Riding the Marmotte Granfondo Valais

Cycling Youtuber Katie Butler, aka Katie Kookaburra, gets stuck into one of Europe's toughest gran fondos

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It’s one of the oldest, if not the oldest, mass participation cycling event in the world, and recently La Marmotte, of the French Alps, held annually since 1982, has expanded its horizons. The Marmotte Granfondo Series now also includes August’s Pyrenees event, a 165km, 5500m elevation ride that features the Col du Tourmalet, and the Marmotte Granfondo Valais, a 140km ride in the eponymous Swiss region. And it’s the latter that cycling Youtuber Katie Butler, aka Katie Kookaburra, rode last August, writing for Cycling Plus about her experience, which was made possible with the help of Kudos Alpine Cycle Training. With a choice of three distances – and most importantly three variations of elevation – there is something for all level of cyclist to take on: the Ultrafondo – a 220km route with an eye-watering 7,400m of elevation; the Granfondo, a more manageable 130km with 4,500m elevation; and 50km, which despite its compact distance has a not-to-be-sniffed-at 2,200m climbing.

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Photos courtesy of www.sportograf.com

I’m no stranger to climbing mountains. I love finding new gradients to push against, even more so if they have a great view along the way. A month earlier I’d ridden L’Etape du Tour just over the border in France, so I was keen to see what the Swiss Alps had to offer.

The guys from Kudos took us out on the route the day before to help us get acquainted, but after just 90 minutes and 1,000m elevation I was ready to call it a day. Still, it was good to get a heads up on what was in store. This was going to be seriously tough.

You’re always up at the crack of dawn at these events, but given my Crans-Montana hotel was just a few hundred metres from the start line I got more sleep than most. My nerves were clear – this would be my biggest day of climbing on the bike.

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In stark comparison to the 15,000+ riders who took part in the Etape, the Granfondo Valais had a much more cosy 1,500 people taking part. This made for a much more straight-forward start. There were no separate pens, you just got to the start and got in line with others riders as they fettled with water bottles, and taking gilets and arm warmers on and off (it was 18 degrees at 8.30am so my northern English skin could comfortably handle that).

Groups set off every ten minutes or so and before long it was my turn, with a French accent over the speaker system saying “THREE. TWO. ONE. GO!” Garmins, Wahoos and other assorted bike computers beeped in concerto as we headed over the start line and off we went.

Out of Crans-Montana was a 10km free-wheeling descent. The first part of the event was meant to head up the Col de Crans-Montana, a 3.3km climb, but there was an issue with its current road surface after a harsh winter so we managed to dodge that bullet.

Straight away the vast views of enormous mountains, some still snow-capped despite it being near the end of summer, stretched before us in all directions.

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We dropped lower and lower into the valley knowing we would have to climb back out soon enough. Still, there are nice ways to climb and not-so-nice ways to climbs and I’ll let you decide which camp the 7.9 kilometres at 9.9% to Vercorin fell into. Its difficulty was eased with the incredible views, which got better with the rounding of every corner.

I got chatting to one of the few women who had entered the event (such events typically have 10% female entrants) and she was saying it was great to see women on the event.

There were a total of six climbs ranging from 5.2% up to 9.9% over the course. The amount of climbing meant for a fair amount of refueling which consisted of plenty dried apricots, handfuls or crisps and a lots of gels. There was the odd time I had to pull over and have a breather, and then take in the incredible views.

Despite the route only being 130km, the kilometres seemed to take an age to tick by.

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Katie grinds away up yet another steep col

With just 30km to go at the last feed station, this would normally be a time to feel close to finishing a ride. Not today. That final 30km had a whopping 14.7km climb averaging 7.5%, not such an easy task after having covered around 3,100m elevation so far in the route.

However, the narrower and winding roads leading up to the top of the climb were worth with it when you were greeted with such magical views. Now was the time for the feeling of accomplishment.

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A short 8km descent led to the centre of Verbier. A renowned ski resort but also home to an ever-increasing number of mountain-loving cyclists and also the stage finish for Alberto Contador in the 15th stage of the 2009 Tour de France.

The views were spectacular, the event was really well organised and the gran fondo definitely did what it set out to do, which was showcase some of Valais’ best climbs and roads. I’d return again in a heartbeat.

Anthony Walker, originally from Leeds, runs Kudos Alpine Cycle Training in Verbier and offers women-specific training camps to help prepare for events such as the gran fondo. Speaking about the lower turnout of women at these types of events, he wants to try and get more women involved:

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“The Alps in Switzerland are incredible and there is so much on offer to people of all cycling abilities. But I think a lack of confidence of tackling some of these longer climbs can be quite daunting for women and men. So that is why we wanted to offer women a specific group to train with and get used to riding in the Alps. We need to see more women at these events and know there are women who want to do it but just need that extra little confidence boost. Hopefully next year there will be more women on the climbs fulfilling their goals of riding in the Alps.”

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Visit www.marmottegranfondoseries.com and www.kudoscycling.com for more details.