So three years ago now (time flies) I did the Paris-Roubaix Challenge which went well (sort of) and frankly it was time for another challenge. 2016 would be Liege – Bastogne – Liege.
This time of year is the Spring Classics in Belgium and the Netherlands, with several iconic one-day races. I chose Liege – Bastogne – Liege largely because it doesn’t have cobbles (done them, see link above). But also because once you’ve ruled out the Tour of Flanders for that reason, it’s the next best race anyway.
Liege – Bastogne – Liege (from now on LBL out of my laziness) is known for its hills. There are plenty of steep, reasonably long climbs to negotiate with a spate near the finish which normally sorts out the men from the boys on race day. For the amateurs, there was a choice of doing a 76km taster route, a 158km route covering most things or the full race distance of 273km. I did about 273km cycling London to Paris and personally I reach a point after about 6 hours where I get bored. I chose the 158km route, basically 100 miles, perfect.
I was staying about 5 minutes cycling from the start point so I was able to almost fall out of bed and be there. This time nothing was forgotten unlike the infamous Paris-Roubaix debacle, I had pumps, tubes, the kitchen sink and filled water bottles.
The weather, however, was just rubbish, it had rained all night, it was still raining and I was in shorts with no overshoes, I was definitely going to get wet so had to suck it up. Now I’m pretty sure if you google ‘how to get through a 100-mile sportive’ every result will tell you to take it steady to begin with and don’t overdo things too early. I, however, like to blitz the first 30 miles if I can. Get myself through a large chunk before the hurt starts, it’s also probably down to showing off.
We departed our start and by the time we got to the ‘Depart Pro‘ 8km in, I’d gone past lots of sensible people and it turned out we were going straight into a solid unmentioned climb. I found a group I could sit behind that were pushing the pace along and zipped along with them past lots more sensible people.
I did learn a few things on the ride, early on I learnt that I am about as effective as Bradley Wiggins descending in the wet, a combination of brakes that seemed to work less well than others (note to self, upgrade the brakeset when I get home…and don’t be a cheapskate). Leading to a couple of hairy moments where they suddenly dropped their speed and I was still ploughing on.
As well as seemingly having a bit more self-preservation and cautiousness on hairpins whilst on the wrong side of the road. It meant that I lost the initial group I’d been with. There were plenty more wheels to follow, that is until the split between the 158 and 273km routes happened. When all of a sudden there was hardly anyone.
An unspoken alliance was formed as three of us began to ride together, rotating turns on the front. An American who didn’t speak and turned off at the first food stop (42km in, too early for me), a Frenchman and myself. Mr FDJ (all of the kit and even the team’s actual make of bike too) and I rode together for around 40km, him being better on anything steep but me being better on the flat so it always evened out.
The first marked climb was L’Ancienne Barriere and it was a long long drag, it felt like it went on forever. As was typical throughout the ride, you would descend from the top of one side of the valley, over a river bridge and find yourself with a solid climb to get back up the other side. This climb was 3 miles long averaging 4.7% (a relative baby on this route) but the length was the issue. We got overtaken by someone better and Mr FDJ went off with him only for a mile later to be back within sight. The next mile was spent reeling him in and we rode the last mile or so together with my pidgin French breaking the ice (c’est longue!).
The descent over the other side of the summit was surprisingly dry, more or less, and it turns out I become a fearless descender in the dry, wooshing through corners on the racing line and barely tapping the brakes. At the bottom of the valley, however, I found myself on the front of our twosome going into a headwind. We’d been overtaken by someone tanking along and the easiest way in my mind to get out of the wind was to speed up and reel this guy in, which I did by putting the power down. I hadn’t checked on my new friend but a couple of miles later I realised I’d dropped him, not being an actual friend I didn’t sit up and wait.
I took a tow from this new rider to the next food stop in Stavelot, I definitely wanted to stop here, the food on offer was amazing (waffles, honey cake, stroopwaffel, wine gums, bananas, all sorts). I was happily munching on a well-earned waffle when Mr FDJ appeared and gave me a bit of an earful in French – I understood the gist, he wasn’t happy I’d sped up and dropped him but all’s fair and that.
I don’t recall seeing him again after this point. Coming out of the food stop was a shock, second waffle in mouth, straight onto a short, sharp, cobbled climb – but I thought there were no cobbles! Once that was over it was time for the second named climb – Col de Haute-Levee. really steep to begin with (making me definitely not suited to it) and then a drag as it slowly began to flatten out. I didn’t do it especially quickly.
The route went back into the hills and valleys, 10km further on was the Col du Rosier which on a sunny warm day is probably beautiful. Not too steep but very long, there was a switchback section that was like it had been designed for bike riding, with the forest around you and the fog in the trees; I even caught a glimpse of a deer lurking in the trees, a sure sign I wasn’t putting too much effort in and was wildlife spotting again. The Rosier got hard near the top, with the legs already drained it got nasty.
The descent on a newly tarmac-ed road was amazing and the lower down you got the drier it became. Long wide easy hairpins made for great fun leaning in. I was about 45 miles in at this point and absolutely frozen, my feet were wet and felt twice their normal size (not that I could feel them) and my left hand had gone numb. Frankly, I was miserable, cold and on my own. This was my mental wall of the ride, where I had to really dig deep to plough through – the lack of any alternatives is a good motivator, but when a group of 6 came past I sat on the back of it down the valley and before I knew it the left hand worked again and we were 10 miles further on.
The next bit of drama was in the town of Sprimont where the event route signs caused something like 50-100 riders (just from what I saw) to go the wrong way – we’d reached the middle of a figure of 8 and this is where the split was earlier. Lots of us followed the signs again for our route only for it to start looking very familiar – I had a quick check of the Garmin and realised I was about 3km into doing another lap of what I’d already done, sod that!
I turned around, tried to point people back but most ignored it, can only guess at what point they put two and two together. Almost straight after the island causing the problem was the Col de Redoute, containing the steepest sections of the route and it was an absolute killer. I’m honest that steep stuff is something I’ll never be quick on, but I know I can grind through it – there were plenty of people walking up the sides, including a 5-year-old girl (who I’m guessing wasn’t on the 158km route), those walking were going the same speed as her, a harsh comparison to make!
Being a popular climb, there was a flotilla of caravans and motor homes on the lower slopes, all proudly declaring their support for riders and teams, mainly Belgian, but there was a definite Team Sky fan too. With so many people milling around and clapping, it gave a flavour of what it would be like the next day when the pros did it. Halfway up, with each pedal stroke barely moving me forward, my Garmin decided to start acting up going into test mode and moaning that it had an incorrect adapter fitted. I thought it was something to do with it getting conflicted with something on another rider’s bike (I did overtake a few) so turned off my heart rate monitor to give it a chance. Despite resetting it over and over, it kept throwing its tantrum and went into test mode – after cresting the Col, I decided to give the thing a blow through thinking maybe some of the gallons of rain had worked its way inside. It seemed to do the trick, with a few warnings continuing to pop up throughout the rest of the ride and 24 hours later it sorting itself out.
Another fun dry descent followed and a short bit of flat before the next named climb of the Col du Roche-au-Faucons – this turned out to be steep, long and after getting to the top was followed by another steep part to the real peak where Carlos Betancur had a stab at attacking the next day. This one was timed by the organisers so we could all see how we did compared to others, I was in something like the 66th percentile so not amazing, but my back was killing (core muscles need more work!) and the legs were not happy either. I don’t remember too much of it, just the start and end so I must have been spaced out trying to cope.
We began to hit the outskirts of Liege, apparently past the Standard Liege football ground although I didn’t see it (based on the aerial shots in the pro race, it’s because I was head down chasing down a group at that point). Through a lovely picturesque industrial estate and we were onto the Col du Saint-Nicolas, not the nicest of areas and certainly no reason for tourists to normally go there. This was more my sort of climb – nice steady 6-8% where you could stick it in the one gear, stay seated and just work up a good rhythm up to the summit. Passing a guy in the World Champion jersey was a highlight.
A decent sized group had formed as we negotiated city streets and traffic lights, when all of a sudden there was a cobbled stretch (them again!). Everyone else seemed to slow down, whereas I clicked up a couple of gears, upped the power, sped over them and created a gap – the Roubaix experience clearly giving an upperhand on knowing what to do!
The group came back together on the final drag to the finish, a solid mile of 7% on which I just about hung on before having a race back down the hill (on a cobbled descent of all things, turns out all my best Strava times were on the cobbled sections) with the World Champion jersey rider all the way back to the start point where we finished.
My reward for completing Liege – Bastogne – Liege, was a medal and a t-shirt and by handing in my race number (with the timing chip on it) I got a proper sized pot of sports drink. I paid up for a proper hot dog and a glass of Leffe – very well earnt. On my way out, ready to get back and go to bed, I was accosted by two guys who had spotted my Stratford club gear and gave me a welcome from the Solihull club. They’d both done the 76km ride and we had a chat about how tough some of the climbs had been and a shared acquaintance and happily parted ways. Once back, I did nothing but lie in bed.
All in all I’d done just over 100 miles and arrived back in Liege with the brief diversion in 6 hours 53 minutes.