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09-11-2022 | Herman Nekkers

Which of the three Marmottes is the toughest?

The Marmotte is probably the most legendary name in the gran fondo world. But did you know that there are now three Marmotte Gran fondo's? We compare them.

The three different Marmottes have some common characteristics:

  • Start in the valley, finish at the top.
  • Tough route (+/- 5000m+) with several long climbs.

Few people will have ridden all three events. I have and compare them here in this article.

Marmotte Granfondo Alpes (June 25, 2023)


Photo: The last kilometers on the way to Alpe d'Huez.

La Marmotte is already in its 42st edition next year. The route is 175 km/5000m+ and runs over four legendary Tourcols: the Col du Glandon, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier and Alpe d'Huez. The participants come mainly from the Benelux, United Kingdom and Scandinavia. Curiously, it has less appeal for the French. Until the COVID pandemic, there were usually around 7000 participants at the start in Bourg d'Oisans. For many cyclists, this is the ultimate gran fondo; this is what you want to tell when returing home. Especially because you can get a gold, silver or bronze diploma.

The climb to the Glandon is 28 kilometers long and doable for most riders. Over the top, the steep descent is neutralized. Serious accidents have happened here in the past (even fatal ones). The Télégraphe/Galibier is 35 kilometers long. In fact, it is one long climb because the intermediate descent of 5 kilometers is barely enough to recover. In particular, the last 8 kilometers of the Galibier are killing. After a wonderful 48-kilometer descent, you reach the foot of the Alp and only have 13 kilometers left to climb. Many participants of the Marmotte go up here crawling, swerving and suffering.

There are also additional events: two days beforehand you can ride a climbing time trial to Alpe d'Huez and since 2021 there is also an ultra fondo (226km/6300m+). In the UF, you'll have to climb to Alpe d'Huez twice.

The Marmotte is simply the most legendary ride that every serious gran fondo rider wants to have on their palmares. I rode it four times now (bronze, silver and 2 x gold). I certainly won't rule out another participation. It was striking that all those editions had almost only good weather.

Special features:

  • The route is partly car-free, but everyone is always bound by the traffic rules.
  • Three groups will start: 7:00 am, 7:20 am and 7:40 am.
  • On the top of the Glandon it can be crowded, especially in the last group.
  • The descent of the Galibier has some dark tunnels. It is mandatory to ride with lights here. Small lights will suffice.
  • Anybody arriving after 18:15 at the foot of the Alp will be taken out of the race.
  • People disgree about the quality of the feed stations. The French like to serve sandwiches. Not everyone appreciates this. But there is also normal sports food like bars, cookies, gels and sports drinks. Those who are critical will bring their own.
  • The limits for gold and silver are not extremely tight.
  • There are two side events: a climbing time trial and an ultra fondo.

Marmotte Granfondo Pyrénées (September 3, 2023, subject to change)


Picture: Struggling on the last hectometers of the Tourmalet.

This gran fondo has two courses that alternate each year:

  • Start at Argeles-Gazost, finish at Luz Ardiden (route 2022).
  • Start Luz Saint Sauveur, finish Hautacam (expected route 2023).

Both routes are +/- 163 km and 5300m+.

The last edition took place in 2022, finishing on Hautacam. The next edition for 2023 confirmed, but the date is not yet certain.

When I was at the start in 2017, it was humid hot and already quite warm. It was cloudy all day, ideal weather. I was in very good shape. And I needed it, because this gran fondo is one of the most extreme challenges I have ever ridden. Gold was the goal. And that was quite a job, because the limits are quite sharp. In the afternoon I collected my gold certificate on the Hautacam.

No fewer than five cols await you. Here too, you'll find the legendary names. Early in the morning, the west side of the Col du Tourmalet is the first obstacle. This is the easy side and most participants get over it without any problems. The irregular Hourquette d'Ancizan will be a lesser-known name to many, although it has been included in the Tour several times. Then awaits the Col d'Aspin, well-known from the Tour. This one is pretty doable, but you can feel it's already the third climb of the day. Once you've survived that one, it really just begins. The east side of the Col du Tourmalet is significantly tougher than the west side. Especially in the last 10 kilometers there are long stretches of above 10%. Riders are completely squeezed here. The final climb is an extreme challenge for everyone, whether Luz Ardiden or Hautacam.

So you climb the Tourmalet twice and descend twice as well. The descent of the east side is super fast and contains some galleries. Be careful. The descent of the west side is slightly less fast, but fairly easy. Apart from a few hairpin bends you can let your bike roll.

Participants come mainly from France, the Benelux and Spain. The number is between 1000 and 2000. As far as I am concerned far too few, this gran fondo is an absolute must for every palmares. Most participants estimate this event to be tougher than the Marmotte Alpes.

Special features:

  • Two different courses run every other year. The routes are 80% identical.
  • In terms of logistics, Argeles-Gazost - Luz Ardiden is more convenient, because from the finish it is only downhill to the start place.
  • Both starting locations are a perfect base for a beautiful cycling vacation in this region.
  • The signalmen do a very good job.
  • The feed stations are is similar to the Marmotte Alpes. The difference is that there are fewer participants and therefore there is less risk of running out of certain items.
  • Because there are fewer people at the start, the atmosphere and organization is less hectic.
  • The limits for gold and silver are a lot tighter than at the Marmotte Alpes.

Marmotte Granfondo Valais (August 5, 2023)


Picture: Gravel section at the beginning of the final climb.

Contrary to the versions in the Alps and Pyrenees, the Marmotte Granfondo Valais will be run in Switzerland. Organizer R&D is allowed to use the name Marmotte for the gran fondo. Furthermore, the program consists of an ultrafondo and mediofondo. The route of the Marmotte is 133 km and 4700m+.

In 2020 I was a participant of an extremely hot edition. At 6 a.m. I was at the start in Le Châble in summer clothes, not even carrying arm pieces or a windstopper. It became a day of 30-35 degrees, even at 2000 meters.

Striking is the varied nature of the course. The cyclo contains five cols: Col du Lein (1685m), Mayens de Vernamiège (1560m), Thyon 2000 (2090m), Nendaz (1520m) and Col de la Croix de Coeur (2175m). The last kilometer of the Col du Lein and the first few hundred meters of the Col de la Croix de Coeur are unpaved, but the road surface is doable with a road bike. Furthermore, Thyon 2000 and the Croix de Coeur have a very steep passage at the beginning with sections up to 20%. The first climb starts 4 kilometers after the start. After that there is a flat part of 20 kilometers. The rest is up and down.

Special features:

  • No 'famous' cols .
  • The descents are generally quite technical.
  • You will encounter some very steep sections (Thyon 2000, Col de la Croix de Coeur).
  • The route contains some unpaved sections (Col du Lein, Col de la Croix de Coeur).
  • The Col de la Croix de Coeur is a Marmotte-worthy final climb; a wonderful finale. This climb deserves more attention!
  • The feed stations are well organized: spacious, a good offer and friendly people.
  • The ultra fondo is already legendary. This has no less than 8848m+, making it actually Everesting gran fondo style.

Despite the lack of big names, the Marmotte Granfondo Valais is a real Marmotte. I found it to be a very tough course with a gruelling final climb. The finish line is drawn at the Col de la Croix de Coeur, here are some facilities. The complete finish village can be found a few hundred meters lower in Verbier.

Summary

The Marmotte is a legendary name in the world of gran fondos. Whether you ride the version in the Alps, Pyrenees or Valais, you are presented with a beastly route with a very tough final climb. Whichever one you ride, you can come home with it. In my opinion, the Pyrenean version is the toughest. It has slightly fewer kilometers than the Alpine version in the Alps, but more elevation. Per kilometer you're climbing no less than 32.5m (versus 28.7 in the regular Marmotte),  which is unprecedented in the cycling world. The Marmotte Valais goes even further with 35.3 meters of climbing per kilometre. The distance, however, is somewhat shorter.

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