The Tour des Stations – Marmotte GranFondo Valais
The Tour des Stations is a new event in the cyclist’s calendar, and judging by the first year’s results it is destined to become a classic!
Based in the Valais (Switzerland), a two hour drive from Geneva, the event offers three possible distances:
50km | 2,200m+ Mediofondo
130km | 4,500m+ Look Marmotte Granfondo Valais
220km | 7,400 m+ Ultrafondo
The Tour des Stations is very unusual for a Swiss amateur cycling event in that it is intended to be timed from start to finish, bringing it in line with equivalent French or Italian events. In practice, a last-minute change to the route forced by a landslide obliged the organisers to begin the timing for the Marmotte Granfondo after the initial descent from Crans Montana, reducing the timed distance by about 21km. All other distances were timed throughout.
Like any ultra-distance event, the Ultrafondo requires a very serious preparation and considerable motivation to reach the finish. There is almost no flat road from beginning to end, and the majority of the descents are steep and technical, making it hard to recover. Only 5 riders finished in less than 9 hours, and half the 287 finishers took more than 11h30.
The Look Marmotte Granfondo Valais is a worthy namesake to its illustrious elder, the original Marmotte. Although a little shorter, it is just as tough, but very different. The Marmotte Alps has 4 long climbs, each on wide roads with long pitches at stable gradients, enabling you to get into a good rhythm. The route in the Valais includes 8 significant climbs. Apart from the last, each is relatively short but on narrow roads with very irregular gradients. About 30 riders finished in less than 5 hours (not including the untimed descent from Crans Montana), and half the 771 finishers took more than 7 hours.
The Mediofondo is a good option for those unprepared for the Granfondo distance, while remaining a significant challenge in its own right. The first 10 riders finished in under 2h30, while half the 279 finishers took more than 4 hours.
We chose to ride the Look Marmotte Granfondo Valais, which starts in Crans Montana and finishes in Verbier. Normally A-to-B events such as this are a real headache from a logistics point of view, but with typical Swiss efficiency, everything has been thought out to make things easy.
Arriving in Martigny on Friday afternoon, we collected our registration package and left our car in the free car-park. Our start numbers served as a free transport pass for the train and funicular which took us and our bikes from Martigny to Crans Montana, where we had pre-booked a hotel.
The next morning we left our baggage with the race organisation in Crans Montana to be transported to the finish line at Verbier, and then entered the start area. Now it was up to us to get to Verbier by our own efforts!
On arrival in Verbier our baggage was waiting for us at the finish line. We had chosen to spend the night in Verbier, but had we wanted to return home immediately we could either have cycled the 22km downhill or taken a combination of a cable-car and a train to return to where we left the car in Martigny. This is what we did the following day. All the transport was free.
CYCLING THE LOOK MARMOTTE GRANFONDO VALAIS
A landslide on the road to the col above Crans Montana meant a minor modification to the course. Instead of climbing for the first 3km, we descended immediately to the bottom of the valley, where the timing officially began at km 21.
The first climb is a good taste of what is to come. 8km long at almost 10%, culminating in the village of Vercorin, it is a tough climb. The slope hits 11-12% while still in the village, before levelling off somewhat through the vineyards to a steady 8-9%. After 4km it flattens out before increasing again. Hugging the cliff face, the road goes through several narrow tunnels before rounding a spur and continuing at 8-10% to the village.
I stopped at the Vercorin feed station to refill my bottles. The feed station volunteers were extremely helpful, taking the bottles and filling them for me in no time at all.
The descent is steep, fast, technical and has a poor road surface. No opportunity to rest and recover here!
The second climb is to Nax, 6.7km at an average slope of 5.9%,. Like all the climbs, however, the average slope is meaningless since the gradient changes so much. There’s no chance to get into a rhythm, you have to change gear constantly and frequently stand up on the pedals as the slope changes. You are rewarded by fantastic views across the valley: the scenery throughout this ride is truly stunning.
From Nax there is a short descent before the relatively easy climb to Saint-Martin (5.6km at 5.2%). Again the gradient varies a lot, with sections as steep as 9% or as easy as 1%. Saint-Martin is a pretty village of old wooden chalets, worth visiting when one is in less of a hurry!
Another very fast descent, first up, then back down the valley in the direction of Euseigne, where we forked left and climbed steeply up the next valley, before again doubling back and descending to Hérémence. Here there was a welcome feed station to refill empty water bottles.
The climb out of the village of Hérémence is the steepest of the day. The first kilometre averages 12%, with sections at 15-18%. It is a pity to have to tackle this with full water bottles! The remainder of the climb to Thyon and the col des Collons is a mercifully more regular 7%.
From Thyon the descent is fast and steep on a good road before turning off to the left, direction Veysonnaz. It is a two-step descent and you flash quickly through Veysonnaz, switching back and forth on the flanks of the valley before turning off on a very narrow, minor road which brings you eventually to Nendaz and then round and down to Isérables. This portion, mercifully closed to traffic, was a steep descent on a road in poor condition.
Soon after Isérables you reach the turning point and begin the final effort up to the col de la Croix de Coeur, some 15km and 1,080m higher up. There’s a welcome feed station half-way up, in La Tzoumaz. The climb is more regular than the earlier ones, averaging 7.5% for the 15 km. The last 6 were on a dirt road until very recently, but this has now been surfaced with a granular, gravelly tarmac that is smooth enough so long as you avoid the loose gravel in the middle and side of the road.
The spectacular col de la Croix de Cœur, perched high above Verbier, is effectively the finish. You could practically free-wheel to the line from here. It is however a vertiginously steep descent on a narrow road with a poor surface, so it is essential to keep your wits about you to cross the line safely some 660m further down!
The Tour des Stations is a great addition to the cyclist’s calendar. The Valais region is incredibly scenic; there is very little traffic on the roads and you are guaranteed a challenging ride. The organisers and volunteers went out of their way to be friendly, helpful and make the event a success. The participation of the bigger stations such as Crans Montana, Nendaz and Verbier alongside the smaller ones brings considerable credibility and organisational muscle.
If you plan to ride this event in 2019 (the date has been set for August 10th) then bear two things in mind:
- You must prepare seriously, with plenty of long rides and steep climbs. Practice your descending in order to stay safe.
- On the day itself you will do much better if you can discipline yourself to start easy and finish hard than the opposite. The steep, irregular climbs combined with fast, technical descents take their toll: starting too fast will result in a real struggle to finish the final climb.
If you would like help with your preparation, contact us! We are orgaising a coaching camp in the week leading up to the next edition, with complete route reconnaissance and coaching on all the skills you need to do well.