Full of new year resolve, and maybe one or two beers, two Wheelers had plucked up the courage to enter the Marmotte Granfondo, which cheerfully bills itself as one of Europe’s hardest sportives. Now, it was early July and the event was nearly upon us. We’d trained: two expeditions to Scotland to do the Bealach na Bà – once with panniers – and multiple trips to north Wales to do hill reps on the Llanberis and Nant Gwynant passes (though a rather bizarre consequence of this was that we began to measure all ascents in multiples of those familiar rides). However, as the whole of northern Europe melted in a June heatwave we began to wonder: can we ride uphill for 12 hours in 34 degree heat? Buried in amongst the terrifying facts about distance and ascent in the “five days to go” email was a tiny glimmer of hope: information for participants on the two-day “randonnée” event. What? A chance to do it in two days not ten hours? Why had we not known about this before?! Spotting a chance to complete the course alive and without the help of the broom wagon, a deal was brokered on the way down: if they’d let us swap, we would. And so we found ourselves at registration asking in our best French if we could change. The organisers didn’t bat an eyelid, the internet offered up a bargain hotel, and ten minutes later we were fully equipped with new numbers, event goody bags, and copious information about start times and bags transport. With a new target of making it to the mid-way stop at Valloire in time for the England game we went back to the campsite and joyfully relayed our success to the couple on the neighbouring pitch, who looked a bit green on hearing about the two day option for the first time about an hour after registering for the one-day event.
Our fellow “randonneurs” were a mixed group: stick thin teenagers not old enough for the main event, chirpy club riders, people who apparently didn’t want to risk their Pinarello F10 in the 8000-cyclist melée of day 2, and others, like us, who had discovered the opportunity to enjoy the ride rather than suffer it. Bags loaded, we rolled inauspiciously out of Bourg d’Oisans (altitude: 720m) and straight up the Col du Glandon (aka two Bealach Na Bàs). It was cool and shady under the trees, which was a good job as the Garmins consistently reminded us of the 11% gradient, and when a spell of 6% felt like a flat, we began to feel we were acclimatising to the mountains. A series of sharp downhill hairpins both acquainted us with the realities of Alpine descending and explained why this climb averages out at 6%: all too soon after, we were back in bottom gear and continuing in full sun up to the Eau d’Olle.
More hairpins, up this time, and then the Route des Grands Cols took us onwards and upwards through Alpine pastures for another hour. The cowbells chimed, Gareth nearly got taken out by a photographer and the Croix de Fer appeared on the right: but we went left for water, food, and a photo at the top of our first col, the Glandon (1924m).
The descent off the top was steep and winding and is not timed in the main event: signs shouted at us in three languages to take it easy and we still passed a couple of cyclists surveying their exploded tyres. Half an hour later we reached the bottom and then a long, boring 10 mile slog along what looked and felt like a motorway to St Jean de Maurienne. Here we encountered a group of three cheery Brazilians who we’d meet several times on the way round, and after a quick coke in a cafe we set off up the Télégraphe (four Nant Gwynants). Despite being in the trees, there was somehow no shade, and we joined an ever-growing group of cyclists wobbling up the never-ending hairpins, occasionally lurching into a layby for a rest. “Two little kilometers” said one of the Brazilians to his fading friend near the top, reminding us that there was less than an hour to go til kick-off. Another col picture at the top of the Télégraphe (1566m) and a more confident descent pitched us into Valloire half an hour later, where we discovered the hotel was not only right next to tomorrow’s start line but was also showing the football.
It was coffee, croissants and 17 km of climb up the Galibier for breakfast on day 2. Unlike the previous day, it was hot and sunny from the off. The first part of the climb was innocuous enough, up through a valley road which appeared to lead gently off to the left. We were joined by pannier-laden tourists, supporters in camper vans and a nutcase attempting the climb on a single speed who got in everyone’s way as he chicaned crazily across both sides of the road. Then we caught a glimpse of cyclists above us and realised the road zig zagged sharply right and up….for the next six miles. There weren’t any cows or sheep past that hairpin: soon the grass started to run out, and we saw a rider support crew gathering lying snow in a bucket to chill supplies. Other traffic got filtered through a tunnel whilst cyclists carried on to the top, with photographers poised at the steepest sections to keep everyone honest.
We were greeted with a shout of “well done in the football!” from one of the Brazilians at the top of the Galibier (2642m), where we found the aid station in full swing: coke, oranges, baguettes, ham, cheese, sweets, cake, water. More photos, a lights check, and the news that after just four hours on the road, the fastest one-day riders were already on their approach to Valloire. So it was jackets on and a long, sweeping fast downhill which went on for thirty miles, whipping through the Col du Lautauret and on back down into the valleys. The leading pair went past us about an hour later: mistaken for the start of the chasing pack, Gareth got a police escort through La Grave, but they soon peeled off and we carried on down through cool, dark tunnels, occasionally left standing by small groups of racing snakes, no doubt wondering how on earth we’d ended up in front of them.
The aid station in Bourg d’Oisans was full of randonneurs taking advantage of the opportunity for respite from the 30 degree heat, but eventually we had to leave and start the final ascent up the Alpe d’Huez, 1135m of ascent in 8 miles at an average of 8%. The first three pitches are the steepest: everyone engaged their bottom gear and just stayed in it, and as the road baked in the afternoon heat, the Wheelers began to wilt. We passed two of the Brazilians sharing the shade of a single tiny tree: the people coming past us now were covered in white salt stains, whilst other riders stopped and cooled their feet in mountain streams. At Le Ribot, a local stood with a hosepipe drenching passing cyclists: thus refreshed, we carried on up, and soon the number of hairpins to go was in single digits. We regrouped at hairpin 4, then two, and suddenly we were on the outskirts of the town with people cheering us on to the top: “allez allez allez!”.
The wrecked riders around us in the recovery tent at the end were not much of an advert for the merits of the one-day ride, and as we sat enjoying our post-race pasta and beer we were grilled by a pair of cyclists from Essex also keen to “do something a bit more enjoyable” the next time. Loaded up with event merchandise we cruised down the mountain at the same speed Pantani once went up it, against the tide of increasingly wobbly riders, some walking now, and a few chancers on hired e-bikes joining in for a laugh. Back at Bourg, we sank a bottle of fizz to celebrate the 5200m of ascent and four classic Alpine cols in 174 km of riding.
Would we do the randonée again? Yes. Would we try the one day event? Maybe not. Well, not without a bit more training, and maybe a new bike!
Visit Look Marmotte Grandfondo Alpes to find out more about this event.