La Marmotte Granfondo Alpes (or cyclosportive if you're French) needs no introduction. It's the doyenne of the Marmotte Granfondo series and probably the most famous cycling event on the granfondo/sportive calendar.
The Marmotte route is legendary: its 174 kilometres take you over some of the most famous climbs in the Alps. By the end of the day you'll have climbed a staggering 5,000 metres of vertical ascent.
We caught up with Simon Worsley who has taken part in the Marmotte no less than seven times! He kindly agreed to share his tips and tactics for completing this notoriously tough event; you'll find his Marmotte course tips, GPX, info on kit, nutrition and Marmotte training. Photos are courtesy of Simon's friend Von Rees. Enjoy!
1. Tell us about the Marmotte Granfondo Alpes
The Marmotte is the oldest and one of the toughest cycle sportives in the world. It was first run in the early 1980s and for the last 20 years, the route has been the same starting at the foot of Alpe d’Huez in the town of Bourg d’Oisans and finishing at the top of the climb to Alpe d’Huez.
The event is so renowned due to the notoriety of its route and the fact that it takes in so many famous and tough climbs of the Tour de France.
I first found out about the event in 2008 when staying in the Alps and thought it sounded ridiculous in difficulty level. Four years later, I finished the event for the first time. I've now completed it seven times in total!
The event is particularly popular among northern European cyclists and is dominated by entrants from the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK. In particular, the event is seen as a rite of passage for Dutch cyclists who have an affinity with Alpe d’Huez due to the number of Tour stage winners on the Alpe by Dutch pro riders.
Previous winners of the event include Laurent Brochard and Laurens Ten Dam. Whilst it is a sportive, it is most definitely a race for the fastest riders, who include many of the best amateur cyclists in Europe.
2. Describe the La Marmotte profile and route
Above is the Marmotte route, based on my GPX file from the 2019 Marmotte.
The route is 108 miles (or 175km) and takes in the Col du Glandon which starts after a fast and flat 10km out of Bourg d’Oisans. The climb is around 25km and includes two short descents within it. There is then a 20km flat section through the valley on some major roads until you hit the 12km climb of the Col du Telegraphe. This has a similar average gradient to the Glandon of around 7%. There is then a short 5km descent to the village of Valloire which marks the foot of the Col du Galibier.
The north side of the Galibier is 17km long and the last 8km from Plan Lachat averages around 9% and takes you right up to over 2,600m (one of the highest roads in the Alps). There is then a 42km descent back to Bourg before the final 13km climb to the finish at Alpe d’Huez. The total climbing is around 5,000 metres.
The winning time would be around 5 and a half hours and the slowest around 14 hours. The average finish time would be around 9 hours. The official time excludes the descent of the Glandon which is taken out of your overall time based on the timing mats at the top and bottom of the descent.
3. What do you love about the event?
I love the toughness of the route, the fact that the route is fixed each year and the history that the four climbs have with the Tour de France. It’s very much following in the footsteps of the pros.
Whilst the Etape du Tour is the event that many non-cyclists know about, the Marmotte is one of the amateur events that has the biggest reputation among fellow cyclists.
There is something addictive about that part of the French Alps and the scenery and scale of the climbs and the atmosphere of the event itself, that gets a lot of participants, including me, coming back year after year for another go.
4. What are the highlights of the Marmotte route?
There are a number of highlights. The fast mass start out of Bourg d'Oisans down to the foot of the Glandon is always a lot of fun.
The descent of the Glandon is twisty and technical.
The last 8km of the Galibier are exposed and spectacular as you see nothing but cyclists both below you and above you in the distance. It’s like being part of a swarming army of cyclists for the day.
The 42km descent of the Galibier and Lauteret is a great reward for getting to the top of the Galibier and is fast and not too technical.
There then follows the iconic finish climb to Alpe d’Huez. Once you can see the town from around bend 7 at Dutch corner, you know then that you will make the finish line. Of course, the finish is another highlight, as you get cheered on as you pass the various bars, entering the village in the last kilometre.
5. What are the hardest things about taking part in the Marmotte gran fondo?
The amount of climbing involved - at 5,000 metres of vertical ascent!
The climbs are long with the Glandon being 25km and the back to back climbs of Telegraphe and Galibier being 34km of which 29km is uphill. The scale of these climbs makes it quite hard to train for in the UK.
The last 8km of the Galibier (as already mentioned) is all at over 2,000 metres of altitude, where the air gets thinner and is very steep and exposed.
The weather is generally very hot for this event, particularly on Alpe d’Huez which is very exposed to the sun with temperatures often in the 30s in mid afternoon, when most of the riders are starting the climb. The 2013 and 2015 editions were both run off in exceptionally hot temperatures of 38 degrees plus.
The weather is also very changeable. The 2017 edition saw very cold and windy conditions on the top of Glandon and Galibier with temperatures of around 3 degrees at the top making for a cold descent. The finish climb on the Alpe was still around 28 degrees though that year as it is on the other side of the valley to the Galibier and is something of a sun trap.
The event is very tough both physically and mentally for the above reasons and a serious undertaking for the amateur cyclist.
6. Training for the Marmotte: what would you recommend?
I find that around 120 to 200 miles per week training is good, including some regular longer rides of 70 to 80 miles. You don’t have to be out smashing a hilly century ride every week.
A training camp is always useful but not essential.
I personally find getting out to the Alps a few days earlier and getting acclimatised helps getting the legs used to Alpine roads again.
Incorporating plenty of hills into the training is helpful given the amount of climbing in the event. Having said that, the style of UK climbs of 1 to 2km and 8 to 10% gradient in the Cotswolds where I live, is very different to tackling Alpine climbs which tend to be around 6 or 7% average gradient. It all helps though.
7. How do you plan your nutrition for the event?
I take a litre bottle and start off with energy drink and then tend to stick with water for the rest of the event.
Keep drinking and eating little and often: I usually carry 4 or 5 bars or packs of Go Bars or Clif Bloks. Don’t make the mistake I have in the past though of being weighed down with carrying too much food.
There are plenty of food and drink stops with the main feed stations at the top of the Glandon (in the neutralised zone), at Valloire at the foot of the Galibier and at the foot of the Alpe. There are also several other mini food and drink stops e.g. before the steep section of the Galibier at Plan Lachat and at bend 16 of the Alpe in La Garde. I always make plenty of use of these feed stations but try to only stop a few minutes at a time.
If you're going to have a longer food stop anywhere, the place to do it would be at the top of the Glandon (assuming you're okay for the Alpe d'Huez cut off - more on that below). The clock stops between the top of the Glandon, before the feed station, and the bottom of the Glandon. The time you spend here is deducted from your official time.
A couple of points to note on this:
8. What do you wear for the event?
As a typical Brit, I tend not to feel the cold too much but do suffer in extreme heat.
I tend to wear normal bib shorts and summer jersey and take arm warmers and gilet (ideally water resistant just in case) for the descents. I do check the forecast for the event carefully, particularly the likely temperature at the top of the climbs.
Even if it’s cold at the top, you’ll descend to warmer temperatures quickly so there’s no need to overdress for the event.
9. Where do most people stay to ride the Marmotte?
Generally in Alpe d’Huez by the finish, or in Bourg d’Oisans. I’ve tended to stay in Bourg rather than the Alpe as it avoids a cold descent to the start on the morning of the event.
I’ve stayed a number of times with Morethan21bends who have plenty of accommodation in Bourg and also with Cycling Ascents who have accommodation on the edge of town. They both specifically cater for cyclists.
Tour operators tend to have accommodation based on top of the Alpe by the finish.
10. What are your top tips for anyone taking part in the Marmotte?
1. Make sure you know what you are letting yourself in for. It is a seriously tough event and not one for cycling beginners.
2. Make sure you have enough time to train for the event properly. Also try and lose as much weight as you can, as power to weight counts for a lot on this type of course.
3. Use the feed stops but don’t hang around too long at each one. See the info above for more on this.
4. Have your wits about you as you are riding with thousands of others of varying skills and awareness levels. The descent of the Glandon comes early in the day and is very busy, tight and technical and crashes are commonplace and the road is not closed to traffic coming the other way. The start flat section to the Glandon is also quite hectic, although this part is on closed roads.
5. Avoid carbon wheels if possible, as the descent of the Glandon is always littered with cyclists on the roadside having had tyre blow outs from overheating rims.
6. Get a good start time.
The start entries are split into three starts. 7am is for the fastest 500 riders from the previous year, plus the next 1,500 start numbers which are generally given to riders who have posted fast times in the past or have purchased through an event sponsor.
7.30am start is for the next 2,000 riders and the final start at 7.50am is for the final 4,000 riders. I’ve only had a 7.50am start once and it was very busy and congested on the Glandon. It also means you have less time to get to the 6.30pm cut off time at the foot of Alpe d’Huez. Having said that, the cut off time shouldn’t be an issue unless you are having a very tough day.
If you're wondering about how to avoid the 7.50am slot, as well as the options listed above for the 7am start, you could try entering the Trophee de l’Oisans which is a series of four events including the Marmotte. The other three events are the Vaujany Granfondo, the Sunday before the Marmotte (almost as tough a route as the Marmotte) and two shorter midweek events called the Prix des Rousses or the Grimpee de l’Alpe. I’ve done these in the past and highly recommend them if someone has plenty of time on their hands! This way you’ll almost certainly get a 7/7.30am entry for the Marmotte itself.
7. Watch out for the Alpe d'Huez cut-off time.
The cut off time at the bottom of the Alpe is the only cut off time on the course, but watch out because the organisers have a habit of changing it (it could be 6pm, could be 7pm), although they do publish it beforehand. If you miss the cut off, they will take your chip off you but you can still go up the Alpe to get an unofficial finish. The timing mat for the cut off is just after the feed station at the foot of the climb.
There is a broom wagon and it follows the last rider on the road as normal procedure. On the Alpe, it will follow the last rider who still has his timing chip. If you don’t have a timing chip, you get left to your own devices. Usually the last rider finishes around 9pm. Of course that last rider, may not be the slowest finisher in the event overall, as you could have a 7am start and be ahead on the road, but with a slower time than the rider in front of the broom wagon (who might have had a 7.50am start).
In 2013, it was really hot and I was definitely in the last 200 riders on the road as I didn’t finish til gone 8pm. I was about 400th from last officially, but that was the only year I had a later 7.50am start and I didn’t get to the bottom of the Alpe until nearly 6pm. Not an experience I want to repeat.
8. There are gold and silver time targets for each age group. The gold times are quite tough to achieve (the gold time for my age group is 8 hours 39 and I got within 13 minutes of this last year, hence I’ll be back again chasing this in 2021). If you want to achieve a gold time, get as fit and light as possible and don’t waste too much time at the feed stops as time spent stationary soon adds up.
For me, the event is something every keen amateur cyclist should try at least once and I’ve persuaded a number of my club mates to enter (and some of them have ended up coming back more than once for another go).
A huge thank you to Simon for taking the time to share his Marmotte tips. Have you done the Marmotte Granfondo Alps or are you doing it in 2021? Anything you'd like us to ask Simon or other insights you'd like to share? Please get in touch and add your comments below!
Final note: the number of Marmotte participants is capped at 7,500 and, since this is one of the granfondo cycling classics, entries sell out quickly when they open each November. Get in early to get your place!
If you're doing La Marmotte Sportive 2021, you may well want to turn it into a holiday and have a few days at the start/end of your trip. Our in-depth guides to Bourg d'Oisans and Alpe d'Huez will help you do that as they contain lots of tried and tested routes and info for cyclists in the area. You might also like our Q&A on the Cinglés du Ventoux.
No excuses not to feel inspired and set yourself an exciting goal for your 2021 cycling year!
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