A day to remember in the Ardennes

Who would be mad enough to do Liege-Bastogne-Liege six times? Phil Barella recounts his experience from yet another ride in the Ardennes…

“6th year in the hot seat and the ride for the proper “classics hardnut”. That was what I was thinking when I finally got the guts together to sign up again. I mean I could do the middle distance as I did in 2016, but that’s not really enough, right… 

Anyway the plan was hatched. Mr Bidwell had the A-team truck ready for up to 6 people, and I was confident after another decent winter/ early spring of getting round the surrey hills without burping a lung up. We had a good bunch including former Wheeler Keith and a friend of Noel, but only 5 in the van. The Bunnell brothers Harry and Tim were late to the party and Seb and his mate Chris announced their interest soon after Harry.

The usual preamble involved monitoring the weather and it was looking bearable, but as per usual during the week before, temperatures were fluctuating, wind speed was picking up (juicy headwind for the 105km run into Bastogne) and rainfall was guaranteed, marvellous…. On the morning of meeting we all had a quick chat about expectations. I did my usual thing around just saying about getting round. The others had a look of interest/fear… 

The big thing with Liege is it’s not really flat, anywhere, as Adam put it, “it’s a slog but you do get chances to recover”, the issue would be with the temperatures being so low, that you’ll possibly drop your core temperatures too low, in the case of the longer descents. Good gloves and wind/waterproof layers were a must. 

This year also brought some of the lesser known, but classic climbs back. The Stockeau, Wanne and the Haute Levee were back on the menu, replacing three other climbs in the mid-section of the ride. The Stockeau is a sod, a 1km drag up and over a very nearly pointless climb as all you do is drop down the other side then head to the Haute levee straight away afterwards. It also has a very unusual plaque of Eddy Merckx, which represents one of his favourite places to attack in the race when he used to win it. With it going up to 20% in two places, it wouldn’t be easy to hold the wheel if someone jumped there…. 

The rest of the route was shorter, with the two last climbs being the steady Cote des Forges and the tough Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons, before a steady drop into Liege. Which meant I missed my nemesis, the old Italian climb of St Nicholas and the crazy people around there shouting at you whilst you lumber up it. That clipped around 7k off the end. So it should be easier…. 

After euro tunnelling and warping time and space in the Wheeler Wagon, we got to Liege and the Hotel earlier than expected after a quick food stop then a shop for essentials (read that as beers and bananas). We got our gear and bikes up to the hotel rooms, and then sorted out our entries, by travelling over to the hall where you pick up the stuff you need for the ride. 

Quite a few stalls were there, and there were some bargains but as per usual I packed plenty for the weekend, so I was ok. Got back to the Hotel, and then set about looking for food for the evening. 

After a lap around the block we settled for a bar/light bites for some food. We were expecting a little more, as the following days activities would probably burn 6500-7500 calories. Still, we had some extra food and then slept until around 5am, ready to depart early doors, to hopefully beat the rush. Watched the film Carlito’s Way as a build up to the ride…  

Come the morning and the usual restless relatively sleep free night, I got up and got prepped. Bib shorts knee warmers, two pairs of socks, base layer, jersey, gabba, etc. Ate a couple of bananas and loaded the pockets up with some bars and filled my 2 bottles up with a salt tab and a couple of vitamin tabs as well. Pumped the tyres up to the right pressure for the conditions, and then met the others outside. Keith had a lay in as he was doing the middle distance. 

We got to the start around 5:50 am and then waited for the start signal and got going. Immediately the rain started getting heavier, and we made our way to the first climb, in various groups. 

All the fast lads flew up the first climb, whereas I took it more sensibly, and rode past only about 40 people. The temperature was pretty low and it felt way cooler than the predictions. I was having thoughts all week of doing the middle route if it was too tough, but thought I’d stick it out before the left hand turn of shame (the Middle distance). This was when the rain and wind were on and off, and whilst riding in a group, I didn’t see the turnoff, so carried on, and caught up with Ian. He was in good spirits despite the conditions and looked a bit like me, not fresh but not exactly tired. We went up the long drag at La Roche en Ardenne and it became immediately obvious to me that Ian was breathing at twice my rate whilst we trundled up. I was a bit worried for him to be honest. 

Anyway we stuck together for a few km, and down the next descent, towards Bertogne, up the climbs I gained a bit of time so I cracked on and got my head down, missing the first food stop and heading towards Bastogne. Stopped there and grabbed some food and had a drink (aside from my normal eating and drinking). The Bastogne stop is the one where the realisation that you are at least 105km away from the start, and it only gets hillier, well, it really kicks in. fortunately I thought the headwind that was slowing us all down along the way to Bastogne would be replaced by a tailwind. And I was right for a bit. The group I was in whizzed along the straight road, and then we hit the preamble to the Cote de St Roch near Houffalize. This was where it suddenly turned into a cross wind and several folk on deep section wheels were struggling. I just bumbled on and then the hail started. Wasn’t for long and by now I couldn’t feel the ends of at least four of my fingers. Still the climb would help me keep warm. I got up there, slowly, and then proceeded to wolf down yet more sugary waffles. Onwards to the trinity of climbs, Mont-le Soie, Wanne and Stockeau. I’d never done the Wanne before, and that was a bit of a shock to the system, it’s one with average tarmac and a gradient that never seems to stay constant, but was on the wrong side of pleasant. 

After the Stockeau, and up the Haute Levee with close proximity to motorised traffic whilst stuck behind a slower climber than me, meant I was almost resting up a 10% climb. It was weird as I recently went back to training by heart rate, and realised that I was seeing numbers that were Threshold/ upper tempo far too often which made me wonder if I’d be able to stick it out! Anyway after the Haute Levee, you hit the longest and probably the steadiest climb of the day, the Rosler (around 5Km of climbing). In between the rain, another hailstorm hit whilst I was taking a loo break. Great. Still Rosler despatched at a slow rate of knots and again I spotted Ian. At this point (probably because of the garmins old age as well as the cold weather) I needed to charge the Garmin. 15 minutes of waiting at the top of the hill later, and I set off hoping it would last. As I was waiting, a rare non rainy patch of weather was overhead but with the hills being as they were you could see what was ahead. Four more climbs… two easy, two hard. 

It’s worth saying that the issue with Liege is not the categorised climbs, it’s the bits before and after, you’ll usually crest the summit then hit a small descent, then hit another small hill which is exposed, slowing you down even more! The course is absolutely not suited to me as a non climber, but it just becomes funny after a while. Anyway after the Maquisard, a lovely steady climb, you then hit La Redoute after a very fast run in. with an average of 8% you think, well, this shouldn’t be too bad, but it bites, and hits 21% in at least one place. The last corner is hilarious with people rising out of the saddle, and then realising their legs are buckling or the wheels are spinning as it’s wet. I’ve some epic “why am I here” pictures from this climb. It definitely puts you massively in the red and the next food stop is very much welcome. It’s also the last one before the two final climbs. The Forges climb is for me just another way of getting the climbing numbers up, it just drags and feels pointless. 

The final climb, the Roche aux Faucons, is really not pleasant and has a bonus descent into a draggy false flat afterwards. It’s the last climb though for the day and after giving the Garmin one final charge, I then proceeded to the descent to Liege. I went as aero as I could and unlike the eventual race winner (Jakob Fuglsang) I didn’t have any worrying moments downhill. With that descent out of the way I made my way into Liege and parked up.

I went back to the hotel and saw Keith there, with a beer, looking relieved that he took the middle distance, and mentioning how relatively enjoyable the ride was. Made my way upstairs, showered, got changed and joined him and some of the fast lads (Noel and Adam) who’d been round in a very brisk time considering the conditions. Got a round in and talked it all through. Universal opinion was that it was a seriously tough day. Ian turned up slightly later on and looked a little shell shocked, but had got round. After that beer and possibly another we all went to a local restaurant and ordered pretty much to a man large steaks and large beers. Everyone looked properly jaded. It was good to see though that we all made it round without mishap and we talked about how tough it was, amongst other things. Some were shocked it was my 6th time “why” seemed to be the common question…. The food was despatched, and we all made our way back to our respective hotels. A few more beers were consumed and we headed to sleep. 

Next morning we had breakfast and loaded the van up. We then departed to get some supplies from over the border, in Holland and then to the Stockeau climb to cheer the pros on. It was nearly as bad weather wise as the ride, and the pros all looked a bit shell-shocked. Quite a few of the favourites or what would have been stronger riders climbed off, and by the time it got to where we were (2/3 of the way round), it was a reduced peloton. Anyway Jakob Fuglsang won after getting away on the last climb, and descending like a demon into Liege. After watching the peloton ascend and descend the Stockeau we then went and grabbed some Frites and then went back to the Eurotunnel. We made it by a few minutes and got back to Surbiton by around 8:40. Another one done.

Anyone for next year?”