21 July was the day for one of the most spectacular stages in the 2004 edition of the Tour de France. It was the 15.5 kilometre individual time trial that started in Bourg d’Oisans and climbed via the 21 hairpins up to the finish in Alpe d’Huez.
Almost three weeks earlier, the same day as the Tour de France prologue, another race started in Bourg d’Oisans and finished in Alpe d’Huez. The race is called La Marmotte and the name is taken from the small furry groundhog that is the symbol for the area.
Hairpin number 1 up to Alpe d’Huez with the marmot top left.
La Marmotte is one of about ten long distance bike races within the Grand Trophée, which take place around France. It is at the same time the third out of four races in the Trophée de l’Oisans, which is arranged in the area. La Marmatte usually takes place on the last Saturday, and the Trophée de l’Oisans is concluded the following day with an individual time trial up to Alpe d’Huez, just as in Tour de France 2004.
La Marmotte is 174 kilometres, so it does not use the shortest route between the start and finish. The first climb begins roughly 15 kilometres after the start in Bourg d’Oisans, which is located 720 metres above sea level. It is about 25 kilometres to the top, but the climb is interrupted by two short descents. The road then drops from Col de Croix de Fer at 2 068 metres down to Saint Jean de Maurienne at 550 metres. From there the course is fairly flat to Saint Michel de Maurienne, where the second climb starts. The road climbs to Col du Télégraphe at 1 570 metres and then continues up to Col du Galibier at 2 642 metres. From there it goes back to the starting point of the race, to finally attack the last 14 kilometres up to Alpe d’Huez. The participants have climbed more than 5 000 metres at the finish.
All participants in La Marmotte receive a gold, silver or bronze diploma. The time that is required to receive a gold or silver diploma depends on the age of the rider.
I had made my registration for the race via the race organiser’s web page over the Internet. A medical form is supposed to be attached to the application, but I discussed this with the organisation and we agreed that it would be sufficient if I sent them the details from my heart rate monitor from the previous year’s Tour of Jotunheimen, together with a reference of my result on that web page.
I booked a hotel room for three nights in conjunction to the race via the Tourist Office in Bourg d’Oisans.
I made a time plan for the race based on earlier experiences. It was a tough but realistic goal, I thought at the time, and aimed at completing the race within nine hours. To receive a golden diploma I had to complete the race within 9:15 and to get a silver diploma in 11:06.
My plan for the race.
The Wednesday evening before the race my wife and I landed, together with our bikes, at Nice Côte d’Azur. As the airport is situated at the water front, I took the opportunity to calibrate the altimeter of my heart rate monitor. We got our luggage into our rental car and headed for the N85 towards Digne-Les-Bain, where we spent the night.
After breakfast we continued our journey towards Grenoble and Bourg d’Oisans, where we arrived in the afternoon. We put up at our hotel, Le Terminus, which was a family owned Logis de France hotel. These hotels focus on the food they serve, and often specialise in other areas, such as cycling, trekking or fishing.
Hotel Oberland to the left and Le Terminus to the right.
The town was invaded by cyclists. Most seemed to be from Holland, and there were some from Belgium. We heard more Flemish than French. I later found out that about half of the 6 000 participants in La Marmotte normally are Dutch. It was obvious that Lance Armstrong has had a large impact; Trek bikes were very common, as well as US Postal outfits. I checked the altimeter and it showed 720 meters above sea level, an impressive precision.
We took the car up to the Alpe d’Huez and I was surprised that the road was much wider than it had seemed on TV. It was also newly paved, probably because of the time trial in three weeks.
I had studied a detailed profile of the Alpe d’Huez, and once the climb starts, the first 2 – 3 kilometres are really steep, averaging around 11 %. Thereafter the gradient eases up a little and is fairly constant up to the finish. There is really no place to recover during the entire climb, except for the actual hairpins. In the lower slopes these are very spacious and almost flat, but otherwise the climb grinds on continuously.
We saw cyclists all the way to the top of the climb. When we got up to Alpe d’Huez I noticed a plaque along the road that said the Tour de France riders had one kilometre the finish, but I did not see any natural spot where the finish would be located. The village is actually a ski resort with lots of hotels, restaurants and an ice rink. We stopped by the Palais des Sports, which is a huge gymnasium, where I collected my start number and time chip, the so called Kiwin.
Signpost to Palais des Sports in Alpe d’Huez.
I checked the weather forecast back at the Tourist Office in Bourg d’Oisans. It was supposed to be a bit unstable conditions on Friday a.m., but thereafter it would be clear skies for the rest of the day, as well as for Saturday.
We had dinner at the hotel and the food was really delicious. I could not fall asleep and watched the semi-final in the European Championships in football. Greece scored 1 – 0 on Portugal in the last minute of the first extension, but I still could not fall asleep.
On Friday morning I checked my bike and rode to hairpin number 21, i.e. the first hairpin of the climb to Alpe d’Huez. I did not need to use my lowest gear and I made around 12 km/h without pushing the pedals too hard. All in all, I felt fine.
We made a trip by car to Briancon, which turned out to be a very beautiful town. On the way we passed Col du Lautaret. It was a three-way intersection and at the same time a Col for the road between Grenoble and Briancon. The third road went up to Col du Galibier, and caming from this direction, Lautaret would be just like any three-way intersection.
Pont d’Asfeld in the outskirts of Briancon.
We did go the same way back to Bourg d’Oisans and paid a visit to the Botanical Garden which is located at the Col du Lautaret. It impressed me that someone had located a Botanical Garden at an altitude of 2 000 meters and a bit to my surprise, I found it well worth seeing. On the trip back to Bourg d’Oisans I had the opportunity to check out this part of the course. From the car the road seemed a bit technical a few kilometres before La Grave and at the bottom of the descent, but otherwise there was plenty of visibility through the curves and the last five kilometres were almost flat.
The Tourist Office confirmed the weather forecast for Saturday. I checked the altimeter again and it showed less than 700 metres, so a high pressure had already moved into the area. I started to get my usual anxiety about what to wear for a race. I had brought clothes for all possibilities I could think of. If it would be sunny and 25 degrees at 700 metres, what would the weather and temperature be at 2 600 metres?
Back at the hotel I fixed some last details, such as putting the number on to my bike and inflating the tyres to the desired pressure. The bike storage was by now filled with other bicycles and I exchanged a few words with two Spaniards from Ronda. One of them had got his fork damaged during the transportation, so he had just arrived from the local bike dealer with a new one, which he was about to fit to his bike.
We got very nice pasta for dinner and we could have as much as we wanted. Afterwards we had a walk around the town. There were lots of people that were out walking. Most were men in their forties, thin, short or balding hair and wearing sports clothes. I felt that I blended in pretty well. That night I had no problems with falling asleep.