and stones lying on the street, as well as traffic coming your way. Once you reach the Col du Lautaret, the descent becomes a bit flatter, and you have a better and wider road. Lights are highly recommended, though, as you also go through some longer tunnels. It is pretty much all the way downhill towards Bourg d’Oisans, with some shorter climbs and flat sections interrupting the relaxing.
On the foot of the final climb towards Alpe d’Huez, my girlfriend was waiting for me with some more food. I was really tired already and decided to let Martin go at his own speed. Once my batteries were slightly recharged, I made my way up Alpe d’Huez. Obviously, it was super hard, especially as the first kilometer is at 10-11%. I met another Dutch guy along the way who visibly struggled on his aero bike. I was a lot stronger than him but felt he needed the assistance to go up all the way. The benefit was he had a support car behind him, which gave me some drinks and food as well. After some stops, we finally reached the village of Alpe d’Huez, and this guy’s family came towards him with a finisher medal and beer. Given it was their first time there and as it was an unofficial event, there was no official finish, he thought the village was the finish line. However, the official finish is 1.5 km further up the mountain next to a car park. He, anyway, decided not to finish it properly, so I completed the last kilometer by myself.
Totally exhausted but super proud that I managed it, I rolled down Alpe d’Huez via the Pas de la Confession. Back at our Airbnb, my girlfriend greeted me with some beers, and we had a big barbecue to celebrate my achievement.
In hindsight, it was a fantastic experience, and I am so happy I did it. During the following days, I was not able and willing to cycle, as I really went over my limit. But one of my favorite quotes is: “The pain will leave, but the memory will stay.” So one year later, I sneaked into the official event, but it was so busy, especially on the first climb, that I did not really enjoy it that much.
During our Tour next year, you will be able to experience all the climbs. Don’t worry; you will not have to ride them all in one day, but it gives you the opportunity to check your legs and body, whether with enough training, you would be able to do La Marmotte in the following year. Check out our offer on our website.