Ballon d’Alsace – The Half Way

Cyclist Léon Georget in 1909.

It was as I was preparing to expose myself at the side of the road in order to have a pee, and the family in the black car chose that moment to pull into the lay-by, that I reflected I’d gone about this the wrong way. I was halfway out of my cycling jersey, and about to tug down the front of my bib shorts. (I haven’t ever attempted the pee-on-the-move thing that pro cyclists do. I’ve heard anyway that much of the pee goes down your leg, or up your shorts.)

There have been a lot of hot rides this holiday, temperatures well above 30°C and tarmac melting merrily away, so I’ve been conscientious about taking enough to drink. A lot of people think you’re crazy when you want to go for a ride on a hot day, but it’s fine, really. The breeze caused by just moving is enough to keep you fairly cool, and you only feel the heat when you stop, or find yourself on a steep gradient out of the wind. But you need to keep sweating, which means you need to keep drinking.

So I bought myself one of those backpack water carrier things. Camelback is the best-known brand, but mine is a Giant branded one. It holds up to two litres of water, which means carrying an extra 2 kilos on your back, which I’m not keen on. But with that and two 800ml bottles, I reckoned I had enough water for a long, hot ride, which is what I’ve been trying to build up to.

Two weeks in, I know I’m fitter. It still hurts to climb hills, but I’m not breathing as hard as I was. I still feel like I need another gear (or two), but I’ve been steadily increasing the amount of climbing I do, and the altitude I reach. I read about people doing these hundred-mile rides, and tackling TDF stages, all that, but I’m nowhere near being able to do that. I’m not strong enough, or fit enough. A 4km climb still feels really long to me, and I couldn’t contemplate making it up a 10-14 km climb, over an alp, or even a Ballon.

The Ballons des Vosges are rounded granite hills, part of a deeply forested national park  (Parc Naturel Régional des Ballons des Vosges) which is a great destination for cycling, featuring rolling roads and some challenging climbs, but nothing on the level of an alp or a Pyrenee. With my own lack of fitness, my main concern has been to get out of the valley of the River Rahin, or the Savoureuse, over at least one climb, so I could extend my range and spend more time in the saddle. At home, my nightly fitness rides of about an hour take me on a 20km circuit, and at the weekend, I’ve been extending this to 30+ and even 40km, with attendant problems with shoes and other equipment (see blogs passim).

Here in Auxelles Bas, my problem is that, even if I wanted to go for a 50km or 60km ride, the only way to do that is to climb, and this is something I’m not very good. My whole cycling life, I’ve just tried to go fast, and I’m having to learn the whole discipline of climbing and gearing and tricking your body into not thinking that it’s sprinting, which is what generally happens when you hit a hill and push harder on the pedals.

The good news is that I spent two hours on the road on Friday and arrived home without even a hint of a numb foot. These Bontrager multisport shoes seem to be the business for me, combined with the Shimano touring pedals. My saddle was starting to give me gyp, but that’s a whole other chapter (to come).

So, after climbing 140m on the first (Thursday) afternoon, I gradually increased the elevation over the first week, managing a ride with 457m of climbing by the following Wednesday. I immediately trumped this with 534m on the following day, but then I had my first mechanical of the holiday when I threw a spoke, which deformed my back wheel and meant I couldn’t ride for a couple of days while it was being repaired.

We also had a couple of days of rain, which meant that the second week was a bit of a step backwards. But, after a couple of days of rain-enforced rest, I decided to set out for the Ballon d’Alsace and see how far up it I could get. I had a little note in my phone of a tiny settlement on the map called Roche du Cerf, which sits at around 566 metres up the valley of the Savoureuse river. Just above that, the RN D465 takes a turn for the steep, and begins to switch back and forth up the west face of the Ballon, topping out at 1170 metres.

In global climbing terms, not much really, but at least 10x more than I’ve ever tackled in one go. The gradient is not too bad, 10% in places, which is about what I can manage on the hill between Plancher and Auxelles, but for nothing like as long.

I didn’t think I was going to make it all the way up. La Roche du Cerf was the target. I set off in the wrong direction, in order to avoid the 60m climb on the road to Giromagny, which may have been an error. I rode down to Chaux, which is mostly downhill, and a nice warmup before turning around and riding gently up through Rougegoutte and Vescemont. You do the same amount of climbing in the end, but a lot more gently and enjoyably. A sharp turn before la Planche le Prêtre, and I descended down into Giromagny, down to about 480m, before heading up the road to the Ballon.

I was carrying my 2 litre water pack and two bottles, and I had a couple of gels and a couple of energy bars. I was feeling okay, but it wasn’t really hot enough to be carrying so much water, and it was on the gentle start of the road up to the Ballon that I started to feel I needed to pee. It wasn’t all that hot, only around 20°C, which meant that the water pack was overkill. Once an idea like that insinuates itself into your brain, there’s no getting it out. The problem was, there are quite a lot of houses along that road, and there were no quiet spots to hop off for a wee. In fact, I was up to about 700 metres before I saw an opportunity. By this time, my legs were protesting, and I was already feeling that I might have overdone it, given that I still had the climbs between where I was and home to negotiate. I stopped and threw the bike down. I wasn’t on too steep a gradient at that point, but the stopping place was on the edge of a precipice, and the ground beneath was not all that sturdy, consisting mostly of cut brambles, it turned out. As I was unzipping, the black car pulled into the lay-by. The family inside gave me a look as the driver turned the car around. I’d seen a few other cyclists, but there was nobody else around as the car pulled away. I risked it.

I don’t like peeing in public at the best of times, but having to keep looking left and right on what was actually quite a busy road was quite stressful. In the end, it was almost as if I didn’t need to pee at all.

Still, I managed it, and, back on the bike, for a few wondrous moments, my legs didn’t feel too bad. I kept climbing. There’s something of a mental assault in a gradient that stretches ahead, and that you know will keep stretching thus after every switchback bend for the next few km. In fact, I count 7 hairpins on the map, with each stretch between growing longer and longer. At this stage, I think I had a good 10km of climbing to go before I reached the top. I kept my head down and tried to turn the pedals at a cadence that didn’t leave me out of breath. But the problem in the end wasn’t the breath, but the legs. I got past a restaurant called La Saut de la Truite (where my in-laws had their wedding reception), and shortly after that, another – fitter, stronger, faster – cyclist breezed past and said, “Bonjour.” I was so in the zone that he made me jump out of my skin. I made some horrible surprised noise, which sounded nothing like bonjour, I’m sure. At this point, the jimmy legs were having no more of it. I turned and freewheeled down. I’d reached 717m, and would need to climb another 450 or so to get to the top, which had never been the aim, but would have been a triumph.

When you’re so knackered, it’s hard to enjoy a descent, especially after suffering a mechanical a few days before. I worried about my brakes (and my spokes), but still hit over 50 kmh on the downhill. By the time I needed to pedal again, though, my feet felt like lead weights at the end of my legs (I now understand why some people obsess about the weight of shoes and pedals).

Somehow, I got over the hill from Giromagny up towards Auxelles. Somehow, I managed to climb from the roundabout at the bottom of Auxelles up to our house. I gave myself permission to walk the last few metres after the last right turn, when the gradient on our road gets really steep, but I was watching the stop watch on my Strava app and it was counting up towards exactly two hours, so I gave myself permission to walk when it hit 2:00:00. And then it did, but I was unclipping outside our front door. I still had more than 2 litres of water left, which meant I’d carried an excess 2kg for two hours, but what the hell.

Total climbing for the ride: 767m, which was 233m more than I’d ever managed before. I slept a lot for the rest of the day.

In two more weeks, I wonder, will I have those extra 450m in my legs?


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