Time for some real competition! It was only 6 degrees out in the morning air at start. We were thankfully served breakfast despite getting up around 5:30 and there were also other La Marmotte cyclists at the Castillan hotel in La Grave. Our dear friend Uli came from down toward Briançon to pick us (me and friend Ola) up for the ride down to the start in Bourg d’Oisans.
It looked like we would have thousands of people staring in front of us, but as we had booked in advance and thus had rather low starting numbers, we were led around houses past several hundred cyclists. Uli had not such luck, but it does not matter very much as the time starts individually as one cross a line in the village and around that place it is possible to cycle. The only problem would be if you are one of the best guys in the race and would have to stat long after some equally good riders, then you might loose on it if you do not manage to catch up with them (but if you do catch up with them, maybe it will be to your advantage). One does not gain much on hanging onto good riders in a race like this, as there is not much wind to conquer. When I started in Styrkeprøven in Norway in 2002 (540 km from Trondheim to Oslo) it was a very real disadvantage to start behind the best. The best teams (of 100, with some non member of teams) started up to an hour before the next groups were getting started. So when I came away in the last of the faster groups behind, I had like two hours to catch up on the best guys in the competition and that is rather obviously not possible. Even if you do your best, you are not likely to get much help by any better riders than yourself as those you catch up with have not kept your speed to begin with. This race is relatively flat and the wind is an important factor, so cycling even with less good people than yourself are likely to be to your advantage.
I had my camera with me and felt a bit like I had just finished a mountain race. It was all part of my plan, however stupid the others there might have thought of it had they known my schedule. My plan was to take this race as any other day in my trip around the Alps. Only, I knew I would be able to take very long brakes and go as slow as usual. It is impossible not to get caught up in he competitive spirit of it. So off we were, thankfully before freezing to death, and it was nice to get away in a good speed to get warm. The climb up to Col de la Croix de Fer 2064 m is the most difficult of the climbs and it would have been much harder to end there than at Alpe-d’Huez in my opinion. I felt like I could do quite well despite the previous days climbing and thought I was rather decently fast up at the col. There I took a long break (7-8 minutes perhaps). They offered a lot to eat and drink there. Just before I left I noticed my friend Ola had just arrived there (which we were both a bit surprised about as he thought I was faster and since I thought I had not been as slow as I had feared, but the gap between us is less going up as he weighs a bit less).
Well, I was surely not going to go faster because of this threat. I still felt quite fine and now was a bit stressed by the fact that I know people would pass me by on the way down as I am not the fastest down (either) and see no point in taking unnecessary risks. There were one or two accidents down the mountain and at least one serious incident. One cyclist complained that I should hold my line and he may be right, but that is not how I have come to cycle down these mountains and think the guys trying to pass by will have to be VERY careful. In my book the cyclist in front has all the right to do whatever he wish to, but should try and not behave as to cause accidents. Part of the problem of going downhill is planning and if you detect your line coming into a hairpin is to narrow, you will have to correct it by going out, which may cause irritation behind. For the most part this was not a problem, but it happened 2-3 times down this pass that I felt someone thought I was in the way for him. I guess I passed them by later anyway, though ;-). The road was not closed to car traffic either and I remembered a lady in a car going up making gestures about that we were totally insane (it should not help her though).
I had actually feared the almost flat stretch between St Jean de Maurienne 546 m and St Michel de Maurienne 712 m a bit more than I had reason to. I was going in the other direction here in 2002 and it was very tiring in the heat and headwind to make progress. But this was in the other direction and it was still not very hot. I talked a little with one of the very many Dutch people there. La Marmotte is very popular in Holland and almost half of the cyclists are from Benelux (out of around 6000-7000). From Sweden there were 5, I believe. We were talking about what we feared most that could happen and we both agreed that getting cramps was the biggest threat to our day. Soon thereafter he sadly got a puncture and I moved on (cyclists help themselves in races like this in these situations).
Up to Col du Télégraphe 1566 m I chatted with a Belgian for a while. It is somewhat steep up this pass, which is halfway up to Col du Galibier 2642 m along the road, around 9% on average. I think there was a possibility to drink something at this pass, but according to what I had seen in the route plan, there should be a real stop for food and drinking soon after at Valloire 1430 m. That village looked like a mess that day, with road work in progress and there was even a lot of traffic. A busy policeman who tried to direct traffic was getting furious and yelled about do you think this is Tour de France. I thought for myself, the Tour de France that is only for television, this is the real thing! I suppose he had a tough job that day.
No I got a bit worried, as I did not find any food/drinking station here and like many other tired cyclists I continued climbing slowly up the hard slope just at the end of the village. I talked to an Englishman if he had any idea of where that station could be, but he did not. It was a bit disheartening as I did not have a drop of water left in my water bottle and it would be quite difficult to get up all the way to Col du Galibier without more water. After a perhaps two kilometres there was in fact a station and I got some water and bananas. I got some energy drink mixed with water that they served too, but that was probably a bad idea as I did not feel perfectly well in my stomach after that.
It was in fact somewhat hard up to Col du Galibier and I noticed that the field of cyclists were getting thinner now. I took another photo as I approached the pass, which had a lot of snow left on the side of the road here and there. It is very nice and that was helpful in getting up. I was very aware of the cramps issue but had already had problems with that earlier in my tour, so I was not extremely afraid it would hit me like it did last year in the Maratona dles Dolomites. I was cautious to go at a very regular pace and stand up here and there and never try to go faster as it can easily trigger such problems.
At Col du Galibier 2642 m, the highest pass of La Marmotte, I had a break again and decided to lay down flat on my back for a while so I did not get any lasting problems with my aching back (still had problems with that from the accident in the previous year). At least, I felt a bit at ease today as I did not have to carry and backpack. Another photo and now it was just full speed ahead down to Le Bourg d’Oisans again. Maybe I had been stopping too much or so, but I later found myself in a group not going very fast. At first it went fast down as usual and I was extremely near a very serious accident in La Grave (just outside the hotel where we stayed) as I was looking to see if they were looking for us and then saw a big whole in the road and tried to avoid while a car just came right toward me in full speed. I made a panicked braking and the bicycle just went away toward the side of the car, but luckily stopped to slide just before hitting it. Huh!
I had to tell myself to not think of it and go ahead and be concentrated! Ten minutes later it was forgotten. Then it started to go slow and after trying to raise the speed for a while decided to just leave them behind and so I did – I do not know where my sudden power came from. However, as I feared, I never really caught up with any better riders in front of me and there were more increasing headwind further down which I think made at least the fastest guys from the earlier group catch up with me at the last station at the start of the Alpe-d’Huez climb.
I took a somewhat long break again and had Coke, bananas, etc. Then I felt happy to get a chance to tackle the Alpe-d’Huez in a race like this. I now had a look on my watch to see what colour on my "medal" there would likely be. They have a nice system at races of this type (cyclosportive) where you get a gold, silver or bronze medal depending on which age category you are in and under which time limit you manage to go. It looked like after all could perhaps have a gold, so that felt good but did no really mean anything for my tackling of the climb as I would simply try and do a good job at it and if there was a couple of seconds that mattered near the end I could perhaps give a bit better fight than otherwise, but that not known to me at the beginning.
It was now VERY hot, but luckily they handed out some more water at a few places on the way up and I had some more (did not have to stop). It was really fun and I felt quite good. I had fun pointing out to another cyclist the 8 kilometre sign – see there! – ONLY 8 km to go! He was of course not too happy about that, but maybe I shed some of my happiness anyway. I was almost exclusively passing by other riders now and it had not happened often since the first climb that I had been passed by more than occasional cyclists. There were a few passing me by on this climb too, but I had the strength left to see if I could hang onto some of them and some I could. The closer the finish I came the more invincible I felt and no way that I would let anyone go ahead of me the last kilometre. The last 200-300 meters I raced passed 3-4 guys, but being happy and too much of a gentleman I let them get before me into the resting area and there the real time was stopped I noticed when I passed myself. I was around place 900 anyway and around 13 minutes before the deadline for a gold medal in my age group. Had I been in the younger age group I would have had to go 2 minutes faster, which would have been possible. My time was 8 h 31 mins.
Now I had to wait in the very hot place up there for my friends. I got a bit worried before my friend Ola eventually turned up around 1h30mins later. He had had serious problems with cramps up Col du Galibier, but still got Silver anyway. Uli was very happy to have completed the race and had a bronze. By the time Uli arrived I had already gone to visit another pass just above Alpe-d’Huez – Col du Poutran 1996 m, which I told Uli about and I guess he thought I was seriously out of my mind. A fourth Swede that Uli and Ola had talked to had not been as fortunate and was not allowed up the Alpe-d’Huez due to a time limit. I saw another Swede in the results, but none before me.
Thanks again to our dear friend Uli, we did not have to do as I had originally planned – to cycle back to La Grave via Col de Sarenne 1999 m. It did not seem appropriate and after waiting so long time there I was more in the mood of getting back fast and get some dinner. I had some ache in my back also and should I have cycled back it would had been best if I had waited no more than 30 minutes or so after the finish – then it would have felt less painful.
We cycled down the Alpe-d’Huez and after a shower and some rest at the hotel had a rather good dinner in a restaurant just north of the hotel.