Hard Men in the Ardennes

Arguably the toughest classic, The Doyenne has become a staple in the Kingston Wheelers’ calendar. Phil Barella reports back on a tough day in the saddle...

Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a monument, one of the singly hardest days any rider can have on the bike, and is a real test of character, will-power and legs and lungs (and heart). I had come off of a decent winter training set, and was stronger than the last couple of springs, so was hoping to get round in one piece and with something hopefully to spare… my climbing was improved, slightly (a prerequisite of getting round Liège is you need to be able to get up some very steep hills repeatedly) though compared to the other riders in the group I was still the weakest climber, but I was fine with that. We had six interested directly (and Ben, though being a new dad got in the way)… Jumpei, Adam, Harry, Aidan and Alex. 

It was my fifth time doing this ride, and possibly my last time… Amongst these guys, you had two guys used to road races that involved bergs (and our ex hill climb champ), and our current fastest time trialist, who also happens to be decent uphill.

So fast forward a few months and Adam has organised the lot, and has use of his VW Transporter "Wheeler Wagon" a 180 brake horsepower six berth made for cycling trips, monster! Ideal.... we've all booked the sportive and it’s all go. 

In terms of weather and the place we were staying we holed up in a clever building that had keypad access so no forgetting keys for me this time, and the weather was going to be around 24 degrees for a large part of the day. Perfect, for a day of suffering then. We then got everyone together for an early start at Surbiton station and get everything in the van and away we go, hassle free all the way to Liège, though the traditional Brussels traffic jam has its say for a bit. We get to the apartments on time and get everything set up. 

The bike i chose to take was the new-ish bike i bought in June last year, and it had finally had its fork replaced, and I had ridden it for a couple of rides before the main event so was confident of surviving this year’s trial. It served me well at last year’s Rowlands Ramble ride, so I had no fears. 

So with the six of us all set we went to sign on and get our numbers. We cycled down, and it was effectively a three mile spin there and back so no real stress though Adam, Harry and Jumpei went up a short hill and back to warm their legs up. Numbers retrieved, we got a beer in and sat down and had a quick chat whilst the others did their warm up ride.

We got back to the hotel and Harry and others mucked in and created a decent bit of pasta, topped off with (in my case) a Westmalle tripel :) very nice. After that a quick chat about tactics and other stuff (others wanted to beat their PB's, me and Jumpei and Aidan wanted just to survive!), and off to sleep, for a bit until we realised that Liège is the place to have cars with "pimp my ride and lowrider soundtracks", giving it some beans a couple of blocks away!

Still, the alarm went off and we got the start for 6:45. We sort of stayed together for a part of the first hill but Aidan wasn't with us, caught behind at some traffic lights more likely. Still we ambled up the first hill at our own pace and i was reasonably pleasantly surprised i was keeping the others in sight. Then to the first descent, not too technical, but don't want to go too mad. Keep a lid on it... don't get too excitable. The others slowly edge away, but I was always going to miss the first food stop, so might make a bit of time up. 

Works out of those ahead, only Jumpei stops at the first place, so i ride past him and then around 10 km from the second stop at Bastogne, Aidan catches up on the uphill part. We chat for a bit then I descend a couple of roads and put a bit of a gap in before he then goes past on the next drag. No bother. We'll all catch up at some point. The second food stop arrives after a course change from previous years, and i get there just ahead of Jumpei, who, like me looks a little tired already. We stock up on waffles, Banana bits and water, and Jumpei departs just before I needed the loo, as i'd had too much sugar already... cue a 5 minute wait... and then on to what would be a longer second part.

For those that don't know Liège as a course, you get a relatively steady and not painful run down to Bastogne, then on the way back the steep stuff digs its teeth in. So, to the steep stuff. 

The first one up is the delightful Cote de Saint Roche, in the beautiful area of Houffalize. It is a short steep one, and isn't really a difficult climb, but has its moments. With that despatched, it was quite a while before anything categorised pops up but the nature of the roads is it is all either up and down, so you get no respite, as there is always something on your radar. 

The stuff between this and the longest climb on the books is pretty similar, except the gradient varies somewhat, and the road surface in some instances reminded me of home… (it was occasionally rubbish!). With the hills ticking over there were a few that had me worried, and sure enough one of them would bite me, that being the Ferme Libert. I was in a group going into it but it goes on for a fair bit at an average of 13% but this of course means there are steeper as well as shallower pitches, and you often get people blow up and unclip, leaving you in the lurch as trackstanding is virtually impossible. Three guesses what happened to me… someone slowly falls apart in front of me unclips and then topples over, blocking my path… so I have to unclip.. and walk up to the top, oh well…outside of that though the climbs didn’t present too much of an issue to me, though La Redoute was very tough, and my legs fell off up the Cote de St Nicholas, and the following area (my cadence dropped right off and weirdly one of my toes felt like it had been stabbed!). 

Once over the Ferme Libert you then get to the steady leg sapping climbs, and my personal favourite, La Redoute. There is nothing nice about La Redoute (it circumvents an aqueduct) in terms of climbing, however the locals and the many people in their caravans and motorhomes are all enthusiastic with a few “Ole’s” and “allez”. By then of course your legs are virtually shot and you then have a 21% section to navigate whilst a guy in a rock racing skinsuit crawls up the hill, slowing you up somewhat… anyway, half way up I pedal easy, noting there is always a camera up the hill round the next corner. I slip into spin mode and turbo past a few riders including someone that wore a Belgian national top, and the picture I got was pretty satisfying, me with my tongue flapping around, riding a few riders off my wheel up a 16% section. Those that ride with me know that doesn’t really happen that often! 

I get to the top and realise that after this, my matches are now in overdraft, the legs are properly creaking now, and I set off towards the part that always does me in, the last few climbs.

At the food stop that is near the bottom of Redoute, I stop and fill up my water bottles, and realise I need to eat and drink more. I do that and survey the carnage, there are quite a few people there all looking like they want to go home, and some aren’t walking correctly, it appears to be that bad!

It’s at this point also I check my WhatsApp to see how people are doing, no surprise that the fast boys have pretty much finished, so this acts as a motivator for me, I get back on the bike, and get going, and realise there is an uncategorised 2km 8% climb ahead, before the last two lumps. Deep joy, pedalling squares, and get over that then to some nice rolling roads, and to the Roche aux Faucons.

This is notoriously unforgiving with a couple of distinct turns, and a long false flat afterwards, it’s a real test of a climb and this is where Quickstep won the race with Bob Jungels going off the front and engaging his time trial engine. Similarly, though at around 1/3 speed I also engage the afterburners (more like Bunsen burners) and depart towards the final official climb, the “Italian Climb” , the Cote Saint Nicholas. This is similar to the Roche aux Faucons, but slightly steeper overall, seemingly, and my legs are really creaking by this point,  I again ride past a couple of folk that are going  so slowly, that they appear almost to be stopped, then get to the top and on to Ans, the finish area of the race. This is a steady 4% for a couple of KM and is pretty mundane then you drop down to Liège and collect your medal (if they have any that are left). A cobbled descent when your legs are creaking is not nice…

Once I got there Jumpei was just departing so I saved my ride, and trundled back to the flat, showered, and joined the rest for a mixed grill, a couple of beers and then an after dinner beer as well… we all staggered back, all broken, and zzzzed our way through the night. The next morning, we awoke, saw the opening ceremony of the race, and then went via the Ferme Liberte climb to watch the race, to a place where Adam could get some food, and we could get some beers, then back to the Eurotunnel and home. There were some seriously tired bodies in that van. Once back, at Surbiton station we all made our way home, tired, but having had a great weekend away…. 

Next year anyone?