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Les Trois Ballons Granfondo sportive review

In-depth
10 Jul 2019
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The Vosges mountains may lack the majesty of the Alps, but still provide a severe test

Words Joseph Delves | Photography Michael Mills

The Alps and Pyrenees tear their way out of the landscape, tortured into existence by the collision of African and Eurasian tectonic plates 25 million years ago. They surge upwards, increasing in steepness as they break above the treeline in a jumble of pointed rock.

By comparison, the Vosges aren’t even real mountains. Created by a downward slip between parallel fault lines, their landscape of valleys and escarpments has been softened and their rough edges smoothed by millennia of glacial erosion.

As a result, despite rising to a height of 1,424m, the ballons of the Vosges swell softly from the land in a decidedly unmountainlike way.

Consequently, the roads that cross them tend to taper upwards gradually before reaching a crux that’s seldom too challenging.

Rarely higher than the treeline they tend to be verdant and winding, rather than rugged and twisting. With so much drama on offer to the south, the Vosges were overlooked by the Tour de France for most of the 20th century, and only gained prominence with the inclusion of La Planche des Belles Filles in the 2012 Tour.

They featured again in 2017, but not before Cyclist had a chance to tackle them at the Ridley Les Trois Ballons Granfondo.

Big day

While the Vosges might lack the absolute height of other ranges, Cycling Classics France, which organises the event as part of its Grand Trophée series, makes up for this by cramming six significant climbs into the 211km route, providing over 4,400m of vertical ascent. 

Mindful of the challenges to come, I force myself to start conservatively as we depart the town of Luxeuil-les-Bains.

Other than a bit of pushing and shoving, the 4,000 cyclists released from their pens manage the first few kilometres without incident, our collective enthusiasm flattening the slight uphill gradient.

Once out of town we cross a river into Belonchamp, where the villagers have hung out flags. I see a rider in Française des Jeux kit sneaking off down a side road – it’s probably local lad Thibaut Pinot, who lives in the adjacent village of Mélisey.

The first short climbs are steady but not overly challenging – a miniaturised preview of what’s to come. Having gained a little altitude we reach Plancher-les-Mines, a small town on the edge of the mountains that we’ll pass through again once we’ve completed 165km.

Lining the road are plywood cutouts of former and current Grand Tour riders. Created for the Tour but brought out in our honour, whoever painted them paid special attention to the teeth, lending them a slightly ridiculous demeanour.

First is toothy Contador, then toothy Ullrich, Moreau, Chavanel, Mayo, Armstrong, Nibali and finally a toothy Froome.

Having left the town and its grinning plywood pros behind, we pass a sawmill and a sign marking the way to the start of La Planche des Belles Filles. We’ll be heading that way, but only later on our second pass through the area.

For now we stay low, heading into a forest and on to the adjacent climb of the Ballon de Servance. At 7km long, with a consistent gradient averaging 5.9%, it’s a case of picking a gear and winding steadily upwards.

This first exertion settles everyone down. I notice flies hovering around the riders, whose progress is too slow to shake them. Sometimes other cyclists come into view above or below, but for the most part everything is hidden by the trees.

Time and altitude tick gradually by. Around each corner the avenue of crowded trees repeats itself, until eventually up the road is a square of sunlight.

We pass out of the forest at the top of the climb and straight onto a steep, open descent. One climb done.

Although the sun has burned away the cloud it’s not yet properly warm. Clammy from the climb I regret not putting on my gilet, as there’s no chance to fiddle about with clothing before the plunge downwards.

Living in the south of England, I find the next 10km both fun and slightly terrifying as I struggle to remember how to find the right balance between speed and self preservation.

Just as I start getting the hang of it we’re back at the valley floor. Almost immediately we pass through the village of Le Thillot, where there’s a fair bit of traffic on the road. Weaving through it I hear someone yelling ahead and spy a gendarme wielding a baton.

Luckily he’s not using it to cosh unruly cyclists around the head, but is instead directing them down the main street. Out of town we ride down wide and easy roads to the town of Le Ménil then Travexin at 75km, where I stop for the first time.

Stocked up on snacks I grind my way slowly up the following 10km climb of the Col d’Oderen. We’re on the easier western ascent, whose slopes never exceed 6%, so it’s shallow enough for the road to be almost straight.

On the far side we descend via a series of steeper switchbacks, which require concentration in picking the right line. With 100km done and two climbs completed, I have to say my legs are feeling uncharacteristically happy, and I’m starting to feel slightly smug.

The hump

If you’re an experienced traveller you will at some point have come across a ‘mystery hill’. These are strange places where water appears to flow uphill, or where a car left out of gear will seemingly roll against the gradient.

But rather than being the result of supernatural forces they’re in reality optical illusions created when the horizon is obstructed, leaving you without a reliable reference point to accurately judge a slope.

I’ve decided the Grand Ballon is just such a mystery hill. First off, despite rising almost a full kilometre vertically, it’s easy to miss on a map since, unlike the switchbacks that zigzag up most high mountain climbs, the road draped over the Grand Ballon is pretty direct.

On top of that, with trees obscuring the view on both sides, the road ahead provides the only horizon line so it’s impossible to gauge how high you’ve climbed or see how much more might be ahead. Coming on slowly, with an absolutely consistent 6% gradient, for the first half of its 20km I’d swear blind I’m riding downhill rather than up.

The effect is truly weird. It’s only the occasional cyclist freewheeling in the opposite direction that gives the game away.

That and the fact that ceasing to pedal brings me quickly to a halt. The cumulative effect after several kilometres is like being trapped in a dream where you’re trying to run, but find your legs inexplicably weak.

I try riding out of the saddle. I try an easy gear and spinning. I try a big gear and grinding. Nothing helps, my speed steadily drops and all the while the road gives no visual cues as to why I should be suffering this much.

I reach the summit after more than an hour of climbing, and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive the Grand Ballon. The altitude at least means the trees start to thin out, revealing for the first time how high the road has climbed above the surrounding landscape.

I’m now close to the highest point in the Vosges. The view from the top is spectacular, and the feed station well placed. Stocked up on cheese and salami baguettes I carry on. The road descends a little before an abrupt climb takes us briefly back up again and over the far side of the mountaintop.

Looking east across the Rhine Valley you can see as far as Germany’s Black Forest. I’ve been riding for upwards of five hours now, and I’m feeling a lot less smug. At least the gradient is with me, so I hunker down and descend as fast as I dare.

I tick off another 15km without effort, which cheers me up considerably, and resolve to stamp up the next climb in a bid to claw back some lost time.

History time

Green and pleasant at first glance, Alsace has historically been Europe’s industrial heart. Strip away the greenery and underneath are huge deposits of iron ore and coal.

This mineral wealth has been a mixed blessing for the region, though, and it has switched ownership between empires and countries multiple times over its troubled history.

Sitting on the border between Germany and France, the Vosges was the only area of the Western Front to see mountain fighting during the First World War.

In fact the road that climbs the distinctly German-sounding Col du Hundsruck was constructed during the War as a supply route before the Treaty of Versailles passed the entire region, including the Hundsruck, to the French. It’s a lot more peaceful these days, and there’s little traffic about to see me heaving myself up its 9km length. 

With two more climbs and two more feed stops marked on the route map, I decide to make the village of Sewen at the foot of the Ballon d’Alsace my last stop.

The unique landscape of the Vosges is sometimes referred to as ‘The Land of the 1,000 Lakes’, although the Lac de Sewen, which sits beside the rest stop, is now the only remaining natural glacial lake in the region.

I fill my bottles and stick my head into a cattle trough to cool down before heading onto the penultimate climb. A few kilometres along the route is another lake, this time artificially enlarged by the addition of a dam.

Climbing steeply, I’m sorely tempted to jump in once I reach the top. It’s now the hottest part of the day and there are people diving from the rocks and splashing into the water.

The climb meanders for a few kilometres before snaking upwards via a series of wide hairpins. Although the gradient never exceeds 7%, with almost 170km behind me it feels steeper.

The landscape is green, tree-lined and pretty, but so were the other climbs and, truth be told, by this point they’re all starting to blur together.

Eventually it’s over and, aware that this is the point of the ride where I normally make some sort of unforced and painful trajectory error, I crawl cautiously down the day’s last descent.

With five of the six climbs done I know I’m going to make it home, but I also know there’s a pig of an ascent still to come.

Grand Tour pretensions

Despite being a recent addition to the Tour, La Planche des Belles Filles has had an impact out of proportion to its moderate 503m of vertical gain.

Brought in for 2012, its first running saw Chris Froome nursing his team leader Bradley Wiggins to the line. Froome took the stage, but Wiggins went on to win the race overall in what was a fractious but wildly successful Tour for Team Sky.

Two years later it returned as the conclusion to Stage 10.

This time the spoils went to Vincenzo Nibali, who won on his way to his own moment on the top step of the podium in Paris. This summer La Planche des Belles Filles makes its third appearance on the Tour menu.

I don’t know it yet, but the stage will be won by Nibali’s former Astana teammate Fabio Aru, with Froome riding back into the yellow jersey, which he’ll hold onto all the way to Paris. It takes me more than twice as long to climb La Planche des Belles Filles as it does the pros.

The road is littered with hunched casualties pushing their bikes, and I decide my only chance of making it to the top is to go as slowly as possible without actually falling over. Enacting my plan I find someone who looks to be suffering even more than me and stick to their wheel.

When they give up I bridge across to the next rider. This works for a while, but as the gradient swings above 10% the person I’ve chosen starts weaving erratically. Swerving to a stop he climbs off in the middle of the road, swearing. 

Maybe he knows what’s to come. I certainly do. As the road eases off for a few kilometres I try to regroup for the grand finale.

Yesterday I was at the top, watching the organisers erect the finishing arch, so I know the final 200m ramp is at almost 20%. The pros surge through it, but for me it looks likely to be more a public walk of shame.

Swinging around the final bend the road rears up and I try to keep the pedals turning. My calves feel like someone’s pumped them full of cement.

Ahead, someone wobbles to a halt, only for a spectator to shove them bodily on their way. Pointing straight up, there’s only a window of sky above the finish line, but I can barely lift my head.

A few more painful turns and I’m through – the hardest few metres of a 211km course saved right until the end.

I’m truly beat, as are the riders lying all around the finishing area. I know that when I return home, few people will recognise the names of the climbs I’ve just dragged myself over. Yet while none of them would be overly taxing on their own, the cumulative effect has shattered me.

The Vosges might not be a region associated with climbing by bike, but by packing in similar elevation to most big mountain stages at the Tour, the Ridley Trois Ballons is a challenge to be underestimated at your own peril.

I cling to this thought as I stumble off my bike, very much ready for the rest day.

The details 

What Ridley Les Trois Ballons Granfondo
Where Luxeuil les Bains, France
How far 211km (full route) or 125km (Medio Fondo option)
Next one 9th June 2018
Price €65 (£59)
More information grandtrophee.fr

The rider’s ride

Ridley Fenix SLX | €3,399 (approx £3,000) | ridley-bikes.com

As a proportion of budget relative to income, Ridley supports more teams than any other bike maker. Despite being touted as an endurance platform, given its manufacturer’s racing pedigree it’s unsurprising that the longstanding Fenix is no slouchy comfort bike.

In truth its low and tight geometry would look aggressive stacked up against most brands’ conventional race bikes. The recent addition of disc brakes has done nothing to dampen this race-focused attitude.

Part of Campagnolo’s new Potenza groupset, the discs provide fantastic stopping and superb modulation. Given the amount of descending involved they got me out of trouble on multiple occasions.

A world away from the cushioned ride of some endurance bikes, the Fenix just softens the road’s rougher edges, while still leaving plenty of feel.

Its low and stretched position may have been a little aggressive for the 211km Les Trois Ballons, but if you’ve got the prerequisite flexibility, the Fenix is an unrelenting and engaging choice.

How we got there 

Travel

Basel in Switzerland is the handiest airport for reaching the Vosges but, with it being located on the French-Swiss border, just make sure you take the correct exit or you’ll end up in the wrong country.

Ryanair and Easyjet fly from London to Basel and offer some ridiculously cheap fares, but if you’re taking a bike a better bet is British Airways, which flies from Heathrow from around £65 each way (including bike).

With 55km between the event’s start and finish, transfers between the two locations are available for riders and their bikes at a cost of €20.

Accommodation 

Cyclist stayed in nearby Belfort, but a more sensible option would be to book somewhere in Luxeuil-les-Bains, where the ride begins.

However if you have a car, finding somewhere in one of the smaller villages dotted throughout the Parc naturel régional des Ballons des Vosges would make for a more picturesque alternative. 

Thanks

Many thanks go to Ridley for hosting the event and providing Cyclist with a first ride of the Fenix SLX. Gratitude is also due to grandtrophee.fr for the invite to ride the event.

ridley-bikes.com