Ken Tobin Vs La Marmotte: Conquering Le Tour’s iconic mountains

Posted on: April 27th, 2019
Ken Tobin set about riding the climbs he’d wondered about watching the Tour as a kid. He made it, and in good order – with preparation before and beer after.

Having raced in the 1990s and come back to competition a few years back, Ken Tobin enjoyed success during both stints in the peloton.

A former junior national road race champion, Classic League winner and junior and elite international, he has taken on non-racing goals of late.

Last summer he rode La Marmotte; a massive Gran Fondo taking in many of the infamous climbs of the Tour de France.

In this piece he takes us through a challenging but satisfying day in the saddle; scratching an itch that had lingered for decades…

By Ken Tobin

Not long after completing the Mallorca 312 in April 2017 it was decided a new challenge was needed for 2018: La Marmotte.

At the Mallorca 312 we did the 225km. Choosing the shorter version meant we weren’t in a jocker after the event but we still got to ride all the big mountains.

We were also able to have steak, chips and beer near the finish line while watching the 312 finishers come in well after 11pm; a great way to pass a few hours after a hard ride earlier in the day.

No doubt the beers and the sense of satisfaction at what we’d achieved that day created the false bravery we needed to decide, spur of the moment, that La Marmotte was our next big outing.

One of the hardest one day Gran Fondos in the world; the climbs it includes are iconic in world cycling.

Huge climbs

The Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraph, Col du Galibier and the infamous Alpe d’Huez; straight out of the Tour de France.

That’s four mountains climbing to over 5,000 meters in 174km of road. I’d watched the Tour riders racing up them on Channel 4’s coverage as a kid. Phil Liggett’s old commentaries are still seared into my mind.

“Look at the blistering pace being set at the front of the group” or “Oh, he’s blown with 3k to go”.

For years I wondered: “Are the climbs really as steep as they seem on TV?”

Fixated on Channel 4’s coverage of the Tour in the 1980s and 1990s, Tobin went in search of his own taste of the Tour.

I wanted first-hand experience of these mountain passes; to feel what the top boys feel when they tear up them.

Feel the pain, we did. Tear up them, we did not. But we made it.

In October 2017 the trip was booked. That gave us several months to prepare and get the miles, and climbing, into the legs

We did 60-70km spins on a Saturday morning with some of the Fixx Rouleurs lads as a starting point.

Those rides included a coffee stop, with the obligatory scone with jam and cream combo – it was officially winter and we needed the extra insulation.

In November and early December we rode for up to 85km every Saturday morning and also commuted four or five times a week, which was another 150km or so each week.

Christmas “parties” got in the way of planned Wicklow Mountain spins deeper into December.

New Year on the bike

In January my cycling continued with commutes to work three or four times per week, with the odd 80-90km spin around north Co Dublin on two weekends only.

February and March saw only a handful of 80-100km spins due to our extended winter, along with getting one of my tonsils removed; as you do.

That procedure left me with no energy for over a month. I was getting a little concerned as it felt I was starting at zero again. It was mid April and only eight or nine weeks to go till July 8th in France…

Early May was the Orwell Randonnée. It would bea real test of how I felt and a chance to get in over 2,500 metres of climbing. That was still only half of what La Marmotte puts in front of you.

Tobin, right, with Marmotte partner in crime Eoghan Connolly.

Riding from my house to the Orwell Randonnée start, then doing the event (having a quick burger at the finish) and riding home saw me clock up 215km and 2,500m in eight hours.

Goosed wasn’t the word. But I was glad I got that distance into the legs.

June saw a three-day charity cycle which included Healy Pass and Molls Gap. It was 400km in three days and I felt a lot more comfortable.

My last distance spins were from home in Malahide to Wexford for a weekend camping with the wife and kids on Friday followed by the return ride on Sunday; 130km and four hours each way. I was feeling a lot better now.

Friday July 6th: Departure Day

I packed summer and autumn kit. I was covered for any type of weather.  We took a quick flight to Lyon and collected my hire bike; a 53cm Wilier Cento NDR with disc brakes, which was a first for me.

So too was using a compact chainset (granny gears). But, you know what; I was glad of them. There was no point being macho over here.

I did my quick set up with the measuring tape and myself and Eoghan Connolly were off for a spin on the bikes.

A good meal with chicken and pasta was had Saturday night followed by little sleep for the four of us on the trip.

The riders stretched out in a line ahead of Tobin on the climb

The altitude was clearly affecting me. My resting pulse was 20 beats higher than normal; I suffered a mostly sleepless night. Not good.

Sunday July 8th: Event Day

The alarm rang out at 5:45am. We tucked into scrambled eggs, rice, boiled chicken, white beans, toast, jam and coffee. And for the day itself I brought four energy bars, four gels and two protein bars in the bag on my top tube.

Yes, I know; I’ll get stick for the man bag but it’s handy for storing bars, electrolyte, hotel key and some cash.

We left the hotel at 7:15am. We both went with mesh base layer, shorts, jersey, arm warmers, gilet, light gloves and a cap. There was no rain forecast; nice one.

The crowd in Bourg d’Oisans had swelled to thousands but that didn’t stop us nudging up past over 1,000 riders who had arrived at the start before us.

We squeezed in a (vital) last minute bathroom break and crossed the start line at 8:10am. The sun was rising and there was already noticeable heat coming off it as we began our epic day.

The group took off at 42-44kkmph, which quickly took us to our first climb of the day after 19km; the Col du Glandon at 1,924m.

It features an average 5.1 per cent with sections of 9.1 per cent and 11 per cent over 21km of climbing.

Tobin in the green of Ireland in the Isle of Man in the 1990s. More recently he’s turned his sights to non-racing goals.

We only got a real fell for the severity of gradient after 9km where we hit a wall of 11 per cent for nearly 2km.

I was keeping my heart below 170bpm (my max is 197bpm) which meant staying within 85 per cent of my max.

Every man for himself

Eoghan and I were pretty much side by side for this section until about 7km to the top where we got separated.

I had a quick gel at the top and then after an hour of climbing the first food stop was absolute pandemonium.

We refilled on bottles, electrolytes and bars and we were off on our first descent; a technical one which, for safety reasons, isn’t timed.

I met up with Eoghan after 17km descending to Saint Etienne de Cuines, where the timer starts again.

The incline starts as soon as we depart, with line-outs forming. Eoghan and I soon got separated for the rest of the day.

Time for some nibbles; just a mouthful every 20-25 minutes to keep topped up. At 80km I face the Col du Telegraph; that’s 1,566m at an average 7.1 per cent for 10km. There are already lots of tired bodies.

I felt really good, riding at between 160–168bpm and keeping it out of the red. But cramp soon hit behind my knees and abductors. So I did what I’d normally do if I cramped in a race – rode through it.

Tobin’s hire bike for La Marmotte: Wilier Cento NDR with disc brakes – set up to his specs with the measures taken from his own bike at home and a measuring tape.

I found going into 34×17/15 and getting out the saddle helped; using different muscle groups and keeping my heart rate in the right place.

With a quick descent into Valoire I didn’t see a water and food stop so nipped into a restaurant to buy a bottle of water and a large coke.

Getting stung roadside

Asked if I want sugar free coke, the reply was definite: “Sugar Free? No way boss; I need the sugars. Now.” 

Ten feckin’ Euros later, and feeling ripped off, I got back on my rothar only to see the food stop 500m ahead. Shite! I still grabbed a protein bar and some H2O.

Now 16kms of the Col du Galibier lay ahead at 2,556m averaging 6.8 per cent. It was windy and it was now every man (and woman) for themselves.

A few kilometres later I passed a guy who had his left arm and leg amputated and was riding an adapted bike.

I didn’t want to give him encouragement (he’d probably find it patronising) but the effort, pain and sweat on his face…. He was working so hard to grind gears on a 7 per cent gradient.

I was now facing my own fight with the day, but I was overcome with utter respect for him.

I never saw the poor sod again, my you, so I hope he finished.

The hairpins begin

The first hairpin soon open up the road and vision to several more hairpins ahead.

And all the riders ahead of me could only be described and thousands of ants all making their way a very big hill.

Beer in hand and finishers medal around his neck

I got into my rhythm, turning 34×25/28 and passing lots of riders on the way.

More cramp again kicked in so I went back into the 34×17, getting out the saddle for about 800 metres.

The last 3km was very tough as the air was starting to thin. My heart rate was still below 170bpm and mostly in the mid 160s (so 80-83% of my max HR).

I was now using my 34×30 and I’m not ashamed to say it. But I still felt good; not dehydrated and not hungry. In fact I then started to feel a little queasy.

It may have been a combination of overeating and less oxygen than I’m used to, so I didn’t eat anything at the Col du Galibier stop.

I got a quick refill of water and stuck on with the cap and gilet and I was off down the descent. It was amazing, it has to be said.

I had clear sight of the twists and turns, the valley below and the sheer drops off the road side which have no barriers.

I like to descend; it’s the reward for the pain of the climb. But I have my limits.

Irish Corner 10 did look like it does in the Tour; but Tobin still climbed it – packed with cyclists rather than fans.

Once I hit 90kph I held back. One wrong judgement and at best I’m ending up in an air ambulance.

Forty five minutes later we hit several dark tunnels that lead to the valley heading back to Bourg d’Oisans.

We were now headed for Alpe d’Huez. I was still feeling sick so I had no more food.

I had eaten five energy bars, two proteins and about four gels so I had enough fuel. And I still felt good, despite the queasiness.

A group of about 20 of us formed and we were doing up and overs after 6½ hours of riding…

“Okay, go on so,” I thought, it would get us to where we were going just that bit quicker.

Alpe d’Huez

Speeds of 42-45kmph quickly brought us to our last water stop at the base of d’Huez. And then there she was.

I turn onto this wall and I’m heading for turn 21. I was told the first four turns are the hardest. I can confirm they are.

I was in 34×28 to start with heart rate at 166. And now I’m starting to feel really warm.

Eight hours in the saddle over some of the most iconic climbs in cycling

My core was hot and my head felt baking hot inside. The obligatory pouring of water over my head commenced.

One bottle for drinking, one for pouring over me. I got gel in at turn six and felt it kick in within two minutes.

I was just taking in the steep roads now. It’s true what they say; they really are steeper in real life compared to TV.

But it was amazing, even slightly overwhelming, to be experiencing this. Locals had come out to cheer riders on and I loved the fact they had done this.

I was counting down the turns and my pace was OK at about 10 to 14 kilometres per hour; not too bad for an auld lad. I was passing lots of riders.

At one turn the locals had a hose out spraying riders as we passed, which was a delight.

Irish Corner 10

I got to corner 10 and to my dismay there wasn’t a load of Irish lads going mad with Irish flag. Oh well.

At turn five there was still 4km to go and I felt good so I got into the 34×19 and out of the saddle for a while which brought some groans from those I past.

Through the turns four and then three and I passed this Irish guy sitting in a deck chair sipping beer giving encouragement.

Ken Tobin looked (annoyingly – Ed) cheerful through what as a savage day out

Through turn 2 and I can hear the cow bells from the locals near the summit. There are more people on the sides of the roads, all cheering riders on.

On I push to the 1km flag; into the big ring as the gradient drops to five and six per cent.

I whip past my hotel and then it was full throttle with 300 metres to the finish before getting over the line. Yes. I had finished.

The afterglow

It was beautiful to be greeted with a glass of Heineken and some pasta and bread.

Some seven hours, fifty six minutes and fifteen seconds after starting I was 955th fastest finisher out of 7,500 starters. The winner did it in 5h 39m 39secs.

It was one of the toughest days on the bike other than the senior road race championships I ride in 1994 when I was first U23.

I’d spent one hour climbing the Glandon, over two hours climbing the Telegraph and Galibier and 1h10 getting up Alpe d’Huez.

But it was all worth it, even if I didn’t get all the preparation that I would have liked to have had.

Give La Marmotte a bash if you want a challenge. That’s another one ticked off my bucket list.