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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
after the Haute Levée comes the 5.6k Col du Rosier and the
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
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
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%.
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. Dig in and push on. My heart rate is “just“ 190 bpm. Relatively low for me but it's still hard going.
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.
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
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 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 asked about
gearing 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
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,
Tour of Lombardy and
Milan-San Remo. I’ve now done three of them and will get Paris-Roubaix
next year as it’s only run bi-annually. Milan San Remo, may be a two dayer! I don't think I could stay awake long enough to ride nearly