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Marmotte Granfondo Pyrenees sportive: Second helping

Tobias Mews
30 Mar 2017

The Marmotte is considered one of the world’s toughest sportives, and now it has an equally ferocious sibling in the Pyrenees

I feel your pain, old man, I think to myself as I look up wearily at Octave Lapize’s statue at the summit of the Col du Tourmalet.

It’s the second time I’ve seen him today and only now can I appreciate his anguish when he famously accused the organisers of the Tour de France of being ‘assassins!’ when he became the first man to cross the summit during the 1910 race. 

By this point I’m more than 120km into the inaugural Marmotte Pyrenees, and for the previous 30 minutes, while my legs have ground out one painful pedal stroke after another on the second ascent of the Tourmalet, I’ve considered quitting the ride too many times to mention, and have cursed the organisers for their cruelty.

How anyone thought doing a ‘Double Tourmalet’ was a good idea is beyond me, but I guess when an organisation develops a reputation for putting on infamously tough sportives, they have to live up to their name. 

Mention La Marmotte to any serious road cyclist and you’ll invariably get a whistling noise and a widening of eyes, as if they’re trying to mimic the large Alpine rodent the event is named after.

One of the oldest sportives in the world, La Marmotte has been running for 34 years and each year sees up to 7,500 cyclists from every corner of the globe attempt the 174km rollercoaster around some of the biggest cols in the French Alps, before spitting them out after 5,000m of climbing at the summit of Alpe d’Huez.

It’s known as ‘the mother of all sportives’ and is so popular that entries can sell out within 24 hours.

And now the organiser has added a Pyrenees-based event to its Marmotte Granfondo Series (there’s also an Austrian one), which I’m among the first to get to sample. 

At 163km it’s slightly shorter than the Alps event, but it manages to pack in a whopping 5,600m of elevation, taking in some of cycling’s most iconic cols, including the Col du Tourmalet (twice), the Col d’Aspin and Luz Ardiden.

It’s hard to call, but it could be argued that the Marmotte Pyrenees is actually tougher than its Alpine sibling. 

The beginning of the end

The starting town of Argelès-Gazost, a few kilometres from Lourdes in the south of France, is the kind of place that encourages you to linger.

It would be pleasant to settle into one of the numerous cafes, order an espresso and take in the Belle Époque architecture, but I have to steel myself for the hardships that lie ahead today. 

Curiously, although the event starts here, we’re some distance from the finish at the summit of Luz Ardiden, which means I have to consider how I’m going to get back to Argelès-Gazost after the ride.

I’ll either have to cycle back to my car (an unappealing prospect considering I’ll already have 163km in my legs or catch one of the buses laid on by the organisers.

I decide not to worry about it until later, and instead make my way through the town in search of the start line. 

Trois, deux, un, allez!’ The noise of the klaxon is followed by hundreds of cleats snapping into place.

With around 1,000 cyclists on the start line – a mere fraction of the number who head to the event in the Alps – even those of us at the back don’t have to wait long before we’re out of Argelès-Gazost and tearing south along the Gorges de Luz, a majestic road with high-sided cliff walls that follows the Gave de Gavarnie river upstream to Luz-Saint-Saveur, where the road will swing east to mark the start of our first assault on the Tourmalet.

All around me there’s a frenzy of activity as the stragglers desperately fight their way along this flattish section, no doubt hoping to latch on to a decent group before the serious climbing begins. 

I’m determined to keep my cool and not blow a gasket before the first climb. As riders come past me, I try to suppress my competitive side, telling myself that maintaining a zen-like calm now will pay dividends later when others are dropping from exhaustion.

I keep up a sauntering pace for several kilometres until I am snapped out of my reverie by a rider who whizzes past me wearing a pair of baggy football shorts, trainers and a T-shirt.

His ancient-looking touring bike has a rear pannier rack with a baguette and a carton of orange juice strapped to it.

At first I assume he is someone who has simply got caught up in our event during his round-the-world tour, but then I spot his race number and realise that I have just been overtaken by someone who looks like he is heading out for a picnic. 

To be fair, he’s going at a hell of a pace, as evidenced by the long tail of cyclists in his wake, but pride is at stake so I drop through the gears and accelerate past him. 

I soon find myself passing through Luz-Saint-Saveur, after which a sign delivers the ominous news that we’re about to start climbing – and it’s 18km to the summit with 1,404m of climbing at an average of 8%. 

The Col du Tourmalet hardly needs any introduction. At 2,115m, it’s not only the highest paved road in the Pyrenees but without doubt one of the most well known cols in France, having featured in 88 editions of the Tour de France, more than any other climb.

Around here, the French call it ‘L’incontournable’ – the unavoidable one – not just because it’s the only way to cross this part of the mountains, but because from a cyclist’s perspective it has simply got to be done.

And today will be my day of reckoning. Not just once, but twice.

Heaven on earth

The road has opened up to a vista of sky and space and towering mountains, which despite the effort makes me feel surprisingly good. I begin to smile. If there is a cycling heaven, this is what it will look like. 

I arrive at the summit in reasonable shape – just as well with more than 120km over four major climbs still to go.

On top of the Tourmalet the organisers have placed an aid station – a chance to top up water bottles and gorge on orange slices and bananas while soaking in the majestic view of the Pyrenees against a blue sky and the sweeping road that will take us back down again. 

The descent is the stuff of dreams. I glance at my Garmin and see 60kmh, 70kmh, 80kmh… Just when I think I should rein in the speed, baguette man comes past me in an aero tuck that would impress Chris Froome, speeding towards Saint-Marie-de-Campan with shorts flapping in the wind.

I put my head down and give chase.

Usually, when the Tour de France comes this way, the peloton will head straight towards the Col d’Aspin, but the organisers have an extra treat for us.

We take a sharp right at the village of Payolle and enter a world rarely visited by the Tour. A narrow, single-lane road takes us into a beautiful forest of pine trees that provides welcome shade from the mid-morning sun. 

The road takes us south towards the second category Hourquette d’Ancizan, a climb that has appeared just three times in the Tour and only once in this direction, which was in 2016.

On paper, after the rigours of the Tourmalet, an 8.2km climb at 4.5% should feel easy, and for a few kilometres it is, but then the trees recede to reveal a luscious green landscape split by a long stretch of tarmac pitching between 7-10% all the way to the top.

Birds of prey soar above me, no doubt intrigued by the long line of fresh meat that is making its way through the valley.

Towards the top, the road dips briefly, offering a moment’s respite before the final haul to the summit at 1,564m. Ignoring the water station, I soft-pedal to catch my breath before throwing myself back down the other side towards Ancizan with childlike glee – safe in the knowledge of a food station at the bottom. 

A col to remember

I’ve heard many things about the Col d’Aspin. A member of the affectionately named ‘Circle of Death’ after its first appearance in 1910, it has since become a regular feature on the Tour, often sandwiched between the Tourmalet and the Col de Peyresourde.

With the 12km climb at 6.5% beginning in the forest, once again I’m grateful to have the sun off my back. As I slowly make my way up, the trees give way to a view of the col far away in the distance.

Having such a clear vision of the hurt to come has a profound effect on my legs, which start to complain for the first time, having been exceptionally well behaved up to this point.

At first it’s just a minor protest, but as I get closer to the summit they produce howls of pain as the cumulative effect of several thousand metres of climbing takes hold. For the first time I begin to wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. 

At the top I’m welcomed by a herd of slightly bemused cattle mingling with tired-looking cyclists topping up water bottles. As I look around, I feel some degree of relief to know that I am not the only one hurting.

In the far distance I can see the Pic du Midi – a sobering reminder that I’m only a little over halfway and I still have two hors categorie climbs to go. 

Hope and glory

After descending back to Saint-Marie-de-Campan I latch onto a small group and we silently begin the 1,255m climb back up the east side of the Tourmalet.

We may be together as a group, but each of us is alone, burrowed deep into our personal pain caves, each looking for a way out – or at the very least another gear. 

At the ski resort of La Mongie, about 4km from the summit, I come to a stop. I need a minute to persuade my legs to continue the uphill fight, and to get my head around the fact that even if I get to the top of the Tourmalet I still have to make my way down and then climb another 1,000m to the finish line. 

My mind turns to Octave Lapize’s torment during the Pyrenean stage of the 1910 Tour de France. He promised to quit the race on the descent from the Aubisque, the climb next to the Tourmalet, but somehow he found the resolve to carry on. And so will I.

The final kilometres to the summit of the Tourmalet are a blur of pain. I glance again at the statue of Lapize and order myself to stay focused on the long technical descent down the mountain’s west flank.

As I pass through the town of Luz-Saint-Saveur at the foot of the Tourmalet for the second time today, I can’t help thinking how easy it would be to stop here. But then I cast a glance at my phone and see a message from my wife: ‘We’re waiting for you at the top of Luz Ardiden! Keep going!’ 

If there was one climb on this event that I’d been looking forward to the most, it was Luz Ardiden. A ski resort in the winter, in summer it’s a cyclist’s fantasy of Alpe d’Huez-style switchbacks, and has been a stage finish for eight Tours. Now that I’m beneath it, however, I am not relishing the climb ahead.

The sun, which until now has been blazing overhead, has become hidden by a thick mist. I can barely see beyond my handlebars, and my legs are already running on reserve power when a sign appears out of the gloom telling me I have 13.3km and almost 1,000m of climbing to go.

I plonk my chain into the granny ring and retreat back into my pain cave as I blindly make my way up the 7.7% climb, one misty turn after another. 

And then it’s over. As I coast under the finishing gantry, nine hours and 23 minutes after leaving Argelès-Gazost, the pain, the suffering, the majestic landscapes, punishing climbs and breakneck descents all morph into a feeling of quiet contentment. I later learn that only half the field has completed the course. 

Was this inaugural Marmotte in the Pyrenees tougher than the legendary Marmotte Alps? Possibly. But for now my thoughts are focused on the pasta party beneath me at Luz-Saint-Saveur. Ah, yes, and the dawning memory that I have a 13km ride to get there. Luckily, it’s downhill all the way.


What Marmotte Granfondo Pyrenees
Where Luz-Saint-Saveur, Haute Pyrenees, France
Next one 27th August 2017
Distance 163km
Elevation 5,500m+
Price €70 plus €10 deposit for the timing chip (discounts available for multiple Marmotte finishes). Note the route for 2017 is changing slightly, with the finish at the summit of the Hautacam
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