How it Began
It’s a classic stitch-up, send out the email on Jan 2nd, at the peak of post-Xmas Holiday depression. “OK guys we’ve done Tour of Flanders for the last 2 years, time for something different, how about Liege-Bastogne 100th anniversary it will be good N.B. its 276Km don’t worry there’s a short option too. Just sign up and i’ll do the rest”. And 11 of us did. Gary, Neil and Peter from the previous Tour of Flanders, alongside James, Marcus and Jonathan from last year’s Granfondo Roma, and new boys Gavin, James, Dan and Fraser.
Liege-Bastogne is the last event in the Spring Classics season. The Sportive is on the Saturday, followed by the Pro race on the Sunday. Unlike Roubaix and Flanders, there aren’t many stretches of cobbles to negotiate, instead the challenge surrounds the huge distance to be travelled and the sudden dramatics inclines of up to 25% on 10 climbs scattered around the course, mostly in the second half. And what a course it is….
Not too many shortcuts here!
None of us had ever ridden such a distance in a day. With constant rain soaking the UK and ripping up the roads, training before the event was a tough and dangerous prospect. But as the rain subsided, gradually the updates came in on Strava and Email of 100-mile rides ridden, sneaky training weeks in Mallorca, and long hours on the turbo. Fair to say that the prospect of 165 miles of cycling was sowing seeds of fear and doubt into the Team.
So it was with mixed feelings that we gathered on Wednesday evening to load bikes and make sure all was ready for an early Thursday departure. We’d booked shared rooms at the Chateau de la Neuville, which turned out to be perfect for cyclists, having lots of space, useful cellars for storing bikes, and easy to ride out of and to get to Liege for the event. And of course good value!
A grand place to stay
The Chateau was located just by a town called Huy, which coincidentally is the end point for the Fleche Wallone race, raced the day we left and won by Alejandro Valverde. Our first experience of what to expect in the Ardennes was a quick try-out of the Muur de Huy, a short sharp shock which rises straight up from the town passing 7 Chapelles while it works hard how to knock you to your knees! In the hot sun we were soon panting hard and needing a solid rest at the top, before heading out for a short ride round the local area, which proved to be quiet, relaxed and very rural, despite the nuclear power station down the road.
The Muur de Huy hits 25%
Friday afternoon was spent in the traditional way before a big bike event: general panic and downplaying our own fitness, chasing around town trying to find a bike shop for last minute spares, and hunting for Registration. Remarkably, no-one took the opportunity to change to the Short 100-mile distance. It was a sunny day, we’d all been feeding and beering up fairly liberally, what was there to worry about! The bikes were prepped, snacks and kit prepared, bikes loaded and locked, breakfast organised for 5.30am. Game on!
The LBL Travel Guide became my bible for the day.
The morning of an event is always memorable. The tenseness over breakfast, subtle games of one-upmanship over what to eat, stressing to leave on time, where will we park, commitments to ride together soon instantly broken! Despite our nerves we hit Liege on time and joined the mass of cars parking up and riders panicking over how much to wear in the semi-darkness. The weather forecast was fairly good and no way did we want to be carrying loads of clothes.
Every event starts with a bit of chaos, which we achieved by all heading for registration and the ‘official start point’, only to realise there wasn’t really one! The organisers decided just to let everyone go and so we passed loads of people heading the other way, got lost in the crowd, before turning round cussing to follow everyone else. An unnecessary extra 2Km ridden! It was 730 in the morning, we were off!
A mass of riders snaked through the backstreets of Liege as dawn came up. Peter had clearly got team orders to kick off a breakaway, as he headed off at some pace, leaving the rest of us a bit surprised but convinced we would see him later. We’d all studied the route and could see the key factors of the early course: a fairly stright ride to Bastogne of 100Km, all on an incline. Despite the hour, the route out of town was really well marshalled and we soon settled into a rhythm of working round the group, having 1:1 chats with the other group members, discussing tactics while we ate up the miles. Most of the early part of the course was on wide quiet roads where large groups could form and split with ease. Early credit must go to James, Gavin and Neil who spent long periods on the front while the rest of us hid in large groups of riders. But it was clear they were faster than the bunch we were in and after a few hours they were stretching ahead. The field thinned significantly at the split of the Short route, no surprise there, and we finally reached Bastogne without any crises.
The locals come heavily armed!
But this was still early days: the first of the major climbs was coming up, and as we headed down into Houffalize we passed a Tiger tank sitting in the town square, took a sharp right and hit one of the toughest climbs of the whole race as we headed up past an avenue of houses at a gradient hitting 20%. One feature all these climbs has is sudden kicks and extensions, so that you give all to get to the corner, then see there’s another stretch to come and its even worse. That said, if you’re a roadie you love climbing anyway, ignore the pain and carry on.
At 172Km we hit the first timed climb and the Tryptych, 3 evil climbs (2.7Km @ 7%, 1.1 Km at 10%, 3.5 Km at 6%) including the Cote de Stockeu, viciously steep, appalling surface and horribly narrow, in a wooded section with a statue to Eddy Mercxx at the top – its hard to know what to make of it, hardly complementary to the man!
1.1 Km at 10%, then the shock of this statue!
The second half of the race if a completely different and surprising beast. Your expecting a lot of climbing and hard riding, but actually the majority of the distance feels like fast flat and even faster descent. Yes the evil hard climbs do come, but the long miles between them are some of the best riding you will have, beautiful rural areas with few cars and you hare along in a peleton. I’d done my best to hide in the various peletons during the day but now there was nowhere to hide and I took a long turn at the front with my head down and gave it everything for about 20 minutes.
And that’s how I ended up doing the last hills on the course in a bit of a blur and without the earlier panache. On the Cote de Haute-Levee, 3.5Km at 6%, I tried to drop the fast boys with a break at the bottom of the climb, they caught me half way up, I broke again and they gave me 100 yards before catching up and finally dropping me behind for the summit. Agonising! And I needed longer and longed rests at the last food stops. Psychologically the pressure was building too, getting to 4pm we’d been in the saddle for 9 hours and we still had 100Km to go. Thoughts of getting back in darkness start to weaken you. The route started changing though from countryside to industrial as we go closer to Liege, but the biggest heartbreak is when the route goes past the Liege signs and heads back to Bastogne, you really think your going around again for 10 miles before you start to loop back again to the City.
Despite all, we still look sharp, even Mr Rapha!
The last hour was tough as hell. Your pace slackens, all you can think of is two really tough hills on the route map, they start to figure high in your mind. At the bottom of the last climb Red Bull had thoughfully supplied a last drinks stop. Gratefully I swigged a can down but half way up the climb this proved to be a mistake, causing stomach cramps. Somehow we got to the top and the last 10 miles swings in and around the Steeltown suburbs of Liege. The final climb of 1Km at 11% swings through what can only be described as ‘The Street of 1000 Gypsies’ before getting even steeper. To make matters even worse, the organisers take you past the official race finish and you end up doing a circuit around the northern end of town before a fairly low-key finish back at registration, a full 175Km ridden over 12 hours! We finished about 7pm as the evening started to darken. Peter came in a few minutes later, clearly he’d found reserves, and Gary came in almost an hour later, having dug deeper than the rest of us.
Some of our group didn’t even look tired, congratulations to them for their fitness and resilience. I was dog-tired and thankfully beer was on the way. There was a great feeling of achievement and thankfully it was a simple task to get back to the car and pack up after in the semi-darkness. Dry clothes and showers set us up for a decent dinner, but unfortunately that wasn’t on the agenda. We were too late for dinner at the hotel, and most of Huy was shut by the time we got back. A sad evening meal of kebab and chips has to go onto the wall of shame!
Fraser contemplates a recovery snack
The following day we were up and ready for a big breakfast and to follow the pro race. Most of us were dog-tired and were up for a pretty low-key day. But after some food spirits revived and we decided to head for Houffalize where we’d had the hellish Cote de St Roch climb the day before. After an hours drive we found the village starting to warm up as fans appeared and crowds gathered. We took spots half way up the hill and soon enough the promotional caravan arrived, dispensing tons of tat to eager fans. The passage of the breakaway and the peleton was as exciting as ever, only they didn’t look so tired!
The Break hits the St Roch
Fairly shattered by now, we all headed for a bar in town with a telly to watch the rest of the race. Luckily we fell on our feet across the road with a fantastic Brasserie where we got a great view, and great food for the afternoon, in a tremendous atmosphere. Unbelievably, Dan Martin fell off his bike 100m from the finish, losing me 80 Euros winnings in our sweepstake, happily collected by Neil who (claimed) he had Simon Gerrans!
All in all, it was a great weekend on riding and racing. We all had a fab time and there’s a definite feeling of accomplishment now its done! The challenge now moves on to the Morzine Sportive in June, and the Haute Route in September.