La Marmotte Gran Fondo: A Sunday in Hell!

First year CRCA Member Charles Macpherson submitted this epic recap of his participation in the 2017 La Marmotte Gran Fondo. Do you have a race report, ride recap or any other content piece that you would like to share via CRCA.net? Reach out the CRCA Communications Director.

(1) Where is the finish line?

I reached the top of L'Alpe d'Huez around 10 PM on July 2nd, 2017. I was by myself, the road illuminated by my small, flashing headlight. Groups of cyclists filled the streets, headed back to their hotels after dinner and drinks. They had finished Marmotte, gone home, showered, gotten dressed up, went out to dinner, and were coming back from dinner when they spotted me searching for the finish line. “Where is the finish line?” I called out to a large group of young, fit riders. “It’s just over there!” someone answered in English. “Make a left and another left! You are just finishing?!” “Yes, just finishing!” I said. The group erupted in cheers--”Bravo!! Spectaculaire!!” and began furiously clapping and whistling. People were also cheering me from their hotel windows, high above the street. They were calling out to me. I didn’t understand what they were saying (they spoke French) but it felt great. “Thank you! Thank you!” I said, and waved to them. 

I pulled up to the “finish line” but it was gone. Only some somber-looking workers remained, disassembling the last of the metal barricades. There was no giant inflatable arch for me to ride under. No LED clock to display my finishing time. No photographers. Did this race actually take place, or had it been a dream? No, no way to dream this sort of exhaustion.

For whatever reason it was important to me to go to the exact finishing “spot.” I asked a laborer if I was at that spot and he simply responded, “yes” and continued disassembling the barricades. Another man was sweeping up garbage. They wore winter coats.

It was very cold by this time. In the 30s F. I had chosen to wear my stylish new wool “Alpe d'Huez” sweater for the event. I carried a lightweight backpack with a couple of nylon jackets and headwear to put on/take off as I needed. Now my sweater was soaked with sweat under the jackets and the sweat was starting to freeze.

I still had a soggy “official Marmotte finishers lunch coupon” in my back pocket. I found the food tent. The workers had stopped serving food, packed everything up, and were sitting outside on a bench smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.

I dismounted my bike near the tent and asked where I could redeem my lunch ticket. I had begun trembling from the cold at this point.

“Sir! You just finish now? Sir congratulations!” A very kind young woman got up from the bench to help me. “Sir you come inside--yes? It is warm for you.” She led me inside the tent, which was indeed nice and warm. “Please, sit here sir! Relax don’t move. You work very hard! Wait I will bring food. What would you want?”

“Ice cream? A soda?” I asked.

“Yes. You relax yourself sir. Sit. Don’t move!”

She brought me a bunch of of tasty leftovers--yogurt, cheese, bread, fruit, candy--in a paper bag and gave me water and a soda. “Sir--I put your ice cream in the freezer. When you ready, tell me! I will get it.”

A group of senior citizens and a group of young hip-hop kids--I didn’t know either’s relation to the event--sat inside the tent in separate groups, chatting. I later realized these were groups of Marmotte volunteers (and friends/family of Marmotte volunteers?). They were waiting for their own hot dinner and after-party which was to take place after the official event ended and the course was dismantled. They looked at me with a mixture of reverence and curiosity. Who is this strange American?

I asked the girl if I could use her cellphone to call the van that was supposed to meet me. She kindly let me call the American phone number. Don’t know what this cost her. I offered to pay and she said, “no don’t worry sir!”

After the call the girl and I chatted a bit.

“Sir this is amazing! Are you happy?”

“Yes and no,” I explained. Happy that I finished, but it took so long! I am one of the very last to finish.”

“But sir, listen to me--how old are you?”

“52.”

“Ok listen to me sir. I am only 25 years old. And when I think about this race you did. My God! There is no way I could do it! You made a great accomplishment! Be very proud of yourself!”

The random people cheering for me as I ascended the top of L'Alpe d'Huez and the kind young woman who gave me food and encouragement at the food tent--these were the two highlights of my day. I will never forget their kindness.

(2) In the Dead of Winter

I signed up for the July 2017 La Marmotte Gran Fondo in November of 2016. Before I signed up, I consulted a friend of mine, Mike, who coaches elite athletes--cyclists, runners and triathletes.

Backstory: I had begun training with Mike a decade earlier when I wanted to complete an Ironman triathlon. However I dropped out when I realized that the training would involve work. I had no discipline at the time. I remember him saying, “go do a six hour bike ride today.” About two hours into the bike ride I said to myself, “I am suffering! Why am I doing this?” I concluded that the best way to stop the suffering would be to remain sedentary.

Ten years went by. Sometimes I exercised, mostly I didn’t.

In 2015--encouraged by some friends who ride--I returned to cycling. Exercise can be a great cure for depression, anxiety, lethargy, weight problems, low energy, sleeping troubles etc. Or for general lack of direction. I had all of the above.

I kept riding and gradually got into reasonable shape. I joined a couple of local cycling clubs--Huntington Bike Club and Mineola Bike Club. After a time I was able to climb Long Island’s North shore hills without crying. I lost 20 lbs. I began forming friendships with other cyclists. That was when I heard about La Marmotte Gran Fondo. Some friends of friends were planning to do the event and I was invited.

The friend who introduced me to his “La Marmotte” friends had some advice for me when he heard I was interested in doing the race: “I strongly advise you not to do that. It is too difficult! Very very strong riders--elite riders--are chewed up and spat out by that race. They sit by the roadside crying. It is not for normal people like you and me.”

Why couldn’t I have listened to this advice? It was good advice. Accurate. But I got it in my head, “Not only will I sign up for Marmotte. I will finish it. I am a normal person. But I can be better than normal.”

Back to Mike. Before signing up for Marmotte I asked him if he thought I could do it (with training). I will never forget his answer. Actually I did forget his answer. But it was something very much like: “I think it is within your genetic potential.” One of the wisest answers ever! I took it to mean, “You can finish it if you work like a dog and are willing to push yourself to your absolute limits.” I asked Mike if he would train me and he agreed. I was glad--and terrified.

“You realize the climbing is 5000 meters, right?” Mike asked me.

“Meters,” I repeated. “Not feet.”

“Yes”

“There’s three feet in a meter, right?”

“Yes.”

“That’s like 16,000 feet right?”

“Yes. A bit more.”

“That’s a lot.”

“Yes it is. It’s a crazy amount of climbing.”

“Oh.”

***

The exquisite suffering

There is only one way to get stronger on the bike. That is to suffer. Suffering is when your quads feel like they are on fire and you can’t catch your breath. Suffering is when that goes on for minute after eternal minute. You are hoping to die so that you can stop pedaling. But death does not come. Only a living death. Imagine trying to run over hot coals. You reason, “If I just run very fast I will hardly feel it.” Then mid-run, you are told, “Hold up! Wait there a minute I have to ask you a question,” And you are standing there barefoot on the molten embers. It’s something like that.

I bought a high-end training machine which allowed me to pedal my bike indoors in the winter and “power meter” pedals which allowed me to measure the amount of watts I was producing (in the moment and for a given time period). Mike would give me specific workouts to do--amount of minutes, amount of watts. An interval of this followed by an interval of that. After each workout I would upload the workout “data file” so that Mike could analyze it. He would text me his feedback afterwards. The feedback was always positive. That helped me a lot.

The idea in my training was to increase my FTP--functional threshold power. The amount of watts I could maintain over time.

To make a walking/running analogy: One could walk a long time without discomfort. One could jog a shorter time without discomfort. One could run an even shorter time. One could sprint all-out only a tiny amount of time before lungs and legs “caught on fire” and you had to stop.

In cycling I would sprint--make the biggest amount of power possible--hold the sprint for 20 minutes, pedal easy for 5 minutes, and sprint all-out for another 20 minutes. It was brutal.

(There were other types of workouts too, but in the dead of winter these “2 x 20s” on the indoor trainer were the bread and butter.) I would find the edge of my lactate threshold and hold that edge. Workout after workout, day after day, week after week.

When the days were at their shortest (4 pm darkness) and coldest (below freezing) the last thing I wanted to do after work was get on the indoor trainer. I wanted to go to sleep. Then wake up and eat Doritos in my recliner.

What made me complete the workouts? Because I wanted to get stronger? No. To complete Marmotte? No. General health and fitness? No. I completed the workouts because it would have been too embarrassing to tell Mike, “I didn’t do the workout. I wanted to rest instead.”

From January through June I worked out 5 or 6 times per week. Hours and hours and hours of cycling. Good moods and bad moods. Cold weather and hot weather. Deep suffering with short periods of rest. “It hurts now but it will pay off in France,” Mike told me more than once. I understood the “hurt now” part. I would find out about France later.

There were good things: 1) My FTP increased by a whopping 60 watts over the course of the winter--a 25% increase in power. 2) Each time I completed a workout I got to bask in a sea of endorphins for hours afterwards. It was a deep, physical satisfaction alongside of the exhaustion. 3) I began to believe in myself.

In the run-up to La Marmotte I accomplished two other milestones. 1) I completed the New York City Gran Fondo--a 100 mile, 8500 ft elevation course. 2) I was able to stay with the Mineola “A” group ride and not get “dropped.” Staying with the Mineola A group was an even bigger deal for me than completing the NY Gran Fondo. I had been viciously dropped from this same group the previous fall. “Dropped” is when all the other riders go ahead of you and keep going until you can no longer see them. I remember being utterly alone and only hearing the chirping birds.

Per coach’s instructions, during the NY Gran Fondo I kept my average watts at 70% of my FTP. This allowed me to finish the Fondo feeling strong. (We would apply this same strategy at La Marmotte--hold back a bit so you have power at the end.)

“That felt like a piece of cake,” I said to Mike after the NY Gran Fondo. “Would you say Marmotte is about twice as hard?”

“About twice as hard. That’s one way to look at it,” Mike said. (Mike has a deadpan sense of humor.)

As spring came I took my training outside. Rode lots of hills. Did long rides. Pushed against my lactate threshold. Rode Bear Mountain twice--the second time in a 10,000 ft elevation circuit. My cycling friends cheered me on.

I was in the best shape of my life. I was drunk on fitness. But when I began climbing the Col du Glandon on July 2nd at 8 am I sobered up very quickly. The mountains in La Marmotte go straight up. And from there they go up. They go right up into the clouds.

(3) Col du Glandon

One thing I learned in my training is that you never know how you will feel riding on a given day before you actually ride. Many days before getting on the bike I’ll feel exhausted, unmotivated and as if my legs are “heavy.” But then I’ll feel strong once I start pedaling. Some days my legs “open up” halfway through a ride and I have a surge of energy.

Occasionally I feel energized and motivated prior to a ride, but once the ride starts I can’t produce power.

I have come to realize that I need to cycle ten miles or so before I can judge how I feel. Sometimes a lot more than ten.

On the morning of July 2nd 2017, as I lined up with 7,500 other riders in the La Marmotte starting corral I felt “blah” and fatigued. Low energy and low spirits. Not sure why. Didn’t sleep great the night before. Decided not to assess how I felt until I was pedaling a while.

Other riders chatted happily with their mates and snapped selfies. I was in my own world.

My goal was simply to survive the race. There are four mountains, and they are a handful.

1. Col du Glandon - 23 km @ 5% average grade

2. Col du Telegraphe - 12 km @ 7%

3. Col du Galibier - 18 km @ 7%

4. Alpe d'Huez - 13 km @ 8%

Mike had told me “Hold back power throughout. Feel like you are pedaling easily. Keep your average watts under 200. Galibier will be the entire race for you. Galibier is your goal. Get over Galibier and you have a 30 mile descent. When you finish descending, climbing Alpe d'Huez will be your victory lap. Remember to keep drinking.”

I focused on making it to the top of Galibier.

In the early going riders were, in my view, racing as opposed to riding. I started near the back of the pack on purpose because I don’t like to ride in large, chaotic packs (dangerous) and because I planned to ride nice and easy. Paceline after paceline of riders rocketed past me on the flat valley road from Bourg d'Oisans to the base of the Glandon. I was advised to “latch onto” a train of riders (draft in back of them) to save myself energy and get a speed boost. But all trains were going too fast for me. I would have needed to ride at 90% FTP to stay with them. I let them go.

The race was overwhelmingly comprised of young, skinny, very fit cyclists. It looked to me like the majority trained in the mountains. “Alpine cyclists.” Climbers. The average guy might have had my same leg power but weighed 40% less. I am a Clydesdale, so to speak. A big guy who does not climb easily or naturally. I’m not fat, just big. 6’-3” 210 lbs. Soon it was just me and the other “not-a-climber” types struggling up the base of Glandon. The climbers had gone ahead.

Whereas on Long Island, our “hills” can be climbed in ten minutes or less, in the Alps one must settle into a climb and plan to “make a day of it.”

I brought my own bike to France. It is equipped with “climbing gears.” A “compact crank” in front and a “32” in back. I am no expert on gearing, but this setup makes it easier to turn the pedals on steep hills. Throughout the 108 miles, any time I was ascending I was in the easiest gears (smallest ring in front, smallest ring in back).

It was very hard going.

What did I think about on my way up Gladon? What did I look at? The short answer is nothing. I was breathing hard and my legs were straining. Lots of time I just stared down at the road. There were some pretty girls riding near the back and ordinarily I would have looked at them, maybe tried to strike up a conversation. But I was in a world of hurt and just had no interest. The Alps are absolutely gorgeous but I couldn’t enjoy the scenery. I focused on not breathing too hard. When I caught myself huffing and puffing I would pedal more easily (relatively speaking) and try to bring my heart rate down. Even to ride “easily” I needed to be at 70% of my FTP. In other words even riding easy was very hard.

It was a cold day. Overcast, damp. Temps were in the 50s F as I ascended Glandon. I hadn’t expected this. “It’s summer,” I had reasoned. It was summer in New York, anyway.

I climbed for three and a half hours. Fifteen miles to the top. Slow and steady wins the race? Slow and steady finishes the race, I thought to myself. Maybe.

I should confess that I was feeling profound self-doubt during much of the climb up Glandon. Glandon is not quite as steep (overall) as the other three mountains but it goes on forever. I was in pain and there was no relief. I was anxious. I had negative thoughts. Several times I recited the “Litany against Fear” from the book Dune out loud:

"I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."

This helped me. A little bit. But a little bit is something.

***

Near the top

Near the top of Glandon I was photographed by the race’s official photographer. I forced a smile and gave the thumbs up.

The first climb ended. I met the van that was provided by my tour group on top of Glandon. I ate a ham and cheese sandwich and drank Gatorade. I surveyed the mountaintop and the glorious views into the valley. It was windy. I didn’t feel happy or not happy. Was in some sort of weird “focused” mode where the only thing on my mind was survival. I thought to myself, “Mission accomplished, I got up the first climb and I still have most of my energy. I can do this. I think I can do this. I’m pretty sure.” Physically I felt a bit better than when I started. But still felt “so-so.” It was a cold and miserable day.

I asked someone to take my photo before I got back on the bike. I held up one finger in the photo and smiled. My idea was to take a photo after ascending each of the four mountains, each time holding up one more finger to show my progress. I planned to share these photos with my coach and other friends later. But as the day went on I took no more photos. “Creativity” and fun went out of my mind altogether. It became all about survival.

(4) Perilous Descents, the Relentless Passage of Time, a Kind Old Man

As a general rule, I don’t like to use my brakes. I like going down hills fast. I tend to go through stop signs and red lights (when I’m sure the roads are deserted) in order to keep from braking. If I want to slow down I stop pedaling and coast. If I’m in a paceline and getting too close to the rider in front I will sit up to catch more wind or veer off to the side until my speed comes down a touch. It takes work to put a bike in motion and keep it in motion. I hate to “erase” my work by hitting the brakes.

Ordinarily I would have been ecstatic to descend after the brutal three-and-a-half hour climb up Glandon. A chance to rest, go fast, make up time, catch up to other riders. But descending the Alps is not about happiness--at least to me. It’s a whole different thing.

The wicked-steep descent down Glandon is twelve miles long. The road is not straight but made up of  “switchbacks.” Take this line of Vs and picture it vertically: VVVVVVVV. You rocket down a steep, straight section, then you come to a sharp hairpin turn--which you have to slow way down for--then there’s another straight, steep section. This keeps repeating. Even without pedaling you pick up speed instantly. You hit 40 mph in the blink of an eye. You can hit 50, 60, or more. Because of my size once I start moving it’s hard to stop. All that weight is resting on two one-centimeter sections of tire. A tiny amount of road contact.

And there’s this: on the side of the road is a sheer dropoff. You are descending down the side of a huge mountain. If you fall off the side you are likely to die. This is important.

Descents in the Alps have my full attention.

A risk-taking cyclist I know had said, “Dude! Try to minimize braking on the descents! Find that edge! You might feel like you can’t make it around a hairpin but you can! You can go much faster than you think!”

Yeah, no dude. I want to live. I am violently opposed to dying.

Another friend tells the story of having watched a rider accelerate past him on a descent (in a previous year’s Marmotte) only to be unable to slow down at the hairpin. The rider flew off the side of the mountain to his death. This story doesn’t have to be told to me twice. I’m a good listener.

Since remaining alive is important to me, I was on my brakes for miles and miles during the Marmotte descents. Trying to keep my speed down. Making sure I wasn’t too fast into the switchbacks. I squeezed the brakes so hard and for so long that my hands hurt. (Right now, two and a half weeks later my hands still hurt.) My Garmin shows that I didn’t exceed 40 mph at any point during Marmotte. Fine by me. I am alive to tell the story.

And there’s this: under extreme braking your tires can explode.

Thankfully someone had explained the how and why of this to me so that I could avoid a braking-induced tire explosion. When you brake, it creates heat at the contact point. Hard, prolonged braking heats the entire rim up--to the point where it would burn your finger if you touched it. The heat makes the air in your inner tube expand and the tube can pop. For this reason I kept my tires inflated to 100 psi (usually I go 120 psi). From what I was told, they likely inflated to 150 psi while I was braking.

Related story: two weeks after returning from France I got a front-tire flat. When I took the tire off I noticed that the rubber “rim tape” that sits on inside of the wheel was badly deformed. It had actually melted during Marmotte. My back rim tape had also melted. I was lucky not to have had a blowout in the Alps.

The initial part of the descent down Glandon was massively steep and the switchbacks were very close together. Plus the road was bumpy. I was a nervous wreck going down. At one point I thought I had blown a tire. Turns out the thud I heard and bump I felt was one of my water bottles falling to the ground--then I must have run over it. By the time I realized what had happened, the bottle was three switchbacks up. What to do? Climb back up to retrieve it? No, leave it, I decided. I will need every ounce of my energy to finish this race. Collateral damage in my war with these mountains.

A while later I realized my second water bottle was empty. I would have to get more water. It was very important for me to keep drinking to avoid dehydration.

***

The lower part of the descent from Glandon straightened out. No more switchbacks. I was able to gain some ground, cruise along at a good speed and relax a bit. But time is a cruel mistress. It keeps going and going and it never stops. By now it was noon. Temperatures had risen into the 70s F and the sun was beating down on me. I thought to myself, “How am I going to make the 6 pm “cutoff” at the base of Alpe d'Huez? I still have two more mountains to climb between now and then.” I did a quick mental calculation: If I just climbed Glandon and that took four hours (with descent), two more mountains is roughly eight more hours. No good. What if I hurry? Any way I can make the cut off? No. There’s just no way. This gave me a melancholy feeling. But soon I accepted the situation. I would focus on finishing, no matter how long it took. To hell with an official finishing time.

*You have to be to the base of Alpe d'Huez by 6 pm or you won’t be able to officially finish the race. You won’t get a finishing time, medal, plaque, goodie bag etc.

***

Through the valley of darkness

Between Glandon and Telegraphe is a one-hour long stretch of road through the valley. You ride alongside a highway. It’s not especially pretty, it’s “just ok.” Some of the area is industrial. Every now and then I would see a race official along the route--usually it was an elderly person--wearing the yellow La Marmotte windbreaker and I would ask them, “Is this the right way?” and they would wave and point or say “Yes, keep going!” or

“Oui continuer!” I was largely on my own at this point. I saw a few riders up ahead in the distance, but I represented the tail end of the race participants. I think there were a few people behind me. As in less than five. Since there were 7,500 people in the race five is very few, percentage-wise. Still. I was feeling ok physically. “The game is long,” I thought.

I rode and rode. The sun beat down on me. I needed water. Someone in the tour group I was with had said, “There will be water hoses every few miles. You can fill up anytime!”  But this was just not true. I only saw one water hose on the entire course, and it was halfway up Alpe d’Huez.

I pulled up to a course official near a busy intersection. “English?” I asked him. “Non,” he said, smiling. Not a mean smile, more of a nervous smile. Stupidly, I asked, “Parlez vous Anglais?” “Non,” he said again, smiling (both apologetically and proudly, I thought). “Water,” I said to him, miming the motion of drinking from a cup. His eyes widened, “Agua!” “Yes!” I said. “Agua! Please! Where can I get agua!” He held up a finger to say, “Wait here!” and scurried across the busy road to his car. He brought back his personal half-gallon bottle of water and motioned for me to “Drink! Drink!” This was a very happy moment for me. Not only because of the water but because of the guy’s kindness. I somehow looked at the sky differently at that moment and I took in some deep breaths of air. I felt at peace. Once I filled my water bottle, drank some of it, and refilled it from the guy’s half-gallon, I thanked him and began to remount my bike. “Please take the rest,” he motioned to me, suggesting I put the half-gallon bottle in my backpack. I did that. I thanked the guy, “Merci! Merci!” We shook hands and patted each other on the back. Saying goodbye to him brought tears to my eyes. Hard to explain.

Down the valley road I went. Passed by cars and busses. Time continued to tick by. I could still make out some riders ahead in the distance. Soon I would be at the base of Telegraphe. “Keep going, don’t think, don’t worry, don’t stop,” I told myself.

Much later in the day I thought to myself, “Isn’t ‘agua’ Spanish? Maybe it’s French too. I will have to look into that.”

Chapter 5--Col du Galibier. Try not to think about it
 

Riding with someone can be a big help. The tour group I was with has several staff members. One of them is a pro triathlete named Lisa. Very cool person. Lisa rode with me up the last half of the Col du Telegraphe. We talked the whole time. Mind you, sometimes I had to wait a couple of seconds to say what I wanted to say next--I had to catch my breath. But overall I could talk. They say if you can hold a conversation while cycling or running, then your effort level is sustainable over a long period of time. If you can only cough out one word at a time then your heart is beating too fast and soon you will “crack.” Cracking is bad.

When I first started up the Col du Telegraphe (prior to my meeting up with Lisa) I saw several riders who were part of the race descending towards me. I was confused. When I am on a long ride my mind slows down and it can take me time to process things. I thought to myself, “there is no descent in this direction. They are going the wrong way.” Eventually I realized that they were abandoning the race. (Thinking back, I remembered having seen some riders abandoning on the Glandon as well.) “This makes no sense,” I thought. “They are young, fit riders. They shouldn’t be dropping out.”

The word abandon has a bad connotation in my mind. “This soldier abandoned his post.” “This mother abandoned her children.” I think of important, sacred responsibilities that you don’t walk away from. I had told people prior to leaving for France, “I will finish this race if it kills me. They will have to pull me off the bike to get me to stop riding.” I took Marmotte very, very seriously. I would never drop out. I felt contempt for the guys abandoning the race. “Weak sauce! What’s the matter with you? Where is your dignity?” But dropping out is “a thing” in this event. I heard that, routinely, 1000 riders or more will drop out before the finish. Many go as far as the base of Alpe d’Huez and stop there.

Later I thought, “But who am I to judge?” Maybe I was mad at the quitters because deep down I wanted to quit too. Then I thought: “Nah. Weak sauce!”

It took me about two hours to climb the Col du Telegraphe. Much of it I don’t remember because I was in a conversation with Lisa. I was distracted from the steady, low-grade suffering, the aching in my legs and back. Lisa was kind enough to give me one of her water bottles (she was headed back to the support van and could get another) so now I had two again. She left me just before the final leg of the climb. “You’re almost there,” she said. “There’s a couple steep sections just before the top. Things get stupid. But you got this.”

The gradient did indeed get stupid as I got to the top. Much steeper. “Who designed this road?” I raged in my mind.

After ascending Telegraphe there was a short downhill through a picturesque little town. I found our van and ate another ham and cheese sandwich and drank more Gatorade. I was burning a crazy amount of calories. Eating real food (as opposed to Clif bars and Gu packs) was great. But in my mind I was in a dark place. My thoughts were on the Galibier. “Get to the top of Galibier and you have finished the race,” Mike had said. I saw the gargantuan mountain ahead of me and wondered how I would ever get up it. “Try not to think about it,” I told myself. “Just keep pedaling. You are making progress. This is your last big ascent. Remember the Tortoise and the Hare. ‘Slow and steady.’ ”

It was late now. Almost 4 pm. I had been pedaling eight hours. The sky was gray. It threatened to rain. Nothing to be done, I needed to keep going.

On the sweat-inducing climbs I would take off my two windbreakers and put them in my backpack. On the icy descents I would put them back on. My first layer--a wool, vintage cycling sweater held sweat like a sponge. Poor choice. Stop thinking, keep going. I pedaled on. My ankles hurt.

***

Get in the van, Sir
 

Back on my own I settled into another bout of deep suffering. Galibier is a monster. A third of the way up I hit a vicious 9% grade that went on for miles. Thoughts of despair washed over me. I recited part of the Litany against Fear:

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death…

But I couldn’t get the rest out because I was short of breath. And I was forgetting the words. I kept laboring up the mountain. I tried to keep my breathing under control. I looked down at the road because looking up reminded me of how far I had yet to go.

On the previous two climbs an official La Marmotte “medic” motorcycle with a man and a woman on it had pulled up next to me and the woman asked if I was ok. Each time I gave the thumbs up and they pulled ahead.

Now a dark blue late-model sedan pulled up next to me and I looked over. The car had police-type lights and bullhorns on top. The passenger stared at me as the car drove slowly alongside. He was a very official-looking, heavy-set, middle-aged guy in a suit, wearing dark, stylish sunglasses. “Must be someone important,” I thought. The silence was awkward.

“Yes?” I asked, finally.

I will do my best to approximate in English what was said back and forth between us. The guy spoke in a mix of French and English. I could infer what he was saying in French but I don’t know for sure.

“You tired. You stop!”

“No I’m ok.”

“You are late, too far behind! You go in van please.” (There were two new vans following the official’s car.)

“No I am ok. I’m good.”

“We take you back to Alp d’Huez. In van. You very are far behind!”

“Sir, Parlez Vous l'Anglais?”

(He stared at me blankly)  

“I am ok,” I said. “Please. I feel good. I have trained for this race for one year. I am just slow that’s all. I want to finish.”

“You are tired!”

“No I am not tired. I am just slow. I am like a diesel engine. Strong but slow.”

(Pause)

“Ha?”

“I don’t want to stop, please. This is very important to me,” I said.

(Another long stare through the sunglasses. He seemed to be thinking.)

“You don’t want to go in van?”

“No.”

(Silence.)

“But. You eat?” he finally said.

“Yes, yes, I ate a ham sandwich! I keep eating.”

“You drink?”

“Yes. Drinking! Lots of water! Gatorade.”

His driver kept pace with me.

“You don’t want to get in van?”

“No no, I want to keep going! I am just slow that’s all!” I gave him the thumbs up.

“Ah. Well then. Okay,” he said finally.

He drove off. The two vans followed. The last one had a broom attached to its roof.

Sounds silly to say now, but this was a nerve wracking  experience for me. I hadn’t realized I could be forcibly removed from the race. But I was ok now, the guy had gone ahead.

I watched the two luxury vans pull away. “It would be so nice to get into one of those vans,” I thought. So, so nice. Comfortable seats. Heat. Maybe a can of Coke. But I banished the thought. Comfort is for finishers.

The close call with the race official somehow lit a fire in me and I began pedaling harder. Maybe a shot of adrenaline? Whatever it was I climbed strong for the next hour. I was miserable and achey but strong.

The last third of Galibier was coming up. It would turn out to be the hardest part of the day, mentally, physically, spiritually.

Chapter 6--The Marmot is a Large Squirrel that Lives in the Alps

At midnight when I finally returned to the chalet where I was staying with several other La Marmotte riders, one of the riders said “Congratulations bro! “How did that go? How did you finish it?”

“I just willed myself through it,” I answered. He shook my hand and clapped me on the back. I thanked him but I didn’t want to talk. I went to my room, peeled off my soaked clothes and ran a hot bath. Hot baths are for finishers. I was exhausted, relieved, achey, and deeply satisfied. Yes! I frikkin’ did it!

The other guys at the chalet had finished the race in about eight hours. Amazing. That was about 40% faster than me. “It doesn’t matter,” I thought. “I frikkin’ did it!” As I climbed into the tub and sank down into the hot water I made two fists and pumped my arms above my head in silent celebration. I did this more than once.

***

Where I most needed to will myself through was towards the top of Galibier. It was simply brutal. Due to the extreme grade, I had to pedal even harder than before. My quads burned and my heart raced. Time seemed to stop.

At one point I actually wanted to cry. My spirit was breaking. However, when I said to myself, “ok just allow yourself to cry a little bit,” no tears would come. It was as if my reptilian brain was telling me, “you can’t spare the water. And you can’t spare the breath. You can’t spare the emotional energy that crying will take.” And so I didn’t.

I shall not fear

Fear is the mind killer

Try not to think about it. Don’t look up.  

Did you ever have an ant farm as a kid? One in your classroom? In the ant farm you can see a cutaway-view of the ants walking through their zig zag of side-to-side tunnels, slowly moving to the top of the container.

When I would look ahead, up into the massive switchbacks in the side of the mountain, the tiny cyclists I saw reminded me of ants in an ant farm. Over, across and up again. “How will I ever get up there?’ I thought. They are so far away.

I simply kept going. “Keep your breathing under control, keep your heart from beating out of your chest. And whatever you do, don’t look up.” I thought.

Are you still pedaling?

Yes?

Then you will get there.

I don’t know.

No “I don’t know.” It’s a scientific fact. If you are moving forward you will get to where you’re going. It will happen. It has to happen.

I came upon a pair of struggling riders. The guy who was in front was urging his friend, “Keep going. We are almost there! You can do it.” But the second guy got off his bike and started walking it up. Then he stopped and just leaned over his bike. He was cracked.

Off the side of the road was a mountaintop restaurant. Lots of riders had abandoned and were sitting down to dinner there.

I had been climbing continuously up a steep grade for four hours. I’d spent ten hours on the bike. It was 6 pm.

***

Top of Galibier

Don’t ask me how but I made it. Suddenly I was at the top. It looked like a barren wasteland. It was cold, very windy, dark, foggy. The surface was rock and the only “trees” were windswept boulders. Through the fog I saw dozens of riders sitting down along the sides of the road. Some staring into the distance, completely worn-out, some eating and drinking quietly, one or two taking photos. The place felt haunted. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

I reached for my backpack and it was almost ripped out of my hands and thrown down the mountainside by the 40 mph winds. Try putting on a nylon jacket in those conditions. The jacket was billowing out like a flag in a hurricane. I wrestled my way into the first, then second of my jackets, reattached my backpack and set off down the mountain.

Normally I don’t scare easily. But right away I was terrified on the descent. I was trembling, and not only from my soaked sweater turning to ice. Now in addition to the perilous switchbacks I described earlier there was a witches’ brew of near-dark conditions, freezing cold, a whipping wind that could knock you off your bike, and an especially deadly, miles-long sheer dropoff on the side of the road. No guardrail, no safety net.

I picked my way down slowly from the top of the mountain. I feared for my life.

“After you crest Galibier you will have a thirty-mile descent,” Mike had told me. You will get your energy back. Alpe d’Huez will be your victory lap.”

It took me half an hour to get past the tightest switchbacks and the road down began to straighten out. I started to calm down. I was finally able to ease up on the brakes. My hands ached terribly.

Thirty miles is a long descent. As in, “I have never seen anything like this in my life” long. It just went on and on and on. Took me two hours to get to the bottom. For music I had the sound of the wind beating against my jacket and rushing over my helmet. And Mike was right, I started to get my energy back.

What did I think about during my long descent? Mostly nothing. But also ridiculous, meaningless things. “I wonder if people can bike through that tunnel.” “Maybe it’s really not 7 pm. Maybe it’s 4 pm.” “I don’t remember climbing Glandon.” “Should I have worn this sweater?” “What if that old man was Spanish and not French. Spain is not far from here. That would explain his saying ‘agua.’ “ “The Marmot is a large squirrel that lives in the Alps.”

***

The descent ended and I came back to where I had started, Bourg-d'Oisans. How did I feel? Actually, not bad. A bit worn out, grumpy, hungry and thirsty, annoyed, but pretty good. It’s amazing the physical sensations you will forget once you are no longer experiencing them. As I child I had pneumonia three times. I remember being in the hospital when I was 12 and thinking, “I will never, ever, forget how I’m feeling right now. This must be what dying is like.” But today I can’t recall a thing about how I felt.

At the base of Alpe d’Huez it was a carnival atmosphere. Hundreds and hundreds of riders had decided to end their race here, rather than continuing up Alpe d’Huez. The official “cut off time” had passed so maybe they thought, “what’s the point?” Spent-looking riders were relaxing on the grass, eating and drinking or walking their bikes back to their cars. There was a giant inflatable arch that you had to ride under to get into the “aid station.” For whatever reason there were several crashes as riders turned into the station. Maybe riders were delirious after the epic climbs? “It is stupid to crash here at the food station,” I thought to myself. “Crashing on a descent and going over the side of the mountain, I could see that. But this makes no sense.”

I got a kick out of the food. Little pieces of cheese on toothpicks, orange slices, cups of wine, crackers, small cups of water, olives, grapes, figs, slices of cake, Cheetos. There was a large tub of raisins that guys were sticking their hands into. The entire “spread” had a thicket of flies on it. The lady attendant was constantly shooing the flies off the cheese. I ate a slice of orange.

I found the support van and drank a Coke and ate a few cookies. Then I turned my attention to the mighty Alpe d’Huez. It was 8 pm, but the sun hadn’t set yet. It was about 60 degrees F there in the valley.

Mike had told me, “If you keep your FTP below 200 watts average, you will have energy at the end to do Alpe d’Huez.” Damned if that wasn’t true. I had energy left. I looked down at my Garmin and saw that my average power to that point was 179.

Alpe d’Huez is hallowed ground for cyclists. The most famous mountain in the Tour de France. It has 21 numbered switchbacks from top to bottom. The lower switchbacks are the steepest.

I started my ascent. My legs felt strong. Finally they had “opened up.” I felt more powerful than I had all day. My mood had improved. I was happy. The switchbacks clicked by as night began falling in earnest. I saw many riders descending the mountain with their post-race “goodie bags” draped over their handlebars. They had finished the race at the top, gotten their official finishing times, taken part in the after-race party and were headed home. Many looked at me curiously, as if seeing a mirage. Some shouted “allez!” or “bravo!” I had goosebumps. Not because I was cold, but because I was happy. “Galibier is your race. Finish Galibier and Alpe d’Huez will be your victory lap.” Darkness fell on the mountain like snow.  Around switchback 15 I stopped for a moment. I turned on my small headlight and set it to “blink.” I turned on my tail light. I took a drink of water. I took a deep breath of the cool, clean air. I pushed the bike into motion and clicked back into my pedals.