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When thinking about La Marmotte Alpes, the focus can lie on that summit finish. However, what happens in the hours before can make or break your ride. The first third of the ride, up and over the Glandon, pass in a whirl of excitement and adrenaline. No matter what you do, your resolve to pace yourself tends to vanish as you surf wheels in the peloton in the opening slightly downhill kilometres, and then you look to keep pace with your colleagues over the climb.
On reaching the summit of the Telegraphe, be sure to immediately think about recovery. Have something to eat, thus allowing your body digestion time on the all too brief (c.5km) plunge to Valloire. As you descend, ensure you DRINK DRINK DRINK! Dehydration can play a huge impact on your performance on a massive day on the bike such as this.
Now, the Galibier awaits you. First climbed in 1911, it is one of the most used climbs in the tour de France, and typically the high point of the race, as it stands at an awe-inspiring 2,556m.
The climb flows out of the small town of Valloire on a wide, open road set amongst grassy and relatively featureless plains, threateningly shadowed by huge peaks to your right. Initially the gradient is shallow, with the first 7km or so registering at anywhere between 3-6%, and no fearsome ramps or gradient changes. The battle here is predominantly mental; the Galibier is 16.7km long, and with so much climbing in the legs, and so much more to come it can blow your mind a little. The sense that you’ve done so much, yet still have so much more to do, is exacerbated by the environment. The road is largely straight for the first half of the climb, and with no endpoint in sight and your sense of progress totally diluted by the scale of the valley you ride through, it can feel like wading through mud.
Eventually, the rhythm shifts however; you reach the small collection of buildings and bridge at Plan Lachat at the road bends hard right (normally there’s water available here), the nerves escalate on spying this landmark, as, on following the road with your eyes, you’ll observe a knee trembling ramp cutting across the huge rocks that have been shadowing over you. Take advantage of the brief respite in gradient as you round the bend at Plan Lachat and prepare yourself for a sustained gradient of around 8% on the long ramp you just spotted.
You’re approaching 2,000m above sea level now and the environment suddenly feels hostile; the green plains of below give way to barren rocks, and the wind picks up. And what’s more, the geography of the area means that more often than not, this wind will be in your face. With about 5km to the summit, the road straightens, the gradient notches up to around 9%, and there seems to be no shelter from the headwind whatsoever, you seem to hardly be moving, but any move to put some more effort through the pedals can have you gasping for air – that damn altitude.
A couple of kms from the summit look out for Pantani’s monument, which is surprisingly easy to miss if you are gasping for air. As you reach the top, keep your wits about you and form a plan. You need to refuel at the feed station that will be awaiting you, you need to get some layers on for your descent, and ideally, you want to find a group to descend with – being in a bunch for the descent off the Lautaret is essential, as we’ll discuss shortly. Having an idea of what you’re doing at the summit in advance is key; even on a hot summers day, the altitude and wind means it could be chilly and you do not want to get cold with a long descent to come.
The 48km descent to Bourg d’Osian comes in three parts; approximately 9km to the Col du Col Lautaret, with the second very long part down to the valley and the last 5 km back to bourg. The Galibier section is fast and technical, with a few hairpins and a sharp drop off to one side. Thus, it’s good to ensure that you’ve eaten and drunk as you came over the summit so that your brain is active and you can fully concentrate.
Once you go through the Col du Lautaret you’ll realise why descending this with others will help you. The road is very straight, and not very steep, at around 4-6% all the way…. This is not a road you can just descend; it makes you work and pedal. If you’re lucky and are around other riders, do your best to get together with them and ride as a group. A well-matched bunch sharing out the workload can take these 35km at 40kph on a good day; and this will do you huge favours in both getting a good finishing time, and saving you some energy for that summit finish. However, if the group is too quick for you it’s best to let them go; pushing beyond yourself here could put you deep into the red, and it’s more than likely there will be another bunch close behind for you to latch on to.
Although the ride down the Lautaret is far from technical, with only a few hairpins just after Villar-d’Arene and a couple just before the valley floor, there are a series of long tunnels in the first few kilometres. These are poorly lit and poorly paved, and can prove hazardous. The organisers will have provided you with blinking front and rear lights, so make sure these are switched on. It’s likely you will have been wearing dark glasses to this point, and keeping these on down the tunnels will render you almost blind. The best way to mitigate this problem is to either take them off just before you enter the tunnels so as to give your eyes some time to adapt to the changing brightness, or, easier still, drop your glasses down your nose a touch and look over the top. This will enable you to see better, and so take the tunnels with more confidence. Only other potential hazard to mention is to be careful going through La Grave, as some of the locals who don’t really care about an amateur race, will still be going about their daily business of parking cars and trying to cross the road to get to the boulangerie.
Once you reach the valley bottom, it’s a 3 km time trial to the base of Alpe D’Huez. It’s worth grabbing a couple of bites at the feed stop, and Sports Tours will be on hand to pass you a bidon when you are on the bends. Other than that it’s over to you – Good luck. Hopefully our tips have helped you save enough so that your ascent isn’t too gruelling!
Written with input from Jim Cotton, 2017
Jim is a passionate and experienced cyclist who has ridden with us for various Haute Routes, the Etape du Tour, and La Marmotte. He keeps a blog of his musings and experiences on the bike here: https://mountainmutton.wordpress.com
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