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Conquering the mighty Croix de Fer
Posted on 14 July 2015
in Stories

La Marmotte on a Brompton

La Marmotte on a Brompton

by John Simpson, Lanterne rouge de La Marmotte 2015 

A few words of personal introduction: I’m a 48-year old non-athlete – riding my Brompton in the countryside at weekends, when the weather is good, is the only conscious exercise that I do – who got into mountain-pass cycling by accident: in 2008 my ex-wife had to spend some time at a high-altitude health spa prior to a big surgical operation. She needed to quickly get her lungs into better shape having spent her entire adulthood as a heavy smoker (like me until the end of that year). So we booked a fortnight at the Pyrenean resort of Ax-les-Thermes. 

While she was doing her breathing exercises at the spa, I rode up and down the main valley road on my Brompton. That soon became pretty boring, but the idea of riding up one of the mountain passes seemed unfeasible. Two days before the end of our stay however, the boredom became too much and so I took the train south, underneath the Col du Puymorens (1920m) that overlooks Ax-les-Thermes, and set myself the challenge of cycling back. It turned out that the ride was demanding but not too tough – I couldn’t have chosen a better first climb. And on 40cm wheels, the 27 km descent was 30-odd minutes of pure adrenaline. 

From that very casual beginning, I’ve become hooked on at least two-weeks of mountain cycling each year: the views are magnificent, I get a massive buzz from the fast descents and I love that feeling of supreme good health one gets on returning to sea-level having exercised vigorously at altitude. 

So why did I enter the Marmotte? The main reason, aside from the pleasure that I get from cycling in the Alps, is that I wanted to expose as baloney the all those reports one sees that give the impression that cycling in the Alps and the Pyrenees is reserved solely for keen cyclists who have a lightweight bike. 

In terms of endurance, the Marmotte is very similar to the Confrérie des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux challenge (all three routes to the summit of Ventoux on the same day). I did that last June and only just made it: these kinds of effort take around 8000 calories, and it’s impossible to digest that amount during a day of high activity. 

The route

For that reason, once I’d registered, I spent a lot of time looking into nutrition: I learnt that I would need to carb-load, train my body to get used to drawing on its reserves,  buy a stock of high-energy snacks and remember to drink – not just to make up for perspiration, but also to help digest the snacks. 

I started training in June. I know this will seem barely credible but it’s true. I just wanted to divest myself of the odd kilo of surplus weight and get my body accustomed to drawing on its reserves. 

I’m lucky to be dividing my time between Preston (near the Bowland Fells) and Montpellier (near the Cevennes). In both cases, the roads are all up-and-down. 

For all my rides I went out on an empty stomach, carrying just water. The first week I did two 70km rides; the next week a 70 and a 110; and the third week the same again. 

Race day. In my bag, as well as carbohydrate & electrolyte powder to add to my water and a whole load of snacks and gels, I took along my Confrérie des Cinglés card and a bunch of photos from the tops of Tourmalet, Aubisque, Madeleine etc: I thought there was a risk that the organisers would stop me at the start-line thinking I was a lunatic, in which case I hoped the photos and card would serve as credentials.
Slipping into the pack at the start line and speeding down the road nobody made me feel unwelcome, indeed the absolute contrary – lots of smiles and thumbs up, even the odd ‘Respect’. And of course a few riders nudged one another with a meaningful look as they went past, presumably something along the lines of “Did you see that”…

A quick pre ride photo before we set off

Approaching the Col du Glandon, the general pace slowed down quite a bit, and I had the first of many conversations with fellow riders. All were surprised to learn that I wasn’t really at much a disadvantage – only about 5kg of extra weight plus a bit more tyre-friction and wind resistance, and that the gearing was indeed adapted to the terrain (I had had the chain-ring switched from a 50 tooth to a 44 specifically for the event). 
Coming down from Col du Mollard disaster struck: my chain tensioner came apart. (I should add in mitigation for Brompton that it will have done about 7000-8000km.) I walked back up and found the half that had come off, but I couldn’t find the bolt that was supposed to hold it together. Surprisingly, once I had put the chain back on I was able to keep pedalling, but only on the small sprocket; I couldn’t use the big. With that out of action I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish: after a long ride, the first 2km of Alpe de Huez can be tough. It was a matter of getting down there and seeing. 

As it turned out, the first 2km were a grind, but OK. I got into the resort at about 11.20. Lots of cheers and applause – some presumably ironic – from people on the bar and restaurant terraces. The finish line came at 11.28.

The guy in charge of the timings was closing up his equipment van. I asked that my time be officially registered. No problem. And then he invited me for a glass of coke. It turned out he was leading me over to the place where his colleagues were having a late dinner. As we walked in, he said in a loud voice "He just arrived', and pointing to my bike, 'on this". They all burst out in applause, about 50-60 people, big smiles. And then a lady who I think was the lead organiser came over and said that I merited a medal. Two minutes later she came back with a big gold gong, normally reserved for the fastest. "You are crazeee", she said.  I replied that I prefer ‘excentrique’... 

They kindly invited me to take dinner with them, but I couldn’t stay as I had to get back to my hotel. 

I came in 4679th, the Lanterne rouge, with a time of 14h34. Of course I’m happy that I finished, but the time was way over target. My guess is that the chain tensioner failure cost me around two to two and half hours (time lost because of the slipping chain, time spent trying to fix it at a village sports-shop and on the road, plus the loss of pace from having to grind my way uphill on the small sprocket rather than spin on the big).

So how come I finished and another 2000+ didn’t ? I think there are two main reasons. First, I’d already ridden the individual climbs before and had done the Cinglés challenge. So I had confidence. Second, and possibly the most important thing that day, I paid a lot of attention to hydration. I had my drink bottle on my handlebar stem right under my eyes and made sure to fill both it and the spare at every opportunity. I needed to: over the course of the ride, even though I must have drunk over 10 litres, nature called only once, and that was around midday.

In case you’re wondering what was left in my bag at the end of the day, the answer is ‘Almost everything’. Because of the lavishness of the food-stations, I ate only two of my fruit bars and left my gels and my other snacks untouched. I did though use of all the powder that I’d brought to add to my water. 

I enjoyed the event even more than I had expected. Bromptoneers are clearly very welcome. Schedule permitting I’ll be back next year. 

Nothing better than that feeling at the top