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Marmotte report - Almost as long as the event itself...

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Joined: 22 Nov 2006
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Location: 62 West Wallaby Street, Wigan

PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2012 10:47 am    Post subject: Marmotte report - Almost as long as the event itself...  Reply with quote

Although our Marmotte experience had been a good one last year, Tim and I had decided that a few changes were needed. Most importantly, we wanted gold, rather than silver medals. On paper, Tim had the easiest task, as all he needed to do was replicate his time from the 30-39 category as a 40 year old. Old Father Time granted him a 40th birthday during the winter, so he was already half way there. My task was somewhat harder, needing to find 41 minutes of improvement. Despite acquiring a new bike for the campaign, there was still some serious hard work to be done over the winter. Although Mr Armstrong frequently strays from the path of veracity, he was on the mark when he opined that “it’s not (all) about the bike”.

There were other changes as well. Mrs SR had upgraded herself from DS (childcare) to rider and Mrs Tim had also upgraded from DS (childcare) to Domestic Superdomestique. Not only this, but Tim’s mate Nick had been talked into joining the party as a rider, with Mrs Nick slated to provide mobile feedstation services. To top everything, we had unilaterally declared ourselves to be a club, the West Wallaby Wheelers, which although unaffiliated to any recognised governing body, certainly had a jersey worth honouring.

Tim and I somehow got Mrs Tim to sign a disclaimer acknowledging that we would be talking complete and utter b*llocks for the entire trip. Mrs Tim glibbly observed that this would be no different to normal, but I think she had underestimated me in full “race mode”. I was confident that a few theories relating to VAM and cadence would have her reaching for the gin bottle – probably before we even made it onto the ferry - and if that failed, I could throw in a few comparisons between rowing and cycling training. Even Tim, a man with an unlimited enthusiasm for talking about cycling, begins to glaze over when I get going on why the resistance setting on a rowing machine doesn’t directly affect how fast you go. I was confident I held all the aces conversation-wise!

A confirmed casualty of these arrangements was Huw, our DS from last year. Cycling is a tough game, and great deeds one year do not guarantee selection the next. I hoped this would not prove to be a mistake, as amongst many stirring deeds last year, Huw had done all the bike loading and unloading whilst I massaged my back into shape or simply talked b*llocks to passing strangers. Mrs Tim and Mrs Nick had a lot to live up to.

Mrs SR and Nick shared objective on race day was the same as mine last year as a Marmotte virgin – get to Alpe D’Huez in one piece.
Tim had started the winter targeting the under 40s gold medal time (8:39), but with limited training in the Autumn and a 40th birthday in January, modified his objective to the more realistic over 40s gold medal time (9:15).

I wanted a gold medal and had fixated on achieving this with a zeal that had alarmed even me at times during the resulting efforts in winter training. I could never decide in training whether I wanted a gold medal more than beating Tim or vice-versa. I dealt with this conundrum by a cunning compromise – aim for both, and train even harder!

Tim would be starting half an hour later than me, so we’d only find out how our ongoing duel had played out when he passed me on the road or after he’d finished. Due to his tardy performance on registration in December his number was in the 6000s, whereas Mrs SR and I had bagged prime spots in the low 2000s.

Final preparations
As per last year’s plan, we drove the course on the Friday, practicing the descents. I’d had Stan’s disk brakes to save me from my downhill incompetence last year, but aboard the sleek and marvellously stylish “Oz”, I was now equipped with traditional deceleration devices, so I needed some practice on the hairpins to reduce the risk of killing myself to an acceptable degree. Unlike last year, the practice descents were uneventful. I took the descents in a leisurely fashion last year and was planning the same this year. Mrs SR has considerable “previous” in terms of gung-ho descending on skis, but is rather more circumspect on the bike and was also planning on leisurely descents. As we were both equipped with conventional Shimano brakes, this was no bad thing.

As Mrs SR took the step of marrying me, she is already familiar with the concept of unavoidable impending doom, so would be psychologically prepared should the worst come to the worst. If the worst came to the worst for me, my reactions are so slow that I doubt I’d get past the “F” of “F***ing hell, that’s a big rock” before I wiped out, so my demise would at least be quick and merciful.

DSs should be supervised at all times...
Not for the first time in my sportiving career, things took on a surreal air, this time on our return to the campsite. Mrs Tim and Mrs Nick appeared to have taken up arms against the predominantly Dutch and Belgian Marmotteers on site. They had bagged a strategic point on the site’s one way system and were throwing water bottles at passing Beneluxians. The DSs explained what was going on, and one could only be impressed. They’d identified a potential time-saving for the planned unofficial Glandon feedstation which they were to man. Rather than requiring us to stop to receive fresh bottles, they were planning on throwing them to us, so we could continue on our way without disrupting our rhythm.

It goes without saying that it would require pinpoint accuracy to pull off the trick. It also goes without saying that both Mrs Nick and Mrs Tim had struggled to find their “line and length” during the early stages of practice, and the site was littered with semi-concussed Dutchies and Belgies, who’d taken a blow to the head from an unexpected low-flying bottle. Despite the DSs possessing throwing arms to rival Fatima Whitbread and Tessa Sanderson, our consciences were clear. The Marmotte was the main event of the year and sacrifices were called for, even involuntary ones from people entirely unconnected to the West Wallaby Wheelers. Besides, they should have been wearing helmets.

A bad start to race day
Race day dawned bright and early. Well, not quite bright and rather too early, as I’d set the alarm for 5am instead of the agreed 5:30am. Domestiques have been sacked for less than this, but I got away with it. The extra time did give me more opportunity to persuade my back into race shape, which was considerably easier than last year, though still time-consuming. It would be nice to think this was because my back is getting better, but it is most likely due to the higher quality of bed in the Eurocamp caravan compared to the tent last year! Either way, it meant that there was no call for my Ralgex, to the relief of all concerned. I considered a small tactical usage all the same, to try and put Tim and Mrs SR off their breakfasts - anything to gain an edge! – but there were a few strange wind eddies in the campsite, and the risk of falling victim to my own Ralgex fumes was too great.

Final preparations
Unsurprisingly, given that we have precious little hair between us, Tim and I were in and out of “hair and makeup” faster than a fiddlers’ elbow. Despite more conventional hair arrangements, Mrs SR showed impressive speed as well, rather concerned that Tim and I might attempt to relieve the tension by starting to talk b*llocks again and get side-tracked with lengthy recounting of anecdotes from last year’s campaign when there was faffing to be done. From here it was straight into “wardrobe” where a little more time was invested, as one wants to look ones best for the cameras. Last year we rode “unattached”, but this year we would be looking to honour the jersey of the West Wallaby Wheelers on its first competitive foray to civilised foreign parts. The trip to Lancashire for the Peak 100 didn’t count, as whilst Lancashire is foreign, it’s obviously not civilised.

The style and panache of the Wallace and Gromit shirts were lost on the Dutchies and Belgies on site, but our chests still swelled with pride as we rode off. We were a team and if I may say so, a mighty fine looking one as well, notwithstanding Tim’s Raleigh.

As Mrs SR and I hit the smooth tarmac on the way to Bourg, realisation dawned that this was it, the main, if not only, purpose of a lot of training since September and a lot of custom for Evans Cycles! Excitement levels rose to barely controllable levels. We arrived in Bourg as the elite riders set off, and watching the “Grand Depart” ratcheted tension levels up a further notch. It all looked fairly chaotic, and working on the principal that the Glandon was not moving anywhere soon and would be there whenever we got there, we decided to set off at the back of our group, and ride at our own pace.

I took the opportunity to take part in one of the world’s largest al fresco p*ssing competitions. Alongside the start pen area is the river Romanche, and given the amount of caffeine (and maybe other, stronger potions) that must have been offloaded in its vicinity, one can only wonder at the size of the fish by the middle of the summer. I was disappointed to note that the water was still flowing green, despite the recent addition of beetroot juice to the array of “must have” pre-race potions for Weekend Warriors. I’d eschewed this option, preferring Brewdog Nanny State low alcohol beer the night before.

At last...
And then we were off! We gradually picked up pace in the queue before crossing the start line, looking for “big coggers” to lead us to the bottom of the Glandon. With Mrs SR tucked safely in, I worked us into sensibly paced group, and we were soon at the bottom of the lower barrage just outside Allemont having expended very little energy.

I lost Mrs SR as we ascended the barrage, her small but perfectly formed frame lost in a sea of massive Dutchies. The die was truly cast at this point. Having abandoned the mother of my children to 10+ hours of solo toil through the mountains, I really had to deliver the goods.

The Glandon
The plan was simple – ride at a heart rate no more than the low 150s until the top, collect supplies off Mrs Tim and Mrs Nick and then descend without killing myself. This is exactly what I did, both up and down. Passing several Dogmas uphill piloted by fully kitted out Skyboys and Skygirls was amusing. Passing two ambulances and a Bianchi wrapped round some rocks on the way down was not so amusing.

I hadn’t planned on riding to a schedule, but Tim had written his split times from last year on his crossbar and I couldn’t get them out of my mind, as I knew that hitting them would result in a gold medal! I was two minutes down on crossing the stream in the Defile de Maupas, bang on schedule at the top Glandon timing mats and three minutes up at the bottom Glandon timing mats. Most of the time savings came from extra speed, but a few came from a more robust approach to navigating the bikes abandoned on the road in the carnage that was the Glandon feedstation. I don’t think I broke anything. My bike was fine, which to be honest, was all I cared about!

The only dark spot on the horizon at this point was that my back was already starting to feel sore. It was too late to fit any lower gears, so I filled myself with Ibuprofen until I rattled and hoped for the best.

The Valley of Death
Tactics here were simple: Wheelsuck where possible and only do any work when it was necessary to pick up some fast moving wheels. I shamelessly jumped from the back of several groups to the back of better looking ones that were passing. I was on a mission and I didn’t care whose sensibilities I offended. I’ve spent hours riding into the wind on club runs and with Mrs SR, and I was confident the Cycling Gods would permit me this appalling breach of etiquette.

The highlight of the traverse of the Valley was dealing with the railway lines, where the group I was in at the time executed some neatly coordinated bunny hops! The lowlight was that my back was getting more painful.

The Telegraphe
I hit the bottom of the Telegraphe 7 minutes ahead of Tim’s schedule. I soon settled into a good rhythm, but a third of the way up, I had to stop to loosen my back. The Cycling Gods were sending mixed messages. Ahead of schedule time-wise, but behind schedule in terms of back functionality. What did they have in store for me? The Galibier and Alpe D’Huez, obviously, but in what shape would I be?

The time spent musing on such philosophical issues saw me to the top, still 5 minutes ahead of schedule.

The Galibier
I remember the lower slopes of the Galibier being easy last year. This year they were anything but easy, partly due to the legs starting to protest and partly due to further issues with my least favourite anatomical part. I was genuinely fearful of the final 8 km to the summit, as these are an unrelenting 8% and have spelt the end of many Marmotte campaigns. I’d given up counting Dogmas, as by this stage, the only ones I saw were hammering past me. I have to confess that a Dogma moving at speed is a fine looking steed indeed.

My back stretching routine was by now finely tuned, and I was losing only 60 seconds per “episode”. Just as well really, as I was stopping every 3 km or so by now. Given the amount of lumbar “man-flu” I was experiencing, I was surprised, and very pleased to be 10 minutes ahead of Tim’s schedule by this point, with the clock reporting 6:22. This left 2:52 to get down to Bourg and up the Alpe, a minute less than I’d managed last year. Game on!

The run to Bourg
Logic dictated a steady descent, so as not to blow the gold medal. However, at an altitude of 2,600m, there’s not enough oxygen for proper logic, so my plan was to descend like Sammy Sanchez, ascend like Berto and bag a sub 9 hour ride. Off the top of the Galibier, I encountered the only gravel on the entire course. There were 6 small pieces. The organisers do a brilliant job of sweeping the road the night before the race, it must be said. Surprisingly, given that I’ve always been a crap descender, I was soon leading a large group of large Dutchies down towards the tunnels. This was most surreal. Either they were taking the p*ss, or I was descending well. The absence of cars and a large stretch of resurfaced road were a big help, it must be said.

Reality hit as the corners got a bit technical, and I was soon demoted to the back of the group. I tucked in, avoided any trouble in the tunnels and soon found myself at the bottom of Alpe D’Huez. The clock said 7:32, leaving ~1:40 to bag the gold medal. Schedules were irrelevant by this stage though, as I was not entirely sure I’d be able to pedal hard enough to overcome the 12% pitches that lurk in the initial 3k of the climb.

Alpe D’Huez
I’d planned water stops and natural breaks to avoid having to stop at the bottom. I wanted to apply whatever momentum I had to the initial 3k of the climb. I got about 50 yards up the road before the tension returned to the pedals, which wasn’t much, but every bit counts!

This climb was hard. I was going well whilst I was moving, but was having to stop every 2k or so to loosen myself up. The only consolation was that no-one else seemed to be having a good time either. I had a brief “chat” with a guy from Derby Wheelers. He complained at the heat. I complained at the gradient. We both moaned in a general fashion. Then I had to stop and a promising friendship was at an end. What a contrast to the Glandon, where good spirits and banter abounded.

Once past the first 3k, fears of not finishing receded. If all else failed, I was going to dismount, remove my timing chip and run to the finish! Given how fast I was going, the gold medal was pretty much in the bag, even allowing for the frequent stops, but I didn’t want to ease off, as I wanted to set the stiffest target I could for Tim.

I passed the photographers who congregate three hairpins from the top at the end of the last steep pitch after which the gradient drops to around 5%. The pain in my back receded from “need to stop” to “just pedal and ignore it” and I headed into the lower part of Alpe D’Huez itself, passing the “1 km to go” sign. The watch said 8:54. I congratulated myself briefly as it’s no more than 4 minutes to the finish from here and on the last flat-spot before the finish had the presence of mind to zip up my jersey for the finish line photos! There was still a short climb to overcome, but this posed no difficulties and I was soon rolling down the gentle slope to the finish area, 8:57 after leaving the start. I rewarded myself with some fist-pumping and was pleased to avoid the speed-wobble that afflicted my finish line antics last year.

The finish

It took me a while to dismount and queue for my finishing certificate. I was slightly nervous at this point, as a timing chip failure or some new interpretation of medal standards could have scuppered me but finally the precious document was in my hands. It reads simply “Brevet D’Or” which I understand is French for “You’re too old for this sh*t. It’s downhill all the way now. Give it up.”

I located Mrs Tim and Mrs Nick by the finish line and was immediately offered a can of fatboy coke and an array of pastries to aid my recovery. My stomach was in knots, though, and I had to decline. In fact, I started to feel rather ill. When Tim rolled in, I’d already gone a strange shade of green, which I like to think was actually the “celeste blue” sported by the most elegant Bianchis.

Tim’s Garmin data confirmed that I had achieved my other objective, namely the administration of a severe pasting. We had a brief chat that for once was deep and meaningful and I was most touched when he formally handed over the role of “GC contender” for the Wheelers, a role that he had filled with both panache and elan (and some extravagant gurning) for the last three years. Unfortunately, he’d come home in 9:25, missing his gold medal by 10 minutes, having suffered horribly up the Alpe.

I really wanted to go off and lie down in dark room as I was feeling seriously unwell but Mrs SR was still on the road and I wanted to see her safely home. Instead, I lay down on the tarmac and was soon asleep. The next thing I knew was Tim gently kicking me to report that Mrs SR had been sighted and was rolling down towards the finish. I scrambled to my feet, and nearly fainted, as pumping blood to my head was obviously too much for my ticker at that point. Thus, as Mrs SR crossed the finish, I was slumped over the barriers, barely able to see anything. It’s tough combining competing and spectating at the Marmotte!

Nick arrived shortly afterwards and the Wheelers were safely re-united. Nick had missed a silver medal by just 27 seconds, which was a bit of a b*mmer, particularly as he had stopped to text Mrs Nick from the top of the Galibier and to take a few photos. Talk immediately turned to next year, at which point Tim and I confirmed our retirements. We talk industrial quantities of b*llocks most of the time and I’m not sure anyone really believed us!

It’s not over yet
There was still the matter of getting back to the campsite to address. Mrs SR blagged a space in Mrs Nick’s car. I was now green with envy as well as being green from not feeling well! I dropped in to see the club guys, most of whom were completely sh*tfaced by now. They insisted I return to the Saturday morning runs asap, as they are short of people who don’t complain at being sent to the front into the wind. Well, it’s nice to be appreciated!

Nick, Tim and me descended in formation. Or more accurately, Nick flew down like a laser-guided cement truck (he’s 6’ 4’’ and very broad), with Tim and me plodding along behind. On the run down the valley to the campsite I could barely keep up but eventually limped into the campsite, having cycled 202km in the day. The campsite pizzas were a disappointment, but I was too tired to care. Apparently I was asleep before the filament in the bedside light had properly dimmed after being switched off!

Revenge for Tim
The Marmotte trip was not just about cycling. We had tickets for the “Eat as much as you can buffet” on the ferry, and Tim and me had long since scheduled a “double or quits” session in this facility. Unlike cycling, where the aim is to dish it out with a large ladle, the aim here was to ladle it out into a large dish.

I was confident of success here as well, as eating has always been a strong point for me. Through starters, soup and curry, things looked good, as I matched Tim forkful for forkful. He started to edge ahead during the carvery and set about his syrup sponge with uncontrolled relish. I finished my sponge with all the enthusiasm of a sprinter tackling a HC climb, by which time Tim was already onto his second. I was appalled. Actually, I was seriously impressed. Either way, I was beaten as I didn’t sign on for another bowl of sponge and custard. In eating, as well as cycling, there are thoroughbreds and there are donkeys, and this time, it was me who was giving the metaphorical rides to kids on the beach.

The future...
I am now absolutely, definitely, officially retired from long distance sportives. I like pain from exercise more than most, but I prefer it to be from legs and lungs rather than from my lower back. My main memory of both Marmottes is of back pain, which seems to be disrespecting the opportunities for memories of pain from other parts of my anatomy. I also didn’t really enjoy the ride this year. Even when my back wasn’t hurting, I was solely concerned with heart rates and check-times, with success/satisfaction entirely dependent on the finishing time. This isn’t what cycling should be about. So that’s it. Mrs SR will be flying the Slowrower Marmotte flag from now on.

I shall be focusing on club runs and short sportives from now on. The great benefit of this is that if it’s cold and rainy I can just do 90 minutes on the turbo instead without fearing that I’ve b*ggered up my training. And I won’t need to worry about my weight. There’s also a chance of making my debut as DS in the Marmotte next year!
You don't like cheese? Not even Wensleydale?
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2012 11:40 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Chapeau! Brilliant report.
"I trust no-body, not even myself"
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Incroyable!  Both the Marmotte and the write-up!  Genuinely inspirational stuff - but at 38 should I now wait till I'm in the over 40s category?  It certainly sounds like it!

Seriously, with some explanation/editing that should be somewhere like The Guardian.
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Ully - Definitely wait until you're 40 as it gives you an extra 36 minutes to play with. It's easier to get old than it is to find 36 minutes on the road. Maybe do it next year as a practice...

Not sure the Guardian is quite ready for the West Wallaby Wheelers, but thanks all the same. Smile
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2012 1:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Great stuff SR and MrsSR, great write up and thoroughly well done.
"I'm playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order."
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2012 3:34 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

ullrichfan wrote:
Incroyable!  Both the Marmotte and the write-up!  Genuinely inspirational stuff - but at 38 should I now wait till I'm in the over 40s category?  It certainly sounds like it!

Seriously, with some explanation/editing that should be somewhere like The Guardian.

I would definitely do it next year with no expectations then go for a really good time when you turn 40. It's quite daunting first time out and I got really quite psyched out driving round the course the day before. It had it's plus side as it wasn't nearly as bad on the bike as it looked in the car but it is a bit irritating now. Or just go for it big time next year!!

I've already decided that what I need for next year is a domestique.  Wink
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2012 10:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Big congratulations and pass it on to the rest of the club at the next AGM. Epic stuff and I don't think I could ever be as dedicated to do the required training. Slightly confused about the time though - the gold medal cut-off was 8:39, but the target later on was to get below 9:00 scratch

Were you in a batch that was allowed off at the 20 min marker?

PS: On the Team Sky fans, I was struck on Sunday by the number of English on the Col de la Croix. They have replaced the Americans of 10 years ago.
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2012 10:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Bio - For simplicity, the medal times I've given are from last year, which includes the descent of the Glandon. This year, the medals were actually given out on times excluding the Glandon descent. The medal target has thus been reduced by 36 minutes.

I think I got down in 32 minutes, so I actually needed a 9:11 overall to hit the 8:39 standard. I didn't want anyone to think I'd been doping after posting a finishing time of 8:25, which is what my official time actually is!
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 3:36 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Great job SR!
Do, or do not. There is no try.
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 12:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

A very high quality story.  Well written, personal, and yet with a touch of the eternal about it.  I have sent it to my personal list, but it should get wider attention than just our list.  Sadly I can give you no help on how to do that.  But send it to some mag or other.  I feel privileged to read it.

Thank you.

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