by Rob Atkinson
1st July 2016
…. as we made the final pedal strokes of our ascent of Alp d’Huez and crossed the finish line a mix of elation & relief washed over us. We had completed La Marmotte, a 175km grand fondo sporif in the French Alps with over 5000m of climbing and just within our target time of 09:30 meaning we had achieved a silver medal! It felt like quite an achievement and had certainly taken all of our effort to get to the finish…..
[approx. 1 month later]…. another Whatsapp message from Charlie to our La Marmotte group. “what are we doing next year then?”. Time having erased the hardship of the previous event, discussion soon flowed with suggestions, including a repeat of this year to support Ben who had failed to complete it. It was during these discussions we discovered the existence of the Tour du Mont Blanc, run by the same organisation that staged La Marmotte and at 330km & 8000m was likened by many as the equivalent of doing 2 Marmotte’s back to back. It also carried the strapline of “world’s toughest one day bike race”.
I’m not sure at what point common sense left the room and persuaded me to enter but enter we did – Darren, Charlie & I. We had all been through officer training at RMAS Sandhurst, how hard could this be?!?
Being a self-confessed data geek I quickly worked out my training plan targeting a Critical Training Load (Fitness) of 100. This had the effect of scaring the living daylights out of me when I realised quite how much work I was going to have to do to achieve this, but having also in a fit of madness signed up for IronMan Copenhagen in August I found myself somewhat committed. On the whole my training went well, I’d recently invested in a new Turbo Trainer & a power meter for my bike so the first step was to redo my Functional Treshold Power (FTP) test, an exercise not for the faint hearted, it involves 20mins of soul searching and utter exhaustion! This allowed me to reset my training zones for Heart Rate & Power so I could judge & manage the intensity of each workout I did.
Over the winter I spent an inordinate amount of time watching Netflix, whilst torturing myself on the trainer, swimming in the pool, cycling to London – oh and a bit of running every now and then!
6 weeks to go
Looking at the training peaks profiles of my team mates it was apparent that I had done significantly more training than either of them. Charlie & I had a rather frank conversation, he clearly understood he had a lot to do to even get to the start line & promptly pulled his finger out to address this. Darren’s approach was slightly more lasse faire & despite the occasional hint he didn’t significantly increase his training load, as a result our fitness levels compared as follows just prior to the event:
Rob – 92 Charlie – 59 Darren - 37
A few days before we were due to fly out I collected the flight box for my bike I had rented, before packing it away I made the conscious decision to change my inner chain ring to a compact (34) which would make life much easier on the long climbs. I had done this for the Marmotte the year before & thought nothing further of it.
The mother of all bike boxes!
D-2 (Thur 13 July) The journey to France was pretty uneventful, Charlie had used his BA Air Miles so he & I were flying Business Class whilst his Ruth (his wife), having only recently elected to join us as support team, was on an Easyjet flight that had been overbooked by 8 places & was waiting to see if anyone would volunteer to be bumped to another flight. At Geneva the hire car company tried to palm us off with a Vauxhall Corsa, until we showed them the two huge flight boxes & our booking confirmation, following which they upgraded us to an estate. Ruth joined us shortly after and we headed to the car park where we scratched our heads as we realised we had booked the car when only 2 of us were travelling and we now had to get the flight boxes in the boot with one of the back seats up! After a bit of juggling we managed to fit everything, including Ruth, in the back although she was somewhat buried under all the luggage.
Buried in the boot
We met up with Darren, who had driven, at the bottom of the mountain in St Gervais le Bain where we did a Hypermarket shop for supplies, knowing from experience that shopping in a ski resort would be expensive. It also allowed me to ride with Darren so we could extricate Ruth from the back of the car. On arrival at le Saisies we spent some time deciphering the directions to the chalet, which were somewhat cryptic. It was typical of a ski resort, clad in pine inside & out but clean & comfortable. Having booked a smaller chalet for La Marmotte, we had decided to do this event in more comfort without the need for anyone to sleep in the lounge.
Room with a View
It was sunny so I elected to set up my bike on the balcony, with a beautiful view across the valley & the tinkling sound of cow bells in the distance. All was going well until I started to refit my stem to the forks. There must have been something wrong with my torque wrench because all of a sudden a loud bang emanated as the bolt sheared off & my heart sank, this was not good. Luckily I managed to find a mountain bike (VTT) hire shop who was able to drill out the end of the bolt that was stuck inside the stem, however as were refitting the stem another load bang emitted. This time the front plate had snapped, I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my body, surely this was some kind of joke!?! The shop managed to find a new plate that would fit & I breathed a sigh of relief, but when they started tightening the bolts one of them pulled the thread clean out of the stem. This could not be happening!?! By now I was soaring at 1000ft as anxiety completely took over, but as chance would have it one of the VTT instructors had an old stem at home he could sell me. It was 30mm too long and possible the ugliest thing I have ever seen, but it did fit & meant I could ride my bike. It was also a relief that the failure of my stem had happened in the workshop & not on an alpine descent at 60+kph.
We finished the day in a traditional Savoyard restaurant, eating our body weight in cheese and having to waddle back to the chalet somewhat regretting our gluttonous appitites.
D-1 (Fri 14 Jul) I woke early and after breakfast decided to check the indexing on my gears, having not had the time to test ride the bike after fitting the compact chainring. This is normally a simple 5min process & I was looking forward to taking the bike for a short ride to keep my legs running & test my lungs in the maintain air. Something was wrong…. the chain kept dropping off whenever I put it on the small chainring!?! I felt the panic of the day before returning, surely this could not be happening. Charlie came out to have a look, having built his own bike from scratch he clearly thought I was crying over spilt milk, but on closer inspection agreed that something was indeed amiss, the chainring I had fitted only day before was bent! At the time I had thought of bringing the other chainring with me but had decided that was not necessary which was somewhat ironic.
So, back at the VTT hire shop I had to explain my latest dilemma in pigeon French. We tried unsuccessfully to straighten the chainring on a bench using a nylon hammer, but quickly came to the conclusion that a replacement was required. The nearest road bike shop was in Albertville, a 45min drive down the mountain but it was closed for lunch until 14:00, so I sat with the others and enjoyed a coffee in the sunshine & tried not to think about it too much.
14:10 In Albertville, the shop was closed & I was cursing the French for their tardy timekeeping and obsession with protracted meals. I decided to try the Decathlon round the corner while I waited, they had nothing suitable, but did helpfully point out that it was Bastille day & the majority of shops would be closed all day!?!
Ok, breathe…. don’t panic, what are the options?
In the end there was only one option - drive to Switzerland where the shops were open. I arrived in Geneva at about 16:30 & after trying a couple of shops found one which had a spare chainring, albeit a 36 cog (Semi-Compact), identical to the one I had removed a few days before. They also had a wide selection of stems so I was able to replace the one I had previously purchased for something that didn’t make my bike look like something from the circus.
After a long drive back I arrived in Les Saises at about 19:30, having missed the race briefing, which had apparently been akin to Churchill’s infamous addresses to the Nation during WWII “It will be long & hard, you will sometimes wonder if you will make it…. Etc”. Luckily Charlie & Darren had managed to register & pick up my race number. They had also managed to hire a bike that I could have used if I had been unsuccessful in fixing my own.
I was exhausted, having spent most of the day on an adrenaline high & was fit for nothing but food, then bed – we had an early start in the morning…..
D-Day (Sat 15 Jul) 05:00 – We were here a last, there was a perceptible atmosphere of nervous tension on the start line as we waited to the signal to go. When it came & we set off some joker had decided to play ACDC “Highway to Hell” on the tannoy, which felt rather apt.
The first decent to Megeve was apparently neutralised, although in the dark & surrounded by cyclists I’m not sure I would have wanted to go any faster, with our average speed exceeding 35kph!! As it got lighter & the first climb kicked in the field thinned out a little & we settled down to the task in hand.
There were several cut off points on the route which we needed to get to in time, or risk being ‘repatriated’. As such I had some weeks before produced a route card for the event which broke the ride into ascents, descents & the average speed we needed to achieve for each segment (lap) in order to achieve this. This predicted our finish time at 18hrs 32mins, I had conservatively assumed an average descent speed of 30kph, so at this point we were ahead.
Route Card (Front & Back)
We lost Darren on the Climb into Switzerland, one minute he was there, the next he wasn’t. We weren’t altogether sure how far back he was, so we agreed to get to the top of the Col de la Forclaz, first of 5 ‘HC’ climbs of the day and take stock there. Having waited at the top for about 5mins to refuel & admire the view with no sign we elected to press on, if Darren was struggling now we didn’t want to jeopardize our changes of finishing by waiting for him.
Switzerland - Col de la Forclaz
The descent to Martigny was exhilarating, we averaged 45kph & topped out at around 72kph. As I looked over the edge, admiring the view my gaze wandered to the Armco barrier that was the only thing between me and a drop of several hundred meters. There was no way that the barrier would provide any protection to a cyclist at speed, so having scared myself enough I decided to concentrate on the tarmac ahead & keeping up with Charlie, who was distinctly braver than me on the downhill sections!
Martigny was our first feed station; typically French this largely consisted of bananas, bread & camembert, which suited me just fine. Still no sign of Darren, so we pressed on to our 2nd HC climb, the Col de la Champex. Having read extensively about the event I learned that the route was based on two stages of the 1996 TdF. In order to join the start/finish points of each stage the organisers had added this cheeky little climb.
By this time Charlie was starting to struggle, but we were still ahead of time so there was nothing to be too concerned about although the next climb was the biggest on the route. At an altitude of nearly 3000m the Col de Grand St Bernard is a formidable climb in its own right. So much so that someone saw fit to go to the expense of digging a tunnel through the mountain to get from Switzerland to Italy! I decided it would be best to split the ascent into 3 pitches of 8km with a brief stop each time to feed & rest. The plan was going well, until the road peeled off into the tunnel & we turned left following the ominous signs to ‘le Col’. The road quickly pitched up and for the final 8km it stayed consistently between 11-13% (about the same as Kid’s Hill). This gradient, combined with the sun & the thinner air was punishing & I found myself having to dig deep to keep going. Needless to say we stopped a few more times in the final 8km before we reach the top and rolled into Italy.
Italy - Col de la Grand St Bernard
It was a hot day, but at the top the temperature had dropped to about 6 degrees due to the altitude, so we donned our flimsy waterproofs as protection from the cold air as we descended. At the bottom in Aosta it was 36 degrees!
We turned right up the valley & the wind, that had previously been at our backs, was now right in our faces. This was a long 30km stretch of relatively flat terrain, along which we should have made good progress, but with tired legs we found ourselves struggling to hold the pace I had set on the route card. This was for me the toughest stretch of the event mentally, we still had over 130km to go!
At the feed station, as we tucked into pasta in tomato sauce we heard from Ruth, who had driven out to Orsieries to pick up Darren. He had made it over the Col de Champex, but was exhausted & had been vomiting so had decided to call it day after 130km in the saddle. Ruth & Darren were now in the car following the route & having taken the tunnel were not far behind, tracking us using iOS ‘find my friends’ app.
Looming ahead was the Col de Petit St Bernard and the border back into France. Ruth & Darren leapfrogged us as we ascended, ringing a cow bell out of the window every time they passed & providing food & water on demand. We rolled straight over the Col & began our descent without our waterproofs this time, which turned out to be a mistake. By the time we reached Bourg St Maurice at the bottom I could not feel my fingers or feet and was shivering with cold.
back into France - Col de Petit St Bernard
Charlie was now feeling the effects of his lack of training & was a spent force up the Col de Roselend, making frequent stops, presumably to try & find the sense of humour he had mislaid somewhere along the way. At this stage, Charlie was concerned that he was holding me up in case we missed the cut off. I had constantly had one eye on the route card all day & was confident of making it to the Col on time, however I did have a slight concern about finishing within 19hours as I had it in my head that this was the cut off for finishing. I did not want to come all this way & go home without a finishers medal! We both made it to the top 60mins ahead of the Broom Wagon, by this time it was dark & we donned our warm kit for the descent as the temperature had dropped significantly.
For the first time Charlie was slower than me on the descent, with the 19hr finish in mind I elected to press on. I had made sure Charlie had made it this far & he had Ruth & Darren to support him, now it was time for me to ride for myself.
The descent was fast, with the occasional bike light in the distance pointing out the bends in the road. I was grateful I had carried my heavier 600 lumen front light, as it lit the road enough for me to see. Most people were stopping at the bottom to take some of their warm kit off, but with the support car behind me I had no-one to give it to so pressed on to the final climb back to Les Saisies, a gruelling 15km at a fairly consistent 8% gradient. I was flying now and overtaking groups of cyclists until I found myself on my own in the darkness. By this time I was focussed on one data screen on my Garmin ETA at destination, 19hrs was midnight I was currently showing 23:31. There was not long to go now so I knew as long as I paced myself to the top I would finish, but the final few km was a real slog, until I started to come into the village where all the cars passing back down the hill were shouting encouragement & I knew I was near the end.
As I crossed the line in a time of 18:37 it was a feeling mostly of relief, followed by a concern for Charlie & how he was fairing. My first call was to Sienna, who had been following me on Find my Friends all day & all the emotion of the past few days flooded out. The second was to Ruth to check on Charlie who was steadfastly plodding up the hill under ‘encouragement’ (he would call it bullying) from the support car. I rode back the last 500m to meet up with him and rode with him to the finish. He crossed the line in 19:20, I am pleased to say I was mistaken with respect to the 19hr limit & so he received his finishers medal too.
We finished our day with a meal & a glass of wine at 1AM but Charlie & I were clearly too tired for anything resembling social interaction.
D+1 – The next day I woke surprisingly early considering. Ruth & Darren left at about midday to catch flights & ferries respectively, so Charlie & I took the opportunity to visit the Les Thermes in St Gervais to relax in the mineral rich waters of the Spa, well worth a visit if you are in the area.
D+2 – Back on the plane, the suffering of the day before yesterday was clearly starting to fade from Charlie’s memory already as he leaned over & said “what about Majorca 312 next Easter….?”
Reflections: Its all about the preparation......
I had done more work on my fitness than the others & this showed in the numbers in our training plans. The others faired in accordance with their scores, which proved to me that there is some sense in the science.
On the other hand, I made a crucial mistake in making changes to my bike setup too late in the day & not test riding it after the changes to make sure everything was working. I will also take some more tools & spares with me next time.
My nutrition plan had also worked well & I was able to do the whole event using only 2 gels and a cheeky can of coke. Other than this all I ate was ‘real’ food including my own home made low carb energy bars.
The Tour du Mont Blanc was a hugely challenging endeavour, which was immensely satisfying to complete, but not one I would necessarily want to repeat.