Liege-Bastogne-Liege challenge 2017

Redefining my sense of tough

“La Doyenne”, or “The old lady” to give it’s literal translation is the oldest ‘one-day classic’ in the cycling calendar.

It features an epic route through the Belgian Ardennes over the course of 27o hilly kilometres.

My cycling ‘club’ (it’s not really a club, just a group of like-minded individuals, and features no rules, members or constitution) has recently been ticking off the classics. This year saw us focus our attention on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege (“LBL”) challenge over the same terrain as the pro’s have been travelling for over a century.

Several of us had committed to taking part in the challenge during the previous year, and the winter had seen training rides over ever-increasing distances and featuring ever-earlier starts.

They suggest that ‘winter miles equals summer smiles’ but the timing of LBL in mid-April suggested that we’d need to get most of the hard work done during the darkest and most wintery conditions that the UK could throw at us.

However, the temperate climes of the UK had ensured that most of our winter training rides had been dry, if not cold and often windy. Our main pre-challenge ride had comprised of over 200km and miraculously managed to circumvent several showers that circled the local area as we went in search of all the hills that Hampshire has to offer.

So, with as much training as we could hope for, we set off en-direction Liege for what would be my — and most others — longest and most challenging ride ever.

The raw statistics of the 270km route only tells half of the story, as the vertical ascent of the Ardennes was slated to be 5200m according to the official route guide.

That’s more than most of us had managed in the preceding month, and twice as many as we’d managed in our 200km training ride a couple of weeks before.

We were soon to learn that the Ardennes certainly does live up to it’s nickname of the “Hardennes”.

We’d travelled over on the Friday evening, taking the eurotunnel and driving through the flat landscape— except for a huge flyover on the seemingly ever-busy Brussels ring-road.

Arriving in Liege then provided the first glimpses of the steep roads which led down to the city centre, before we parked up and took all of our kit and bikes into the hostel, which was to provide our ample accommodation for the next two nights.

Bikes were stored as I climbed to the fourth floor, up the steep mezzanine stairs and then onto the top bunk of our six berth room. I was already climbing and the ride hadn’t even started.

After a quick beer to settle in (after knocking another off the pool table) and all-you-can-eat pasta in the canteen, it was off to bed and try and get some decent sleep.

Unfortunately, with an active imagination and the big event looming, my mind was racing.

Those who have taken part in big events that push your boundaries will be well aware of the cycle;

  • 1. Worry about tomorrow’s event, go to step 2
  • 2. Stay awake for longer than desirable, go to step 3
  • 3. Worry about how little sleep you’re getting… go to step 1

After repeating the above steps more times than I care to remember, and then realising I’d not put in my ear-plugs, I finally dozed off for a very limited sleep of around 3–4 hours before the alarm went off at 5.30 am.

Ready? No, not really…

Time to go!

The weather forecast had played such a big part of our ‘research’ into the ride for the previous few days. Mixed predictions of sun, rain and wind had circled around.

Now the day was here, the latest showed a warmish start (nearly into double figures) and cooling as we approached Bastogne. However, crucially, there appeared to be little rain.

So, clad in full bib-tights, base layer, jersey and gilet, I scoffed some breakfast and headed down to make our way to the start.

The others gathered outside, where we all remarked how warm it felt.

We eventually made our way to the start, after a short wait for our traditionally late South African, and clipped in for a long day in the saddle.

The official start of the challenge was pretty low key, but we all rolled off together and started off in a group, before traffic lights and a wrong turn split us up before we had realised what was going on.

The route wiggled it’s way out of central and then suburban Liege, on generally flat and decent roads, before the first major turn brought about a long, gentle climb out of the city.

With the adrenaline running, a few pushed on and the group became split a little further, but there were hundreds of riders to latch on to and share the work as we climbed for several kilometres.

I noticed some markings on the road, reading ‘435’, ‘468’ etc, which I assumed was the height in metres as we climbed, but proved a nice thing to tick off as the road continued to rise. As it turns out, this was nothing to do with altitude, as I was to find out later in a slightly dispiriting moment of realisation. I still don’t know what they refer to.

We were over an hour in now, and the road had become slick under our wheels, but I’d not noticed any particular rain. However, it was getting much cooler.

The first feed-stop loomed into view, and it was at this point that we all realised how cold it had become. The rain was pretty constant and the wind whipped across the car park of the church where the feed zone was placed.

I grabbed a few supplies and forced them down, hiding behind the church and out of the wind as friends began to shiver quite alarmingly.

Another of the group noticed organisers handing out survival blankets and another’s Garmin recorded a temperature of 1.6 degrees centigrade.

As we rushed off, the choice of no rain jacked looked like it was a bad one.

Fast, flowing descents followed which on a normal day would have been a pleasure, but because of the cold, controlling the bike with freezing hands while shivering became quite a challenge in concentration.

Wet and very cold

The first categorised climb of the Cote de La Roche provided an increase in body temperature and the weather seemed like it was improving.

However, further descents were soon upon us as the rain returned as we made our way down to the furthest point out at Bastogne.

The story at the feed-zone was the same as before, with shivering bodies hustling to grab bananas, waffles and energy drink, before remounting as soon as possible to warm up.

On the way out of Bastogne the wind had picked up to match the rain and I was beginning to wonder how we were going to make it with 170km still to go.

I was thankful for making the effort to get on the wheel of a big local Belgian to shelter behind. His huge frame protected me from the worst of the wind, but the muddy rain splashing up from his wheel made it‘s mark on my white gilet.

It was after a couple of kilometres of him and another guy sharing turns that I noted this guy was not even wearing gloves while I was losing the feeling in my fingers. They breed them hard down here.

After my unashamed wheel-sucking, it was up to me to take a share on the front, which I was happy to do in order to stay warm.

The road continued to undulate up and down, across farm land and through small villages.

However, it was around the 100k mark that I noticed I was starting to feel decidedly queasy.

We tapped along at a decent pace, a sharp turn right led on to the next categorised climb, and the first real ‘stinger’, the Cote St Roche. This provides the most famous photo of LBL, with flags waving either side of the road which rises to 20%. Yet despite the steep gradient, the smooth road surface made it feel manageable, although it definitely got the heart-rate going a bit.

One of the challenges on such a long ride is keeping your heart rate under control and not ‘into the red’ which will burn your energy far quicker than desirable. This is ok when you’re just riding to get to the end, but brings a professional race into sharp perspective where you don’t get a choice of what pace to ride if you want to win.

By now, my stomach was feeling very dicey. Our group of what was now 5 had decided to stop and grab some food at a cafe, but the options had been limited. Fortunately the rain had now relented as we trudged on through the countryside and small towns and villages, all of which seemed to be closed on a Saturday afternoon.

We finally spotted a bakery in the small village of Recht, and pulled in to warm up, get some caffeine and see if I could sort myself out.

Upon entering, we were prepared with our best French for ordering in what we thought was the Ardennes region of Belgium, only to be stumped when we were greeted in German.

As it turns out, this was part of the German speaking eastern part of Belgium, which I will readily admit, I had no idea existed.

Still, we managed to make ourselves understood enough to order several croissants, and because the coffee machine was officially ‘kaputt’, some tea that the kind lady behind the counter made using a kettle from her own adjoining kitchen.

Warming up our bones was welcomed by everyone, and the use of the facilities even more so by me.

After a stopping for a little longer than anticipated, it was back onto the bike and away again to tackle the major climbs that are packed towards the end of the race.

The 2017 edition had introduced a new triumvirate of climbs due to roadworks elsewhere; Cote de Pont, Côte de Bellevaux, and Côte de la Ferme Libert. Locals described the Ferme Libert climb as the toughest of the lot in the local area, and we were about to find out.

The Cote de Pont passed relatively simply, a steep, straight climb through farmland, but nothing to be worried about.

The Cote de Bellavaux was pretty unremarkable, over a steady 6% gradient, and I was beginning to feel a little better about my prospects as the climbs and tummy troubles passed.

However, the Côte de la Ferme Libert was to put things back into perspective pretty quickly.

This was one of the few climbs where a left turn led onto the climb (instead of turn right, go up), but the gradient immediately ramped up. The bottom few metres were manageable, and the sight of a Quick-Step team fan area made it feel like were were in the main event (even though it was empty!).

The road continued past a couple of houses, before ramping up to a brutal 19% for a decent amount of time, around a couple of sharp bends and up through the trees lining the road. A brief section of respite in the middle of the 1.2k climb even felt like it might have been downhill, which makes the average gradient of 12% over it’s full length even more formidable.

Near the top, a ski lift was dropping off mountain bikers before they plummeted through the trees to get their adrenaline fix.

My heart didn’t need any extra beats per minute as we crested the climb.

Mekseb Debesay (Dimension Data) climbs up the stunningly difficult Cote de la Ferme Libert the day afterwards, during Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2017.

By now, our group had reduced to just two, as my caution had ensured I didn’t want to go ‘into the red’ before I knew I could make it to the end, while three others had proved stronger.

‘Jam’ and I trudged on as we moved on towards the better known closing climbs.

It was a this point that the ‘unmarked’ climbs began to reveal themselves more often, some of which seemed as hard — if not harder — than those on the official list.

As we climbed another 8% gradient we could hear the sound of motorcars from the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, famous for hosting Grand Prix through the years.

The terrain is always a talking point during the Grand Prix weekend, but TV can’t do the location justice. We travelled along a road high above the circuit, and for a brief moment a touring car race distracted us from the pain of travelling uphill once again. A fast descent, followed by another 8% unmarked climb led on to the next hill.

The Col du Rosier proved to be a beautiful but tough climb as it started off with an inevitable right turn up the hill, before weaving it’s way through the dense forest for a sapping 4.4km at 6%.

By this time, other riders were much more thin on the ground, but there were still plenty of people to measure yourself against — either moving relatively forwards or backwards depending on how you were climbing.

Typical scenes of Ardennes climbs — this time on the Col du Rosier

By this time, the fatigue was really beginning to build, so it was a relief that the Col du Maquisard proved to be what I decided to call a ‘recovery climb’. It’s 2.5km average at 5% would be a major attraction in the south of England, but on this day it proved to be one of the easiest of the featured hills.

It was quite different from others during the day, and actually felt the most ‘English’ of the climbs with the easier gradient as we weaved our way up through open green meadows. The sun even made a brief appearance to warm our hearts and bones.

Just as well it was a touch easier than the others, as next up was the most famous of all the climbs, La Redoute.

There is some debate about the derivation of the name, but redoubtable it certainly is.

Starting from a small town and immediately ramping up as it passes underneath a motorway, the road turns right to run parallel with the fast flowing traffic as you struggle up the hill much more sedately.

Names on the road and caravans crammed either side revealed this as the favourite spot for locals to cheer on their heroes the day after us amateurs arrived — but they seemed to be enjoying themselves in the meantime as the smell of beer and sound of europop filled the senses.

The road swung left and pitched up further as crowd barriers appeared either side of the road. It’s 2km length with an average 8.9 per cent featured consistent ramps well above 10% and a maximum gradient of 20%.

La Redoute climb with euro-pop and paint

However, whether it was the steady pace I was travelling, the fact I was now feeling better, or the realisation that I was going to make it, La Redoute didn’t actually feel that hard.

I’m sure the pro’s would disagree, but take it steady instead of racing up it for a living, and it’s actually an enjoyable climb.

Time for a snap at the top of La Redoute. The motorway which the road travels under is visible 2k in the distance.

Having tackled what was the toughest test of the day, we pushed on with more urgency and confidence towards the last couple of climbs and suburban Liege.

One more feed stop (in the middle of an unmarked climb) fuelled us for the last push, which next featured the Côte Roche aux Faucons.

This began by climbing over a railway bridge and up past a fence for 1.1km at 12%. It was a brute, but didn’t seem so bad — perhaps those climbs that grabbed more of my pre-ride attention had made them appear harder, while this hadn’t made a big impression before the ride.

That’s not to say it was easy, but knowing we were nearly there and not worrying about it in advance seemed to make it go quicker before the road plunged down the other side.

However, following the ‘top’ of the climb, the road bobbed and weaved before rising sharply again for around another 1km on a concrete road. The cruelty of the route was really starting to be rammed home as the ascents just kept on coming.

Fortunately, after negotiating some busy junctions, were we onto a long urban descent into Liege.

Weaving through the streets and keeping an eye out for the signs led us to a busy crossing on a main road, before coming out right by the football ground of Standard Liege.

We got stuck at a set of traffic lights for what seemed like five minutes before turning down what appeared to be a disused industrial estate. A few kids were there to dish out high-fives, but I was a bit too late to realise that the lad I offered my hand too had the filthiest paw I’d ever seen. I can’t imagine how many riders he’d high-fived throughout the day. I just hope he washed his hands before dinner (I certainly did).

The final climb appeared by — you’ve guessed it — turning right up a sharp hill, this time the Cote de Saint Nicolas.

It was hemmed in by terraced houses along either side, but a couple of sharp bends appeared to break up the gradient. In fact, they looked identical and for a moment I started to think I was in an Esher painting, climbing endlessly around corners.

The spell was soon broken as we passed under a towerblock and crested the climb — done for the day! Or so we thought…

After a descent and a brief pass over some rough cobbles, it was up the final grind into Ans, up a straight steady climb of about 6%.

We followed the signs but realised we’d missed the pro’s finish — a bit of a shame as it would have been nice to raise the arms, if I’d not had a really sore shoulder from holding onto the bars for so long.

The final stretch back to the registration hall involved getting lost and following a couple of other English guys who had the route on their Garmin — which was doing well to still be going by this point.

Meeting up with the other guys at the hall was a great feeling. All but one of our group made it back eventually, with the only non-finisher succumbing to injury.

The end! My cycling cap tells the story

We refuelled well after a long hot shower. A quick beer followed by a lovely meal just opposite the youth hostel was the start of a long evening.

Wandering into the city centre, we grabbed a beer in a ‘popular’ bar, before ducking down a side street and finding a proper locals bar where we spoke the broken French of broken Englishmen.

We got the point across though and had enough beers to send us off to sleep with a warm glow of satisfaction.

Completion medal and well earned calorie intake

Waking with inevitable hangovers, we travelled down slowly to the Ferme Libert climb to watch the pros tackle it during the main event.

It was reassuring that even their pace was slow as they ground up the steep gradients.

The pros, a day later, on the Cote de Ferme Libert

Once the riders were gone, we were back into the car and heading for home. The long drive around Brussels and up towards Calais seemed to take an inordinately long time, but thanks to Charlie’s stamina (he’d also been on the front of our group for a good proportion of the ride the day before), we made it home late on Sunday night, ready for a proper rest.

Three weeks later, and the feeling has finally returned in my thumb, apparently regulation ‘cold damage’ which is nothing to worry about.

If you feel like doing the challenge in the future — and it’s suitably named — ignore the forecast and be sure to put a rain jacket in your pocket. It will test you more than most rides, but is well worth the effort.

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