Liege Bastogne Liege
Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Belgium. It's one of cycling's five monuments, the oldest race on the calendar (first run in 1890), and the race that sees the end of the Spring Classics campaign.
Run through the battlefields, forests and war cemeteries of the Ardennes the cyclo-event is both challenging, rewarding and poignant.
Every few miles you pass war graves, monuments (in the commemorative sense) and infamous places in history. Every town, bridge and crossroads was either fought over, defended or flattened during the Battle of the Bulge. There are fewer places in Europe where recent history is so prevalent and condensed.
Anyway, onto the cycling. Once again we managed to find a hotel ten minutes from the start, so on race morning it was a quick drive up the motorway then down a very long and very steep hill in to the valley of Tilf, a suburb of Liege. Our race numbers and documentation had been sent to us the week before so we parked up, found a toilet (again!) and rode straight to the start to get our carnets stamped.
Fully wrapped up against the 8 degrees of Belgian Spring we left the Place Roi Albert, with around 10,000 others at 9 am to head out of town. Two kilometres warm-up was deemed enough by the organisers and a sharp left had us heading straight up the 4 kilometre climb of the Côte de Dolembreux.
At 4.8% it's do-able on the big ring, although the 8% ripples in it do keep you on your toes and help warm you up a little. At the bottom are groups of people handing out packs of glucose tablets, you take them just because you can; knowing full well you'll never use them!
Dianne gets her instructions to climb at her own pace and rhythm and is reminded to eat and drink throughout. She knows all of this but it makes me feel better reminding her; it's so easy to get carried away by the occasion. I get out of the saddle and cruise away trying not to go too fast too soon or look like a flash git.
At the top of the long, long, climb you come to a set of traffic lights, which cyclists can by-pass by using the cycle track, and turn right straight in to a kilometre descent of the Côte de Hornay. Which leads in to a double roundabout whose exit is the bottom of the 3.2 kilometre, 5.6% Côte de Florzé. Again climbable in the big ring but with bigger sections of 8%, and so soon after the first climb, it does get you reaching for the zip on your jersey.
So there we are, under ten kilometres covered and seven climbed! Hope this isn't indicative of the rest of the ride.
For Dianne it wasn't. The 68k ride turned off at the top of the Florzé. The 122k ride I was doing enjoyed a steady descent and a 10K cruise to the bottom of the Côte de Werbomont. At 4.6k and 4% this would be the last warm-up climb before the biggies arrived.
Climbing through the forests and fields of Wallonia is undoubtedly picturesque but the road surfaces leave a lot to be desired. The anti-skid roads just rob you of all your energy.
If you ride the new road surface past St Ouen's Manor you'll know what I mean. Imagine riding 90 miles of it! It's like riding a washboard with micro-ripples feeding up through the bike. It's a far cry from the ten metre concrete slabs of Flanders which give you a slap-slap every second of the ride; hard to know which is more preferable.
I suppose this is all part of the rich tapestry of cycling and it means I'll never complain about Jersey roads again. Except for the bit by St Ouen's Manor.
From the Werbomont it's 30k of rolling countryside and battle grounds to the first feed station at Wanne. Which is good. However, the Côte de Wanne is on the exit of the feed station, which is bad.
We now climb at 8% for over 2k and the very first section as you leave the road hits you at 13%. The descent of Wanne leads straight to the town of Stavelot.
The Dreaded Cobbles
We're now in Grand Prix country and riding around the outside of the glorious Spa-Francochamps circuit. Anyone who watches F1 will know that this area has it's own micro-climates. The temperature is now around 15 degrees and as we enter Stavelot it begins to drizzle. Which normally wouldn't be too bad but Stavelot is a cobbled town.
This is where the Allies and the Germans battled over the town square for a day and a night. Subsequently settled when the allies fired 3,000 shells in to the town in one afternoon.
With bridges blown the only exit was west, along the route we would follow. We cover 1500 metres of slippery pave riding in and out of the town's streets at high speed, I think the speed was high because no one wanted to brake and take a tumble.
Before you know it you're at the foot of the Col de la Haute Levée. Added to this years pro race to spice things up a bit you soon begin to realise why it did.
How Lucky Are We?
Again the climb hits you with the steep bit first, 12% comes at you and you hope the following 3.6k isn't more of the same. Luckily it isn't but it does grind on as it opens out over the fields.
You can see a long way and all you can see is people snaking their way up the climb. I'm not feeling great, all day I've been a bit flat but I've climbed well. However I was beginning to think that I was starting to suffer and should I throttle back when something threw me from my self-pity.
About 50 metres in front of me was a figure climbing awkwardly. The shoulders were drooping with every push of the pedals and he seemed to be struggling. It wasn't until I got twenty metres or so behind him that I realised he was climbing with just one leg!
Last year a bloke on the Pascal Richard impressed me by competing with one arm. But this bloke deserved real respect. 122k and eleven back breaking climbs on a mountain bike and one leg. I got my head back together and pushed on.
Straight after the Haute Levée comes the 5.6k Col du Rosier and the 3k Côte du Maquisard. Both at 5%, with stretches of 11%, these climbs become more taxing as the kilometres click by.
Leaving the Rosier there is a sign that brings cheer to my heart. Descent Dangereuse, 15%, 3K. How good is this? The road surface requires a little respect but the fact that it's there and needs to be attacked brings out the worst in me.
For once I appear to be descending with like-minded individuals. The Belgians know how to handle their bikes and a six of us descend like demons to the foot of the du Maquisard. This climb, and the subsequent descent, takes us to the next control at Remouchamps and to the foot of the mythical La Redoute.
It's at this point that Dianne's ride rejoins the 122k route. After crossing the Ambleve bridge, one of many destroyed by the allies during the Battle of the Bulge, you take a sharp right in to a car park and get your bottle of Isostar, food and carnet stamped.
A short ride out of town takes you under the infamous kilometre long road bridge that towers above you as it the spans the Remouchamps gorge, to the start of La Redoute.
The climb begins really easy, the heat is now building, the drizzle is long gone and I show off by removing my gilet while climbing.
Which is just as well because as you drop under the motorway the road kicks up and the commemorative stone to the climb is before you, extolling the virtues of the "legends of the cycle".
The climb continues at an average of 10% ~ which is Bonne Nuit steep ~ and three quarters of the way up it hits 20%. Unsurprisingly, this is where the crowds have gathered.
The road is still covered in paint from the previous pro race. Apart from the smatterings of PHIL (for Philipe Gilbert), VDB dominates. Unfortunately I'm going up here more like Vandenbrouke than Gilbert. I'm giving it everything and just managing to hit 5 mph. I wondered how Dianne would get on?
Then the road flattens (back to 10%) and you're over the top. It feels flat and your speed immediately picks up like someone has let the handbrake off. You look up from, the two-foot focus point in front of your wheel and bang, the road goes up to 20% again. So, it wasn't the top then?
Dig in and push on. My heart rate is “just“ 190 bpm. Relatively low for me but it's still hard going. As we clear the top I think, that's it; the ride is almost over.
All that remains is the 3.2k descent of the previously climbed Côte de Florzé, across the two roundabouts, this time the long way around, and up the Jubilee Hill style Côte de Hornay which seems a breeze after the previous climbs.
Turning left at the traffic lights I scream down the Côte de Dolembreux, picking up riders as I go. A hyperactive, whistle blowing, baton waving marshal is at the bottom directing everyone back to Tilf. We skim his shoes, which does little to discourage his whistle activity, and chain gang the last two kilometres to the finish. 122 kilometres with 28k and nearly 2000 metres of climbing. A nice prelude and taster for the next two rides to come, the Dauphine Libre and the Ventoux Challenge.
Dianne's already back, with her t-shirt, medal and diploma in her hand.
Her ride proved rather eventful with someone doing a “Bettini” on her, swiping her front wheel and sending her in to a ditch. And no, she wasn't trying to pass on the “tight-side”. Git didn't even stop, still he learnt some choice Geordie words for his efforts.
On La Redoute she almost made it to the top but reached a point where, even standing with all her weight (50kilos), she couldn't press the pedals hard enough to keep the bike moving forward.
When I asked about what gear she was in, she said she didn't bother changing and just kept it in the middle ring all day. Which means she climbed all the previous climbs on a 40x23!! She pushed the bike the final 50 metres to the crest of La Redoute, remounted and cruised to finish her 68 kilometres, with 12k and 850 metres of climbing, in two hours forty-five minutes.
Remarkable for someone who has been riding a bike for less than a year!
The pro's describe this race as one of their favourites. It's quite easy to see why. It was a great ride in a great country. Some of the classic climbs are missing but I'll get them next year when we return to do the Fleche Wallone. And in case you're interested the other monuments are Paris Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Giro Lombardia and Milan-San Remo. I've now done all of them, and can die a happy man!