There are all the usual proverbs about how any arduous journey starts with the first step. Aiming to inspire and motivate. I find it all bit cliched! Of course a journey starts with a single step, it has too, otherwise it wouldn't be a journey! After months of training and thousands of kilometers clocked up my big event had finally arrived.
For my cycle around the Alps I needed a mascot that symbolises strength, endurance, tenacity and bravery!
I chose to be inspired by the Giant Tortoise!
You see, tortoises are content and at peace on their journey, even though the odds are stacked against them. A fitting totum for me.
Tortoises have to fend for themselves. There is no parental care. The egg gets laid on a beach, they hatch instinctively. Birds eagerly sit waiting, the hatchlings, barely out of their shell, most are gobbled up. Those that actually do make it to the sea are still easy prey. Yet they get there. Somehow, tortoises just keep going. They continue to strive and thrive. Returning years later to the very same beach, the cycle continues. Its a miracle they aren't extinct.
Sometimes I feel its a miracle that I made it this far in my life!
I wasn't always a keen sportswoman! My entire twenties were spent partying and like everything in my life, it was done to the best of my ability! The clock has moved on though, now the alarm goes off when I used to be coming home!
La Marmotte is not just a furry creature that lives in the alps. It is also an iconic cycle in the alps named after that furry creature. There are 4 large mountains to be conquered, 3 fast, steep descents. Thankfully the finish line is on top of the fourth mountain. This is a small mercy after 176km.
My tactics for the sportive was to be the tortoise. Just get there, by any means! Just survive and thrive. Tortoises don't complain about the odds not being in their favour, they just get on with it. So thats what it did.
I started at the start, 7:30am the corral opened and away we went. My group of 15 stuck together for the first few kilometers and then needless to say we all found our own pace. Mine being the slowest.
La Glandon, our first mountain of the day came rather quickly but I kept reminding myself about the food stop at 39km. I had a ham and cheese roll waiting for me, chocolate milk and an apple. It's what works for me! The scenery was stunning. I would love to go back some day and really enjoy it. Large, crystal clear lakes reflecting the sun, crashing waterfalls, rock faces, sheer drops off the side of the road, tear jerking corners and leg crunching climbs. It is the Alps after all. Blue skies and air so fresh it actually tastes minty.
I dropped my water bottle as I pushed on upwards. Disaster. Sticky hands from gels and sweat, it rolled off down the hill into an abyss of people shouting at it, and at me for causing the hazard. Of all the things to drop my hydration was the worst possible scenario. Not a great start to a long day ahead. Slowly but surely the Glandon came and went. I pedaled up the last few meters and arrived into the middle of a cycling riot. People were falling off bikes, stopping dead at the summit, crashing into each other, it was worse than the climb to get there!
My ham sandwich was tucked away in my kit bag, the joys of having a support vehicle. Photos and hydration, thank God someone had a spare water bottle and to be honest I have no idea who that person is. Thank you!!!
Everywhere I looked there were men peeing freely over the side of the mountain. It was a contest in itself. They were lined up like soldiers, standing tall and proud. I had to cover my eyes, seriously! I was eating after all. Being a girlie I don't have that luxury. I jumped back on the bike and hoped the fear of a steep downhill would help me forget about my bladder!
The timing chip is stopped for the descent, just as well. Hairpin after hairpin for the first few kilometers and then the road opens up a little. Normally I would be really scared, glued to the brakes, white knuckles and burning rubber. I was warned I could potentially cause a blowout doing that. So which was it to be:
Rule no 5: MAN UP
or decent like a blouse!?
I chose rule number 5 and let go of the brakes (some of the time!)
Many a lunatic roared past me, literally, shouting at me! I didnt care. I was going fast by my standards and thats all that mattered. Safety first. Passing a number of mangled cyclists lying in ditches and hearing the ambulances behind me keeps it very real. It's not what you want to see on the trip of a lifetime, however with 8000 people on the course, sadly someone is bound to be hurt.
A lady loo was waiting for me at the bottom of the neutralized/ time out zone. Bliss!! Except of course for the queue of men outside. It was by the far worst loo I have ever endured in Europe, I will save you the details but just to give you some insight, the smell made me wretch and I was actually thankful it was a squatty potty. Read between the lines there!
The cycle to the Telegraph, the next big climb, was enjoyable, it was flat and fast. I got dropped by the peloton I was clinging onto but I didn't matter, another one soon came along and absorbed me. Happy days! Stuck in the middle of a large group being dragged along by the force makes for a much quicker journey!
The Telegraph quickly appeared and I was happy that I was ready for it! Fueled up and hydrated it was going to be ok. Mr Belgium beside me was chatty enough and very pleasant until he pointed out our destination. I nearly fell off the bike! There, straight up in the air was a fortress. Precariously perched on the side of some mountain that seemed to grow out of the ground like a beanstalk. It was unfathomable. How the hell would I ever get up there? It was straight up! Imagine standing at the bottom of the Empire state building and looking up! Well it's worse than that!
Mid day sun, surface missing off the road and a lot of cars makes for a sickening time on the bike. I hated it. The road went on and on and on. It was relentless. Our coach had used that word in January and now I knew what he meant. Every corner, every straight, I thought it would never end. The only good thing were the tiers, like floors of a building it went up one by one. Occasionally I looked down, I could see how far we had come, it was a bloody long way! The town got smaller and smaller, the fortress in the air got closer and closer.
The top was another argybargy! Not as bad as before though, but it did look like a scene from a war movie. Bodies strung out all over the place, bike debris all over the road, people whaling and emergency crews rushing to find water and bandages. I couldn't get off the bike, my legs were like jelly. I found my group and support vehicle. I had to get one of the guys to hold the bike while I tried to get off it. "Lady like" is not the term I would use. More "awkward as a sack of teapots!" I slide off the bike like a piece of goo. I really felt it, exhausted, sick, wiped out and my toes were killing me. This was just over half way point, my tortoise mascot was needed more than ever. More ham and cheese, more chocolate milk, another apple and a can of Coke! Fuel of champions, maybe not but it got me going. Shoes off and a change of socks. My toes were bunched up like a cat clawing the carpet, pedicure ruined! It's these things that no one tells you, should have used Shellac!
Descending after a mammoth climb is more than welcome. Free flowing down the side of the mountain and into the ski town of Valloire. It was great to cool down and "air out." The town is very pretty and looks like a good place for skiing. Not this trip though, I had to cycle on to the legendary Galibier. The highest peak of the day. It's the climb where after it, you are definitely on the way home. I was ready to be homeward bound.
It's always strange when you are anywhere in the world and you bump into someone you know! There I was cycling the toughtest amature sportive in the European calender and I bump into my neighbour. He was doing fine, talkative and in good spirits. Neither of us knew that the other would be there. Chatting away the road meandered up and up and up and then once again, stupidly I looked up.
Tortoises just keep going! They are not scared or daunted by the task in hand. I just got on with it. It wasn't as bad as it looked, was actually quite manageable once I found my rhythm. I just kept putting one peddle on front of the other. The kilometers disappeared, the scenery was as stunning as you could hope for. Snow on the mountains got thicker and thicker. Noticeably colder I powered on through. Two fellas passed me, attacking the mountain climb, huffing and puffing, grunting, throwing their bodies and bikes side to side, giving it all they got. I let them go, no need to worry. I dollied past them a few hundred meters later, like Mary Poppins out for a jaunt. They were both puking into the ditch. The Galibier is not the time or the place to have a time trial with a tortoise.
The summit was in my sight. I knew this was the pinnacle of the day. I had seen photos of the point marking the altitude. People smiling on front of the landmark sign post. They were alive and looked happy, if they could get there so could I. That picture was mine, the frames already bought. The last 2 kilometers got really tough, I mean it, really tough. Like climbing up the side of a wall. Tortoise tactics triumphed on the day, I arrived, into yet another flash mob of lycra.
Stepping off the bike at the top was awesome! The relief, the gratitude of arriving alive, the buzz and great sense of occasion. Except for one small problem, I couldn't find the support vehicle and my group. They were no where to be seen. If that's not bad enough mother nature also decided it was that time of the month. I pleaded, just like in the advert. "Not now Mother Nature!" Nope, that didn't work. Fantastic! As long as I live I will never forget the summit of the Galibier for all the wrong reasons. I got the quickest photo of myself and once again hopped on the bike and hoped that a lady loo was around the corner.
It wasn't, there was a sharp descent, another and another. Infact 50km of a descent into a fast flat to the town of Bourg d'Oisans. Cycling in a panic stricken state obviously works wonders for me. I absolutely belted along the road, overtaking everyone. Screaming at them to get out of my way. Mad woman on the loose, emergency! In need of a loo. I seem to remember some tunnels along the route, it got dark and cold. I think there seven in total. This steam train was at full throttle and wasn't slowing down for anything. Men just don't get it. They think cycling up a mountain is hard, well I've news for you, it's not!
I arrived at the bottom of the Alpe d'huez in record time. Fastest 50km I have cycled in my entire life. There is a cut off point for the whole event. You have to reach it by 18:15pm to qualify to be a finisher. I zoomed over the mat at 17:55pm, threw my bike at an unsuspecting club member, Dan. He was there on holidays and had kindly come to cheer us on. He must have thought I was crazy as I ran across a busy road into a camp site. Actually sprinted. Funny how some words translate no matter language you use. Thank God for brand names like Big Mac, Coke and TAMPAX! The campsite owner was a woman, delighted to help me find the bathroom she understood my problem. Ushering me towards the ladies toilet she duly asked me for a Euro. Nothing like a bit of girl solidarity in camp Europe!
Tidied up and ready for the final leg of the journey it dawned on me that I had missed the last food stop and was a bit low on fuel. I stuffed whatever was handy into me. Dan kindly pumped Coke and a bar into me. Fourteen kilometers to the finish line, last mountain, iconic climb of the event. Sure nearly there. "Lets do this thing" I thought.
It took me two hours. 14 kilometers at a snails pace. The Alpe d'huez which Pantini has a world record of 37 minutes on, took me a full two hours. Mind you he didn't have to worry about girly things so I'm not impressed! I climbed, crawled but I never, ever stopped and pushed the bike. Numerous men did, I picked them all off one by one. They became mental markers for me. Each one was now a target, whenever I passed a walker I was allowed one second of smugness. I got me through it, what can I say.
Never ending, the pedals were turning but my odometer wasn't moving. I actually tapped it a few times thinking it was dead. It was very hot at the start of the climb, I had taken off my base layer and now I was sorry. The sun was setting, the crowds had gone. Finishers were flying past me, they were heading back the other way. Medals proudly displayed around their necks. My medal was waiting for me, I could hear it calling out to me. See it hanging there, lonely and beckoning me onwards.
The town appeared out of nowhere. (Actually I lifted my head out of the handlebars and realised I was nearly there). I came up over the summit and saw the lights glistening, people appeared, it was Downtown Alpe d'Huez. A Phoenix rising from the flames, a mini Las Vegas, an oasis with beer. Hustle and bustle the party had started without me. People out drinking on the street, clapping and cheering, I dug deep and found it. My inner tortoise just transformed into a crazy teenage mutant ninja turtle on speed. I got out of the saddle and powered on through. The crowds went wild (in my head.) Clapping and cheering me on (in my head) shouting "Allez! Allez! Allez!" (In my head). They were there to see me cross the finish line, take the gold, win for Ireland, be an inspiration for them all. In reality the town was kinda shutting up shop, there were supporters and finishers out, but not the hoards I dreamt of. I didn't care, finished on a sprint, over took some fella and then another. The Powerade golden arch was waiting for me. My own personal Arc de Triomphe. Done and dusted, delighted and elated.
The giant tortoise mascot had seen me right, we made it. Through the rough and the smooth, it didn't matter, I was back to where I had started from.
Everything comes full circle.
Would I do it again? I would do all the mountains again just not in the same day!
Would I recommend it? Absolutely! Why not? Get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself.
Was I happy with my performance? I finished it safely, in one piece, with no accidents or punctures. I only ever wanted to finish it. Mission accomplished.
How long did it take? My official time is 11 hours 43mins, this does not include rest stops. My actual cycle time was 11 hours 5mins
Who should try it? Anyone with a bike who has the tenacity and dedication to train, wants to feel a sense of accomplishment.
Would I do anything differently? Yes!!! More Chamois Cream! My shorts had gotten a little too big for me over the months and chaffed me.
What would I recommend for the event? A fully serviced bike, new tyres, brake pads and a larger cassette which I was very thankful for. I went for a 32 on the back, my legs were never sore and I never had to grind up the side of a mountain.
About the Author:
Sinéad Kennedy is a Physical Therapist, Yoga Siromani and Pilates Instructor, based in South County Dublin. She treats and teaches people from all walks of life, including many athletes, especially cyclists, runners & golfers. Recently featured in the Irish Independant, FIT Magazine, her Yoga 4 Cyclists class has gained notoriety.
A keen cyclist and proud member of Orwell Wheelers she has completed numerous cycling events including La Marmotte Sportive. Sinéad has also completed two Dublin City Marathons, numerous Adventure Races and Half Marathons.
Keen to spread the word on all things related to Wellness, Fitness, Coaching and Travel.