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The Belgian Ardennes are infamous for many reasons; the most notable being the final major battle of WWII and the home to the final week of one day spring ‘classics’ racing season. We’ll concentrate on the latter!
After Paris-Roubaix, the ‘classics’ move to the Ardennes for a final week of very tough hilly races. It is a very different peloton to the previous one day races with climbers very much to the fore. The week begins with the Amstel Gold in the Dutch Ardennes (yes, Holland does have a hilly part with climbs up to 320 m). Mid-week the racing moves to the northern edge of the Belgian Ardennes with La Fleche Wallonia, which finishes with the brutal Mur de Huy. The final race is the oldest and arguably the toughest of the classics – La Doyenne – Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one of five cycling ‘monuments’. This takes in the key Belgian towns in the North and South of the region and tackles the High Ardennes.
Belgium is considered one of the ‘low countries,’ but titles can be very misleading! The Belgian Ardennes are officially classified as mountains and with summits up to c700 m, ski lifts, downhill ski runs and alpine style chalets you might be in for a surprise! It is fantastic terrain for racing, training and touring with stunning scenery and beautiful towns. Personally, I love the area and go as often as possible.
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The Liege-Bastogne-Liege Challenge is a cyclo (please see Everything you need to know about European sportives part 1 for the descriptions of the various event categories) and is very similar to the UK interpretation of a sportive. The main draw of the weekend is the chance to ride the same roads and tackle the same climbs as the pro race the next day. The atmosphere before, during and after the event are incredible and you can then see how the best riders in the world do it! It makes for an incredible weekend and is always worth the trip!
This year there were 3 distances to choose from – the 273 km (which is longer than the pro race) with c4,500 m of climbing, the 157 km with the 2,500 m of climbing and the 75 km. All have a start window of several hours, so you can roll out at the time that suits you. The 2 longer rides have 4 timed hill climbs, allowing you to gauge your speed on some of the most decisive climbs in the pro race – La Col du Rosier, La Redoute, La Cote du Roche aux Faucons and La Cote St Nicolas. I’ve ridden many past editions and always go for the longest option – not only a great day’s riding but fantastic training.
2015 proved to be different though! Staying 70 km south of Liège with friends, the 5:00 alarm heralded torrential rain. Undeterred and positive through breakfast we were convinced it would stop. The positive thinking didn’t work and at 6:00 I had to force my club mate into the car! The drive to Liege was terrible and there was no let-up in the rain. Arriving at the car park, my club mate was all for driving back to the house and getting in a bigger ride the next day instead. After a great deal of persuasion, he was dragged into the very impressive event HQ just to have a look. That lead to the inevitable and he was soon signing on to the 157 km route. Having influenced this decision, I then took the easy option and dropped from the 273 km to the 157, telling Dave this was to offer moral support in the horrible conditions. I felt it would be better for us to ride together. That meant I could ride all the climbs (classified and non) at ‘sweetsport’ and then the time trials at ‘threshold’, which would be a great training ride. That way I could actually ‘have a go’ on the timed climbs, whereas when you ride the 273 km you’ve done an extra 116 km by the time you hit them and are way off the mark. He just told me I was letting myself down…….which was a fair point!
Once ready with racing capes, winter embrocation, overshoes and gloves we rolled across the line (there isn’t a timing mat as the overall time isn’t recorded) and soon joined a massive bunch making its way out of Liege. This year, the event moved to a great new HQ by the river, which certainly helped the exit from the town. Liege has shocking roads and being a cyclo you have to abide by the rules of the road and stop at all lights and junctions (there are marshals at most to ensure you do. If this had been a sportive, or race, then the bunch would have had priority). After what seemed like a very long 10 km, you reach the official start on the edge of town and immediately start a 6 km climb which ascends over 300 m vertically. This isn’t a classified climb though and with the terrain offering a constant run of similar climbs you soon form a picture of what’s to come. By this stage the rain could be described as constant rather than torrential, which was a plus! However, with this being the first rain for over a month, the roads were certainly slippery and on the first main descent (11% average with adverse cambers) there was the inevitable bunch crash with many people ending their day early in A&E. The weather wasn’t wholly to blame though and every year I’ve ridden this event (usually in the dry) there has been a crash in the same location. Seems enthusiasm gets the better of people’s abilities at this stage in the day.
Undeterred we pressed on riding from bunch to bunch and managed to have a very interesting conversation with a UCI doctor on the way past. He spent his life taking blood samples from World Tour riders and we had a very good chat about doping and rider behaviour during testing. You never know who you may meet on a cyclo!
By the time we reached the first feed station at 42 km, the rain could be described as very persistent drizzle, which made us positive. Goes to show how odd cyclists are! On the plus side, we were greeted by the usual Belgian honey cakes, waffles, fruit and cereal bars. Even if you aren’t hungry, it’s very hard not to eat a Liege waffle in passing!
Quickly back on the road we headed east towards the High Ardennes and through the clouds the views were spectacular. The main roads used for the cyclo were generally very quiet with the locals choosing alternative routes rather than battle with nearly 10,000 cyclists. This made the long descents great fun (even in the wet) and getting past bunches very easy. It was a short hop to the 2nd feed station at 67 km and with the 3rd at only 117 km we decided not to stop. We did have to negotiate Stavelot however with its very slippery wet cobbles, before hitting the 3.5 km Haute Levee with a maximum gradient of 13%. This is a great climb with the steeper slopes at the bottom and a perfect place to get past others. At the top you are over 520 m and bag your first official ‘col’ sign of the day. There are more to come! The weather at this stage was horrible with horizontal sheeting rain, but everyone seemed in good spirits and generally undeterred. Camaraderie is a wonderful thing!
You then climb the 2nd ‘col’ of the day to 560 m before beginning a long and very cold descent to the first of the days timed climbs – the Col du Rosier. This is a great time trial climb at 4,500 m with 255 m of climbing for an average gradient of 5.7% and a maximum of 12%. The biggest problem was how cold we were as we turned right onto the climb and passed the timing device. My heart rate was below 80 and I was shivering. Always a good way to start a TT! It was the same for everyone though and so we got on with the task in hand quickly moved into ‘threshold’. We were certainly warm at the top and I was very pleased with the result. One down, three to go!
By this stage, it was just drizzling again so we had a relatively clear run down the tricky descent to the valley below. This provides a long, fast, flat section that takes you to the next timed climb – the infamous La Redoute. This is probably the most notorious climb of the pro race. It’s not the steepest (several others are 22%) but it’s location on the course mean it often has a major influence on the outcome with the winning break frequently going here. The climb is 1.65 km with an average gradient of just 9.7%, but 500 m are at 20% and it is for this reason the narrow road is flanked by thousands of spectators, hospitability marquees and enough camper vans to think you’ve just been transported to Alp d’Huez during the Tour. The atmosphere is electric! For us though, the time trial was somewhat tricky with thousands of cyclists heading up the climb at the same time. The narrow roads meant many didn’t trigger the electronic timing or manage to fight their way through the hundreds to riders weaving over the road. For me, this meant I didn’t record a time despite a very fast climb, which is disappointing to say the least, but very understandable. Oh well, onto the next one!
From the top it was just a 7 km ride to the last feed station with the usual supplies keeping us fuelled, before recommencing on a 3 km 7% non-classified climb! You certainly know it’s there and I always wonder why it’s not classified. Ours is not to reason why!
By the top it had actually stopped raining and quickly started to dry up. This meant for a fast section on the flat before a great, twisting descent towards Tilff en route to the 3rd timed climb – La Cote du Roche aux Faucons. This is a lovely 1.5 km ascent with an average gradient of 9.9% and a maximum of 16%. With wider roads, the bunches weren’t an issue and people were able to record some good times (if they wanted to). By the top it had warmed up enough to removed racing capes and gloves. Wow!
The route then descends straight back into the maze of Liege roads on the way to the final classified climb of La Cote St Nicolas. This suburban climb is mythical in terms of its effect on the race and people living on the road certainly have a ring side seat. They also watch the cyclo riders and certainly add encouragement. The climb itself is just 1.4 km but with an average 13% gradient it packs a punch. It really is a great climb to go into ‘threshold’ especially when you know the finish is so close. From the top there are numerous back roads with small Liege cobbles (nothing like those of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix) with ups and downs before the final 3 km unclassified climb and then the super-fast run into the finish.
By this stage the sun had even made a special guest star appearance and we couldn’t believe our luck as we had a drink and hot dog in the warm spring sunshine. For my club mate and many others it was time for a beer (or two) whilst we relaxed, collected our finishers t shirts and chatted to others. An incredible atmosphere and a great end to the day!
What makes this cyclo so special is the chance to watch the ‘monument’ race the next day. After a good night’s sleep, we rode 13 km into the stunning town of La Roche-en-Ardennes and onto the first classified climb of the pro race – La Cote d’Ortho. We were just in front of the race ‘caravan’ and were cheered all the way up by the thousands of spectators. It’s always good! Picking our spot at the top almost under the summit barrier we mingled with spectators, team cars and staff and soon saw the break lead over the top. The bunch wasn’t going hard at this stage and cruised over the summit a few minutes later.
We then had a mad 25 km dash (along with hundreds of cars and coaches) to cut across the course to Houffalize, and get onto the 22% Cote St Roch. We arrived as the police were closing the road to vehicles and climbed the hill to raucous applause from the spectators. Finding a great spot, we watched the pros breeze up the climb whilst basking in glorious sunshine. Riding back into town allowed us the chance to watch the race on a big screen TV whilst eating a fantastic pizza in a lovely Italian. Not a bad way to see a top race! We did however decide to get back to La Roche en Ardennes as quickly as possible and arrived in time for a beer whilst streaming the finish of the race via Wi-Fi. A great 80 km ride with iconic scenery and a ‘monument’ race. Not a bad Sunday!
The Monday morning brought more dreadful weather with rain, drizzle, winds and temperatures of just 4 degrees (at midday!). A roller coaster of a weekend and a reminder that it is still early spring in the ‘mountains’. The plan was to use the morning to train on one of the most strategic climbs of my favourite event of the year – La Velomediane – held in La Roche en Ardennes at the end of August. It is always one of my target races – very tough, aggressive and extremely hard. It is one of just 2 sportives held in Belgium each year (the rest are cyclos) and is officially a race with podiums and substantial prizes . We did a 20 km loop into La Roche before hitting the Col d’Haussiere. There are several ways onto the climb and the race uses the steepest route past Parc a Gibier, which does entail a mid-climb descent too. At the 500 m summit, the ‘col’ sign informs you it is Belgium’s toughest and number one climb. Always a good way to end a training ride!
There are many cyclo versions of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege route. The most popular others are Tilff-Bastogne-Tilff in the middle of May (the longest option is 230 km) and Aywaille-Bastogne-Aywaille in July (the longest route is 180 km). I’ve ridden them all and although they save you the terrible Liege roads, they also remove the last few iconic climbs of the pro race. They have smaller fields (just 2,000!!) meaning clearer roads and a fantastic atmosphere. However, they can’t compete with the draw of the ‘monument’ race the next day and the electric atmosphere of the whole weekend. The L-B-L Challenge is still the best and highly recommended.
See you there next year (for the long route!!)
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Andrew Thompson starting racing in 1983 and has competed in road and off-road events, both in the UK and Europe up to UCI Amateur World Championship level. He is a director of Hammer Sports Ltd, the UK importers of Thompson Bikes from Belgium. They specialise in custom built, individually fitted and tailored bikes, with custom colour paint. Hammer Sports run the UK based Hammer Trophy series of sportives, offer personalised training programmes as well as tours and training camps both in the UK and on the Continent. You can see details at www.hammersport.co.uk
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