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My mate Marmotte

| Cycling Plus | 14/07/2011 13:17pm

It isn’t just the Cycling Plus writers who get on their bikes, the ad team are at it too. Commercial director Scott Longstaff used to play rugby and thought Lycra was just for cheerleaders. He’s changed his mind since dedicating the last few months to conquering arguably the world’s toughest sportive, La Marmotte.

Ten years ago, when I was a big hard rugby player, I would have laughed at any bloke who rubbed cream on his arse, pulled on a pair of long Lycra bib tights and rode around on something called a monocoque. But now it appears that I am him … Well apart from the cream thing.

Six months ago a relentlessly enthusiastic man from Sky called Steve Beckett coerced Cycling Plus editor Rob Spedding and I into taking on the Marmotte  (Steve’s actually head of cycling at Sky…but more of that in a bit). Now, as an ignorant, I said ‘yes’, ‘of course’  … I mean its only a bike ride right?

So, blissfully unaware of just how hard a ride up three Hors Categorie and one Cat 1 Tour de France climbs would actually  be, I received quite a shock when I looked at the profile of the ride. Even on paper the Glandon, Telegraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez and 5000m of ascent in 174k hurts…

It's what Chris would have wanted...Scott 'enjoys' Alpe d'Huez on his Boardman Pro Carbon

But from February this year I was all about the Marmotte, and more importantly, not failing the Marmotte! Coming from a team sport background, and a short sharp exertion one like rugby, meant that learning to ride a bike properly was hard. Basic cardiovascular fitness is one thing to sort out, but having to build deep endurance quadriceps was just agony to an explosive ‘athlete’ like me. Most cyclists will take it for granted, but not having the basic leg strength to drag myself up the shortest of hills – whilst everyone else flew up – was soul destroying, especially considering the mountains that awaited in July.

I just had to grin and bear it and during the final winter months I’d go out for hours on my own in the wind and cold rain and, well, just suffer. Two things got me through. First up my Garmin Edge 800 and a great article on Bikeradar from Cycling Plus on how to build basic core endurance by just training long and slowly and using HR as a guide. It felt really good to plug the Garmin into my PC and check out my ride and that think that although I wasn’t really pushing myself, just by keeping in HZ 2 was doing me good.

The real eye opener came in March with a trip to Majorca for the Sky Velo – a thriving club set up by Sky employees – training camp. Some great people, some great riders, a beautiful location and the fear of God put right up me with the experience of crawling up a mountain for the very first time. Riding uphill for more than 20 minutes was utterly alien to me so the hour and a half that I took to top the Puig Major – and the pain that it caused – really woke me up to the true nature of what lay ahead in July. I’m not going to lie  – I was humbled, embarrassed and properly bricking myself.

Booking into a few decent sportives through the Spring was a good thing. The Endura Lionheart 100k and then the Wiggle New Forest Sportive were both excellent and allowed me to check myself against other riders – those that looked like they were about to give birth but still passed me, those who looked just like me and were struggling up hills and the ones that I rode away from. Of course, there were always those smug sods who would tell me – without checking their breathing – that this was the first ride they’d done in 14 years, and wasn’t it a nice day out…

With the winter out of the way, I started courting some expert advice. First up were the team at Boardman bikes. The loaned me a 2011 Boardman ProCarbon for my training and the ride itself. I can’t be counted as any sort of tech expert, the Boardman was light, fast and solid but also really comfortable. Andy from Boardman was good enough to come out on a training ride for me just to make sure that the bike fitted properly (how would I know?) and as a bit of an expert, offer some training and ride tips.

Whilst the bike was designed and set up as a speedster, Andy knew that its standard crankset and  24-tooth bottom gear wouldn’t be enough for me and those mountains, so he recommended a swap to a compact and 28T bottom. I can’t thank him enough for that. If we hadn’t swapped it around I’d probably still be in France!

The spring and early summer was a relentless programme of long hilly rides before work, after work, during work and then (thank you Mrs Longstaff) lots and lots of four, five and six hour slogs up and down the Mendips at the weekends. To be honest, for the most part it was great fun. I loved the training and the new experience and I loved the feeling of getting stronger every week but I was still bricking myself. I trained mostly on my own and there were some really low points when I rode out with friends and colleagues who, without much training at all, would nail me relentlessly on the very hills that I was training on. No respect!

With a month to go I took on the 200km Wiggle Dragon Ride Gran Fondo. To that date (and since actually) the longest ride I’d done by a good distance. It was a key moment for me, not just on my training plan, but psychologically. I knew that if I could finish it and get up the 3000m of climbing, then I might have a chance over 5000m of the Marmotte. Anyway, it was long and I developed an excruciating shoulder pain, but I did it and I knew I must be on track.

The one thing that I didn’t count on though, was recovering from a 200km, 8.5 hour ride. Whilst I gave myself a few days off, the following week’s training really hurt. Looking back it was obvious that my body was still smarting from the Welsh hills but at the time it really hit me and more doubts washed over me with only a few weeks to go. I’ve been told since that getting closer to a big event, your body starts to shut down and preserve energy for the big effort. Well, it must have done because every ride I did in June a miserable and confidence sapping experience.

Then came the big day. The 2nd of July. Rob and I got to Alpe d’Huez a day in advance to settle in, set up our bikes and loosen up. As we were riding with an organised group of riders from Sky Velo we were really well supported and helped out by a professional events company, Face Partnership (the people behind the Smithfield Nocturne and all round good guys).

The prep and faffing around on the final day is too much to go into here (lots of water drinking, lots of pee stop, an obsession with carbs, fear of the vin rouge, paranoia about aching shoulder and endless conversations with fellow riders about the fear of the ride. If one more whippet-like eight stone bloke had said to me ‘its only a bike ride’ they wouldn’t have made it to the start line…

But we did … And following a 6am descent of Alpe d’Huez, we were absolutely frozen. It was cold and hanging around at the start for an hour and a half didn’t help matters. In fact during the day we saw a 24 degree difference in temperature but the icy start probably took our minds off what lay ahead. I’ll remind you again. Glandon, Telegraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez.

British Cycling's Stewart Kellett, Scott Longstaff, and a typical metrosexual MAMIL.

Spedding and I set off with Stewart Kellett – head of mass participation cycling at British Cycling and Andy Minns, a Sky Velo regular. Despite an embarrassing need for a ‘natural break’ after only 3km, we settled in for a gentle first 10km to the bottom of Glandon. As soon as it hit us, the frenetic slapping down of gears could be heard everywhere. I’d already planned to go down to my easiest gear straight away rather that fighting my way up. Fortunately everyone else had the same idea and we rode together, just spinning along and chatting. That first three hours of the ride was really cool. The climb was beautiful and because I’d prepared mentally for it, it was actually not that tough. Unfortunately Spedding’s pie and beer training plan meant that he was struggling, and it was clear to see then that it might not be his day…

A quick break and fill up of water bottles at the top then down the fast descent and onto the bottom of the Telegraphe. The climbing actually started way before the start of the mountain with 10kms at 4% just to get there. Once we arrived at the bottom, I had to be selfish and spin at my pace. I’d set myself up for this moment but passing a sign that says 34km to the top of Galibier is never going to be fun. I just closed off and did my own thing, ticking down the distance for four hours. The Telegraphe up to Valoir was OK. Hot but bearable and I was eating and drinking enough to give myself confidence. Then the Galibier and 15 miles of climb. It’s not all that steep, averaging 8% or something, but boy it’s relentless.

Legends, stories and folklore can’t prepare you for the final 6kms up Galibier. It’s an open lunar landscape that isn’t attractive but it is soul destroying – you can see where your going without it ever getting any closer. You’re climbing a mountain in glorious sunshine, surrounded by a thousand cyclists from all over Europe but not a word is spoken. A surreal experience as all you hear and see is the whir and gentle clinking of chains fizzing along and pain etched on everyone’s face. The final kick up to the summit came close to breaking me – it was hard but I just wouldn’t give in. Reaching the summit of Galibier was the most satisfying moment for me. I’d said to myself for months that once I was there, I done it. However hard the Alpe might be, I only really had 15km of riding to go. In my mind I’d done it. More was to come though…

Despite recently repaired tarmac the descent, with tired arms and legs, was really scary. The 40km ride to the Alpe was mostly downhill through a valley on some fast main roads so I just couldn’t relax. In my mind I was trying to get myself together for the final climb, but I just wasn’t allowed to. Dark tunnels, loads of cyclists, lorries, cars and a spiteful mile long uphill meant that by the time I got to Bourg d’Oisans at the foot of Alpe d’Huez I was utterly broken.

I can’t describe how tough the first 3km of Alpe d’Huez was. It was 28 degrees, exposed and at a 12%t incline. It felt like riding through treacle in an oven.

Thank god for the Sky Velo feed station after that bottom ramp. Ten minutes in the shade with a can of Coke and a very unexpected bottle of cold water down my back did me the world of good (thanks Katy and Alex!). The rest is actually a blur. I really wish I could ride the Alpe again on its own – I think it deserves to be savoured and remembered. I don’t know how, but for another hour and a half I wound up the hill passing scores of bedraggled Europeans taking a breather … I was so glad I wasn’t alone. At the top it felt good and such a relief. Those that had already finished were lining the streets and café bars cheering us all along. I got my medal, took my shoes off, had my ‘promised’ cigarette – yes I know, I know – and traipsed back to our hotel.

Marmotte done. Five months of training, 11 hours of a ride and a few flashes of memories, and a lot of pride. The bike took care of me well and was solid as a rock. Uphill and down, I didn’t miss a gear and I didn’t have any wobbles … Thank you Mr Boardman

And Spedding? Well, I’m sure he’ll tell you his story himself, but he claims that he conquered Galibier…

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