“So this is the profile of the course,” said Huw Williams, my newly appointed cycling coach, holding up a diagram that even to my untutored eye looked disturbingly pointy. “It looks like a set of teeth doesn’t it? And make no mistake, it is going to bite you … ”
Huw seemed to be having trouble understanding why my friend Mike and I had signed up to take part in the Marmotte, a one-day cycle challenge in the French Alps. He looked us up and down, then back at the forms we’d given him detailing the (limited) extent of our cycling experience. “You do know that most people start training a year in advance?” It was late April – the Marmotte was 10 weeks away. “You are aware this is probably the hardest sportive in Europe? Wouldn’t it have been better to start with something a bit easier?”
Perhaps he had a point. Sportives are timed cycling events for amateurs – not quite races because the start times are staggered and there are no teams, but with a marked course, marshals, feed stations, even spectators and medals. And sportives are booming, both in terms of the number of events and the number of competitors on each. This year all 4,000 places on the Dragon Ride, Britain’s biggest sportive, sold out in 24 hours. The Etape, an annual sportive over the course of one day’s stage of the Tour de France, has become so popular that this year, for the first time, there will be two, each with 10,000 riders, one in the Alps on Monday, the other in the Massif Central on July 17.
There are sportives of all lengths and over all terrains, from a 40-mile jaunt through the Cotswolds to a 100-mile slog along Death Valley in California. But few can match the Marmotte, whose cuddly name belies its ferocity. In all, the course covers 109 miles, with 5,000 metres of vertical ascent (significantly more than climbing from Everest base camp to the summit). It takes place on the first weekend of July each year, coinciding with the start of the Tour de France, and the route takes in four of the Tour’s most famous climbs, the Glandon, the Telegraph, the Galibier and ending with the viciously steep ascent to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez. “Let’s say for a moment that you do get up the Galibier,” said Huw. “There’s a bit of downhill when you can recover but then you hit the worst thing in the world: Alpe d’Huez. It will just be a case of trying to survive … ”
Huw’s terrifying pep talk had the desired effect: Mike and I launched into a frantic 10-week training programme. Every Monday morning Huw would e-mail us a list of rides to complete that week, along with how fast and at what heart-rate they should be ridden. Every Sunday we’d e-mail our results back to him, along with our weight, resting pulse and sleep patterns.
Our gentle rides, which once had been much like a round of golf, with a greater focus on conversation and scenery than physical endeavour, began to become more serious. Instead of stopping at a country pub half way, we would pass on by, perhaps taking a sip of whey protein drink from our bottles as meagre consolation. Our chats were replaced by the occasional breathless comparison of heart rates.
Huw also insisted I get my bike professionally “fitted” and referred me to Nick Frendo of Sigma Sport in Kingston, Surrey. He put me and my bike on rollers, then spent two hours taking measurements, hanging plumb lines from my knees, even shining a laser down my shins. The result: though I’d had the bike for four years, the seat was far too low (the cause of recurring knee pain) and, unbeknown to me, one leg was marginally shorter than the other and so needed special insole inserts.
Twice a week I would pedal to Highgate Hill in north London, then battle up its steep flanks 10 times in succession, swerving among the buses as I went. They say that cycling is all about suffering and on Highgate Hill I think I began to understand the sport – the physical pain in the legs, the mental battle to keep doing something so repetitive, the overtones of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, the kids pointing and laughing at the mad man in Lycra.
And then, suddenly, the 10 weeks of training were up and we were on the train from London to Grenoble. The last time I went cycling in the Alps I’d travelled independently, touring with nothing more than a saddlebag. This time, conscious that I would need all the help I could get, I had signed up with La Fuga, a specialist cycling company set up four years ago by two ex-racers.
Since then, La Fuga has doubled its turnover every year, riding not just the boom in sportives but the sport’s dramatic move upmarket. Traditionally cycling was a proudly working class hobby but in the past decade it has suddenly found an entirely new constituency among wealthy, largely male, professionals. These so-called Mamils – middle-aged men in Lycra – will think nothing of spending £8,000 on a bike and La Fuga offers them trips to match, combining hardcore physical challenges with the best possible hospitality. On one recent trip, for example, the riders stayed at the Grand Hotel du Palais in Biarritz, the former summer residence of Napoleon III; on another the post-ride refuelling was done at the three-Michelin starred Arzak and El Bulli in Spain. For the Marmotte, the focus is more on providing everything possible to maximise clients’ chances of success. There are professional mechanics, guides and coaches, a special feed-station en-route, plus a training division, led by Huw, to prepare riders before the “holiday”.
At breakfast the next morning in Alpe d’Huez, our base for three nights, something felt wrong. It took me a few seconds to work out what it was: at the tables and the queue for the buffet there wasn’t a single person who was fat. The same was true outside, among the parades of temporary cycling shops where the 7,000 participants, from all over the world, milled around excitedly. Everyone was skinny and almost all of them had shaved legs.
That night our 30-strong group sat down for the traditional eve-of-battle pasta marathon. Nerves meant the mood was subdued and conversation limped from choice of tyres to the inevitable subject of drugs – not which of the pros were taking them but the relative merits of Ibuprofen, Tramadol or Diclofenac as preventative pain killers for what was to come tomorrow.
We were up at 4.30am, eating vast breakfasts in silence. At 5.30am we left the hotel and freewheeled down the mountain to the town of Bourg d’Oisans, where we lined up to wait for the start. A band on a makeshift stage played “My Way”, a commentator on the Tannoy shouted encouraging things about the “mythical” status of the Marmotte and then, at 7am, we were off.
First came the phoney war, a 10-mile flat section before the climbing began. We passed through forests and alongside lakes, through a village beginning to rise from slumber. The jostling for position of the first few minutes gradually settled into a curious calm, hundreds of riders moving as one, breathing heavily but otherwise in silence, alone but united by their efforts.
After two hours I was at the top of the first climb, the Col du Glandon, then dropping over the far side on a road that snaked through fields full of bell-wearing cows, past wooden chalets and with Mont Blanc rising directly ahead. The view might be Alpine perfection but you can only snatch glances at it. The combination of fast descent, narrow road and large numbers of riders makes this the most dangerous part. A crash here in 2005 left one cyclist dead.
Soon we were climbing again, first to the Col de Telegraph at 1,556 metres, then to the Col du Galibier at 2,646 metres. By now the sun was beating down, the sight of broken riders slumped by the roadside was growing more common and “I did it my way” had been rolling round my head for four hours. Others had it worse – one man had buckled a wheel and with every revolution, it made a hideous scratch, creak and groan. He had another 70 miles to go.
Past the village of Valloire, we started to get our first glimpses of the Galibier, one of the Tour’s most fabled passes. It was first included in 1911, when only three riders managed to get to the top without getting off and walking. This year, to mark the centenary, the Tour will climb it twice, with one stage ending at the summit, the highest finish in the history of the race.
The higher we got, the more barren the surroundings became. Lush pasture strewn with wildflowers gave way to rocky scree, then patches of snow. The road over the summit is roughly hewn from the bare rock in a series of switchbacks that look like a ladder when seen from the valley far below. “It’s laid out before you like an instrument of torture,” Huw had warned, with a note of glee in his voice.
Thankfully, as I approached the six-hour mark “I did it my way” had begun to fade from my brain, to be replaced by a stream of thoughts on the pointlessness of the endeavour. Could there be a more Sisyphean task – turning your legs in circles all day to complete a route that brings you back to the start, climbing up mountains just to go down again?
“The moment these questions come up, you should take note,” wrote Paul Fournel, the great French chronicler of cycling. “Your quads are demanding more oxygen from your heart than your lungs can provide. That’s when it gets foggy.”
Runners talk about “hitting the wall”; cyclists fear “the Man with the Hammer” who will step out into the road and smash you, leaving you suddenly dazed with fatigue and unable to continue. According to Fournel, any metaphysical anxiety is a sure sign that the Man is waiting for you unseen around the next corner.
But by now I was at the top and ready for the longest descent of the day, a 30-mile blast past the steep snow-covered slopes of La Meije, through the village of La Grave and back to Bourg d’Oisans. The bunch I was in hit 40mph but suddenly plunged into a series of tunnels, one so dark you could barely see the cyclists around you.
And then came the worst thing in the world, the climb back up to Alpe d’Huez, an ascent of 1,150 metres – like Highgate Hill 16 times over – via 21 hairpin bends. It was 2.30pm and more than 30C. I decided I would give up cycling. I felt drunk but without the hilarity. The heat haze and the sweat in my eyes made the scenery and the cheering crowds seem not quite real, as if glimpsed in a fevered dream. Each of the 21 bends was marked with a large numbered plaque but I lost count between each one.
The cyclist in front of me was writhing on his pedals, swerving from left to right. Then finally he fell to the floor and began to vomit. It was just the boost I needed – I knew I wasn’t that bad and I knew then that I would finish. As the road reached the first chalets of the resort and the gradient eased, I felt the most bizarre cycling sensation of all. I didn’t want it to end.
Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor
La Fuga (www.lafuga.cc) offer three-night Marmotte packages, including halfboard accommodation, transfers, event entry and team jersey, from £850. La Fuga Performance, the coaching service by Huw Williams, costs £200 for three months. A bikefitting session by Nick Frendo (www.sigmasport.co.uk) costs £120. Tom Robbins travelled from London to Grenoble with Rail Europe (www.raileurope.co.uk). Returns cost from £108 in standard and £269 first class. Bikes are free but must be disassembled and carried in a bike bag. For a list for forthcoming sportives, see www.cyclosport.org
If that sounds a little too strenuous…
Burgundy Forget energy gels and protein drinks, this ride is all about fine wine. After setting off from Beaune, unofficial “wine capital” of Burgundy, you stop to tour the cellars of a vineyard before starting a long lunch with tutored wine-tasting. The rest of the week continues in the same vein, mixing rides (up to 30 miles per day) and tastings. It’s an independent rather than group trip, but detailed notes and route maps are provided and your luggage is transferred between hotels as you cycle. From £1,190, www.utracks.com
Sardinia This tour around the hills, coast and country lanes of Sardinia has a focus on sampling local produce. Stop-offs include Pabillonis, a centre of production for saffron and saffron-filled pastries, Gonnosfanadiga, for a tour of an olive oil press, and there are tastings of local cheeses and fresh seafood. Cycling never exceeds 40 miles per day. From £710, www.skedaddle.co.uk
Lake Constance This trip, starting from a historic coaching inn in Bregenz, Austria, follows train and boat routes around the lake so you can hop on and off your bike as you please. Highlights include Stein am Rhein, famous for its chocolate shops, and Schloss Laufen, known for its street theatre. On your final day, back in Bergenz, you can take the cable car up Pfander mountain to view your entire route and feel suitably smug about cycling through Austria, Germany and Switzerland in 11 days. From £1,029, www.headwater.com
Texas Bike through the desert, stopping at the middle-of-nowhere artists community of Marathon, then through ghost towns and canyons and along the Rio Grande. On this guided, six-night trip you cover up to 35 miles a day and stay at stylish hotels. From $6,995, www.butterfield.com
Holland This week-long, self-guided trip takes in castles, markets, museums and historic villages, staying at four-star hotels along the way. Starting in Arnhem, with its mass of second world war museums, you’ll cycle through Hoge Veluwe National Park, which boasts not only rich wildlife but also an art gallery housing works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet and Renoir. Following the Lower Rhine from here, past the Royal Palace at Stoestdijk, the final day is left for exploring the farmers’ markets and majestic lake houses of Gouda. From £775, www.inntravel.co.uk