Having lost interest in the fine art of cycling in my teens, I decided last year that it was time to get back on the bike to lose a bit of weight and, hey, if I could raise a bit of money for charity as well……. all the better. To cut a long story short, having trained and completed the Norwich 100 (in what can only be described as monsoon conditions), I was back, hooked on cycling. I just need a new challenge, something on the Continent, something challenging. After a bit of searching, a group of us finally entered ourselves into the Les Trois Ballons sportive in France. It comprises a route of 205km with 4300m of climbing taking in the Ballon d’Alsace (1200m), Grand Ballon (1325m) and Ballon Servance (1200m).
Come January, training started in earnest and improvements were made to my loyal steed. Prior to riding the Norwich 100, I had purchased a 2009 Specialized Allez double which, while a fantastic bike, needed a bit of upgrading for the test to come. On went a new Shimano 105 5600 groupset, FSA Carbon Seatpost and a Pro-Lite Bracciano wheelset (a brilliant set of wheels for a fantastic price). All these changes proved a massive difference when tackling those long, steady ascents.
Training done and bike ready, we found ourselves standing at the start line on a grey and damp Saturday morning in the little village of Champagney. Being my first large Euro sportive, to say I was nervous would be an understatement. Surrounded by some 2000-plus seasoned cyclists with some serious carbon hardware, I suddenly felt a bit out of my element. Andrew and Richard, who I was riding with, are veterans of the Euro sportive scene having done the La Marmotte and L’Eroica amongst others. They both did a great job in calming my nerves and it wasn’t long after setting off that we started catching the fast starters on the major climbs.
Les Trois Ballons proved to be a large shock to the system. Having only done a few, smaller domestic sportives, there were times going up the Grand Ballon and the Planche des Belles Filles when I felt like giving up, but, with the excellent support provided by the group, I managed to complete the ride in 10hrs 50 minutes. Not a blistering time by any means; some participants finished in under seven hours (the use of electric motors is obviously far more widespread then previously thought), but for me it was always a case of just finishing. Anyone who lives in Suffolk will know that we are not exactly blessed with mountains to practice on, so a sportive as ‘hilly’ as this one was always going to prove difficult to train for. The feeling of elation at passing the finishing line was huge.
The one thing that I will take away from this ride was the camaraderie of all the riders taking part, regardless of nationality. A good deal of our ride was done in the company of a couple of riders from Antwerp whose use of the English language often put ours to shame. Having done the ride before, they were only too happy to chat, give us tips about the upcoming climbs and discuss the merits of brand new white, blinging Sidi shoes. This was something I had not come across before, especially on UK sportives.
Having had a week off the bike and time to reflect, I can’t wait till my next Euro sportive and would recommend doing at least one event on the Continent if you can. Plans are already being put in place for our group to take part in the La Morzine Vallee d’Aulps next June.
I was just like to say a big thank you to Richard & Andrew, whose constant support got my once lazy backside up those long climbs.