Words by Trevor Gornall / Photos by Benjamin Fitzmaurice
Any serious cycling fan fully appreciates the significance of The Classics and within The Classics, The Monuments. Here at Conquista we are by no means prolific sportive riders, but in 2013 we found the lure of the Paris-Roubaix pavé too much to resist (see our account of that adventure in Issue 0). In 2014 we returned to the cobbled Classics, this time to the Monument of Flanders. Not quite as punishing as Roubaix, we tackled the Ronde from the comfort of a VIP Coach – and very nice it was too (see the write-up in Issue 3).
For Spring 2015 we return to Belgium, visiting La Doyenne, the Queen of the Classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This time we are back in the saddle, without a VIP bus to be seen, suffering with several thousand other deluded fools.
The story begins in February 2015. My friend Mark contacted me to say they had a spare place on their trip to watch L-B-L and they were going to do the public challenge ride. Without hesitation I agreed and plans were immediately put in place. At the time I didn’t devote much thought to the actual ride. Confident I would have enough miles in my legs after an exhaustive block of training in February, including four consecutive weekly century rides (+100 miles) followed by a weekend residential training camp. I thought I’d be fit enough to tackle just about anything. It was only later when registering for the ride online the true horror of what I’d let myself in for began to sink in. The guys were all doing the full distance of 279 km (170 miles). This includes 10 classified climbs and at least as many more that don’t appear on the listings, totalling 4,500 vertical metres (a little shy of 15,000 feet). Oh and some cobbles thrown in for good measure – we wouldn’t want it to be easy would we?
Unlike my Roubaix experience, I would have plenty of time to ponder this ride. Analyse every last detail. What training to do, bike set-up, kit to wear, wheels to use, etc, etc. Not quite sleepless nights, but far too much for my tiny brain cell to occupy itself with.
The next day I quizzed our long-suffering contributor and MTN Qhubeka pro, Matthew Brammeier, hoping to gain some useful insight and advice. “Matt, are you riding Liège- Bastogne-Liège?”
“Am I fuck.” Came the blunt and concerning response. Okay, even the pros hate this course, great start. That was the end of that particular conversation before my confidence was completely crushed.
The other main thought I could not shake from my head was a half-serious observation from my mate Gerard, who at the time back in 2005 was responsible for the English language race reports on the T-Mobile Team website. I paraphrase, but his description of L-B-L went along the lines: “It’s a pretty bleak industrial landscape. Consider it a Belgian version of ‘Bolton-Blackburn-Bolton’. It ain’t pretty.”
I needed to find more positive vibes, so after a few days of negative thoughts I put a call in to my old mate Bev Lucas of Knight Composites. We discussed my foolishness in taking on this ride but she promised to do all she could to assist me and promptly arranged for a loan set of their new 35 clinchers for me to ride on. Excellent, if nothing else I might now at least look like I know what I’m doing.
The week before the main event we arranged a training ride to the Trough of Bowland, where Mark introduced me to Mick, who would join us on the Belgian trip. Here the terrain is rolling and there are often menacing crosswinds – and rain, conditions not too dissimilar to those we expected to find in Belgium. We covered
82 miles and 1,500 m in a bit under 5 hours with an extended waterside coffee stop in beautiful Arnside, Cumbria. General consensus was we were not in too bad shape, since riding in strong winds with only 3 of us meant regular turns on the front. My new wheels had arrived and I’d enjoyed testing them. I’d simply swapped my 10 speed 25-11 sprocket from my R-Sys on to the 11 speed DT Swiss 240 hubs and added a spacer. I’d initially experienced a little issue with not indexing correctly. So I put my bike into the local shop and the problem was identified as a bent rear hanger. The lads fixed it up in no time and everything worked perfectly thereafter.
The week before the ride I decided to take it easy and ‘taper down’ (apparently that’s a thing). I remained nervous as I sought the fine balance between under-training and overeating. I really didn’t want to be carrying excess kilos up those 4,500 metres. I’d also optimistically ordered a load of medium-sized kit which I was quietly concerned I would not squeeze my 1.92 m and 82 kg (on a good day) frame into. When the kit did arrive however I felt like a kid at Christmas. A box full of Isadore Apparel goodies arrived just one day before my departure. The cycling apparel company is the creation of the Slovakian Velits brothers Martin and Peter – respectively of Ettix-Quickstep Pro Cycling Team and BMC Racing Team. I had worked for their team sponsor HTC when they were part of the Highroad set-up and we had recently agreed to collaborate together through a media partnership with Conquista. The boys made sure I was covered in every respect as the bundle of swag they sent me included: socks; base layers; bib shorts; short and long sleeve jerseys; waterproof and breathable gilet and soft shell jacket; race cap and gloves. I immediately tried it all on and to my relief found I could (just about) manage to get it all on at the same time! I wondered about washing the kit before wearing it – I’ve had bad experience previously with new shorts being worn on a long ride fresh from the packet. But I didn’t really have enough time so reluctantly decided to wing it.
Riding-wise it was a week of nothing more strenuous than “bimble”, topped off with a trip to the physio on Wednesday afternoon for a leg rub. My creaking quads were pummelled by Phil Macdonald of Sports Therapy Liverpool who definitely enjoyed the experience more than I did. “You won’t thank me today or tomorrow, but by Friday you’ll be feeling great” were his parting words. Only a couple of weeks later Phil would be rubbing the delicate calves of Sir Brad himself as a Team Wiggins swanny at the Tour de Yorkshire, so I convinced myself the boy knew what he was doing.
After packing my kit and tinkering with my bike, on the Wednesday evening I decided to see what all the rice cake fuss was about.
Maybe I’m the only person on the planet not to have seen it, but I googled ‘Rapha rice cakes’. Try it. Greatly amused at the soft porn slo-mo of Team Sky gorging themselves on the fluffy white squares, and then the very well-observed corndog parody, I set to work on my own rice cake recipe. I boiled up some risotto rice, mixed in some coconut oil, brown sugar, cream cheese, and sprinkled in salt and cinnamon. Then let it cool on a baking tray and left it in the fridge overnight. If nothing else I would have an alternative taste and texture to sweet energy gels, bars and the waffles provided by the event organiser at the feed stations.
At the back of my mind a variety of numbers were dominating my thoughts as I tried to get some much-needed sleep. In no particular order they were: 39, 25, 4,500, 279 and 21%. Deep down I knew that I should have swapped my 25 sprocket for something much bigger. But the little issue with the bent hanger and not indexing had put me off tinkering. The rear mech was running sweet and I didn’t want to tempt fate by messing around with it. It’ll be fine I convinced myself – strength of a thousand tigers...
The following lunchtime I set off to meet up with Mark and Mick. On the way we picked up Bob, the final member of our squadra. By early afternoon we were heading towards the Port of Hull in the north-east of England, where we would take the ferry to Zeebrugge. The twelve-hour journey was fairly innocuous, with Bob taking the brunt of the banter. A year earlier the boys had taken on the public challenge ride at the Tour of Flanders. However, in his rush to get to the ferry on that occasion Bob had somehow managed to mistakenly pick up his wife’s passport instead of his own. They didn’t notice the error until they were at the ferry terminal and it was too late to turn back. So they decided to try and blag it. Bob had to hide in the shadows of the rear seat when going through passport control, pretending to be his wife. Somehow they managed to get through that time without being discovered and the real Mrs K was able to mail Bob’s passport to where they were staying in Belgium in time for his return journey. But we all know karma can be a bitch, so we half-expected some kind of customs related revenge this time around. In the event, we need not have been concerned.
We arrived at the ferry terminal in good time and to our amazement were soon waved aboard and located the key to our cabin. We ditched our overnight bags and headed up on deck to wave goodbye to Blighty. The ferry was manoeuvred out of an amazingly tight lock and we sailed off happily down the Humber estuary. This was the first time I witnessed Bob’s uncanny knack of finding the most interesting person in any situation and sparking up a conversation with them. The gentleman in question on this occasion gave his name as Patrik Wellens. He told us he was a former Belgian pro and had competed in many of the classics as a domestique. Ultimately our conversation boiled down to only one question of any real significance – could he offer us any advice for our ride? “Trainings, trainings, trainings” came the response from his grinning face. Oh well, too late for that now.
The highlight of the crossing was undoubtedly the “all-you-can-eat” buffet dinner. Here we took advantage of the opportunity to carb-load. We would also protein-load, fat- load, sugar-load, and not forgetting the all important, cake-load. Fair to say we needed to sit for some time afterwards while we caffeine- loaded. An early night was the order of the day and four blokes who had somehow managed to avoid the selection of curries on offer at the buffet, mercifully survived a relatively calm night in the cabin.
Next morning we ducked breakfast on the boat and instead drove to nearby Bruges, where we were directed by a local inhabitant to an amazing little restaurant where we each ordered the “Long Island” breakfast. It was here that we first observed that from the outside Belgium essentially looks closed. It’s only when you stick your head around the door of some innocuous looking establishment that you find a thriving hub of activity, packed with locals all indulging themselves and seemingly having a great time, while the proverbial tumbleweed blows down the High Street outside. Since the sun was out (it cannot have been more than 10 degrees) we Brits insisted on sitting outside (alone) to soak up the rays. Our breakfasts were enormous. Numerous croissants, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, cooked meats, cheeses, fruit, yoghurt and coffee. Life was good. We eventually prised ourselves out of our chairs and back to the car to complete our drive to Liège.
We arrived at our accommodation just north east of Liège around lunchtime and checked ourselves in. The door was unlocked and the key was left inside. All very laid back. There was a league of nations occupying the other apartments in our courtyard – some more Brits, Spanish and Italians. We each bagged a bunk and quickly changed into bike kit, keen to take advantage of the stunning afternoon weather and spin the legs. We just could not believe our luck, the temperature had rocketed to an amazing 22C and glorious sunshine prevailed. Shorts, short sleeves and sunscreen for the first time this year. We picked up a canalside route into Liège centre and pootled along to the event sign-on where we collected race numbers and timing chips. To our great amusement we were also “awarded” our finishers medals and t-shirts one day early, as we were informed “by the time you guys finish tomorrow evening we will have all gone home”. A sobering thought.
As we were bumbling around the expo area our resident photographer, driver, soigneur and all round bearded hero Benjamin arrived, having driven from Switzerland that morning. His arrival brought with it a certain reassurance. At least now, I comforted myself, if tomorrow is just impossibly hard, I can always get in the car. We helped ourselves to a Rapha espresso, bought ass-savers (the lightweight alternative to mudguards, before you get any strange ideas) and saddled-up for the short transfer back to our humble gaff.
We bimbled our way back to our temporary home via the canal cycle path we’d found earlier, showered and changed for dinner. First we headed to a local supermarket to load up on all the essentials that blokes need when away for a weekend. Beer, wine, crisps and toilet roll were purchased in large quantities. It had been a good couple of hours since we’d eaten so we then drove up to the town of Vise, on the Dutch border and quizzed the locals as to the location of an Italian restaurant. As is now customary there was an amount of linguistic confusion as the poor woman we picked on appeared to think we were asking in our dodgy Franglais accent if she was Italian, and then, if she could speak Italian? Eventually we managed to communicate via the international language of speaking English S-L-O-W-L-Y A-N-D L-O-U- D-L-Y and the second best Italian restaurant in Vise was located. Predictably huge bowls of pasta were consumed and conversation moved to the subject of weather. The forecast was not great for the next day, but maybe – just maybe – the stupid forecast was wrong and the fine weather we had enjoyed all afternoon would remain.
We headed home for another early night. I set my alarm for 05:00 and vividly recall the very second my head hit the pillow the rain started. Tip-tapping on the skylight window directly above my head. Bollocks. I don’t think it stopped all night.
We were kindly awoken by Mark clattering about in the kitchen shortly before my alarm went off. I was painfully optimistic in my outlook: shorts; short-sleeved base layer; short-sleeved jersey. Given the light patter of rain against the roof my ‘ThermoRoubaix’ shorts intrigued me – thicker than regular shorts for warmth with a water-repellent coating – perfect. ‘Maybe I’ll put on the softshell just till I get to the start’ I reasoned. I struggle digesting breakfast at the best of times and trying to shovel supermarket-bought waffles down my neck at 05:30 was only making me feel ill. I tried a banana and fared little better. Without much fuss we loaded up the car and made the short drive of 12km to the start. We had unanimously decided the night before not to ride this seemingly short distance, which would have added another 24km to what was already 279km. Perversely the pros ‘only’ cover 253km – our ride already included extra distance to and from the actual pro race start and finish areas. Our decision was cemented by the fact the final kms to our apartment were a short sharp climb and a couple of switchbacks. No one envisaged that being fun after 300km and 4,500m.
By the time we had parked at the start and unloaded the bikes I was already freezing cold. I hastily added knee-warmers, overshoes, gloves and a race cap. The rain was persistent and the bright sunrise and blue sky we’d all been optimistically praying for had been cruelly replaced with menacing dark grey clouds. At a shade after 06:30 we rolled away from the start under a gloomy and murky broken dawn. Benjamin hopped in the car and headed for our first rendezvous at the feed stop at Bomal.
Those early kilometres were dominated by the industrial landscape of Liège as we picked our way through the city limits. While there are no designated secteurs of pavé on this route, there are many cobbled streets to negotiate. And for some reason the Belgians appear to like retaining cobbles, especially around junctions and corners, for historic or decorative reasons, long after the stretches of straight road have been replaced with the more vehicle-friendly black tarmacadam. If there’s one thing guaranteed to focus the mind better than cobblestones, it’s wet cobblestones... or more specifically wet cobblestones on corners. Throw in a few greasy tramlines for good measure and those early minutes of the ride were dominated by concentrating on keeping the bike upright. No one wants to complete +250 km carrying a knock after a wee tumble.
It was not long however before the industrial grey landscape was exchanged for the lush green foliage of the outskirts of Liège as we transitioned our way steadily towards the countryside. Dark grey maintained a healthy dog in the fight for colour dominance via the overhead cloud cover which at least was offering some form of insulation from further cold, or at least that’s what I reassured myself.
Main early topic of conversation in the group was the amount of climbing we were covering well in advance of the “official” climbs. A quick glance now at the route pro le demonstrates 8 or 9 little spikes were accented prior to the first designated climb. It was more clear than ever this was going to be one long day in the saddle. We at least reassured ourselves that every vertical meter covered now was minus one from the 4,500 total for the day.
We arrived in Bomal at the first feed after almost 50km absolutely drenched after about 2 hours on the road, the pace very tame as no one wanted to go out too hard and risk blowing up. Fortunately our support car had already arrived. I found my kit bag and quickly located my long sleeve base layer, a change of socks and my gilet. I stripped my top half and was pleasantly surprised to find that the softshell was true to its pre-ride billing as waterproof – underneath I was completely dry despite the constant downpour. I redressed with the new warmer base layer and and gilet underneath the same softshell and immediately felt better. The warm dry socks also did wonders for my morale, as did a fresh pair of gloves. I’d started the ride with some track mitts, but now I put on the Isadore merino gloves. I was pretty sceptical about how long before I’d be removing them again so insisted Benjamin dried my mitts on the dashboard using the car heater while we rode the next section. We lightened the load at the temporary outdoor pissoir and loaded-up on more bananas and waffles. I also took advantage of the stop to sample my rice cakes and at this stage was still in a good enough mood to amuse myself by emulating Sir Brad’s slo-mo mange. All things considered we probably lingered too long and so with still the thick end of 200km to cover we set off a little drier and still in great spirits despite the awful weather.
After another 25km we reached the climb of Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne, also referred to sometimes as Côte d’Ortho. It is 2.9 km long and averages 6.2% gradient, up to 10% at its maximum steepness. Nothing too scary but at this stage the temperature was just 6C, as cold as it would be all day, and the rain was persisting. The climbing warmed us a little.
Our next objective was the feed stop at Bastogne and the climb of Côte de Saint-Roch, at 132km distance. At about the midpoint of this section we passed through Bastogne and this really messes with your brain. There you are at technically the furthest point from Liège – the “halfway” point of the Liège- Bastogne-Liège – right? Wrong. Still about 180 km from the end and only having completed one of the 10 designated climbs this is far from halfway. I’d made a mental note of 113 km as the point where we only had 100 miles – the imperial century – left to cover. I’d completed 5 centuries already this year I told myself – so as long as I felt good at this point there was nothing to worry about, this is where my ride effectively starts and I’ve done it all before many times. In Bastogne we made our second feedstop and I again force fed myself waffles, bananas and perfectly wrapped rice cakes.
The second climb was a bit shorter than the first at just 1km, but had an average gradient of over 11% and 20% at it’s sharpest point – the steepest yet. We got there in good time, mainly due to a long rapid descent which again did wonders for the early morale. The weather too was gradually improving and the temperature had risen to about 10C, with frequent heavy showers now rather than constant downpour. More bananas, waffles and rice cakes before we set sail for Cote de Wanne at 174 km distance.
INTO THE WIND
Although it’s difficult to remember all sections of this ride due to it just being so humongous, my brain recalls this as the best time of the entire day. I think the sun may even have come out, we managed to get ourselves if a fairly large group and there were long straight and flattish roads. We rolled along at a decent pace and were able to benefit from long periods of shelter by drafting in the bunch. One thing I found was that I was descending faster than just about everyone else. I put this down to a couple of factors. I reckon Sir Isaac Newton would have a contribution to make here, something about my considerable mass and his old mate gravity – a reference to the very same science that I would frequently curse on my way grinding the 39-25 uphill. The other factor was undoubtedly the wheels. Now, I’m just a fat lad of average brain power. A hairy-legged 4th Cat club chopper. I don’t know my coefficient of drag from my own fat hairy arse. Knight claim they make the ‘fastest wheels in the world’. Now, I’ve not ridden all the other wheels in the world, but in my humblest of opinions these bad boys are fast. They definitely feel a lot faster than the r-sys I subbed them in for and I was so happy to have them under me because not only did they fly, they stopped on the proverbial sixpence. It’s commonly held in circles that I frequent that carbon rims are “shit in the wet”. Knight also provided me with a set of their own brand brake pads that are specifically engineered to go with their wheels – rims which have a braking surface twice the thickness of their competitors. The combination of these pads and the thicker rims were incredibly responsive and gave me tonnes of confidence descending in the wet. (I later clocked my top speed at 66 kph). Of course the downside of me going faster than everyone else was that when the road flattened out, as it inevitably always does, I was the one who ended up with my nose in the wind. And while I am more than happy to admit the general standard of riding was excellent all day long, there were a lot of wind-shy boys out there unwilling to take a turn on the front.
I don’t recall much about the food stop near Gouvy (147 km). I know I ate waffles and bananas. And rice cakes. The rain must have eased by now as I recall not needing to change any more sodden kit. We stretched a little, made use of the ‘facilities’ and were on our way again without too much fuss. The Côte de Wanne presented itself almost 30 km later at 174 km. It lasts 2.2 km and its average gradient is 7.5% with a maximum of 13%. But it’s a fairly steady and even climb which didn’t present any real issues in overcoming. If the ride had ended here I think I’d have had the attitude that we’d all just had a magnificent day on the bike. However, this little lump pretty much signals the onslaught of regular spikey intervals that would truly sap my energy.
Within 6 km of summiting de Wanne you are immediately afoot the Côte de Stockeu – or the “Stèle Eddy Merckx.” Again, not the longest of climbs but an unwelcomely steep 21% at its worst. You rise 227m with an average gradient of 9.8%. The worst thing about this one that I found was the virtual dead stop at the bottom meaning you commence the climb almost from a standing start with zero momentum. For a big guy like me the best (only?) weapon I have in hill climbing is momentum. Here my advantage was cruelly stripped away and I suffered like a dog as a result, grinding the 39x25 gear painstakingly slowly to the summit solo-style. Almost immediately after completing the climb we arrived at the third feed stop at Stavelot. The routine by now was established: lighten the load then re-load. Piss, banana, waffle, rice cake. Refill the bidons and remount the steed.
Almost immediately having exited the feed stop we were upon the Côte de la Haute-Levée. The average gradient here was 5.6%, with a maximum at 12%. At 3.6 km long this is the second longest classified climb on the entire route. I just tapped away at my own pace – the rest of my group somewhere up the road spinning their more sensible ratios of 34-28.
Thankfully some respite then in the form of a descent to recover from the climb and time to gather some composure on the short ride up to the next obstacle at Col du Rosier just before the major milestone of 200km distance completed. At 4.5 km this is the longest climb with a comparatively gentle average of just 5.7% and a maximum of 12%, rising 255m in total. Once over the top it is mostly downhill to the next peak on the profile and Col du Maquisard. This is another comparatively long ascent at 3 km in length. It is also fairly tame with a 10% maximum slope and average of 5.1%.
The Côte de La Redoute is the climb that most sticks in the mind. Arriving after 229km it begins gently enough with a long straight ramp, which gradually bends around to the left, before going up, and up. The average gradient of 9.7% disguises the difficulty of this climb, which at its steepest point near the top hits 20%. Frankly, I struggled. By now my legs were deadened from the previous 230 km. Although the climb is less than 2 km it rises 162 m over that short length. I stared at the metre in front of my tyre as I crawled over the repetitions of “PHiL” painted on the road below. PHiL. PHiL. PHiL. PHiL. Schleck. PHiL PHiL. PHiL. PHiL. Schleck. PHiL. PHiL. I know I’m not the only one that starts to imagine increasingly more bizarre thoughts to dull the pain of climbing. “Who is this Phil Schleck?” I pondered? A secret third brother of Andy and Frank akin to Tyler’s vanishing twin perhaps? The final third of this climb were for me the slowest yards of this ride.
Out of the saddle it was more my body weight than any strength that turned the pedals over painfully slowly. Almost certainly it would have been quicker to walk – however, climbing off was never an option. I grovelled to the summit again cursing my stupidity in not changing the rear sprocket for something more suited to getting a fat bloke up a steep hill.
The road following Redoute was familiarly undulating, so mercifully another feed stop loomed at Sprimont after 233 km distance. By now the rice cakes supply was depleted and I could not face another sickly sweet waffle. I refilled my bidons for the final time, this time with water – unable to stomach more energy drink, and pondered what could I eat. Thankfully there were some salty snacks in the form of pretzel sticks and cracker biscuits. I’m pretty sure the nutritional benefit was minimal – but I know my body craved the salt and the effect was warmly received in my brain. With still over 50 km to go this was already the longest ride I’d ever done and we’d been out on the road for over 9.5 hours. Benjamin tells me now he was genuinely concerned for my welfare. He recalls me wandering around mumbling incoherently. He later admitted he called his wife to tell her of his real fear that I would not complete the ride. I vividly recall climbing back aboard my bike for the last time that day feeling absolutely exhausted. The sun was out now and everyone else peeled off their jackets. I kept mine on, despite the temperature now reaching the dizzy heights of 16C I did not want to risk getting cold. As we set off on our final leg of the ride the road went immediately uphill and within seconds I was falling far behind my colleagues, pedalling squares as they say.
As the road eventually flattened out I set about closing the gap. I got myself into a little gruppetto and pushed on as best I could. Eventually I found Bob and we rode together a while, Mick and Mark a little further up the road. Within 10 km we were climbing again – this time Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons. “See you on the other side” I told Bob, confident my legs would offer nothing on the climb. Although only 1.5km in total the 150 vertical meters and 10% average gradient felt tougher than it would have been without the 250 previous lumpy kilometers stinging my legs. I ground it out pathetically slowly. The respite of the following long descent into Liège was probably my second highlight of the day.
Despite the scenery changing back to the more urban environs, the sun was out and everything looked brighter and more welcoming than when we had trundled out of the city some 11 hours earlier. I honestly don’t recall what happened next, but Bob seemed to take great pleasure regaling the tale to the others later on. Apparently I was descending like a man possessed at over 60kph, weaving in and out passing cars and other riders almost at will. I have to say I felt completely safe and I guess just “in the zone”. Ultimately I just wanted this ride done with as quickly as possible. I certainly didn’t feel I was taking unnecessary risks, simply at one with the bike and the road. Just magical to be gliding along at that speed after so many kilometres.
As anyone who has seen the pro race on television will know, there is a nasty sting in the tail of this route. At around 260km the road kicked up for the final time on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas. Again only 1.5km in length and relatively shallow with just 13% at its steepest, it climbs around 100m at an average of 7.6%. Whilst I knew well this was the final real effort of the day there was nothing left in the legs when I called upon them to push for the last time – not even a parting gift from old St Nic – nothing. It was all I could do to shift into the 39-25 and just grind away to the top. Bob was with me, a little in front – as was now customary on the climbs. As we reached the top of the climb we spotted Mark and Mick waiting for us. They greeted us enthusiastically. There was no fanfare or enthusiasm from me. It wasn’t that I was unpleased to see them, I just had nothing left – and importantly I knew the finish line of the pro race was still another 9km from the actual finish of the challenge ride, and significantly that’s where our car was located. We still had riding to do.
This last half hour was the worst for me. I was completely spent. My stomach was rejecting food from the effort and I was only drinking water to wet my mouth. I didn’t speak, merely limped painfully back, inch by inch, one pedal turn at a time. It seemed to take forever. As we rolled up to the entrance of the Halles des Foires we all spotted Benjamin and his camera. We managed to draw alongside each other and crossed the line together a shade past 6 pm. And that was that, we’d done it. Hugs and backslapping all round before parking our bikes and heading inside the hall for a much needed drink and sit down. I felt awful. Despite the relative warmth inside the hall I was shivering. We grabbed a second celebratory drink – Leffe on tap! – before heading to the car and loading up the bikes for the short transfer back to our digs.
The journey passed quickly and it was a relief to get into a hot shower. My ThermoRoubaix shorts and waterproof softshell had afforded me excellent protection from the elements, in particular the chamois of the shorts was
I thought the best I’d ever used, meaning the ride was conducted in relative comfort throughout. Still, the shower was very much needed to inject some kind of life back in to my battered body. We didn’t hang around long, dressing quickly and heading straight back out to Vise. I was so tired I forgot to wear my Skins compression tights that I’d packed especially. Idiot. Comfort food was the order of the day and we found a restaurant specialising in burgers and frites. Garmin are famously over-enthusiastic with the estimation of calories consumed during rides. Mine told me I’d burned almost 6,500 that day. I had a damn good go at putting most of that back in one go. We crashed and burned pretty early that night and with barely enough energy to eat we headed back to base and were asleep again by 10pm.
THE PROS’ TURN
The next morning we were all surprisingly fresh. No injuries, just a few aches and pains – which was to be expected. We had the apartment for another night still so had decided to stay and watch the pro race. We lazily made our way to the start line in Liège, barely arriving before the teams departed. I had just enough time to investigate the gear ratios of the sprockets on the spare bikes bolted to the team car roofs.
“Bloody dinner plates, every one of them” I reaffirmed to myself. To my great surprise I spotted Matt Brammeier’s name on the MTN-Qhubeka start list so I messaged him “11hr40 to beat, only rule – YOU MUST FINISH”. “You win” he pinged back instantly. He would later climb in the minibus at Côte de Wanne. Ha!
After seeing the teams roll out we headed out to the beautiful town of La Roche-en-Ardenne, where we had a second breakfast and soaked up the sunshine – conspicuous by its absence the previous time we passed through this
part of the world. It was here that I properly began to appreciate what a beautiful area the Ardennes is. Most of the previous day I’d spent focused on the metre of road in front of my nose. “Would you come back and do it again?” Mark asked. “Yes, but I would take 3 days to enjoy this route properly next time”.
We positioned ourselves on the bridge over the river and watched the break, then the bunch, file through in orderly fashion. Then we meandered back to the car and drove to Redoute where we would stay for the remainder of the race. Here there were many campers parked at the roadside and a temporary fans village had been erected, with giant screen, beer tent, and various food stalls. What more could a cycling fan want – we were in heaven. The crowd and the excitement levels built as the race drew nearer. There were a few thousand people on the hillside and in the fan village, and the rain held off – just. Several beers were enjoyed, as were frites-mayo. As the helicopters signalled the approach of the race we took up our vantage points route-side and waited to see the riders pass. I was actually quite surprised (and secretly pleased) at how few riders were left in the race, and at how strung out they were, not to mention how exhausted they looked – pain etched on the faces of the back markers. (I didn’t know then there had just been a major crash before the ascent and the pain I witnessed was more caused by that incident than the distance covered). I saw one Europcar rider in a world of pain, being encouraged to get in the broom wagon by its driver, who was shouting out through the window as he drew alongside. “NON!” he screamed back, shaking his head violently to emphasise his objection. ‘Chapeau feller’, I thought – ‘dig in mate’. Several minutes passed between the arrival of the leaders and the departure of the Voiture Balai. Once the route was clear we made our way back to the screen where a huge crowd was now gathered. There was no confusing who their favourite was, since every time Philippe Gilbert made a move the crowd “ooh-ed”, flags were waved and it felt as if the nation held its breath. However, despite his best efforts “Phil” didn’t have the legs and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde timed his late attack to perfection to take the win. This was our signal to head for the car before the rain clouds opened and before long our main thoughts had returned to food, again.
We aimed for our now customary dinner venue of the town of Vise and this time managed to locate the nest Italian restaurant on offer. In another fine example of how Belgium appears closed from the outside, the restaurant appeared only vaguely enticing. However, the moment we pushed open the door we were each afforded a warm greeting and handshake from who we assumed to be the owner. Despite it being absolutely bustling within, we were found a table without much fuss and quickly seated. We each ordered a salad and a main. And frites. The salads we requested as starters arrived quickly and were absolutely massive. However, no one complained and they were soon despatched. Pizzas followed and these put up a bit more resistance – however, in time they were eventually put to the sword too. The exertions of the previous 48 hours had taken their toll and we again headed home early for yet more sleep.
After a lazy and unorthodox breakfast, essentially eating whatever was left in the fridge, we decided to interrupt our homeward journey by dropping in on Sergey Ivanov’s bike shop in Scherpenheuvel, north-east of Brussels. It was on our route to Zeebrugge and only required a minor diversion. For those that have not been the shop is well worth a visit. Stocked with great bikes, kit and clothing, there is also a flat screen and café area where you can watch bike racing while the man himself serves a killer espresso. As luck would have it Sergey was home and he made us a coffee while I reminded him of our common T-Mobile Team connection. I’m quite sure he had no clue who I was, but he was more than generous with his time regardless. He was more keen to ask us about our ride than reminisce about the old days: “So what time did you guys do?”. We sheepishly told him. “Were you walking?” he enquired – not even joking. “I hope you enjoyed a nice long lunch.” Hanging on the wall of his shop was Sergey’s fine old vintage Maes race bike, fitted with a 6-speed sprocket. I’m guessing the biggest gear had about 21 teeth. “Did you race in the mountains on this gear?” “Sure.” For reasons still unknown to me this made me feel much better about my choice of sprocket for the ride.
We bought kit we didn’t really need and said our farewells before driving to Bruges for lunch. It had been a good couple of hours since we had eaten and despite several huge meals since the ride we were still somehow convincing ourselves that we needed to replenish burned calories. The highlight of this lunch was Bob’s “set-lunch-menu-waffle-dessert-upgrade-denial” at the over-priced restaurant we selected overlooking the main square, as we opted to play the tourist. Despite offering to pay a supplement the waiter refused to upgrade the dull set menu dessert of ice cream for a magnificent raft-sized waffle covered in whipped cream and fresh strawberries, similar to that Bob had just witnessed Mark devouring. Bob would later make up for his waffle-denial with double pudding on the ferry.
As we arrived in to Zeebrugge and waited to board the ferry, Bob got chatting to a gentleman in his sixties who arrived by bike. The subject that prompted Bob’s approach was the beautiful hand-built touring bike the gentleman was riding. Bob quickly established the guy’s daughter now lived in Brussels and he’d cycled from his home in Sheffield to spend some time with her. Together they had completed the shorter L-B-L challenge ride (he’d quite fancied the intermediate distance, but had sacrificed that experience for one of some quality time with his daughter). Later when on board we bumped into this gentleman again and discovered his name was Jeremy. He joined us for dinner where he told us about his epic trip. We were all
quite jealous of him actually riding to the Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He told us that he’d been inspired to get back on his bike by the London Summer Olympics in 2012 “That Victoria Pendleton is bloody fit isn’t she”. We concurred wholeheartedly. We swapped tales of our respective trips and ended on Jeremy pronouncing “you lads have encouraged me to get some of my mates from the CTC to come with me next time.”
So what did we learn from our 2015 trip to a famous bike race in Belgium?
- Belgium is not flat. 28 is the new 25.
- Belgians love a decorative cobbled junction.
- You can only eat so many wa es before never wanting to eat another waffle for the rest of your life (seven in my case).
- Never order from the lunch set-menu in Bruges.
- Riding bikes enriches your life.
The final point is not really news is it. But it’s always good to have this point roundly reinforced. Our trip will stay long in our memories, and although parts of the ride were truly horrible in the moment, it’s the highlights that are readily and fondly recalled time and again. The camaraderie of the road, the banter on the boat, and of course the characters we encountered along the way. New experiences to nourish and inform, new friendships forged. For me the highlight was meeting Jeremy. The fact that he inspired us, and seemingly, we inspired him too. Just a few mates riding bikes.
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