Friday, June 25, 2010

la Marmotte (almost)

So, what’s la marmotte (a marmot in english)? What I can say it is a pretty cool looking little animal that you can read all about here. However, there is also a ride (or more likely a race since it is timed) also called ‘la Marmotte' (sorry, best link I could find on quick notice). If you go to the link you’ll find this ride covers the following: Col de la Croix de fer, Col du Telegraph, Col du Galibier, Col du Lauraret AND l’Alpe d’Huez for a total distance of 174 km (108miles) with 5000meters (16,400ft) of cumulative elevation gain.

I’d like to say I rode the complete Marmotte route, but in fact, myself and my new friends Thijs and Jamie rode the loop part not including l’Alpe d’Huez. We were advised by our hosts Alan and Lynne (of le velo jaune) to get a relatively early start as it is a long ride with a lot of climbing. They prepared an early breakfast for us and 7 of us set off.

From left to right: Adam, Peter, Andrew, Thijs, Jamie, Representing the Greenville Spinners Racing team – me, and our host Alan

The plan for the group was to start with the 27(ish) km (17ish miles) climb up to Col de la Criox de Fer. From there, Alan would turn around with Andrew, Peter and (maybe Adam) to find another interesting route to return to the B&B, while Jamie, Thijs and I would continue on La Marmotte route.

From the B&B the road goes down past Bourg d’Oisans until Rochetaillee, then it starts a gradual ascent through Allemont and past Lac du Verney. From there it begins to get steep. I’m talking Paris Mt from the furman side steep (and more in one or two short places). If I recall correctly, that Paris Mt climb gains you about 240m (800 ft) in 4km (2.2 miles). To get an appreciation of the climb to Criox de fer, you have to stack about 6 Paris Mt climbs on top of each other. That’s to say you gain 1550m (5085ft) in that 27ish km (17ish miles).

At one point, you actually have to descend from the small ville of le Rivier d’Allemont to cross the river therefore losing precious elevation. Of course, the steepest part of the climb is coming out of that descent so you better take full advantage of your momentum! We stopped to refill water bottles and re-group at this small ville. I snapped a few photos while we were there.

From there it is all uphill with no breaks – in fact, in that last photo, you can just see a small section of the road going back up after the descent. Some variance in gradient but it stays somewhere in the 7-10% range (I’m kind of guessing here based on conversations with our hosts and the effort required to complete the climb) until you arrive at the switchbacks below the dam at Lac de Grand Maison.

Once you arrive at those switchbacks, the gradient lets up a little and thankfully, I was able to reel Adam and Thijs back in. I had been watching their backs for the entire climb.

As far as Alan and Jamie – they were gone. I mean seriously gone. Alan was a machine riding up at a very quick pace, then descending to check on everyone. Jamie just put her head down and motored those big gears up the mountain. That is until we stopped to re-group at the other side of Lac de Grand Maison – then she went back down to check on the others.

Some images from the area around the lake

Thijs and I took a short break until everyone caught up, then the group finished the last 5k (3mi) or so to the col. Again, it got steeper, but not quite as bad as earlier in the climb. The terrain changes as well as you now are beyond the treeline.

Gaining the Col was a great feeling. Partly just because it was a tough climb, but also for the view.

We took a pretty long break at the col – partly to fill water bottles, but also because Adam had to make his decision whether to continue along La Marmotte or head back with Alan, Andrew and Peter. His decision was to head back and later he said he was glad he did.

Of course, that left it to Jamie, Thijs and myself to make the descent of Criox de fer into the ville of St Jean de Maurienne. This was one hell of a descent. All total, I think the descent was about as long as the climb (again somewhere in the 27km – 17mile range). I didn’t snap any photos, but this road took us along the mountainside with an overlook of an incredibly deep gorge. It was one of those times where I couldn’t really look to the right – I have this crazy terror of one day driving (or riding) off the side of the road!

We made our way through St Jean, then we had to get on a major route through the valley. Thankfully, there is a bike lane, but when the big trucks are passing you at 70 or 90kph (45-55mph) it is a little disconcerting. However, these folks are actually accustomed to sharing the road with bicycles so it really wasn’t a problem. The fact it was also downhill was helpful as we were able to carry some speed.

We finally arrived at our turn in St Martin d'Arc to begin the ascent to Col du Telegraph. When we talked about this to Alan, he said “Telegraph is not even worth talking about”. So, we thought it would be a relatively easy climb.

Boy were we wrong! This climb begins immediately as you exit St Martin d'Arc. We went from flat (in fact downhill) to 8+% grade immediately! This climb did not let up at all until 12ish km (7.5miles) later. In that distance, we climbed to 1566m (not sure of the elevation of the town). So much for ‘not worth talking about’!

As with everything, what goes up, must come down and before we could begin the climb to Galibier, we had to descend into Valloire. As you can see from the previous image, we descended from 1566m (5138m) to 1430m (4692ft) before climbing 1170m (3840ft) to Galibier which sits at 2600m (8530ft). Recall, this is after already cumulating something on the order of 2700m (8860ft)! This ride was definitely turning into the most epic ride I have ever experienced.

After the descent into Valloire, the road turned up again. We were surprised that it wasn’t more steep. We had expected the first part of it to be quite steep but none of us were complaining. The distance from Valloire to Galibier is on the order of 17km (11miles), but not near as difficult as Croix de Fer. What made it difficult is the distance and climbing we had already done.

Of course, there’s the elevation. Sitting at 2600m (8500ft), the air was getting pretty thin as we made our approach. I haven’t really said much about this during my trip, but it has to be the reason I don’t feel the power in my legs that I feel at home. Perhaps my muscles are starving a little for oxygen thus making them feel weaker than normal. Hey, sounds good to me, so I’ll stick with it!

As we made the climb, Thijs and I ended up riding together. We had some great chats along the way and made a few stops for a gel or just to simply rest for a moment. I have to say Thanks to Thijs and Jamie for riding along on this ride. Their presence made a huge difference. Not only for the company, but also because they shared some of their food with me. The PB&J sandwich on Telegraph was excellent!

Here’s a couple of shots on the approach and at the Col:

Check the look on my face – do you think I was hurting a little?

Some more views from the Col:

One of the interesting things about that altitude was also the temperature. The sun had hidden itself behind some clouds as we got close, and the wind had picked up a little. It was cold even though we were putting out a lot of effort on the climb. Of course, poor Jamie, she arrived at the top long before we did and we found here tucked away out of the wind (as best she could get) just shivering her butt off!

I had thought we had one last climb to get to Col du Lautaret. You don’t know how happy I was to find we descended directly into Lautaret!

That means from Galibier all the way to the B&B (with one short exception) it was all downhill. That is about 42km (26 mi) and 1900m (6230ft) of descent!! You can bet we made good time for that 26 miles!

We arrived back at the B&B and Lynne put together an awesome dinner of Pasta for us. We were starving and the food is (and has been) excellent!

Ride summary: ~10.5 hours total time, ~8:20 ride time (confirmed from my computer), 162km (100.6 miles) and 3900m (12,800ft) cumulative elevation gain.

So, in my last blog, I asked if I had bitten off more than I could chew? Well, as you have read, it was a mouthful, but I did manage to chew it, however, at the finish it felt more like it had chewed me!

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