Training for La Marmotte

The Marmotte is one of the most well known and toughest cyclosportives in the world. The 174km route takes riders on some of the most iconic Alpine climbs from cycling history such the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraph, Col du Galibier and finishing off the 5180m of climbing with a mountain top finish on Alpe d’Huez.

In this post I’ll share some of my experiences of training and riding for the marmotte and include some of the tips and lessons i earned along the way. Hopefully my experiences will help you if you’re embarking on a marmotte adventure.

Col du Galibierimage by willj

Marmotte Entry

Entry only places to the Marmotte can be bought via the official website. When I rode the event i opted to do it via one of the tour operators that takes care of the entry, hotel, transfers as well as providing additional things like private feed stations on the way round. We opted for French Cycling Holidays and were more than happy with the service they provided.

Due to the grueling nature of the event the organizers require that you get a doctors certificate, stating you are fit enough to complete the race. Be sure to get this in advance to avoid any last minute panics. Some doctors charge for such a certificate (mine cost £12). I believe that if you have a British Cycling race license this can be used instead of a medical certificate – best to check this as I don’t know for certain.

Marmotte Hotels

The start of The Marmotte is in Bourg D’Oisans, the town in the valley at the foot of Alpe D’Huez. When choosing your accommodation you have two main choices. Firstly you can stay in Bourg,  down in the valley where there  are plenty of hotels as well as a few good campsites or you can stay up in the ski resort of Alpe D’Huez. There is usually plenty of accommodation available at this time of year as the summer season is just about to get going. Naturally the earlier you book the more choice you’ll have.

Marmotte Registration

In the center of the village of Alpe D’Huez, where the finish line will be is the registration tent. It usually opens on the Thursday before the event, with most people registering on the Friday morning. All you need to do is take a copy of the registration email and the original copy of your medical certificate, just in case they ask for it which by all accounts they rarely do.

Simply hand them in and you’ll get a race number (to attach to your bike) and a timing chip which you need to activate at the booth on the way out of the hall. I also got a goody vbag with various bits and bobs from some of the race sponsors. Also in the hall they sell various official race merchandise such as official jerseys, gillets, arm warmer etc.

Other tents form in the square selling everything form bikes to replica team jerseys, tyres and every other bit of kit you could desire. While it would be wise to not attempt a ride like the marmotte with new kit the abundance of kit for sale means you’ll have plenty of options should you have forgotten anything.

Marmotte Training

Unless you live near a large mountain range it would be beneficial to try and get in a training trip to the Alps or somewhere similar a few weeks before the marmotte in order to get some experience of the kind of climbs you will ride. Nothing in the UK (even the big Welsh/Scottish climbs) comes close to the long, relentless Alpine climbs.

When I rode the marmotte i was unable to get a trip to the Alps in beforehand so I had to think a little harderabout adapting my training to prepare me for the climbing I’d face on the day. As well as following most of the principles laid out in the advanced training plan of our Century Training Plan, I also adapted my training to include some sessions specifically designed to try and simulate some of the long climbs i would face in the marmotte.

Hill Grind Workout

This workout consists of using either a gym stationary bike or a turbo trainer and simply choosing a high gear and turning a slow cadence with lots of resistance to simulate a big 20-30km mountain climb. Simply plug in your headphones and grind away non stop for anywhere between 1 and 2 hours.

You can only really simulate this workout on an indoor trainer so it’s great for those long winter months when the weather is terrible. During my training period for the marmotte I was unable to get out and ride in the evenings so these workouts were perfect for the couple of times each week I could sneak out of work to go to the gym at lunchtime.

Hill Repeats

These are simple to ride. Simply find the longest hill/climb near you and go ride it over and over, up and down it as many times as you can in succession.

This wasn’t ideal training for me as the nearest accessible hill climb was only about 30 meters high and 1/2 km long – not exactly like Alpe d’Huez! The other thing I don’t like about hill repeats is that they allow you time to recover in between repeats when you are riding back down the hill. Believe me there is no rest bite on any of the climbs in the Marmotte so I preferred the above hill grinds to try and simulate the constant efforts of the marmotte.

Tempo Rides

Riding up the climbs I was aiming to be riding at about 80% of my maximum heart rate. I found going out and riding 1 to 2 hour time trial style efforts during my training really helped. I’d just try and find a course with little traffic/junctions and ride at a steady pace in a big gear aiming to keep my heart rate at about 80% of max.

Doing these kind of efforts actually simulates the effort required in the Marmotte quite well. Many cycling clubs host regular 10 or 25 mile time trials on weekday evenings. If you have the time it may be well worth seeking out your local club  and having a go at time trialling as part of your marmotte training.

2 x 20 Intervals

No training program would really be complete without every cyclists friend, the 2×20 interval session. We’ve covered the benefit of these intervals before and they should be a part of every marmotte training program. In terms of improving your overall strength, power output, speed and VO2 max they really take some beating. Best of all they’re pretty easy to perform either in the gym, on a turbo trainer or out on the road.

Power to Weight Ratio

You only need to look at the skinny build of Tour de France GC contenders to see how important power to weight ratio is to riding in the mountains. The two key ways to improve your performance on a hilly sportive like the marmotte is to reduce your weight and/or to increase your sustainable power output.

Lets face it most of us amateurs are carrying a few extra kilograms, usually around the waist. If you’re training for the marmotte and can lose say 5kg you’ll make a big impact on your performance. Of course it goes without saying that you should plan any weight loss only if you’re overweight to start with and do so using a healthy diet/nutrition program as we’ve discussed before.

Cycling Power to Weight Ratio

Before my Marmotte I lost just over 6kg, taking my weight from 75kg to 69kg over a period of about 6 months. All of the weight loss came as a result of simply riding more (increased training workload), cutting out some of the junk calories from my diet (fatty foods, red meat, chocolate, crisps etc) and drinking less alcohol.

The way I motivated myself to eat more healthily during the months before my marmotte ride was to think how much harder it would be to ride the race with 5 x 1kg bags of sugar strapped to my bike (5kg was my weight loss target). It amazing how we as cyclists obsess about shaving a few precious grams off our kit while most of us carry several kgs of fat around with us all day long.

I noticed the weight loss made a big difference to my general riding back here in [the flat] UK. The more climbing you do the more weight (or lack of it) becomes a factor so losing getting on for nearly 10% of my body weight must have made a huge impact on my marmotte ride.

Marmotte Gearing

Look on any internet cycling forums you’ll see many lengthy debates about what gearing is best for a tough ride such as La Marmotte. There is no definitive answer to what is the best gearing for the marmotte however I’d definitely advise you to err on the side of caution, unless you have a lot of experience of alpine riding.

Riding four big climbs in one day will certainly test your legs so it’s best to have some ‘spare gears’ in case things get tough. When I rode the Marmotte I rode past many hundreds of people walking up some of the climbs, or sitting slumped by the side of the road with nothing left in their legs. Better gearing may well have kept many of them pedaling.

When I rode it, I had no experience of Alpine riding as virtually all of my training was done in the East of England which is known for it’s flatness. In fact my local ‘hill climb’ is only about 30m in height! As a club mate told me 7 month before my ride ‘Nothing can really compare you for the length and relentlessness of the climbs in the Alps’.

After much debate about compacts v triples v doubles (not to mention cassette ratios!) I opted for a compact chain set (50/34) with a big cassette on the back (12-28). This gave me a spinning gear of 34-28 to use on the worst of the hills and I’m not ashamed to say I used it.

In general I tend to spin smaller gears anyway (compared to the rest of the guys i regularly ride with) as opposed to pushing big gears. As a result I was pleased with my choice and didn’t regret it one bit on the day of the ride.

Marmotte Race Day Tips

Getting to the Start

When I rode the race we were staying up in Alpe D’Huez so we had to descend the Alpe to get to the start in Bourg d’Oisans down in the valley. Our start time was 7.30am so we left the village at 6.00am, allowing plenty of time for the descent of the Alpe and to make it to our starting pen down in Bourg.

If you’re doing the same be aware that it will likely be cold this early so ideally you’ll have someone at the bottom to take excess kit off you at the bottom. I wore winter gloves, a wind proof jacket and leg warmers for the descent and gave them to the hotel manager who was kindly waiting at the bottom to take our excess kit.

Once at the start line riders get sent to the appropriate pens depending on their start times. It can be quite chilly standing around waiting to start as it obviously takes quite a while to get several thousand riders in the right places ready to go. I saw quite a few riders had made disposable ponchos out of bin liners to keep them warm while waiting – definitely a good idea.

Eating & Drinking

When I rode the Marmotte my Garmin calculated that I burnt just over 5,000 calories. Perhaps the most important thing on a big ride like the marmotte (as well as pacing) is nutrition. Bear in mind that you’ll burn a lot more calories climbing big mountains than riding along in the bunch of your flat Sunday club ride so be prepared to scale up your on bike nutrition.

The feed stations on the course were very well organised stocking all sorts of goodies including cheese baguettes, gels, cake, fruit and of course water. Despite this i rode almost entirely using food I carried (oatmeal bars, gels and fig rolls) though a cheese baguette at the top of Galibier was very welcome.

The searing hot temperatures often found on the marmotte sportive can dehydrate you quickly. A good idea is to carry some electrolyte tablets/powder with you so when you refill your bidons you can have one with water and one with hydration salts in.

Know the Route

On rides like this I find it very useful to know exactly how long/high each climb is as well as how many km the descents or flats are. While the race pack contains a race card I find I rarely have the patience to pull one out while I’m battling up a climb. Instead I stick the race card onto one of my bidons so if I want to check the route I simply take a drink and check the race card at the same time.

If you’ve got a garmin you may want to upload the route beforehand. Here’s a gpx of the marmotte route.

marmotte profile

 

Avoiding Tyre Blowouts

I heard lots of people blowing tyres on the descents as a result of over heating the rims due to braking too heavily. On the descent of the Galibier I also saw a couple of accidents caused by tyre blowouts. When you’re descending a mountain reaching speeds of 60km and hour the last thing you want is a blown tyre.

This problem was made worse by the hot weather. If you’re not used to descending big mountains like these (i wasn’t when I rode it) don’t worry too much, with a little caution and some basic technique you’ll find they’re not as bad as some fear.

If the weather is hot the key to not over heating your rims is to avoid constant feathering of your brakes. Instead allow yourself to gather speed when possible then brake hard just before the bends, releasing the brakes before turning in. Doing so should avoid the constant feathering which can cause the rims to overheat and cause punctures.

One good tip is to try to follow the line of other more experienced riders if you’re unsure of the best line to pick round the corners. Naturally if you’re inexperienced you shouldn’t be following some of the semi pro’s that ride the race. However from my experience a large majority of marmotte entrants are from the continent with many having experienced Alpine descents before.

Some other good advice I received was to not inflate my tyres too high. The hot weather and heat generated by heavy braking will have the effect of increasing the pressure inside of your tyres. As a result there is no really need to inflate your tyres over 100 psi at the start line.

Keep Things Constant

Don’t make any last minute changes to your bike, setup or kit. When worrying before an event like this it is all too easy to panic and go buy some new bib shorts, jacket or a new type of energy bar.

Make all your changes and experimenting with kit during your training so come the big day you’re familiar with everything you wear, use and eat. Doing this will ensure there is less to go wrong on the big day and you won’t be worrying in the 24 hours leading up to the start of the race.

Don’t Trust The Weather

Don’t forget to pack your arm warmers, a water proof jacket and a gillet. Even if it is 40 degrees and sunny down in the valley, at the top of the Galibier you’ll be above the snow line and you will get cold quickly on the fast long descents. Be careful not to underestimate the speed at which the weather can change in the mountains. It can be hot and sunny one minute and cold and raining the next.

Be sure to check the weather forecast the evening before the race and ensure you have the appropriate clothing with you on the day. As a minimum I would advise taking arm warmers and a waterproof jacket though you’ll obviously need to adapt your exact kit depending on the forecast and how your body handles the weather.

Most years the weather in the valleys and on the climbs is hot and sunny. Again if you’re not used to riding in over 30 degree temperatures for hours on end it’s easy to underestimate the amount of fluids you’ll need to take on. On the big climbs there are water stations mid way up and I’d advise you to use them as much as possible. You don’t want to run out of water with 7km to go on the Galibier.

Prepare for the Tunnels

During the descent off the Galibier there are a number of long tunnels you pass trough. Be ready for them and be sure to remove/raise your sunglasses well in advance. During my ride I got caught out and was terrified through the first one!

ColDuGalibier Tunnel

Leaving your sunglasses on for the tunnels will render you nearly blind inside the tunnels, some of which are over 1km long. Add a few cars into the mix, a peloton of other riders along with some uneven road surfaces in the tunnels and the experience can be pretty unnerving.

Included in my race pack was a little blinky light that can be attached. It’s well worth attaching this to your seat post and flicking it on just before the Galibier descent to offer riders/cars behind some chance of seeing you mid tunnel.

Pacing the Ride

Ideally you’ll have managed to get some long rides under your belt in the mountains, a few weeks before the Marmotte so you’ll have a fair idea about the pace you can sustain while climbing for hours on end.

If like me you aren’t blessed with having a ‘mountain training camp’ like Brad Wiggins you’ll need to err on the side of caution and pace yourself in the first half of the ace.

I’ve heard a few people say that the ride doesn’t really begin until you get to Plan Lachat, a tiny village half way up the Galibier climb. From my experience this is very true and I wouldn’t consider pushing the pace until you reach here. It is at this point that your legs will have digested about 1/2 of the climbing you’ll have to do on the day. In addition the temperature will likely be soaring up into the 30s. If you’ve gone out of the blocks too early it is probably about this point in the ride you’ll start to realise it.

Enjoy It

Whatever you do make sure you enjoy it. Riding the MArmotte is not easy and there will be tme when you feel awful. Be sure to remind yourself that you’re riding some of the most iconic climbs in cycling and one of the toughest one day cycle sportives in the world. Enjoy the great support on the final climb up Alp D’Huez, chat to other riders and enjoy your ride.

Good Luck!

 

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