HOW TO CONQUER LA MARMOTTE, PT. 3: EQUIPMENT

cyclist on alpe d'huez
Alpe d’Huez 2016. Disc brakes on my rental were a big plus

When I rode Alpe d’Huez for the first time in 2016, it was during a brief two days of riding, so I rented a bike locally from Prompt.cc. The bike served me well, and while I planned take my own bike to France for La Marmotte, the rental had two key aspects that I was keen to replicate. First, disc brakes, and second, a compact 50-34 with a 32 cassette at the back. I also had to think about transporting my bike by air and car this time around, and making sure that everything was in tip-top shape since the bike rental company wouldn’t be doing my tune-ups this time.

DISC BRAKES

giant tcr advanced pro disc
My “Marmotte” ride, with disc brakes, compact crank, 11-32 cassette, and medium cage derailleur.

Disc brakes are certainly not essential for riding the Marmotte, and I would say that maybe one out of ten bikes I saw at the event in 2017 had them – if that. But if fifty-seven miles of the Marmotte are climbing miles, that means most of the rest of the miles are braking miles. And braking miles on roads with an abyss on one side, no less.

So if possible, consider discs. They don’t require nearly as much grip effort as rim brakes, meaning your fingers don’t cramp and your forearms don’t burn. Discs are also much more precise, giving you real confidence when descending through twisting mountain roads. If you find yourself in the wet, the brakes still work, period. They squeal terribly, but they work. And if the sun is out and burning, you’re not going to melt your rims or blow up your tires if you are on your brakes all the way down a half-hour descent. Yes, you read that right: a half-hour descent.

A COMPACT CRANK PLUS A 32 IN THE BACK

cyclist on Glandon
Smiling for the camera on the Glandon. Notice that I am using happily that 32 in the back!

When I began to look online for advice on riding the Marmotte, I found some bizarre recommendations for gearing that would be challenging to say the least – somebody suggested an 11×22 for instance! Fortunately I had already ridden in the area once before, and had gotten advice from an old hand: the guide I hired to lead me up Alpe d’Huez and over the Col de Sarenne. A strong, slender climber, he told me that when he first came to the Alps from England he thought that a 28 on the back would be fine, and that he quickly discovered that it wasn’t. And I had the proof on my own rental bike – I was sure glad it had an 11-32 on those first rides in the Alps!

Even if you have an “easy” cassette like an 11X32, you can still choose to ride a harder gear all the way if you want to, but it makes good sense to have a gear that you can use to easily stay on top of the pedals for the steepest parts of each climb and the final grind up Alpe d’Huez.  If you need “permission” to run a cassette with a 32, keep in mind that many of the best pros are now riding 11X28 or 11X32 on the steepest grand tour mountain stages. Once the road tilts upward, you’re going to appreciate being able to pedal circles rather than squares, and all the other riders will be too focused on making it up the climb themselves to be judging the size of your cassette. Unless you ride often in the region, in which case you won’t likely be reading this post, you will be thankful for having a relatively comfortable gear when you most need it.

IF NECESSARY, PLAN AHEAD TO INSURE YOUR “MARMOTTE” BIKE MATCHES YOUR TRAINING BIKE

cyclists sitting
My guide Joe and my rental for Alpe d’Huez 2016. I brought my own saddle to install.

If you are renting a bike for the fondo, or if your bike doesn’t arrive with your luggage, or if you are borrowing your buddy’s superfast, superlight climber, or you bought the latest and greatest at the last minute just for this ride, you will want to match the bike fit to the bike you have been doing all your training on. This is actually easy to do, but you will want to take some measurements of your training bike before you leave home. Check out this post about matching an ideal bike fit to more than one bike, and be sure to take your training bike’s measurements with you – just in case something goes wrong and you have to scramble for a replacement.

Also, be sure you have access to “your” saddle no matter what. Even though I flew my bike over for the race, I also took an extra matching saddle in my carry-on bag, just in case something went wrong at the airline. Anything else could be replaced for a price. Helmet, shoes, pedals could be had on-site on short notice if necessary, but nobody would be able to produce my saddle model before the race.

BE SURE TO NOTIFY YOUR AIRLINE IF YOU ARE FLYING WITH YOUR BIKE

I had never traveled by plane with a road bike before so this was a new experience, and we learned a few things. First, when you book your flight, call the airline and tell them you’re bringing a bike. Unless you have had your bike cut in half specifically for travel and you can stuff it in a standard suitcase, a bike box will be considered “irregular” sized luggage. You will want to be sure they are expecting you and your bike, and that they won’t turn you away when you check-in. All of the airlines I investigated charged a extra fee. We ultimately flew Iceland Air and at the time it was $116 each way.

PACK CAREFULLY IF YOU ARE FLYING WITH YOUR BIKE

We were nervous about flying with the hard case. Would the airline say “no go” at the last minute? Would the TSA open it and not repack it correctly? Would it get lost? Would the bike get smashed despite the hard case?

All reasonable possibilities, but in the end everything went fine in both directions. My husband is also my mechanic, and he took on the the task of packing the bike. Here are a list of some things to consider when packing the bike:

Bike packed in bike box.
One very carefully packed bike case.
  • Use pipe insulation to protect everything, and hold it on with zip-ties. The stuff is fairly cheap and goes nicely around your tubes and most other parts of the bike. You don’t necessarily need long zip ties – just link two shorter ones together to make longer ones.
  • Make everything together into one solid unit. Once the bike was fully packed, my husband zip-tied and taped everything into one solid unit – the handlebars, the saddle, even the tools and the disc brake bleed kit – so that if the TSA or other inspector opened the box, everything would lift out as one unit and would be put back as one unit. This avoided giving the TSA a chance to repack it incorrectly and result in damage. And yes, the TSA opened the box both coming and going.
  • Use sections of PVC pipe to protect your fork and rear triangle. This was a great hack my husband found online. He got some thinner PVC pipe – 1/2″ probably – and cut two sections that matched the axle width of the two wheels. He then just installed the skewers through the pipe sections and created a super strong insert that protected the rear triangle and fork from being crushed. Brilliant.
  • Take lots of extra zip ties to re-pack your bike for the trip home. They are also better for attaching your race number to your handlebars than the twisty ties the registration folks provide.
  • Use a closure for the box that is strong  but easily removed and replaced. We used very small carabiners to keep things closed in travel, but that the TSA could take off and replace easily (and correctly). If you use locks, they will cut them, and they won’t be replaced for the remainder of the flight.

Ok, we’re on our way to France! In the next post we’ll cover training options for the week leading into the race.

 

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