The alarm went off at half four in the morning, I had my porridge and hit the road, meeting Luke GJ outside his place at five. We cycled across the outskirts of Ghent. By the hill at the big art centre called “Vooruit”, there were loads of people stumbling across or along the road. In fact the entire length of the Sint Pietersnieuwstraat was littered with people still out from the night before. We made our way off this slight incline by taking a right onto a narrow road with the chemistry building of Ghent university, meandering left onto a busy road and right onto the Kazernestraat. Lined with two student pubs that looked like they had plenty of action, the Kazernestraat was blocked off but we got around the barricade and rumbled along the uneven brick surface. We made our way down to a thoroughfare that eventually brought us to Sint Pieters train station.

We got into the station, bought our tickets and made our way to the far end of the station for the 5:23 train to Liege-Guillermins. The train went smooth enough, we got through the Brussels triplet of stations without anyone robbing our bikes, and arrived in Liege. Liege was noticeably colder than Ghent. It was freezing but we went down and found the cafe and hung around while waiting for our connection.

Finally we got onto the small train to Aywaille. We went down to the first carriage and blocked off the first entrance with our bikes alongside three others from three cyclists who were probably travelling to the Philippe Gilbert too. Arriving in Aywaille probably 8 minutes late, we could see the groups of cyclists leaving and I was anxious we would get to the start not too late in case we missed the buzz. We rolled down the hill through the town from the station, across the bridge and into the sports complex and there was a big queue of cyclists registering.

The start. Thanks to Luke GJ for the photo.

We got through quick enough and crossed river again (the Ambleve). We were behind a group of three of four and the road rose up close to the station. We were swarmed by a much bigger group, took an abrupt right hand back into the town before a left hander onto a bigger road parallel to the Ambleve. A group almost got away but Luke got on the pedals, his noisy cassette creaked and we caught back up to a fairly big group. It was cold so it was great to put an effort in to warm up. We cruised as part of this group with the road meandering in parallel to the river for about 8 kilometers to the small village of Rivage. We crossed the river and immediately met the Cote Fraiture. Just shy of 2 kilometres this is a typical climb for these Ardennes sportives.

Luke GJ and Eugene before the first climb. Many thanks to Sportograf for the photo.

Just after the bridge, the road rose slightly to the left then curled steeply to the right. Luke’s bike made a clicking noise and he said something like “oh no.” I looked back but we were in a big enough group and I couldn’t see him through the group whether he was still moving or if he had to pull in. He disappeared from view. I continued to climb but considered whether I should pull in and see if he had a mechanical. I looked around a good bit but decided to keep going and stop at the top. Luckily enough, Luke GJ appeared after a few minutes and lamented some mechanical that was holding him back. There was a little descent where we turned from a regional road to a narrower one. There was a long right hand curve and then we crossed another regional road where the next climb, the Côte de Lincé began. This started off steep rising above 10% and then being about 7% before ending probably somewhere around the 4% mark. I waited for Luke who was once again held back by the mechanical.

Many thanks to Sportograf for the photo

A few kilometres later, it was the Cote de Betgne. We regrouped afterwards and made our way toward the Roche aux Faucons, visiting the same climb in different weather as a few days previously. On the Saturday of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it was raining and I climbed with shoe covers and the rain jacket. This was much better weather, it hadn’t fully warmed up so it was optimal for putting an effort in. Yet somehow I was 15 seconds slower than on Saturday. A deviation on a drag just after it took us off the route towards Liege and onward in on our Phil Gil adventure. Luke’s mechanical issue was holding him back on long drags too. I waited just after a crossroad for Lukes group. There was a descent through trees where, two years ago on this sportive, I came around a corner just after a crash. So I let the group go ahead on the plateau before the descent. I kept expecting some tight bend on the descent but actually it was a wide enough road so I couldn’t figure out where the crash could have been. Through all this, Luke pulled away in the group ahead, arrived at the foodstop and then hit the road again. Somehow I arrived at the foodstop after him but I didn’t see him. I hung around a bit then got moving. Leaving the foodstop, there was a big bridge over the Meuse river, the river that flows through Liege and Namur and from which the muur de Huy climbs up from. This time the road abruptly rose for the Côte des Fagnes. It was game out to catch Luke. I climbed this and descended and immediately hit another road of the same hill - Côte de la Reine. At the start I saw Luke and we talked as I passed by. I waited at the top. A bit similar to the descent before the foodstop, Luke latched on to a group and I let a bit of a gap go. With the group a bit ahead of me, I descended on a rough surface through some trees and when I saw from the wahoo display of the map that the road would abruptly turn to the right, I remembered a super steep climb that caught everyone out the last time I was here. I clicked in to the granny cog and sure enough the group ahead had just hit it.

I saw Luke completely caught out and I think he was in the wrong gear and had to put the foot down. I curled to the turn and the bottom of the hill, asked if he was ok (in case there’d been a chain break) and grinded my way up as even though I was in the granny I actually needed to shift a few more gears too at the back. The segment of the twist is actually called Schakelen! on strava which in Dutch means Shift! The climb itself is called Thier Riga. Another few kilometres and another climb Rue de Thier Moulin. Once again a super steep to start off with followed by easing into a drag. This was followed by a descent and some junctions. We crossed the Meuse again in the town of Huy which would only mean one thing - the Muur du Huy beckoned. Even before we hit the climb, the way we approached it, different to the way the pros hit it in Fleche Wallonne, we were climbing up through the town. There was one bloke on a Canyon who lead the charge. I followed him through the junctions and across to the actual start of the Muur. There was another guy in Trek gear and we all started together. It’s steep from the very start and it was hot enough as the sun had come out. I grinded my way to hold the Canyon guys wheel and there was no easing off from him. I managed to stay in touch all the way up to the top. This was my best effort up the muur, having climbed it in two other sportives and with my mate Nico another time.

Many thanks to Sportograf for the photo

At the top there was a foodstop for the sportive. It was fairly hot at this stage. Over the top Luke upped the pace for the green plateau up above. We descended and then met the Côte de la France climb. Around this time, I started to notice a bloke we were cycling with appeared to have an Ireland sticker on his bike and his helmet. I think it said his name too - Doherty etc. I was going to strike up a conversation but the Col de Limont appeared and I put in an effort. Shortly after the descent, Luke indicated that the legs were gone from compensating for the mechanical so for the final 30km I headed off myself. There were three climbs left - the Côte de Xhoris, Côte du Niaster and Côte de La Redoute. The Côte de Xhoris just seemed like a bit of a drag from a village called Comblain La Tour. It topped out on some nice green countryside. On the descent I was between a few blokes from the one club and bridged the gap from one group to another, only to be stopped at a left hand junction onto a bigger regional road. I recognised this road from the last time I did the Phil Gil. That time we descended along this wide regional road into the town of Aywaille and made our way by the road parallel to the Amblève river to Remouchamps. I was expecting the same thing here but half way down the descent we were deviated onto a small road for the Côte du Niaster. This 2 kilometre climb ramped up to 10% at points and meandered under trees and through green on a narrow road that levelled out and immediately descended onto that busy Amblève river road to Remouchamps. The traffic was bumper to bumper and I maneuvered around the cars to get to the outskirts of Remouchamps. The road went over the narrow enough bridge over the Amblève and then through some back roads of the town to where La Redoute started. Unlike several days ago, it was boiling hot here. I gave it a good effort but didn’t get a PB (that was from the event 2 years ago) and actually was 3 seconds slower than three days previously. From the top of La Redoute, it was a direct descent to the Aywaille sports centre and the finish. Luke GJ followed a bit later and we got a pic with Philippe Gilbert himself. After hanging around a bit, and the sports complex was cool enough with a bmx track for kids, we went to the train station and met the guys who had got the same train out with us that morning. We got a good banter in with them.

Many thanks to Luke GJ for the photo