Nothing Short of Sensational
Touted as the hardest one day road Sportive in Europe, the Alpes Marmotte certainly has a fearsome reputation among the amateur cycling fraternity. With over 7,500 entrants, the Granfondo takes in four legendary mountains which regularly feature in the Tour De France, the Glandon, Télégraphe, Galibier and Alpe d'Huez, and covers 174 km with around 5,000 metres of climbing. Stories abound of participants bursting into tears of joy and relief at the finish, while others talk of the carnage of broken riders at the side of the road during the final climb of Alpe D'Huez.
The weather in the high mountains is unpredictable and the days leading up to the 35th edition of the Marmotte were not encouraging, with cool temperatures and rain forecast. Arriving in Geneva, three days before the start, merely seemed to confirm the predictions with storms unleashing heavy precipitation on the Swiss city. With one day before the event, the weather took a positive turn and the black clouds were pushed aside by less threatening skies. But still atop the 2645 m climb of the Galibier the temperature was -2 degrees and snow had fallen.
To begin the event, it was necessary to descend from our base in Alpe D’Huez to the start at Bourg D’Oisans. Extra layers of clothing were shed at the start but despite the coolness hanging in the air it was dry and, incredibly, no rain was predicted. Despite the organisers sending the second start wave round the town and early confusion and frustration ensuing, we were eventually on our way, immediately forming trains of equally paced riders and tapping out a fairly quick tempo to the foot of the first climb, the Glandon.
It is sensible to heed the advice of others and not to let the adrenaline, built in the early fast kilometres, to flow uncontrollably to the head. The overall gradient of the Glandon is relatively steady, averaging 5%, but the climb has some downward pitches which lower the average and is extremely long, continuing for 28 km. It was here that the field began to spread out, making it necessary to move past others on the left, a pattern to be repeated throughout the race. Even quicker riders seemed to pass effortlessly on my left, which seemed to confirm the high standard of competitor in this event. The road dropped steeply for short sections, which tended to break the early rhythm rather than offer relief, before pointing up once again to the clouds and mist above. On a drive the previous day, I had seen a succession of spectacular waterfalls but now these could only be heard momentarily as they were passed in the gloom. Nearing the top, the mist had wrapped itself all over the peak, only to unveil a rather chaotic feed station. Despite this section being time-neutralised, due to the danger posed by the descent's steeepness, I lingered a little too long. I was sweating from the climb and the chill in the air immediately dropped my body temperature.
I began the descent with an additional windproof gilet but I was cold and longed for the warmth of the valley. I decided to descend with care, knowing I wouldn’t lose any time. Just as I had stopped the shaking, my lower back began to ache and unfortunately I was unable to enjoy the flowing corners lower down the mountain. I saw a couple of my riding buddies before the timing mat, which would signal the end of the neutralised zone. On dismounting my bike my left quadricep cramped painfully and didn’t release for 30 seconds. Not the best sign so early on into the event – now I would have to manage the cramp for the next 140 km.
We rode through the valley, larger groups formed and the pace increased. I ignored the water stop at the foot of the Telegraph climb, keen not to break my rhythm. The one hour climb up the Telegraphe was exhilarating, with incredible mountain views all around. The gradient averaged 7% but the climbing was constant and the legs were now accustomed to tapping out a steady beat. A brief descent took riders to the beginning of the Col Du Galibier. Again, I ignored the feed station, content in the knowledge that I was feeding and hydrating successfully on the bike, a skill I'd acquired from nine solo 24 hour mountain bike events, and keen to avoid the scrums of hungry and fatigued cyclists.
It was at this point, I began to notice I was travelling far more comfortably than the riders around me and I was moving quickly through the moving mass of cyclists ahead of me. I would sporadically jump out of the saddle to offer relief to my legs as the 18 km began to whittle away. The views were awe-inspiring, particularly the formidable and imposing Meije Mountain peak to the south, the last major alpine summit to be conquered by climbers. The last section of the climb, the steepest, seemed to present itself as a wall of switchbacks ahead. However, I was surprised at the flow that I felt as I made my way up the final section. Making use of a private feed station 1 km from the summit, I grabbed more water and a handful of gels, before cresting the climb. At 2642 m, this is the highest point in the Marmotte, as it has been in previous editions of the Tour De France. I was keen to avoid my mistake on the Glandon, and therefore immediately rolled over the peak and onto the descent.
At around 50 km, this descent is the longest and without doubt the most exhilarating I've ever experienced. It took a while to drop enough altitude to stop the shivering, but on reaching a certain height, it was almost as if the gods had kindly thrown an electric blanket around my torso. The cold was replaced by sore and numb hands and, at times, I had to readjust my grip to confirm I was actually pulling the brake levers. Then I would plunge at spine-tingling speed into the first of several tunnels, more than happy to re-appear on the other side still in one piece. On the lower slopes, we would pass small villages, the gradient would level and offer some relief as I sat more upright and out of the drops, before plunging once again into the valley below.
Finally, I reached the valley floor, and riders regrouped into fast moving pelotons, driving towards the last climb of Alpe d'Huez. To reach the finish in the village at the top of the Alpe d‘Huez it is necessary to navigate the 21 world famous hairpin bends, enduring 14 km of road averaging around 9% gradient. Once again, I ignored the feed station and kept my momentum for the last big climb. The first few bends are the steepest and I wondered how my legs would feel. To my surprise, I was still climbing well and, further to my amazement, I saw my much stronger training partner stretching out cramp at the side of the road. He joined me on the climb, and we chatted as if we were out on a training ride and not finishing a fiendishly difficult bike event. The switchbacks seemed to quickly come and go and then the church on Dutch corner appeared, so-named since Dutchmen won eight of the first 14 finishes in the Tour De France and is where the Dutch now congregate on race day. We stopped briefly at a private water station, primarily to remove clothes added at the top of the Galibier, two hours previously. The temperature was now well into the twenties, quite the change from the freezing temperatures of the Glandon and Galibier.
With 7 switchbacks to go, I continued the final kilometres, my friend hovering just ahead, serving as a guiding light to the top of the col. More and more people appeared on the side of the road offering further encouragement as the finishing line approached. Once through the village, I picked up the tempo, finding energy reserves I had no idea I possessed. With 200 metres to go, I majestically rose from the saddle and began my sprint for glory. Within seconds my gilet fell from my back pocket and wrapped itself around my rear wheel and drive chain bringing me to an unceremonious halt. As I fought to release my gilet, I had a momentary vision of picking my bike up and, emulating Chris Froome's feat on Mont Ventoux in 2016, running with my bike to cross the finish line. These fanciful thoughts were interrupted by one kind spectator who picked up my bike allowing me to finally free my gilet. I remounted to a massive cheer, only for my chain to spin off. A third time, another cheer but I failed to clip in, my foot slipping embarrassingly off the pedal. One final roar, and I appeared to be swept down to the finish, crossing the line in a time of 8:06:59.
Without doubt, the Alpes Marmotte is the most breathtaking ride I've ever experienced on a road bike and I would fervently recommend it to any rider who is looking for a momentous challenge in a spectacular environment. It's incredible to think that the professionals actually race up these mountains, rather than merely survive the day but anyone able to complete this event deserves the utmost respect.
The Fred takes on the Devil in a Winner takes all showdown
Tale of the Tape
The first of our challengers for the toughest Sportive in the UK comes from the rugged hills of Cumbria and with the Fred weighing in at 180 km and with nearly 4,000 metres of climbing she's certainly not a lightweight. Supporters of the Fred were prepared to dish out plenty of pre-ride trash talk: boasting several 30% big hitting gradients with many riders ranking it alongside European heavyweights such as the colossus Alpes Marmotte in terms of difficulty.
Round 1 vs The Fred Sunday 7th May 2017: I took to this challenge, well aware of the Fred's reputation as a big puncher and it wasn't long before the first big blows started to crash down on me. Kirkstone Pass at 454 m is the highest point on the route and came early, just 23 km in. I had started fast and the first 74 km had made little impression. Honister Pass was to change this.
The Fred caught me unawares and the steepness of the climb, combined with the heat of the sun and poor choice of jacket, meant I was sweating profusely. A friend, Chris Bell, passed me at this point and his well-intended push did little to boost my morale. I was on the ropes and close to being given a standing count. I hung on for the crest of the climb and the descent breathed new resolve. I had survived the Fred Whitton's biggest assault so far. Newlands Pass was negotiated comfortably and at Whinlatter Pass, the sight and support of two friends, Jason and Geoff, further restored my inner vigour. The Fred seemed to ease back on the assault, the early knockout no longer an option. Time for it to wait, bide its time and then come out guns ablazing.
Hardknott Pass, is the undisputed King of Climbs and arguably the hardest stretch of road in the UK. An act of cruelty on the part of the organisers, this 2nd century Roman road is ascended 158 km into the event when the legs are weakest. The climb starts steeply - two sets of switchbacks through 25% corners, then a levelling off, but looking ahead only reveals the enormity of the task ahead and 30% switchbacks. Through the first, I was once again in trouble and hanging on before the Fred finally sent me to the tarmac. Within 20 metres I was round the bend and back up determined not to be hit by the knockout blow. With renewed vigour, I made it up the final part of the climb and then with enormous pride, I conquered Wrynose Pass and it's 20-25% bends. The Fred had thrown its best shots but, despite a couple of uncomfortable moments, I had survived its brutality and finished the rest of the ride in 7 hours 10 minutes with energy to spare.
The Dragon Devil, part of the global L'Etape series, weighs in at a colossus 300 km and a hefty 5,000 metres of climbing making it a worthy rival to the Fred. Hailing from the Brecon Beacons of South Wales, the Devil does offer three softer options of 100, 153 and 223 km but none can be considered easy.
Round 2 vs The Devil Sunday 11th June 2017: The Devil, presents a subtely different challenge to the Fred, in that it is more a skilled tactician, which will throw combinations of jabs and bodyshots and wear you down over time without the big blows. Maximum gradients are more in the region of 25% but even these feature far less frequently than they do in the Fred. Despite all the climbing metres, the climbs are more alpine-esque and gradual in nature. After a good luck message from Chris Froome and a comical performance from Didi the Devil and his trident, I was soon experiencing the gentle but long climbs of Bwlch and Rhigos. I was working within a strong group of riders and my average speed was well above 28 km. I'd come out swinging and had landed some of my best shots. But was I in danger of punching myself out. The wind was troublesome, particularly when it caught my deep-sectioned wheels on the descents, taking my bike sharply across the road, but it was still manageable. The Devil's Elbow, 89 km in to the ride, with an average gradient of 9.8% and some sections of 20% was safely negotiated. A glacing blow at best.
At 125 km, several Devil riders appeared to have decided they had suffered enough punishment and took the turnoff for the shorter Gran Fondo route. The weather was worsening and rain was inevitable. The hardy (or more appropriately, the foolhardy) remained on the Devil course. My small group was split as we tried to negotiate passing traffic on very narrow roads. Several sections were now being ridden alone. When I finally connected with other riders, we were sent up a ridiculously steep lane that was not on the official route. This was the start of the weakening process. I was now cold and shivering but, pig-headedly, I rode on with my rain jacket still in my back pocket, hoping I would warm up after my stop as we worked out directions to the proper route. But I was weakening and I was still cold.
The Devil's Staircase, 190 km in, proved the biggest assault to date. Not quite as steep as the climbs in the Fred but, with gradients over 25% and averaging 12% in 1.3 km, it is similar to Hardknott in that it comes when the body and legs are already tired. But in this case, the storm that hit at the top was the knockout blow. Heavy rain turned to large hailstones. The spray jacket was now on but it was too late. I was shivering once again and, worse still, I was unable to eat and drink. I was out on my feet. The descent was treacherous but did transport me to drier and warmer conditions. I was able to stop and regather myself at a feed station and ate vigorously, whereupon I felt patched up and propelled myself back into the contest.
I was much weaker now and in survival mode, starting to count the kilometres as they slowly ticked down. Black Mountain didn't appear too bad considering the punishment I had already taken but now the senses were weak. The climb out of Neath was not the biggest but the power had gone and it proved a bigger challenge than it should have done. At the finish, just over 12 hours later, I was broken. The Devil had won this particular fight, if not by knockout then certainly on points.
In the final analysis, both the Fred and the Devil are worthy contenders for the title of 'the UK's toughest sportive' but it is the Devil that takes the belt. The Fred is brutal, a big puncher that hits hard and fast but it's the Devil, with its extra 120 km, which keeps throwing hill after hill at you, each climb feeling like another jab to the body, each hairpin another right cross hitting its mark, incessantly drawing the power and resolve from within. After the Fred, I felt tired but I was upbeat, whereas after the Devil I was broken and desperately looking to reunite with my 'Adrian' in the comfort of my home. It was as if I had ridden one of those solo 24 hour mountain bike events, of which I have done nine - every sinew of my body was convinced this had been ten. The Dragon Devil, you will take some beating but how you compare with the mainland's finest - the undisputed champion of Sportives - the Alpes Marmotte, I will discover on the 2nd July.
Looking for Winter Training?
Every stage race is an incredible adventure and it is an impossible task to anticipate what story would be painted across this beautiful Spanish canvas. Ahead lay 450 km of racing and nearly 12,000 metres of climbing. But the simple fact that I was racing in such a prestigious event was a minor miracle in itself.
In May 2015, I had a botched hernia operation that resulted in several litres of lymphatic fluid leaking into my abdomen and the possibility that I would never ride again. Hooked up to a drain for three weeks, fortunately my body began to repair the damaged lymphatic vessels. It was another six weeks before I was able to do any physical activity and four months before I could race again.
I raced through Crocodile infested jungle and dusty, baking hot outback for this!
Quality Training on 'real bikes' producing 'unreal results'
The training sessions follow the Shane Sutton Method, a world class training protocol used by professionals and utilising power based training. The sessions are designed to work at different training zones - based on a percentage of Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and the bikes are automatically controlled by a master computer, ensuring participants work at the required intensity. Ultimately, this allows all levels of rider to be able to benefit from quality training, specific to their fitness level.
* Shane Sutton is the British Cycling Performance Director and Head of Coaching at Athlete Lab*
The Athlete Lab has recently employed new Head Coach, James Lamb 'Chops'. Bringing a wealth of knowledge of power training, he has already stamped his mark on the 'Lab' by incorporating his power sessions into an already impressive and varied timetable. There are five key sessions on the schedule, each lasting from 45min-1hour in duration and varying in structure. Ironmania (Zone 2-3), Super Strength Endurance (Zone 4), Threshold Booster (Zone 4), Powerhouse (Zone 5) and HIIT Hurt Box (Zone 6-7).
In my final class, I revisited a Super Strength Endurance session with a James Lamb designed programme entitled Saw Tooth Mountain. This was an interesting twist to the basic programme and the 55 minutes seemed to fly by, but not without plenty of exertion and perspiration. There was plenty of camaraderie in this class and it was great to suffer with cyclists of all abilities.
Getting Back on the Game
Nathan, not to be outdone, thrust his machinery into overdrive, and came back with a 31 minute lap, which proved he was still the team leader and the one we still needed to revere. As Grant left for his second lap, we couldn't help but observe the exertions of another Jetblack threesome, Nuts Galore, possibly named with the double entendre of James Bond's sexual conquests, Pussy Galore, Honey Rider, Holly Goodhead, Octopussy and Austin Power's Alotta Fagina, in mind. Ian Anderson, Dave Pickles and Shad Haous looked impressive and we knew we were in a fight to try and better their performances.
As I waited for Grant to come through, news emerged that Pickles had crashed and would subsequently be taken to hospital with head and rib injuries. There is always a danger at these events that someone can get hurt and our thoughts turned to his safety and well-being. Ian and Shad fought on valiantly and made light work of their absent accessory.
Reassessing Key Values in Life
As dedicated cyclists, we often get fully absorbed in racing and training and blinded to the importance of other values and it often takes an adverse situation to impel us to reflect on what is important in life. I am not trying to suggest that our dedication and commitment to our riding is without merit. On the contrary, it is a vehicle for our passion, a stage for personal success and failure, and an avenue to self-fulfilment. It fills our lives with purpose and excitement and injects us with joy, while surrounding us with friends sharing a common unifying bond.
Recently, I underwent a minor inguinal hernia repair, but I have fallen victim to a rare and unexpected complication that has snatched away my cycling obsession, at least in the short term, leaving me afraid and empty and grasping for meaning and an explanation as I have found myself tumbling into a personal abyss of despair.
After coming across a small hernia on the 11 April, I quickly made extensive enquiries with several surgeons and soon got a date for surgery, all on the public system, and I felt like the stars had aligned in my favour. Following the operation on the 4 May, and my release a day after surgery, I was surprised to find the surgeon had also removed a lymph node and, shortly after, I started to notice abnormal swelling in my groin and had further pain. Two weeks later, I had three aspirations to remove over 1300 ml of seroma fluid before my surgeon decided emergency surgery was needed, which was performed on 25 May. The hernia mesh was removed, fearing it may have been infected and causing the reaction, but the fluid continued to leak into a Bellovac drain, which had been inserted into the side of my abdomen. A blue dye, injected during this same operation failed to locate the source of the leak. Currently, two surgeons have concluded that I must remain in hospital until the body can repair itself, believing the lymphatic system has been disturbed by the removal of the lymph node during the original operation and, unfortunately for me, a major lymph duct has been severed. I have been told I have suffered a virtually unknown complication for this type of operation, far more common in cancer and other major surgeries.
During my current ordeal, I have been hurled along a rollercoaster of emotions with more downs than ups. Two days before my second operation, I found myself in a very dark place. In my mind, my life was over and I was mentally writing my will and distributing my assets to family, friends and those most deserving. This actually provided me with a degree of solace. I think I can be far too self-absorbed and I was now thinking about some of the great people around me, a fact I often take for granted. I now realise I must help these people much more in future.
Perhaps, no more than anywhere else, this compassion and generosity of spirit can be observed in hospital. Everyone there has problems and everyone is struggling to come to terms with their own particular situation. A bond is invariably formed in a shared suffering but the most noticeable aspect is the generosity and compassion that exists between patients. As a more long-term patient, I have seen a number of patients come and go. Friendships are quickly formed and stories of misfortune exchanged. For some reason, so many of the patients here have suffered complications or, like me, are returning for additional surgery. Without fail, each person I have met has shown concern and we help each other to the best of our ability, sometimes just with sympathy and advice or, at times, with more proactive assistance. My faith in human nature has been somewhat restored during my current sojourn.
Without doubt, the world can be a cruel beast but, no matter how bad life may feel, there is always others who have suffered, or are suffering more. The timeframe for my recovery is still unknown and, of course a full recovery cannot be guaranteed. But I still have hope, and hope is a powerful ally. Indeed, Lance Armstrong, amazed the top medical experts to recover from life-threatening testicular cancer that would have killed most people. He harnessed his, infamous pig-headedness, refusing to yield to death’s black touch and return to cycling’s top echelons. Furthermore, I now realise I have to step out of my egocentric world and remind myself that others are suffering far worse fates. All around us, people die in senseless acts of violence, in wars and in terrible accidents. Others are left handicapped or their livelihoods snatched from them. I will do well to remember this.
Life is a beautiful gift and we must all make the most of it in the short time we have in this world. On a planet soaked in the evils of hatred and corruption, it is so important that we try to make the best of the world by enriching the lives of those around us, be it our family, our friends, our work colleagues or a stranger in the street. Of course, it is naïve to believe this will change the world but it will make it a better place for those whose lives we can influence in our immediate spectrum of influence. I, for one, will be making these changes in my life and this will, at least, be a positive outcome to my current misfortune.
Developing Mental Toughness
Anyone who has ridden the Awaba course will know that the Camelback climb, a 40 metre climb with an average gradient of 14%, is the section the majority arrive at with trepidation. For most it is an obstacle, but I like to think of it as an opportunity. If I could keep riding this hill stronger than Clayton, I would continue to close the gap that, with two hours to go, had opened to over four minutes.
This was a psychological victory - I had overcome adversity pre-race, focussed on achieving my goal, and sheer determination had brought me the result I was striving for. The fact I was able to produce my second fastest lap of the day on the last lap shows the power of the mind when mental toughness is served as the main course. Congratulations also to Jetblack's Andrew Finlayson for his overall victory in the seven hour solo, taking the scalp of Ed McDonald in the process. 'Finno' also read the article on mental toughness and claimed he used it as inspiration during his final two laps.
- Crocodile Trophy 2013, Australia - 5th
- Port 2 Port 2014, Australia - 4th
- Sudety MTB Challenge 2014, Poland / Czech Republic - 15th
- Mongolia Bike Challenge 2014 - 6th
- WEMBO World 24 hour Solo, Italy, 2012 - 2nd
- Australian National 24 hour Solo, 2013 - 2nd
- Australian National 24 hour Solo, 2012 - 2nd
- Scott 24 hour Solo, 2012 - 1st
- Sydney 24 hour, 2011 - 1st
- Rocky Trail 7 hour Series, 2013 - 1st
- Chocolate Foot STM 7 hour Series, 2013 - 3rd
- Chocolate Foot STM 7 hour Series, 2012 - 3rd
- Chocolate Foot STM 7 hour Series, 2011 - 1st
- Sydney 12 hr, 2014 - 1st
- Sydney 12 hr, 2013 - 1st
- Sydney 12 hr, 2012 - 1st
- National 6+6, 2014 - 1st
- Sydney 6+6, 2013 - 1st
- Sydney 6+6, 2010 - 1st
I have an honours degree in PE & Sports Science & a Postgraduate Teaching degree from Loughborough University.
I am a Level 3 Cycling Coach & a Master Wattbike Instructor.
I work for Wattbike UK, delivering educational workshops across the UK.
I work at Cadence Performance Cycling as a Sports Scientist, Wattbike and Strength & Conditioning Coach in Crystal Palace, London.
In 2012, I finished 2nd at WEMBO's World 24 hour 40-44 solo at Finale Ligure, Italy.
In 2012 & 2013, I finished 2nd at the Australian National 24 hour 40-44 solo.
I have completed several of the World's biggest stage races, including the Crocodile Trophy in Australia, the Mongolia Bike Challenge, the Sudety in Poland and the Andalucia Bike Race.
12 Hour Races
Andalucia Bike Race
Diet & Exercise
Marathon Races / 100 Km
Mongolia Bike Challenge
Passion & Goals
Philosophy Of Life
Port To Port
Principles Of Training
STM Chocolate Foot
Watt Bike / Power Training
WEMBO / 24 Hour Races
7 hour Enduro Series
12 hour Enduros
6+6 hour Enduros