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Shopping for the Marmotte bike

big tourist bike alpe huez

So I’ve been shopping for (and dreaming about) a sweet new disc-brake equipped road bike for my week in the French Alps and the big La Marmotte Gran Fondo. And I’ve discovered, surprisingly, that several of the big brand names still aren’t offering disc brakes on the kind of bike I want/need. Fuji, for example, doesn’t offer them on the Supreme, their highest-end lightweight race bike. My daily rider and racer for seven years has been a 2007 Fuji Supreme SL, and while I’m not dedicated to the brand, I do know it’s a quality bike that suits me. They (Fuji) do have discs on other bikes, but I’m not looking for an “endurance” bike nor something lower-end. I’m a racer, and the group rides I do tend to be fast rides with the guys, so I’m looking for a lightweight, aggressive bike that suits my riding style.

Might buy a new bike for La Marmotte!

cyclist on alpe d'huez

So I’m thinking about buying a brand new bike specifically for La Marmotte, and I am not someone who adds to the stable on a whim. In fact, my stable until very recently consisted of two bikes, both of which are ten years old. So to be thinking of getting a new bike “just” for a week in France is rather out of character. And honestly, my Fuji Supreme SL with “old” ten-speed Dura-Ace is very lightweight and a great little climbing bike.

However, riding up the Alps is only half the story; there is also a whole lot of riding dooown. Why does that matter? Two words: disc brakes. The bike I rented in September for my rides up the Col d’Ornon, Alpe d’Huez, and Col de Sarenne happened to have disc brakes, which turned out to be a great feature for half-hour-long (!) switchback-filled descents. They reduce the work you have to do to pull your brake levers, helping you avoid crushing forearm burn and fatigue, and they free you from worrying about overheating your rims and blowing off your tires.

Who would be crazy enough to do that?!?

cyclist on alpe d'huez

Since we had rented accommodations for our hiking-and-biking Alpine vacation at a cycling-oriented bed and breakfast, our little apartment was well-stocked with literature about cycling opportunities in the area. Given my ecstatic reaction to my two days of riding, my husband Theo was already perusing various booklets looking for rides I might want to consider at on our next (!) visit. He would occasionally read out some description of a ride or hand me a pamphlet to look at, but at one point he rolled his eyes and handed me an option with a particularly outrageous-looking mountain profile. Called “La Marmotte” after the (adorable!) little mountain marmots that inhabit the area, it was an annual Gran Fondo circuit that took in four of the biggest, most iconic climbs in the area all in one day.

profile la marmotte

That right, Col du Glandon at 6300 feet, Col du Telegraph at 5151 feet, Col du Galibier at 8670 feet, and finally the “little” Alpe d’Huez to finish the day at 6170 feet. 108 miles with about 16,000 total feet of climbing. The fastest riders each year – semipros at a minimum – finish in 5-ish hours (!), and those who just make time cut can drag themselves in after thirteen hours of suffering.

I shook my head, smirked, and almost shouted “Who on earth would be crazy enough to do that?!?”

Well, apparently I am.

An Unexpected Love of Cycling in the Alps

cyclist on alpe d'huez

My husband and I watch coverage of the Tour de France every July, and I am always entranced by the beautiful little villages perched on the mountainsides and decked in flowers. They seem like fairy tale perfection, and my dream has always been to drive from small village to small village enjoying some hiking, the scenery, the people, and the food. So last year – after years of saying “maybe next year” – we took some good friends up on their long-standing offer to come to France for a visit.

Our basic plan was to spend a few days with our friends in and around Paris, and then head someplace in the French Alps – or even Switzerland – to visit some of those little villages and do a lot of one of our favorite vacation activities – hiking. My husband had occasionally suggested over the years that I might like to ride some of the iconic mountains we see each year on the Tour, but I had always dismissed the idea out of hand; I didn’t like to climb. I have never been a willowy-mountain goat who enjoys grinding up the steeps. I like fast, flattish group rides with (maybe) some rolling hills, and for racing I love pancake-flat, 45 minute criteriums, the flatter and faster the better.

Early in the spring, however, I was on my Saturday group ride chatting about the upcoming trip with my friend Jean-Luc from Belgium, and he made the very same suggestion: that I ride one of the iconic Alpine climbs. And strangely, it suddenly sounded like an idea that I would actually consider. He had a lot of experience riding in the Alps, and he suggested that I look for a climb that was both picturesque and located in a region that would allow us to hike and enjoy the surroundings. It sounded better and better, and I returned home that day ready to find my mountain!