If I go to Hell, as I probably will, my personal purgatory will be climbing the Col du Galibier, being overtaken by grizzled old French sportive specialists.
“Give me the eternal hellfire please, Satan,” I’ll plead. “Anything but the Galibier.” And he’ll rightly laugh in my face.
Welcome to the Marmotte. Apart from the occasional epic Etape du Tour, this is probably the hardest one-day sportive in Europe. For cyclists, the Col du Glandon, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier and the climb to L’Alpe d’Huez are the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. This quartet of mountains total 62 kilometres of climbing, with a vertical gain of around 4,500 metres. The Glandon is 25km long, albeit with seven kilometres of flat or downhill. The Galibier is 18km of solid climbing.
It is, in short, the cycling equivalent of being beaten around the head with a compact chainset similar to the one I fitted to my bike in order to give myself at least a chance of survival. Really, I was an idiot to enter it. And even more of one to actually turn up.
I, and over 7,000 other participants, lined up in Bourg d’Oisans on Saturday morning. It was eight o’clock and very chilly, but clear blue skies hinted that the temperatures would soon be rising as steeply as the road in front of us.
I didn’t enter the Marmotte blind. I’d ridden all of the climbs before, albeit never on the same day. And I’ve done enough sportives to know how to pace myself, more or less. The knowledge I had accumulated from these experiences could basically be boiled down into four simple rules:
1) Don’t hare down the first valley to the foot of the Glandon. You’ll need the energy later.
2) Go easy on the Glandon. You’ll need the energy later.
3) Don’t ride hard in the valley between the Glandon and the Télégraphe. You’ll need the energy later.
4) Don’t ride hard down the Col du Lautaret and valley to the foot of L’Alpe d’Huez. You will, inevitably, need the energy later.
And here is what I did:
1) Hared down the first valley to the foot of the Glandon.
2) Went hard up the Glandon.
3) Rode hard in the valley between the Glandon and the Télégraphe.
4) Rode hard down the Col du Lautaret and valley to the foot of L’Alpe d’Huez.
But it was the bits in between that got me.
The 35kph dash to the foot of the Glandon wasn’t too taxing. I weaselled out of actually doing any work on the front, which in any case was already half a mile down the road, and sat in a protective bubble of fast-moving cyclists.
The climb up the Glandon, however, was a different story. The official stats list the average gradient of this climb as 4.8 per cent. However, take out the downhill and flat, and the average pushes above seven per cent.
In this respect, riding up mountains is a bit like drinking beer. Just as I learned the hard way not to mess with beers of seven per cent alcohol, climbs of seven per cent gradient are potential hazards. Both make my legs feel like they are about to buckle.
I rode up the Glandon way too hard. I passed a lot of riders through the lower wooded section, then held my pace up the steep climb to the dam. Riders who’d started in the next wave were starting to pass me, including an acquaintance who is a lot fitter and stronger than me, up the final exposed stretch to the summit.
I got on his wheel and followed him to the top.
The descent was fun. Narrow, twisty and steep. I used to dread descending, but I’ve learned to relax going downhill. I passed a fair few riders who were going downhill like I used to.
“You’re all tense,” I didn’t have time to say as I whizzed past.
My plan for the valley road up to the base of the Télégraphe was as follows: eat, and don’t allow any wind to hit my face. It was the one success of the day – I sat in the wheels, stuffing my face with a Go Bar, a ham and cheese sandwich, one energy gel, a Grany muesli bar and a banana. In retrospect, it was probably too much, but my critical faculties had more or less stopped functioning by this point. This also meant I didn’t really notice that we were actually riding quite fast.
And then it all fell apart, far earlier than planned.
As soon as I hit the Télégraphe, I was in trouble. The same legs that helped me fly up the Glandon were suddenly turning as if through treacle. My backstabbing, turncoat legs had betrayed me. I crawled up in my lowest gear, and even the occasional glimpses of the spectacular view down the valley couldn’t lift my spirits. To make things worse – and if you are squeamish you should look away now – I started retching every time I tried to eat.
With the Galibier following almost immediately after the Télégraphe, I was a little concerned. At the feed station in Valloire, I worked my way along the table, grabbing oranges, tomatoes and salami, and stuffing them all into my mouth together. And once I got to the end, I went back and did it again.
The Galibier. There are four sections to this climb. The first, my least favourite, hugs the side of a steep-sided valley. I stopped looking up after a while. It was too depressing to see the road heading upwards for a full kilometre to the next bend, after which the same sight repeated itself. My speed here – slow.
Section two – the hairpin section up from the right hand bend at Plan Lachat. Horrible. I emerged onto the false plateau near the top. One hundred or more riders must have passed me as I inched my way up this third part of the climb. Old guys, young guys, big guys and small guys. We were all suffering, but I seemed to be suffering while riding at half the speed of everybody else. I felt like I was there for hours. And I can barely remember the final hairpins to the Col itself, only that my body was by now extremely angry with me.
Unable to speak, I held out a bidon at the feed station at the top which was still a third full of energy drink. The helpful man topped it up with hot tea. The resulting combination was probably the most disgusting-tasting thing I have ever put into my mouth. I still drank it, though. I deserved it.
I felt better on the descent of the Galibier and Lautaret. It might have been the revolting tea/energy drink combination, or it might simply have been gravity. Either way, my energy burst took me to the bottom of Alpe d’Huez, whereupon it disappeared.
My climb of the Alpe was what you’d expect. Hot? Check. Humid? Check. Hurty legs? Check. Sore backside? Misery? Check and check.
I also had the misfortune to be riding up at almost exactly the same speed as an orange-clad Dutchman with an ostentatiously creaky pedal. Like a squeaky bed in the upstairs neighbours’ flat, this beat out a rhythmical backdrop to my ascent of the Alpe. It was very irritating indeed.
In all the best horror movies, the really frightening things happen off screen, because good directors know that there is no match for the human imagination. I’ll draw a discreet veil over the final 75 minutes of my ride, and allow you to construct your own version of the horrors I experienced. If my ride up the Alpe was a movie, it was shot in extremely slow motion.
And then, just over eight and a half hours after I started, I crossed the line at Alpe d’Huez. Too tired to even feel relieved, I sat on the floor and vowed never to do it again.
Col du Glandon
Height gain: 1,152m
Average gradient: 4.8%
Col du Télégraphe
Height gain: 856m
Average gradient: 7.3%
Col du Galibier
Height gain: 1,245m
Average gradient: 6.9%
Height gain: 1,091m
Average gradient: 7.7%
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