• Dawn Barnable

The BikingWomen of Corsica: Elenora Balbi

The last edition of BikingMan Corsica, a 700km/13,000m self supported ultra cycling race took place in April 2019, starting a year ago today. Due to the current global pandemic, the 2020 edition, which was supposed to be underway at the time of publishing, has been postponed. To relive the magic of the 2019 edition, we’re taking a look back at the 8 women who competed, and successfully completed, this painfully beautiful race. This is Elenora's story...

The Facts:

  • Name: Eleonora Balbi

  • Age at race time: 27

  • Nationality: Swiss

  • Profession: “Memory researcher until the end of June. After that…I don’t know – an adventurer? A hobo on the road? Yikes!”

  • Solo entry in BikingMan Corsica

  • Found on IG as @eleobalbi

The Background:

A relatively new cyclist, Elenora Balbi is a free-spirited Swiss memory researcher who at the start-line at BikingMan Corsica had only been cycling for a little over a year. You could say Elenora’s entry into ultra-cycling was destined to happen given that she first got her first road bike after agreeing to an event in the Swiss Alps that would see her complete 120km across 3 passes with 3800m of elevation. Not satisfied with only road racing, Elenora’s short cycling career has also seen her complete a full season of cyclocross races, on a secondhand bike which she got the day before her first race. BikingMan Corisca was Elenora’s second ultra-cycling race after successfully completing BikingMan Oman in February this year, a feat made all the more remarkable given a crash that left both Elenora and her bike battered and bruised at just 370km into the 1037km race. Elenora complete the race in 60h 2 minutes making her the second woman to cross the finish line. Here is Elenora’s BikingMan Corsica story:

Why BikingMan Corsica?

It could have been one of these very well thought out decisions, in front of my computer after carefully checking the route, elevation profile and cut-off times. In reality, it was a few hours after I finished Bikingman Oman. Still a bit sleep deprived, I was sitting in the bar, reminiscing about the last few hours on the bike and the thought of wanting to do another ultrarace came up; I took my phone out and signed up for Corsica.

Tell us about your training for the race.

When I signed up, I was certain that I will train more for Corsica than I did for Oman. But my training seemed to follow the same line as my rushed inscription. Unfortunately, struggling with an injury that I carried away from Oman, I wasn’t able to ride my bike for a few weeks. Sometimes I sneaked in a shorter ride, but instantly regretted it when I got off the bike. The good thing is, that practicing to eat loads and loads is part of my very serious training as well. A very tasty part of my training. When I got back on the bike, I realized that my confidence of going downhill got lost in the crash in Jebel Shams. Which is not really something you want to realize, when you are about to ride a race that is described as a “vertical challenge to test your climbing resistance”.

Climbing means also descending. So I didn’t really have the best preparation for the race – neither physically nor mentally. But I knew from my experience in Oman that at least the distance itself wouldn’t be the problem. That calmed me down. And after all, after 700km of going up and down, I should be fitter for, and have my confidence in descending back. Ready for the next one.

(If you want to know my original training plan: I don’t do training plans – I go out and ride my bike as it pleases me. Sometimes a bit more often and a bit longer than usual. That “sometimes” was the “original” plan for the preparation of Corsica.)

Thoughts on the start line?

At the 5am start: “Good thing Davide brought me that coffee.”

What was your race strategy? And did you follow it?

The initial plan was to keep on riding until I got tired. If I’d get tired, I’d sleep for a bit and then get back to cycling. I did not follow it at all. I had the plan – but was missing a strategy to follow the plan.

The first day, I managed to get to CP1 (180km, ~4100m elevation) – after struggling with the lack of food options on the way. I had a few energy bars with me, but thought I’d be able to buy some stuff at a petrol station on the way. Problem was, there were no petrol stations and no open restaurants.

But, because at that time I was out of “race-mode” and into the “holiday-mode”, I stopped when I saw the first open shop. Salt or sugar? Craving for both, ending up with vegan wine gums and crisps for breakfast. Yes. Food strategy on point! would have been boring if everything would have gone upwards from there on. Let’s throw another challenge in there – additional to the food struggles, the night hit me. Descending in the dark would have already been hard enough for me mentally, but descending in the dark, on roads with potholes and animals everywhere was another challenge. Oh, and let’s not forget the cold. It’s fair to say that I didn’t feel very warm during the day itself, but at night I was completely frozen. Couldn’t feel my fingers, couldn’t feel my feet, could barely feel the blood flowing through my veins. When I arrived at CP2, I decided to throw my plan overboard and rest to warm up, even though I wasn’t too tired. It was that moment, when I decided that this will be a holiday and not a race. I got a blanket, lay down, just to get up 30 minutes later to get another blanket, because I was still too cold. After a 5 hours rest, I still felt cold. I had a coffee at the checkpoint, still snuggling in a blanket, waiting til the sun came up, hoping it would get warmer. It did. So I hit the road again, with a moody mind because I still hadn’t eaten properly. There weren’t any vegan food options at CP2, which is why I left without having eaten anything. By that time, I hadn’t eaten for 14 hours.

But, because at that time I was out of “race-mode” and into the “holiday-mode”, I stopped when I saw the first open shop. Salt or sugar? Craving for both, ending up with vegan winegums and crisps for breakfast. Yes. Food strategy on point!

I covered the distance from CP2 to CP3 (191km, ~3600m elevation) on the second day, taking it easy and arrived at CP3 just before the sun went down. I rested again, waiting for warmer temperatures, which ended up being a 13 hours rest. But for a holiday ride, that’s a fair amount of resting ;)

The next day, it was easy and relaxed rolling to the finish (180km, ~2600m elevation). The holiday strategy just worked perfectly.

Strategies can change – the enjoyable feeling of riding the bike stays.

What was the most challenging aspect of the race for you?

Definitely the cold. Cycling up mountains in Switzerland in winter was less cold than the first night in Corsica.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of the race?

Leaving CP3 knowing that I will easily reach the finish line in the afternoon. After a proper breakfast with fellow riders, the legs opened up and I really enjoyed the rolling hills up the coast, to Cap Corse and to the finish. Riding the bike, feeling good - there aren’t many better things in life.

What advice would you give someone thinking about doing an ultra cycling race?

I think there is one essential aspect to successfully take part in an ultra race: you need to enjoy riding your bike. That’s it. Don’t worry too much about distance, fitness and don’t compare yourself with others. Distance can be covered, maybe you just have to ride a bit longer every day than you had originally planned. Fitness will be beaten by the mind – it’s a lot in the head. Others have their own goals, strategy, limits, training plans and will face different challenges during the race – there is absolutely no point of comparing yourself with them. Race yourself.

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