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Fell Section

La Marmotte – An Alpine Cycling Adventure

A marmotte is a small furry mammal the size of a small badger which is common in the high mountains of the Alps. It is delicious lightly sautéed with garlic and mushrooms. Actually that last bit might not be true. It also lends its name to a legendary bike rude which includes some of the Tour de France’s most iconic climbs.


It was one of the original “cyclosportives” (long hilly one day challenge rides) and is still considered by many to be “the daddy”. The vital statistics are a rather daunting 180km (112 miles in English money) with 5000m (16400 feet) of ascent. Since these figures were clearly too large a new more manageable measurement unit was needed. I proudly introduce the “Holme Moss” – a unit of vertical elevation gain. The height difference between Holmbridge and Holme Moss summit is 350m – or more simply one Holme Moss. So the 5000m of the Marmotte becomes a much more manageable 14.3 Holme Mosses. That’s more like it.


I was setting off on this ride because of a mid-life crisis. Not my mid-life crisis you understand but Al’s. (Al aka Alistair Rees, former member of HHAC) decided to celebrate turning 40 not by buying a fast motorbike or chasing even faster women, but instead by riding up (and down) some very big hills. This challenge also provided him with the perfect excuse to buy a shiny new full-carbon full-bling bike.


My role in this venture was that of domestique. Behind every great Tour de France winner there is a great domestique, as someone famous may once have said. For those not familiar with the Tour a domestique is a rider who sacrifices his own chances of glory for the success of his team leader. Typical domestique duties might include pacing the team leader up a climb, fetching water bottles from the team support car or keeping a close eye on any attacks from rival teams. I was proud to be Al’s domestique. Another vital member of the team was John who was providing road support.


So it was that on a cloudy overcast morning the two of us set off from Bourg d’Oisans. The roads were deserted on the first climb – the Col de la Croix de Fer (4.4 Holme Mosses). We tried to ride steadily conscious of not over-doing it too early on. A couple of steep sections felt, err, steep. This was worrying as this was meant to be the easiest climb. On a more positive note the weather was perfect – cool and cloudy – and we saw three marmottes (although for some reason John steadfastly refuse the believe this).


After a couple of hours the col was within our grasp. There was an iron cross (the clue is in the name), a restaurant (closed) and another lone cyclist. That was it. Alarmingly, there was no John. It was also starting to drizzle. It turned out John had been delayed setting off from Bourg d’Oisans. This presented Al with a problem – his windproof top was in the car with John and he was clearly going to freeze on the long descent. The drizzle was rapidly turning into rain and the temperature had dropped a few degrees. As a domestique I should have selflessly offered Al my windproof. But I didn’t. The directeur sportif (team manager) would have very unimpressed with this display of selfishness, but fortunately we didn’t have a directeur sportif. Come to think of it he would also have been pretty unhappy with the team support car’s non-appearance at the summit…


But then a gift from the gods appeared before our very eyes. Fastened to the door of a small hut were two items of clothing – a pale blue cardigan and a rather fetching salmon pink fleecy number. Al had a moral dilemma. We resolved the dilemma by asking “What would Griff do in this situation?” Within seconds Al’s rather snazzy cycling gear was supplemented with the pink fleece and we started the descent. Bizarrely in this hastily improvised kit he even looked like Griff. As we reached the main valley below the weather improved markedly. Reluctantly the Al abandoned the pink fleecy number leaving it draped over a road sign. Apologies if you are reading this account work at the Col de la Croix de Fer and have lost a salmon pink fleece. We are truly sorry, but it was invaluable.


We reached the village of St. Jean de Maurienne, at 500m the low point of the ride. Still there had been no sighting of John. The next ten miles or so were flattish along the valley bottom, and one of the few sections of the ride with busy roads. It was along here that we finally saw John for the first time, much to everyone’s relief.


After re-fuelling and filling our water bottles we were off – our next objective the Col du Telegrpahe (2.3 Holme Mosses). I’d expected this to be hot and rather tedious climbing up through the forested lower slopes, but the consistent gradient and excellent road surface meant we found a steady rhythm and made good progress. The col, presumably named after the nearby aerial rather than the British newspaper made an excellent place for a longer stop and a well-earned lunch.


John had excelled himself with the catering so we feasted on baguette, cheese, cooked meats, flapjack, malt loaf and bananas. All of those calories would be needed on the next climb – the infamous Col du Galibier (4.7 Holme Mosses). A short descent from the Telegraphe brought us to the village of Valloire where the Galibier climb begins. The road led up into higher and higher mountains. Once again we were striving for that good steady rhythm that we had found on the Telegraphe, but this was harder work, with slight but cruel increases in the gradient.


A strange apparition came into view on the roadside verge. Half man, half beast with a red horned head and a trident. The stuff of nightmares. Were we hallucinating? “Allez! Allez! Allez!” it screamed dementedly. Suddenly it all became clear – it was John or “El Diablo” as he should now be called. The “real” El Diablo is an infamous German cycling fan who is a regular presence on the mountain stages of the Tour. The appearance of our very own El Diablo was exactly what was needed to restore flagging morale.


I am rather ashamed to report that once again I failed in my duties as domestique on this climb by gradually pulling away from my team leader. For both of us the climb of the Galibier became a solitary battle. I passed some chalets selling “Fromage de Montagne”- no, not Wensleydale, Gromit – and looked up to the left. High, high above on the skyline was the summit. Relentless climbingwith some steep bends right at the top brought me to the top at 2642m and a stunning view southwards to the glaciers of La Meije.


A few minutes Al arrived forcing his legs to complete those last few painful pedal strokes. He was suffering. More food and another proper rest seemed to have the desired effect, particularly as we had a 47 km descent ahead. 47km downhill all the way. What’s not to like?


Down hairpin bends, through tunnels (tip – take your sunglasses off before entering the tunnel) and with magnificent views those 47km flew by, and before we knoew it we were back in Bourg d’Oisans. Journey’s end you might think, but no. In a sadistic gesture, totally in keeping with the traditions of the Tour, La Marmotte finishes at Alpe d’Huez, a ski resort 1100m (or should I say 3.1 Holme Mosses) above Bourg d’Oisans. The road up to Alpe d’Huez has acquired legendary or perhaps even mythical status among cyclists, and each of its 21 hairpin bends or “lacets” is numbered and named after a rider who won a stage victory at Alpe d’Huez.


We discarded excess kit, filled our water bottles for the last time and set off expecting a desperate struggle. For whatever reason though we rediscovered that elusive climbing rhythm, and one by one those 21 hairpins were ticked off. In another heroic piece of support work El Diablo had written out names on the road on the final section. (This is in accordance with Tour tradition, not mindless graffiti.) We entered the village, rode under the finish banner, and went straight to the nearest bar.


Technical stuff for cycling geeks (Bill mainly)


Bike: Specialised Roubaix S-Works (carbon, light and really comfortable for long days in the saddle)


Gearing: Compact chainset 50/34 giving a lowest gear of 34/25 (absolutely perfect since the hills are long rather than viciously steep)


Wheels: Mavic Ksyrium Elite (robust for the potholes of Kirklees, but for added bling and posing value in Bourg d’Oisans deep section carbon rims would be preferable)


Tyres: Lots of people get really “techy” about tyres. I don’t. Mine are red and black and match my frame. Nice.


Brakes: Yes, definitely, especially for the descents


Food: Lots of it


Drink: Lots of it too. I like PSP22 carbohydrate supplement too. Beers afterwards.

This could be a useful strategy to adopt when making other important decisions





About Us

Tom Brunt Fell Secretary

Fell secretary

Phil Hobbs

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Welcome to the fell running section. If you have an aversion to tarmac and the prospect of scrambling up steep-sided hills and careering down the other side on paths mainly populated by nimble-footed sheep, come rain, shine or snow sounds like fun, then fell running is for you. Holmfirth Harriers has a long and glorious history of running on the fells. Recent individual achievements include three consecutive wins in the Old County Tops for Tom Brunt and a silver medal in the Yorkshire championships for Helen Berry. On the team front we have had a series of solid performances in the FRA relays and the Ian Hodgson. In the 2009 Calderdale Way Relay the women were 4th and the men equalled their best ever performance with a magnificent 3rd place.



If you’ve anything of interest for this section of the site e-mail it in to Phil or Jacqueline.



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