Four determined and possibly crazy Orwell Wheelers travelled to Belgium a couple of weeks ago to follow in Dan Martin's footsteps, and complete the epic Liege-Bastogne-Liege route. Paul O'Neill takes us through a gruelling day!

It all began with a man dressed in a panda suit (at least I assume it was a man). This time last year, Dan Martin raced to victory in Liege Bastogne Liege, dodging the aforementioned 'panda' before the final bend of the 263km event. The race is one of the so-called Monuments, the series of five one-day 'classics' that are cycling's equivalent of golf's majors or the grand slams of tennis. For Irish cycling, it was a reminder of the golden era of the 1980s when Sean Kelly won Liege twice. And for a small group in Orwell Wheelers, it sowed a seed that would grow as we tried to identify an early season challenge.

Various possibilities were canvassed: Paris-Roubaix? Cobble stones on the flat – no thanks. Tour of Flanders? Cobble stones on the hills – definitely no thanks. A week in the sun in Tenerife? Maybe but, then again, let's save that for another year (a decision that was second guessed many times as the grim winter dragged on ). In the end, four of us – Brendan Canning, John Lanigan, Liam Rowsome and myself – opted for Liege Bastogne Liege. Through somewhat rose-tinted spectacles, it offered a combination that seemed hard to beat: ride the race route on Saturday, April 26th, watch Dan Martin attempt to defend his title the following day and, along the way, test the recuperative properties of a range of Belgian beers.

There was also the prospect of participating in something special in the year of its 100th edition. La Doyenne, as it is known, is the oldest of the classics and was founded in 1892. The list of winners reads like a 'who's who' of cycling's greatest. It is also the race that those within the peloton tend to identify as the truest test of strength by virtue of length and profile i.e. extraordinarily long and remorselessly hilly.

In a recently published book 'The Monuments – the grit and the glory of cycling's greatest one-day races', author Peter Cossins quotes from a Procycling interview with Michele Bartoli. Even allowing for a degree of hyperbole, the two-time winner from the 1990s, neatly sums up the event: “It is the most beautiful Classic on the calendar…It's the only race where you can be certain that the riders on the podium are definitely the strongest. In other races being clever can make up for a lack of strength, but not Liege. What matters in Liege is pure physical strength. Tactics count for much less”.

So it was that the four of us – bikes in tow – took the early flight to Brussels last Friday morning (April 25th). From there, it was an hour by road to Liege. Bikes rebuilt, we set off from the hotel at 4pm that afternoon to complete the registration process. Somewhat tellingly, this required us to pass the official start point of the pro race in the city centre and climb 600-800m up a cobbled ascent (eerily reminiscent of Patrick's Hill in Cork) to the Complexe Sportif Naimette-Xhovemont where the sportif starts and finishes. A little unkindly, because the sportif has a slightly different depart/finish point to the professional race, it is actually 16km longer (a total of 279km).

A 5.45am alarm call on Saturday morning – with breakfast at 6am – saw us back at the start at 7am. The organisers allow for a rolling start between 6.30am and 7.30am and there was quite a throng of cyclists setting out at the same time. There was also a lot of jockeying to get into the right group which resulted in a fast ride out of town. And a long one too: I had more than 11km on my Garmin before we left the city boundaries.

Somehow I had got the idea in advance that the first 100km to Bastogne was relatively flat. If only! Instead the road is constantly undulating, quite similar in many respects to repeatedly riding the Embankment though the only official hill (at the 80km mark) is the Cote de la Roche (2.8km long at an average of 6.2 per cent).

Liam pushed on on his own at this point and, by the time the four of us regrouped at a food stop in Bastogne at 112km, I had averaged 29kmph. With little delay, we were back on the road for what would be the last time we'd ride together during the course of a long day. We were bound for the Cote de Saint Roch (at 132km) which, though only 1km long, has an average gradient of 11 per cent and is viciously steep at its maximum. (Think the Wall….but steeper.)

This was followed by several more undulating kilometres before we reached the Cote de Wanne (at 174km). It's 2.7km long (average incline 7.3 per cent) with a real kick at the top, followed by a fast and narrow descent.

For good or for ill – depending on your perspective – a sign at the start of each climb lists the length of what's ahead along with the average and maximum gradients, while another at each summit tells riders how far they have to go to the next big hill. In this instance, it was 9km to the Cote de Stockeu (at 183km). It is approached via a right hand turn and at an average incline of 12.2 per cent over 1km, it is often compared to the infamous Koppenberg in the Tour of Flanders.

Rising into the woods out of the town of Stavelot, the Stockeu is brutally steep and very narrow – the challenge compounded by the presence of a handful of cars following Belgian riders. At the top, there's a sculptured monument to Eddy Merckx and a sharp left onto a fast descent which brought us back into Stavelot right beside the point we'd begun the ascent earlier. From there it was into a cobbled courtyard where Liam and I took our second food stop of the day (John opted to push on).

Again we didn't delay and there was no chance to digest because we were straight onto the Cote de la Haute Levee which is reached via 500m of cobbles through the centre of town. What follows is an ascent of 3.6km at an average of 5.7 per cent which seemed to drag on forever. Fourteen kilometres later, it was onto the Col de Rosier (at 198km), a 4.4km climb (average gradient 5.9 per cent) which winds its way upwards through a series of sharp bends.

The next big challenge – the Cote de la Redoute – was 30km further on and is one of the primary vantage points for spectators. And where cycling fans gather, it generally means riders are going to suffer. In this regard, the Redoute doesn't disappoint. Though 'only' 2km long, the average gradient is 8.8 per cent and the middle section reaches 22 per cent.

A day ahead of the pro race, several dozen motor homes – with their Belgian and Dutch owners sitting at picnic tables – were already in situ. Liam had pushed on in pursuit of John at this stage but I got loud encouragement from the dedicated fans who had covered every (and I mean every) metre of road with the name 'Phil', underlining the fact that this is Philippe Gilbert territory.

One slightly painful aspect was the fact that although the organisers had marked 10 hills on the route map, there were several more that they'd neglected to include which, in any Irish estimation, would definitely qualify as climbs.

The next 'official' hill was the Cote de Forge at 242km, followed 8km later by the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons. The latter was introduced to the route in 2008 and at 1.3km in length, averages 10 per cent with ramps of up to 15 per cent.

With 250km covered, the legs were starting to hurt though, theoretically, the end was in sight. But there was more than one sting in the tail to come and I was acutely aware too that this was the point where the contenders in the pro race would only begin to get down to business. Next up – at 268km – was the Cote de Saint Nicolas. The gradient isn't as tough as the Stockeu or the Redoute but 1km at an average of 11 per cent requires a big dig. Italian flags were drapped along the side of the road in support of Vincenzo Nibali – this area is home to a large Italian community which has its origins in the thousands who emigrated here to work in steel and coking plants after the Second World War. It's a utilitarian industrial quarter but dozens of kids, cheering as we passed, helped to lift the spirits.

And then it was onto a 1km section of road in the suburb of Ans which leads to the finish in the pro race. It is dead straight for as far as the eye can see and it's a real grind, uphill all the way. This is where Dan Martin pursued Joaquim Rodriguez to claim victory in 2013 and where disaster would befall him last Sunday as he negotiated the final corner. Because of the different finish point, however, it was another 5km through the winding and cobbled streets of Liege before I reached the finish line at the Complexe Sportif Naimette-Xhovemont.

For the record, my finishing time was 10 hours 23 minutes (an average speed of just under 27kmph); both Liam (10.02) and John (10.14) were already back safely and Brendan followed 20 minutes later.

So what did we make of La Doyenne? Between the four of us, we've ridden at least 6 Marmottes/Etapes (John even conquered the Marmotte and Etape on consecutive days). Yet there was absolute agreement that Liege Bastogne Liege presented the toughest challenge we've faced. Hard as it may be to believe, it was virtually impossible to recall a section of the 279km route that wasn't going up (seemingly endlessly) or down. Who the hell said Belgium is flat?


PS - It is always prudent to adhere to the established principle that what goes on tour stays on tour. Suffice to say though that we confirmed - on a near scientific basis - that the recuperative powers of Belgian beer work best on the basis of a 'risk versus reward' approach. Effectively, the more of it you risk, the greater the reward.

PPS – we travelled to Belgium without club-mate Lloyd Moore who trained with us through the winter. He is embarking on a challenge of a different order, riding solo from Land's End to John O'Groat's from May 14 in aid of the Irish Motor Neuron Disease Association. Further details at Facebook OR Search for lloydlejogimnda