Now for Something Completely Different: Les Trois Ballons Cyclosportive

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I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been riding my racing kind of bikes steadily more in the past couple years. In fact my actually riding bikes is at least partially to blame for the lack of activity on Bakfiets en Meer. Writing is fun, but riding bikes is much more fun. Sometimes riding bikes really fast with your friends and other guys who, in turn, try to ride faster than you is even more fun. So that’s how I’ve been occupying my free time, that is aside from dressing, organically feeding, home-schooling and ferrying our seven kids kids around in the bakfiets.

About a year and a half ago I got really friggin’ nasty infection in both ears that had me first in intense pain for a week, almost totally deaf for a couple months, and finally took the better part of a half year to completely eradicate. By the end of that ordeal my fitness level had devolved to vaguely above couch potato level. So I did what any obsessive cyclist would do and began riding my way back into fitness. Nothing builds basic conditioning like long, easy rides so once a week I rode my bike for as long as I possibly could. I returned from the first few weeks’ rides dazed, hungry and wasted after two or three hours. But slowly my body developed endurance again and re-learned to run on fat reserves. Normal people would reach a certain level of fitness, observe they can ride kinda fast, maybe admire their newfound leg muscles and be satisfied. Or maybe they’d reach the point where further progress requires investing inordinate amounts of time and realize they have better things to do with their life.

I’ve never been very good about dealing with that junction. Instead of reacting sanely and accepting that I’m just one more old dude who enjoys riding bikes I start thinking about how I could get really, really fast again. What times are guys of my age turning and what can I do to develop to that level? With whom can I hone my tactics? What races would be cool to do? Never mind that I run a company and have eight little kids, that it would probably be much more logical to just enjoy being fit and healthy.

henry's ANT road bike on amstel
A new, somewhat modern racing bike.

So of course I just kept on training. The three hour friday morning rides gradually grew to six and seven hours. I built a new, somewhat more modern racing bike. Whenever the weather even remotely allowed it the long rides continued through the winter. Six hours on the bike in zero degrees with some snow and rain? Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it just builds character. I took out a racing license again and began riding regularly with a club, and a really nice one at that: Gaul! has no sponsors so I needn’t advertise a bike shop, a roofing company and a bank when I ride. Instead we raise money for War Child.

henry's rainday road bike
This ugly old road bike with full fenders makes long, wet days in the saddle infinitely more fun.

All those hours on the bike though are just to build basic fitness, essentially building the ability to train and recover because actually I’ve never been able to compete at longer distance events, nor can I climb a hill significantly faster than your average sloth. Nope, my thing is going really fast for a couple to a few minutes… on the velodrome thus. As mentioned before I ride the local velodromes once or twice a week during the fall and winter, doing both group sessions with a trainer and open training sessions following my own plan. My real goals are to kick some masters ass on the track in a couple years. Note that it’s critical for the delusional bike racer to have goals; otherwise the pointlessness of the efforts would be immediately apparent.

Henry doing what he does does considerably better than climbing mountains.

So perhaps the most realistic element of my delusional cycling plans is that I at least have a well proven sense of what I’m good at and what I suck at. The old adage, converted to bike talk, is something like “Train your weaknesses. Race with your strengths.” So in that spirit I decided to enter in a race that is absolutely, utterly outside my the realm of my “strengths”. Rather it was precisely the sum of my weaknesses. The Dutch, French and Belgians call it a “cyclosportive”. The Italians and English speakers prefer the more glamorous “gran fondo”. I call it a “long ass day in the saddle grinding over lots of big mountains”.

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Course profile of Les 3 Ballons Master: Climb over them mountains as fast as you can.

“Les Trois Ballons” sounded all happy and playful with balloons and stuff while the reality described on the website seemed decidedly more brutal: 213km and 4300 vertical meters divided amongst nine climbs including several good sized mountain passes in Alsace, France. The winners somehow manage to blast through all of this in about six and half hours. That’s an average of almost 33kph which I frankly just can’t wrap my head around. 50km+ for three kilometers? Now THAT I can deal with. The benchmark time for a “gold diploma” in my age group was a vaguely more reasonable 9:40, thus 22kph avg. Yeah, that’s almost ten hours of continuous, hard cycling.

It took me a while to commit. Firstly to I had to arrange transport as well as play dates and extra daycare for all nine kids. But could I even complete such a ride? There’s a big difference between riding solo at a relaxed pace in the pannekoeken flat Netherlands for seven hours and riding hard over steep climbs for maybe ten or more hours. To test I went out one day for a 200km solo ride, atypically sometimes riding pretty fast. The batteries of my GPS died after six hours, I got totally lost and crawled home nine and half hours and about 250km later. OK, I guess finishing Les 3 Ballons isn’t totally unrealistic. We’re on.

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I never thought I’d see such a big, ugly cog on my road bike. Next time it’ll be even bigger, thank you very much.

I might not be able to climb a mountain much faster than your grandmother but I can prepare meticulously in the nerdiest of ways. Being only a couple weeks before the event it was pointless to do any special training (OK aside from riding het Kopje van Bloemendaal, our local 30m climblet, ten times one afternoon). Instead I focused on the equipment and getting to know the course (virtually of course). Having read numerous reports from previous editions it was apparent that lower gears than my flatland 42×23 would be needed. The most convenient answer was to just borrow the 30T cassette from my wife’s bike. Contrary to Shimano’s admonitions that such a large cog would shatter my derailleur into a million bits it shifted perfectly.

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Aren’t my course notes “pro” looking? If only they could help pedal the bike.

In order to meter out my feeble effort most wisely I printed and taped attractive course notes on my top tube, color coded and all. Team mechanics do this for the top pro riders and it’s very important to look professional. In retrospect it was actually really nice to have, though it would have been considerably more helpful had the organizers not had to modify the course at the last minute.

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Some skinnier, fitter, faster, more attractive Gaul! teammates.

Team Gaul! stayed in a great “gite rural” roughly in the middle of the course. We arrived a day early to “loosen up our legs” with a couple hours cycling in the hills. Really there isn’t much choice here: all roads lead up or down. Having not climbed a real hill on a road bike in many years I must admit thinking that just maybe my body had somehow morphed, late in life, into a reasonable climbing machine. You know, like Sean Kelly or Laurent Jalabert. It seemed reasonable; I’m fairly small and light and can time-trial quite well. Such a combination should logically go well uphill too. Well… wrong: Once that road pointed uphill I struggled while my teammates gradually left me behind. So be it. I am what I am.

Race day: Everything’s prepared, we’ve eaten a ton and hit the sack early. We’re amongst the first few hundred at the start so we’ll get in a fast group for the first, flat section. A couple (very strong) Gaul! teammates have the privilege of starting 15 minutes earlier amongst the 400 priority riders. These are all tough guys and gals who’re either well-known racers or who’ve posted top results here or elsewhere recently. My own goals are necessarily modest:

1. Finish.
2. Finish within the “gold diploma” time limit of 9:40.

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Have number. Will race.

The first 15km were basically flat and of course the group rode as if we’d just started a 50km criterium: Average speed well over 40kph. I was happy to just tuck in and get swept along; knocking this part out quickly would at least save a chunk of time for minimal effort. Throughout the ride we’d form little groups after the descents and work together to speed through these sections. Sometimes these were the most painful parts because the group dictates the pace. You want to stretch and relax, grab a bite to eat between the climbs but getting dropped from the group would cost too much time.

We turned a corner in some village and hit the first little climb. I bode my teammates farewell and a good race as everybody scrambled up the hill at full tilt. Me? Oh I’ll just ride my own tempo here, thanks. The day is still very, very long. Hundreds of riders rode past, mostly in little groups while I looked at my heart rate monitor and thought “Nope, don’t go harder than this yet.” The next climb was a real bitch, though. It was 10km long and the last 2km were so steep that everybody’s hearts were redlined just to keep moving. As it turned out I was quite overgeared, even with the big cassette and 38T ring. Standing didn’t work either since the narrow road was covered with slippery grit and riders stopping and falling over. I just sat and ground it out, mountain bike style.

My plan was simple: Ride conservatively over the first five mountains until the top of Grand Ballon, the biggest climb and smack in the hottest part of the day. After that descent the ride is almost 3/4 done and nothing, barring a crash, could stop me. After Grand Ballon I’d ride as hard as I could. It turned out to be a good plan. Riders were dropping like flies on Grand Ballon. It was hot, oppressively hot for northern Europeans who’ve hardly seen a day above 20 degrees this Spring. The water/food stations were also poorly considered leaving a lot of riders dry and hungry in the middle of that long ascent. I was super thankful to get an extra refill in that section from a clubmate’s girlfriend. Thanks Michiel and GF who’s name I forgot! I suffered and doubted my sanity but always had enough in the tank to continue.

Though gravitationally challenged the downhills come naturally. Yes, I’m proud to note that I’m skilled at just not touching my brakes and letting the wheels do their work. Perhaps I was too enthusiastic though. The roads were sometimes quite rough and upon getting in a group at the foot of one descent I noted that my bike steered “funny”. Flat tire. All added up I saved perhaps five minutes in the descents and then lost somewhat more swapping out the tube and mini-pumping.

By the top of Grand Ballon it was clear my plan was working. All that energy I’d been diligently saving was beginning to pay top rate interest. Each time the road pointed toward the sky i reeled in dazed, exhausted riders. After 185km there was a climb with and undulating 2km of crazy steep 14-15% walls. With fresh legs you grit your teeth and stomp over these little bastards. I was anything but fresh but I’d saved just enough to keep moving. That was enough to ride past dozens of despondent souls, either stationary or in slow motion.

I’d been watching my average speed with an eye toward that second goal. I was on target to come in under 9:40… that is until we rounded a bend and saw a sign announcing 20km to go. Hearts sank. We all looked at our hyper accurate computers and though “20km!? Fuck that, it should be 17km to go!” We attacked those last humps with a vengeance in the big ring, organized ourselves into a smooth working group and hammered out those last, mostly flat, 20km at over 40kph average. Just before racing over the timing strip at the finish I saw 9:39.59 on my Garmin’s screen.

I found my clubmates, several of whom had finished more than an hour and a half earlier, and I ate my very much needed pasta meal. On our way back to the car I returned my timing chip and checked my result at the diploma tent…. Time: 9:40.01, Argent. 🙁

Considering that the course was extended by 3km without extending the time limits I’m just granting myself a virtual gold here folks. Was it fun? Yes, aside from much of the second half of the ride. All in all it was a great weekend and fantastic training. Will I do more of these? Yes, and of course I immediately got to thinking how I could go faster: Lower gears, riding in the mountains more often, another year of training in the legs, carrying handier food and wasting less time at the water stations, just riding less conservatively… A couple kilograms lighter bike would also help but that would mean spending real money which isn’t part of the plan. After all, even adding up all of these improvements I’ll still be finishing an hour behind the leaders.

I believe Brevet d’Argent means “Jeez you’re slow!” in Alsacian.

PS: I know that almost no racers ride steel bikes anymore but I figured that I’d have a few retro-compatriots at a cyclosportive. Surely there’d be some old guys on old bikes, or perhaps some more modern ferrous fans. Well, I looked amongst hundreds of bikes at the start and didn’t see any. I checked out every bike that passed me, every bike I passed, and tons of bikes parked at the finish. No, there was not one, single other steel framed bike. Nor did I see any titanium bikes. In fact even aluminium frames were few and far between. Carbon, carbon and more carbon.

6 Responses to “Now for Something Completely Different: Les Trois Ballons Cyclosportive”

  1. DrMekon Says:

    I used to ride steel on brevets – done a 17h40 400km on steel with only carbon ahead of me. I’ll admit, after a couple of seasons surrounded by carbon at the sharp end, I made the jump to the black stuff. Got a 600km with 10150m of climbing over the weekend, and a 1400km (London – Edinburgh – London) next month, which will be my first big rides on carbon. Still train on the cargotrike tho’. Did a 22km loop with 450m of climbing on the cargotrike with my 3 yr old up front last weekend, and hit 55kph coming off one of the dales – brilliant fun.

  2. Todd Edelman Says:

    The more kids you have, the faster you will ride.

  3. Pim Says:

    Very nice to read about your adventures! I am still pretty much a rookie/novice when it comes to riding hills and having kids (just a 14 MO girl :D). Did a small hill for the first time last week and I want to do more! But I too need bigger cogs… That 5-speed gear set from ’78 made for Dutch streets doesn’t cut it her in ‘das Bergische Land’, east of Cologne…

    Keep the stories comming!

  4. jim in philly Says:

    Nice work.

    My favorite hill in Netherlands is east from Maastricht to Gasthus. Valkenburg to Gasthus is also nice, but needs less reason to depart.

    Once on a warm up ride, I got turned around in Liege and wound up in Huy thinking i was at my tent in Gasthus (at 10pm, (on my Bromton)).

  5. henry Says:

    I’m neither retrogrouch nor religious about bike frame materials and will probably also end up on a carbon frame eventually. A friend of mine works for BMC whose bikes I find quite appealing. But in the meantime my ANT is a great ride. The few minutes advantage a couple kilo lighter bike would bring in a long, mountainous event will unfortunately only enable me to go from 500th place to 450th; In fact no amount of physical or equipment improvement will ever bring me even close to being competitive in such a race.

    Nope, my next cycling investments are race wheels for the track and custom shoes to fit my bony, ugly feet. The latter will make more difference than a €15,000 dream bike would.

  6. We ride Copilot Bike Says:

    I am a bicycle lover and I have found your article very detailed and interesting to read. I with my colleagues had the opportunity to travel by bike in some hills places and indeed, we really enjoyed our adventurous and challenging rides.

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