It's now mid-September, and for the first time I feel able to speak about something that happened to me on the first weekend in July.
Any sport, including cycling, is about having fun at the same time as staying fit. This is why a continental sportif with sunshine and good food beats cycling around wasteland in Milton Keynes / Hillingdon / Eastway in the wind and rain. Having enjoyed the likes of Flanders previously, I felt compelled to do something similar this year, eg. the Etape, Tour of Picardie etc.
I have a detailed knowledge of the various back therapies that Colin McDonnell (aka Baz le Spaz) has undergone over the past year since he entered Les Marmottes sportif, and I was surprised to find that he was keen to repeat the experience again this year. Had I spent a few hours walking up Alpe D'Huez in tears, I wouldn't be going back for more.
But as the Saturday boys are notorious for bluffing when it comes to entering events, and as I figured Baz wasn't bluffing, I thought I'd show an interest in doing it too. This was around Christmas, roughly the same time as my sleepless nights began. If I was planning on enjoying my sporting life, how did spending a day grinding up Alpine mountains achieve that? What about the training in the rain to get ready for it? What about the months of physio to recover from it?
So yes, on the face of it, the all-day pain-fest known as 'Les Marmottes' was a very silly idea, but as it was the only idea on the table, I went for it. It's organised by Sport Communications (www.sportcommunication.com) and is a sort of an Etape du Tour for the cognoscenti. Four 'hors categorie' climbs (Col de la Croix de Fer or Glandon, Telegraph, Galibier, Alpe D'Huez) are strung together for a one day ride.
To lend a team spirit feel to the whole occasion, Nick 'All Talk No Walk' Walker arranged for a team kit to be produced. If our legs couldn't do the talking, at least we could go backwards in style. Rumours of the team kit being some sort of tax dodge and of Nick exploiting his chums by making a huge profit turned out to be false. I feel sorry for people who can't believe in cycling. It was an altruistic endeavour meant for the good of our community, creating a team feel.
All the wise guys (JD, Baz) kept the general flow of bad vibes flowing - 'every gram of fat is going to cost you ten minutes'. Hmmm. they scared me into doing some homework for the event. I cycled to Sheffield and back, to Southampton and Devon, 750 miles across Spain, in and out of London more times than I care to remember, and eased up on alcohol consumption for a month. Worryingly, there were rumours of JD training at 350 miles per week, and Nick Walker going down to a 36 double-d. Other participants had been spotted secretly training over Col de Ivinghoe Beacon.
There were ten volunteers in the end,
|Colin "Baz the Spaz" McDonnell - initiator of the seemingly stupid idea of doing the Marmottes, and frankly deserves all the pain he gets (not just the race, but also what we do to him afterwards). If you can't whinge after climbing four cols when can you whinge? Predicted outcome - last but not least.|
|Jon 'Jaded' Downing (JD) - a strong contender, a friend of pain, intimate with the Galibier and shows no fear in the face of the awesome ascents. He's not down til he's out. He'll be providing plenty of advice the night before, and plenty of 'I told you so's' the night after. Hard to predict - probably will use his racing nouse to be up there.|
|Nick Walker - provider of all the necessary gear for the event, and much of the cheer. It's not the taking part that counts, it's the coming last. He'll be singing songs about ",coming round the mountain", and trying to do the hand actions while riding his bike..... that's what we call focussed. Predicted outcome? Well, his weight's dropped off, he's got Cosmic wheels.... - that'll be last then.|
|Gav Atkins - there are rumours of training and other suspicious activities. Worse still, he's threatening to wear white Assos shorts that could be very rude when sweaty. Likely outcome - infront of Steve and Nick. By a couple of cols.|
|Phil 'Pip' Adkins - no relation to Gav, despite any recent evidence of his performance, could surprise us in the bantom weight category. He'll big it up, but can he cut the mullet? Predicted outcome - behind whatever he predicts.|
|Steve 'Earl Grey' White - Say no more. No more. Some athletes build their training programme to make sure that they peak on a particular day of a major event. The Earl intends to peak at a particular hour of the Marmottes. That'll be about 8pm in the boozer. But it will all be over by about 9pm. Predicted outcome - in the break with Nick Walker, shouting 'waiiiit' (or should that be 'weight'?).|
|Darren "carbon king" Powell - don't be distracted by the fake sun tan - there's real deffo in those legs, backed up by a cardio vascular system that will go up the Galibier in top gear. What his rhythm lacks on the dance floor it makes up for on the climbs. Lets see if "Mum" deodorant can survive the challenge.|
|Rich Boley - another bantom weight contender, weighing less than one of Nick Walker's calf muscles. Likely to go off the front before he's even got to the start line, risk of blowing to bits before the first climb. Likely outcome? DNF...|
|Lee "the inflator" Thomas - likely to be fixing punctures all around the Marmottes, including some of his own. Outside chance of complaining about people not waiting for him when he gets to the finish (yes you're right Lee, but we had flights to catch on Sunday evening). ",It's not about the goats",, Lee.|
|Col de la Peerman - Col by name, col by nature, the king of bling has the 'all clear' from his medical team, and is a bit of a wildcard. Maybe natural talent can overcome lack of training opportunities?|
Driving out after work on the Wednesday beforehand and I got my first omen: Gav was duding it up to some electro dance music (prepping us for the inevitable French europop) and had got bored of being stuck in traffic so he drove down a right turn only, lane and tried to cut in at the last moment. At the end of the right turn only, lane was a cop car looking out for people dumb enough to queue jump infront of policemen. Gav wound his window down and politely enquired is there something wrong officer?, explaining that we didn't know where we were and had made an honest mistake. The policeman pointed out that we had satellite navigation with a route map on it. 200,000 policeman in London and Gav had to find the one with a sense of humour, we continued on our way.
Gav and Col's dance music gave me a great nights kip, and I woke on Thursday morning in Bourg D'Oisons ready to go up the Alpe. Rendezvousing with Nick and Darren, a quick breakfast and then off for a reconnaissance ride up the Galibier. Gav and I did through and off all the way up the Lauteret (read: Gav went through, I went off his back wheel). While chilling in a café, I noted there was sufficient sweat on Gav's handlebars to give a constant drip drip drip onto the floor.
I actually found the ride up and especially down the Galibier Ok - if Les Marmottes was just a case of doing this a couple of times over then no problemissimo - what's the fuss, Guss? Just get on the bus!
No Lance, it's not about the bike - it's about good food and wine, and Thursday night proved my point! I paid for my Thursday night on Friday doing a reconnaissance ride up the Alpe, where I set a time almost exactly identical to one of Armstrong's team mates (Sheryl Snail), just inside of an hour and a half. I propose an alternative Tour de France where drug testing is compulsory every day, and anybody found without a Chateaubriand, two bottles of Margaux and half a kilo of camembert in their blood is disqualified.
So the fun part's over: we'd had a couple of days of watching the tour in café's and fooling around in restaurants. Now it's 4.30am UK time and my mobile is making a very annoying noise! It's dark and cold outside!
Dried pasta. Rice pudding. Toast. Muesli. Orange juice. Peppermint oil. Asparins. Asthma inhalers. Nurofen. Stuffed to the gills. Had it snowed overnight? Couldn't see since we were above the cloud line. Why was nobody saying anything? Bin-liners on over our torsos &ndash, this turned out to be an excellent disposable wind-proofing technology recommended by our chalet hosts, and it's off to the races.
Descending down the Alpe in the clouds at night time at full tilt was definitely one of the highlights (possibly the only one!). Gav and Pip were givin it some' so I took a back seat to watch the carnage from behind. In Bourg D'Oison (the start village) there was a pre-race atmosphere, part carnival excitement (the spectators), part pre-exam nerves (the rest of us).
The ride started predictably - full tilt along the valley floor. Gav and I tucked into the slipstream of a passing ambulance and made sufficient progress so that we could see the pace car at the front of the race. There were a few celebrity b-list pro's up there - Phonak, Gerolsteiner and some other lesser known muppets. Then the Col du Glandon (the regular route up the Col de la Croix de Fer had roadworks on it), and I thought I'd just hold Gav's wheel until I blew, and then trundle round in my own sweet time.
Quelle surprise! A jovial shout from behind and Nick Walker came flying up to us. Not so 'quelle surprise' to find that he'd jumped the start gate so that he could go with the first group. I figured if Nick and Gav were going to start duking it out I&rsquo,d leave them to it, so I strategically crumbled away, already running at ten tenths. Then JD sauntered past me, jovially saying that he was just there to make up the numbers, playing it by ear, he was just in it for the atmosphere, it's not a race, and all the usual stuff JD says when he's going all out for it. Then Col, then Baz came past - sacré, vache - I must be in for a bad run! I was going to be last by a country mile. Anyway I just kept on plodding up the Glandon.
The Glandon / Croix de Fer is the most strikingly beautiful climb of the day, rustic Alpine pastureland at it's most natural, lacking the concrete creativity of Alpe D'Huez et al. , But the Col needs a lot of improvements - up one side, then descending over the river and up the other side, then back again, up down, up down, don't know if I'm coming or going. As it turns out, I was going. Going going gone. The brake cables protruding from my Shimano leavers - what's that all about - looks like the tendrils you'd expect to see on a lobster. I must be mad, me, riding a lobster up a mountain. At least it's not pink (urggggh!) - everybody else is riding black lobsters too - carbon is king. 90% of the bikes are carbon - metal is out. Carbon has the same sort of surface as a mackerel. Why am I riding half mackerel half lobster and why can't it do some of the pedalling too: it always falls to me to pedal my black lobster.
Blood on the Glandon
The French reputation for being like hedghogs (prickly to deal with and dying in large numbers all over the roads) proved true as I came over the first summit, where some garcon d'glory dirtied my bike with his red stuff. Having gone past four or five accidents, I noticed this was slowing other people down - and putting my tactical head on, I overruled the emotional side of my mind (saying'slow down it's dangerous') and used the opportunity to get past as many people as possible on the huge decent.
Les Marmottes goes like this: fast on the flat for 20k, up a huge hill, down again at breakneck speed, repeat four times.
At the top of the Telegraphe (hill number 2), Nick Walker lived up to his surname. He asked 'did I hear the detonation? The explosion?' (what explosion?) ,when I blew on the telegraph, explosion? Frog fart phhht. He asked how I was doing - I thought a bit of cycling psychology would help 'just starting to warm up dear boy' I replied. Apparently only JD and Gav were ahead, so I must have got by Baz and Col at some point. 'Poussez moi, poussez moi' not likely - au revoir!!
I actually started to feel a bit better, and was overtaking people on the ascent of the Galibier. But in the last 7k of the climb, the altitude was taking it's toll, and all I could do was to try and keep the crank rotating. It would have been quicker to walk. What was the point in doing this? A few Dutch campers at the side of the road were parked up in anticipation of the Tour a few days later, and made encouraging comments (not for the HHCC web site alas). I hate Baz - why couldn't we have done something less insane? A feed at the top of the Galibier was a welcome break, albeit a very cold one. Re-stocked my water bottles, stuffed my mouth full of an orange and some prunes, and expressed my inner sentiments by relieving myself on top of one of France's national treasures.
Then comes the decent - flat out all the way into Bourg D'Oisans, mostly downhill, doing thru and off with a couple of Swiss nutters (must be Swiss - they were wearing Assos). Overtaking lorries on blind bends, hoonying through tunnels - a decade of bicycle-commuting around London was really paying off.
And then just one little climb up Alpe D'Huez and I'm home - Pantani did it in half an hour - maybe I should phone JD and Gav and tell them to put the kettle on? Not so fast, son. Backache from the Galibier was excruciating. The day was starting to warm up. Surely everybody was already ahead of me - they must have come past me on the Galibier when I was dreaming about desert islands, rostbif, English rain, first childhood memories - the usual stuff that happens when you pass away. Why couldn't I get past this guy in front of me who not only had the worst body odour on record, but had also ripped his shorts in half so that anybody behind him got a face full of his buttocks opening and closing with each turn of the pedals? The wheels on the bike go round and round, round and round, round and round. Why did the halfway church take so long to arrive - why had somebody put a sign over the graveyard saying 'complet'? The hubs on the bike go round and round, round and round. How about I sell my bike on eBay- no reserve, first come first serve. The spokes in the wheels go round and round, round and. Oh for the next hairpin bend - at least the bends are flat. I'll never be nasty to anybody again ever. Alpe D'Huez? Scalpe d'Huez more like. The pedals on the bike go round and round, round and round, round and round. And I knew from yesterday that the higher slopes would give me a good dose of headwind. The cranks on the bike go round and round, And I'd have to go right past the entrance to our chalet to get up to the finish line. The cogs and the chain go round and round, round and round. Then you get the feeling that the pace is starting to pick up, and you can go with it because it's only another k or so to go - the legs from my hips pump up and down, up and down, do my shirt up for the finish line picture, practice smiling well in advance: the whole Marmottes thing is one big practical joke - everybody who does it pretends it's fun just so that they can snigger at others who do it subsequently. Once you're in on the joke, you've been through so much grief that nobody dares tell anybody else the grim reality - nobody dare break the chain.
I wobbled around the finish line area for a while - my cleats were a bit tipsy. I had just spent several hours imagining the 'free meal' of tip top charcuterie, epicerie, patisserie, much like a Versailles banquet but that's what 120miles and 5000m of vertical climb do to you. Infact it was just a load of GRIM STODGY PASTA!!!
Kicking my bike back into the bike room at the chalet, I figured everybody else must be at a bar, since there were only a couple of bikes there. I hadn't seen anybody apart from Nick since the Glandon. The staircase was impossibly steep. I found Gav crawling around in his bedroom and he said that I was only ten minutes or so after him. so perhaps I'd done Ok 0 most of the others were still out on the course.
Ahhhhhh, the uncomplicated bliss of the toilet - I can't believe there's still a passageway through my body after all it's been through. Bed. Don't give me food, give me bed. No I don't want a shower I want to lie down on my back and feel the flat and stationary floor. I don't want a massage: my back hurts too much and my legs hate me. Ten euros for handing in my transponder? No deal. Ten euros for my bike - now we're talking. You can have both my bikes and everything that goes with them.
The scores on the doors bare an uncanny resemblance to the Thursday night 10m TT.
|614||John Dowling||07 h 57 mn 00 ss|
|688||Colin Peerman||08 h 02 mn 07 ss|
|1030||Gavin Atkins||08 h 22 mn 21 ss|
|1466||Steve White||08 h 43 mn 24 ss|
|1775||Colin McDonnell||08 h 59 mn 47|
|2013||Richard Boley||09 h 11 mn 26 ss|
|2691||Nick Walker||09 h 44 mn 01 ss|
|3309||Darren Powell||10 h 16 mn 11 ss|
|4146||Lee Thomas||11 h 16 mn 36|
So it turns out that Darren had a broken bottom bracket, and spent a couple of unsuccessful hours trying to find a mechanic to help him out, he should be able to look back and laugh on the whole affair. In about twenty years time. Allegations of sabotage (mysteriously both Phil and Gav needed to replace bottom brackets), were met with counter allegations of performance enhancing peppermint oil and other stimulants.
Rather than gasping for breath, Rich was quite happily talking to Phil while he danced his way up the Alpe. Phil got so furious with having to listen to Rich ('core this is a tricky one in it Phil, whadderyerreckon? I reckon the Alpe is worse than Northridge Way') that he decided to get off his bike and chuck it full on in Rich's face. But total fatigue got the better of him and instead he climbed off and sat down for a while, until he was safely out of ear shot of Rich.
Nick got home in once piece after much huffing and puffing, denying allegations that he should get the Paule Radcliffe award.
Baz, who had previously said that he'd be surprised if any of us got round in less than 9 hours, got around in less than 9 hours.
Lee wooden spooned his way into town while the rest of us were having a burger in the main street. His 'speed wobble' problems had worsened drastically -, previously his speed wobble was most apparent at over 30mph, but it now appeared to be kicking it at 2mph.
Gav and Colin got around in respectable times, leaving JD as the only person to limbo-dance under the 8hour barrier. Good job it wasn't a race then JD?