CONQUER LA MARMOTTE PART 5: RACE DAY CONSIDERATIONS

marmotte finish line
At the finish line on top of Alpe d’Huez

As the day of the race approaches, you’ll want to check-in and get your timing chip. And if you’re like most cyclists, you’ll probably buy some swag along the way.

Then on the morning of the race you’ll head to the start line. In the following post we’ll discuss things like where to assemble for the start, what to wear, food and water, safety, and what you’ll do when you triumphantly – or desperately – reach the finish line.

ONE OR TWO DAYS PRIOR: CHECK IN AND BUY SWAG ON ALPE D’HUEZ

driving alpe d'huez
Driving up Alpe d’Huez on Friday for check-in. Look at the GPS!

Call to confirm the schedule for checking in and picking up your registration packet. This is less important if your accommodations are on Alpe d’Huez, since you can just stroll over to the location, but if you are not staying on top of the mountain you won’t want to drive or cycle all the way up only to find the registration center closed.

In 2017, I had to first find my rider number at a tent outside the building, and then go inside the building to find the table for that number. It was not a difficult process – just make sure you have any additional documentation like a doctor’s release if you didn’t upload everything previously. I got a plaque with my number and timing chip, plus some swag like a water bottle and tiny lights to use in the tunnels on the course.

Come prepared to buy a little extra swag, though, as all of the Marmotte-branded jerseys, tee shirts, and other stuff is right there in the same location, plus there is an expo located outside the building with plenty of vendors, including Mavic, Look, Santini, Shimano, and lots of independent vendors.

I bought a Marmotte short-sleeve jersey that is well made and fits nicely – I wish I had purchased a long-sleeve and another short, actually. I also got some Marmotte arm warmers. Outside I picked up a Mavic women’s jersey and jacket, and a Santini superlight vest, as well as some energy bars.

GETTING TO THE START

You will probably want to arrive for the start about 30 minutes before your specified start time. Because there a three or more groups, each with a couple thousand riders each, the staging area is about 1.5 miles outside the city center, and there are holding pens for riders to assemble before being sent out to roll into the village and over the first timing mat at the official start line. The signage that was posted on-site wasn’t all that helpful, so try to ask a day or two earlier at a bike shop where the actual staging area will be. I personally went directly to the start line from our apartment, and then ended up asking for directions and following a couple of Spanish riders who seemed to know where they were going.

GEARING UP

cold and hot marmotte
I was absolutely freezing on Glandon, then basking in the sun on Alpe d’Huez

You will definitely want to check the weather forecast for the day, both for the course in general and for spots like the top of col d’Galibier, where things can get pretty extreme. The change in temperature and conditions over the course of the day can be radical, and you will want to prep your kit accordingly.

There was some amount of rain every day of the week before the 2017 Marmotte, but fortunately on the day of the race there was zero precipitation. Still, the weather was a factor. When I left Bourg d’Oisans at 7:50 am, it was 62 degrees, cloudy and a bit humid. Cool and comfortable, but by the time I reached the top of the first climb to col d’Glandon it was freezing and so foggy that I could barely see two bike lengths in front of me! I was soaked in sweat and the wind chill tearing at me was misery.

One lesson I learned the hard way was to only wear my windproof vest on the descents. I had bought a sweet little Santini gilet at the expo at registration (swag!), and I had it on to stay comfortable before the start. Unfortunately, I didn’t take it off for the climb up Glandon, and it trapped my sweat underneath so that I was extra-soaked once I started the frigid descent, and I’m sure it worsened my uncontrollable shivering and chattering teeth as I descended.  My fingers were so numb and frozen they kept slipping off the brake levers, even wearing full windproof gloves. The good news is that I was looking forward to climbing the monster Galibier just to warm up! The process of being warm and then freezing was repeated on the climb up the Galibier, though the fog had burned off by then. The frigid process of the descent was repeated as well, and the descent off Galibier and into Bourg d’Oisans takes nearly an hour, which is a long time to be frozen and shivering

I was told that the year prior it was snowing on the summit of Galibier!! So even though it may be comfortable at the start of the ride and it looks like it will be a pleasant day, I recommend being ready for some cold, especially on the descents. I’d recommend arm warmers, a wind proof vest and long finger gloves at the minimum. Even on a very hot day you would probably want to have these thing handy, just in case. And if it is a rainy day you will want to have even more protection.

Please share this post with your cycling people.


A NOTE ABOUT WATER AVAILABILITY

local water source
The community water source at the village of La Garde on the climb up Alpe d’Huez

I was lucky to ride a Marmotte that was both rain-free and in the 60s and 70s (Farenheit) all day. However, some past editions of the fondo have been held on very hot July days, and I have read that finding water to drink can become a real crisis. There have been reports of years where there have been too many people who desperately need water at too few feed stations that can’t provide it quickly enough, and I’ve heard tensions can get quite high with tempers flaring.

If you find yourself in this situation, please be aware that almost every small village along the way is likely to have a public fountain with potable mountain water! This is a huge event in the region, with people lining the streets to cheer you on. I’m certain anyone in a village will direct you to the village fountain, or a quick water refill. “Water” in French is “l’eau”, pronounced LOW, so if you learn a little phrase like ILYA DER LOW (“there is water?”) you’ll be a step ahead.

So if the temperatures are high, DON’T wait to get to the feed stations to top off your water. Not only will you avoid desperate moments or even a medical emergency, you will also likely save time because you won’t have to wait in line.

FOOD

On my particular ride there were feed stops on the Glandon, on top of the Galibier, and at the roundabout outside Bourg d’Oisans at the base of Alpe d’Huez. The food provided is plentiful and also quite French – I assembled little sandwiches of baguette, cold cuts, and Camembert, both to eat on-site and to stuff in my jersey. There were also plenty of fruit, energy bars, gels, water, and electrolyte drinks.

I did carry some gels and chews to the start line, but if necessary I would have been fine with just the food provided at the feed stops. I was hungrier than expected at each of the feed stops and went straight for the “real food”. Every rider is different, though, and you will presumably have trained well for the race and have an idea of what your body needs and likes.

TOILETS

There are none. In the US we are accustomed to rows upon rows of portable toilets at large athletic events. At la Marmotte I saw one. It was near the starting line in Bourg d’Oisans, and in any case it had no toilet paper.

From that point forward I didn’t not see any sort of toilet. And with 7,500+ riders, you can picture the scene for yourself. When you get to the mountaintops you’re above the tree line where there’s no natural cover. So just be prepared to use nature like everybody else does.

SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS

My biggest safety concern heading into the day were the long, technical descents filled with crowds of people of varying skill, and I was quite relieved to find that most riders on the descents were competent and there was plenty of space between riders to feel safe, with time for correction should a problem arise.

Descending is a skill you ought to practice as part of your training. Imagine skiing down a black-diamond-rated ski slope, and that’s nearly the level of skill required on these Alpine roads to descend quickly, safely, and confidently. I personally had focused on building my descending skills and confidence at home, before I came, and I felt quite good about it on race day.  The descent from the first climb, the col d’Glandon, is time-neutralized because it is dangerous, curvy, and crowded, but in any case I didn’t find it to be a white-knuckler.

The road surfaces were excellent and very smooth for the entire course in 2017. I cannot recall any road section that was even in questionable repair. You will ride through a number of tunnels, and you are required by event officials to safety lights on your bike, either something you bring from home, or the little hanging LEDs they give you when you check in. I have spoken to riders who really get nervous about the tunnels, but I honestly didn’t find them unsettling. They are well lit with smooth road surfaces, and you will probably have a rider or two in front to establish a line you can follow.

You will likely encounter very few cars on the (mostly) closed course, but there will be sections that are not closed, and in any case you should anticipate that cars will be on the course and keep to the right of the road, especially while descending. Plus there were a significant number of motorcyclists who were enjoying col d’ Glandon and col d’Telegraph on the day, and they were not there to dawdle. So again, just because you haven’t seen a motorized vehicle in a while doesn’t mean there won’t be one coming at you around the next bend.

I have to say with 7,500 cyclists on the route I only saw one minor topple over between two riders – I wouldn’t even call it a crash. I saw one rider bloodied a bit who had obviously picked himself up from an incident. And I passed one ambulance that appeared to be loading up a rider on a non-technical section of a descent.

Be aware that the biggest risk may be pulling in and out of the feed stations, where there are large numbers of riders unpredictably moving in all directions and distracted by a number of factors. And be aware of other cyclists dropping items – water bottles, food items, sunglasses, clothing layers etc. are frequent losses on the road and may be a surprise obstacle. If you try to swerve around these items, remember the riders behind you and those that may be passing. This was more of an issue on col d’Glandon where the numbers were the densest on the first climb of the day and as riders got settled with their gear choices.

Overall, my experience was a very safe event with few hazards.

WHEN YOU FINISH

marmotte gold medal
I just squeaked in with a “gold medal” time

Once you cross the finish line it’s a bit of chaos. There are cyclists everywhere, some a little dazed from just finishing, and those who finished hours ago who are watching the riders roll in while soaking up the roadie atmosphere. You are greeted with a big cheering welcome and people handing out la Marmotte souvenirs. There is water immediately available, which was my main concern – it was nice and cold, too. I couldn’t bear another sip from my lukewarm water bottle.

If you would like the post ride meal that comes with registration, you pick it up at a tent. You’ll see people walking around with large brown paper bags and a meal of pasta, and other lunch items are packaged in the bag. Ask other riders where they picked up their meals.

There is no signage or direction about finalizing your time and turning in your chip. I found this to be the least organized part of an otherwise precision-run event, especially for a first time participant. I had to ask what to do next, as there is no obvious signage. Ultimately I had to wait in line at a tent to get an official certificate of completion, which had my name, finish time and rider number. Then I had to take that certificate and wait in another chaotic and disorderly mash of riders to show it to an official who gives out the awards.

Based on time, some people get a gold or silver medal,  others get a souvenir like a plush marmot. I was thrilled to (just!) finish in the gold medal time frame on my first attempt. No doubt that the cool temperatures, and good fortune with no complications on the day contributed to this finish. The training and detailed preparation had served me well. I can’t wait to do it again!

1 Comment

  1. Have you ridden La Marmotte or planning to ride it or another Gran Fondo? Comment and let us know, we’d love to hear about it!

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