Regular readers will recall that around this time of year, I usually post something about the Etape du Tour, an annual bike race held over one of the mountain stages of the Tour de France.
This year for a change I rode the Marmotte, which is a fixed course of 108 miles in the French Alps, which starts in the village of Bourg d' Oisans (at the bottom of the road up to the ski resort of Alpe d' Huez), taking in such delights as the Glandon, Telegraphe, Galabier and just when your legs can take no more; the 21 hairpins of the Alpe, which has featured in more Tour de France finishes than any other climb.
It's a fantastic race with over 7000 riders. If you are British, then rest assured that in the interests of fair play the French organisers will give you a start number which places you at the back. Don't worry however as it is chip timed from the moment you roll over the start line (about 20 minutes after the leaders)
Obviously being a Brit, I hadn't read any of the race instructions, so the whole event was a voyage of discovery. Fistly I stayed at the top of the mountain in Alpe d'Huez and almost froze to death on the 6.30 am descent to the start at Bourg. (Foreign riders wear a smart jacket for this bit and later hand it to their supporters- Brits should wear an old jumper under a bin bag that can be chucked away). The next thing I learnt (and almost the last) was made about fifteen minutes into the race, when I realised that unlike in the Etape, they don't close the roads to traffic.
It wasn't long before the sun was beating down however and the scenery is absolutely stunning. The descent after the first climb up the Glandon is not timed in order to discourage racing on that stretch. (I was immensely disappointed when I was told about this during the evening celebrations afterwards because I had been under the impression that my descending had improved remarkably as I overtook hundreds of other riders on this stretch who all seemed strangely over-cautious).
The Telegraphe and Galabier are a long slog but the descent goes on for about 20 miles or more and is very fast and exhilarating. Keep your wits about you as some of the bends are quite tight. There are also three or four tunnels which are a little bit scary, but just stay calm and don't forget to whip off your sunglasses and hold them in your front teeth so you can keep both hands on the bars. Dropping your sunnies in a tunnel would be unfortunate, but not half as bad as wearing them in there. (There may well have been something in the race instructions about this also).
I carried 8 assorted energy bars in one pocket which I had unwrapped the night before in order to save time and reduce litter (unlike the Dutch riders, who just throw it anywhere). I simply pulled off a small piece of the resulting congealed mass and stuffed it into my mouth every 15 minutes or so. (At one point I did wonder why there was a peanut in one bite before realising that I had just dislodged and swallowed a bit of a molar). I also carried a ham sandwich in my other pocket as it stops you getting sick of sweet tasting things. I never stopped at any of the well stocked but chaotic food stations, just quickly filled my water bottles and left, as you can waste hours at those places.
These measures made up for my lack of cycling ability and I got round the course shattered, but unlike many poor souls that I saw pushing their machines up Alpe d' Huez; still on my bike. My final discovery (that staying up at the top in Alpe is actually the best option) was brought home to me very clearly when I saw a rider being loaded into the ambulance after crashing on the descent back to Bourg. He had already finished the race and was just going home.
Hope he was ok and well done to all the Brits who went out there. The ones I met were a great crowd.