Liège–Bastogne–Liège Challenge

Sometimes in life you make a decision on the spur of the moment without giving things too much thought. Such were the circumstances which led me to ride the Liège–Bastogne–Liège Challenge, the amateur sportive held the day before the pro race.

I had always been a bigger fan of the grand tours – the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – than cycling’s monuments, the sport’s five most prestigious one day races. This was partly due to my own ignorance, as a relative newcomer to the sport, of the romance and storied history of races such as Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Lombardy, and the oldest of them all, Liège–Bastogne–Liège.

So if I’m being totally honest, a trip to the cold and damp Ardennes in April to do ‘La Doyenne’, as it is also known, wasn’t exactly on my bucket list. But after a winter where my training regime was decidedly stop-start due to the real world getting in the way of my cycling, I decided I needed something to focus on early in the year to motivate me to get training again.

Eugene ‘Banter’ Dillon had told me of his plans to do three of the monument sportives this Spring and almost on a whim, without doing the slightest bit of research about what I was getting myself in for, I decided to join him for the longest one of them. If I had thought too much about I probably never would have signed up. At 271km in length with 4,500 metres of vertical ascent, the Liège–Bastogne–Liège Challenge truly is a daunting task.

But my snap decision led to the one of the toughest and definitely the most epic and perversely enjoyable days I’ve ever spent on a bike.

During the marathon ride we would experience, rain, biting winds, hail and eventually sunshine as we tackled murderous climbs, breakneck descents and juddering cobblestones, while trying to avoid carnage all around us. Preparation for the trip went well as I crammed in a series of long and lumpy rides in the two months beforehand to help build up my endurance.

Eugene and myself caught a red-eye flight to Charleroi the morning before the event and knew that we were likely to meet Orwell strongman David Fitzgerald, who had also signed up, at some point out there.

After a train journey deposited us in Liège we set off on a 1.5km walk to our hotel and quickly got a taste of what was to come – having to lug our bags up an insanely steep cobbled hill. Once that was negotiated our spirits were quickly lifted by the sight of the Française des Jeux team whizzing by on a recce spin. They were soon followed by Joaquin Rodriguez and Enrico Gasparotto. Slightly star-struck, we couldn’t help but wave and the passing mini-peloton of Katusha and Wanty–Groupe Gobert riders waved back.

After assembling our bikes we took the 8km spin to the registration hall to sign on and soak up some of the atmosphere. The way back to the hotel involved an inevitable detour to climb the cobbled hill we had lugged the suitcases up and having conquered that we felt we’d be ready for anything the following day could throw at us.

The forecasts on various websites had varied from sunny but cold to rain, snow and sleet. We didn’t know what to believe and went to bed hoping for the best. Waking at 5am we could see it was bucketing down outside and about 4°C, so my only option was to opt for plenty of layers under a recently purchased Orwell hydra. I’d only worn it twice before and its water repellent properties were about to be tested to the max. Thankfully it was up to the challenge.

The sportive is somewhat longer than the professional race as the start line at the Halles des Foires on the banks of the Meuse is around 10kms away from where the professionals get underway. The sportive riders also have to do an extra 10kms-or-so at the end of the event.

We rolled out from the Halles des Foires around 6.50am into a somewhat chaotic scene as latecomers arriving in cars threatened to choke up the roadway. But we were soon making progress out through the sodden streets and noticed there were already several riders whose day wasn’t going well, having punctured. There must have been eight or nine of them in just the first few kilometres and I would see many more as the day progressed.

After 10kms we reached our first climb of the day out of the urban area on the Ourthe valley. It was a wooded, dark road with a gradient much like the Embankment, only longer. Indeed much of the first 112kms to Bastogne were spent going up and down similar ramps.

The official start of the Pro race was 10km in on a climb much like the Embankment (photograph with thanks to Sportograf)

The route lists eight categorised climbs, but there were countless other drags which didn’t merit a mention that would prove to be stern enough tests in their own right. Groups quickly formed on the road and we found ourselves in the midst of some flamboyant and noisy Spaniards and stern-looking Francophones and Dutch riders who seemed pretty put out by the decidedly drab weather we were having.

It would be 84kms before we met our first categorised climb, the Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne, which was gentle enough, stretching on for around 3kms at an average of 5.6pc. Our plan had been to conserve as much energy as possible, by following wheels and staying out of the wind, on the way to Bastogne, where we knew the day would really begin. So despite having already clocked up 1,900 metres of climbing, we were feeling quite fresh when we reached the food station there at the 112km mark.

We knew the tough work was about to start with 160-odd kilometres remaining and seven of the eight categorised climbs on the course still to be negotiated. After a quick refuelling stop, where we bumped into lads from Blanchardstown Wheelies and Ballymore CC in Cork, things started to get very hard very quickly. Although the rain had stopped we now found ourselves facing into an arctic headwind as we turned north east out of Bastogne.

The breeze was so cold it felt like it would cut me in two and I must have rode 20kms with a buff pulled up over my nose. We were at the highest point of the day here, on a plateau, with little or no shelter from the elements. It was almost a relief when we reached the second big climb of the day, the Côte de Saint-Roch, after 130kms. Like most of the categorised climbs, this was short and sharp, just 1.2kms long, but with ramps of 20pc and an average gradient of 11pc. Half way up, on the steepest section, an English fellow in front of me snapped his chain trying to change gears. Another rider pulled off to the side, shouting to his companions that he was cramping. All we could do was pedal on. It wasn’t even the halfway point. The next few kilometres were probably the most pleasant on the route as we swung though the fertile green landscape, with majestic castles and estates and the stonework farm houses. The scenery did nothing to dissuade the piercing wind from returning to attack us again and Eugene started to suffer from cold hands.

On a brief descent after an uncharacterized drag (photograph with thanks to Sportograf)

By the 160kms marks we were had descended down along the valley of the Salm river and into the town of Vielsalm. Things were fairly motoring at this stage as the group we were in worked hard. There had been quite a few near misses all day with riders taking a chance to better position themselves by straying out over the median to overtake others in the peloton. But it was often a risky proposition as cars whizzed past in the other direction and showed little or no inclination to slow down. At some point along the way we saw a rider stricken on the side of the road, with police attending to him and quizzing a motorist.

Soon after, at the 172km mark, came the Côte de Wanne, a testing 2.2km climb with a maximum gradient of 13pc and an average of 7.5pc. A very quick descent brought us to the town of Stavelot, where we refuelled at a food stop and spotted the Orwell jersey of David Fitzgerald, who was travelling very well with a friend. We had the banter for a few minutes before hitting the road again, beginning to feel the fatigue and afraid of getting too cold if we stood around too long. This brought us almost immediately to the Côte de la Haute Levee, a 3.5km climb that starts out with a long cobbled section. I cursed each cobble as I worked my way across the bumpy stretch, only for the climb to ramp up even further to a maximum of 12pc on the tarmacked section.

After the steep stuff was negotiated, there was a long drag. The group that formed was a bit on the slow side so we decided to power up the road. We were just a few metres away from bridging across to two riders when I hesitated for a second. The guy on the left looked a bit unsteady, so I figured it would be best to go around them. But before we could, the craziest thing happened. He seemed to lose his balance, first nudging his friend shoulder to shoulder and the wobbling back too far the other way. His bike came down, with the derailleur getting stuck in the spokes of his friend’s rear wheel. They both flipped up into the air. There was the loud bang of a tyre exploding and the horrific screech of carbon as they both fell to the ground in a crumpled heap. I did my best bad Peter Sagan impression to swerve and it was just about good enough to avoid joining them on the ground. A few riders stopped to help them, but everyone else kept going. The end was still far from view.

The crash brought with it a heightened awareness that we and those around us were getting increasingly fatigued. We resolved to keep talking about the task in hand as much as possible to stop our minds from wandering, which was just as well as we were coming into a long series of technical bends. These brought us to the Col du Rosier, an enjoyable 4.5km forested climb with a relatively relaxed gradient averaging at 5.7pc.

Soon after we had reached the 200km mark and knew we were definitely in the home stretch. But any thoughts of an easy ride to the finish were soon banished by a sudden hail shower and darkening skies overhead. We pushed on toward Stoumont, with an incredible descent for 5km then a false flat before edging slightly downhill for 17km between La Gleize and Remouchamps, along the Ambleve River. We were now deep in a valley and although the group we had joined appeared to be motoring well at first, there were some worn out faces and erratic braking. So we pressed off ahead on our own, burning a few matches to get to the next group up the road. Probably not the brightest idea when you’re just a few kilometres from La Redoute.

It was a real ballbreaker, 1.7km averaging 9.7pc and with some really steep sections in the middle. Fans were already setting up their pitches on the side of the road ahead of the pro race and we got plenty of encouragement at a 20pc section where the road is covered white paint saying ‘Phil, Phil, Phil’, a tribute to the Liège-born former world champion Philippe Gilbert. It was a relief to reach the top and we quickly fell in with a group of English riders descending towards the Ourthe River and touching on the town of Mery as we drew near our next challenge.

With 241kms in the legs, the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons was a killer. Although just 1.6kms long, it was hardest at the start where it maxed 16pc, and seemed to go on forever though a nice residential area. Finally the sun was out and after the climb we were back into undulating green countryside for a stretch before a drag brought us back towards a grim industrial valley on the outskirts of Liège.

We dropped into the town of Ougree, full of red-brick houses and grey, urban decay, inching ever closer to the final climb of the day. We could see the Standard Liege football stadium ahead as we tipped along the side of a dual carriageway and through rusting industrial estates with lumpy roads, before emerging onto a terraced street. A sharp right hand turn and there it was – the iconic Côte de Saint Nicolas.

I had hoped to have had a bit more left in the tank to attack the climb, which is about 1.4km long with an average gradient of 7.6pc. However, after 256kms, it was hard to raise much of a gallop. My legs wouldn’t respond to the urging of my brain, so I decided to just get up it as best I could and enjoy the atmosphere.

This is real cycling heartland and young and old stood on the pavement, waving and shouting “Allez, allez”. It felt great to reach the top, but it wasn’t the end of the climbing as there was a decent drag up towards the finish line for the pro race. This was where Dan Martin attacked Rodriguez in 2013 before going on to win the race. For some reason the amateurs don’t get to cross the pro race finish line, so instead of the famous left turn at the end of the drag, we peeled off to the right and were sent on a loop around the city for a further 10kms to reach our finish line at the Halles des Foires. The final stretch brought new life to tired legs and we slalomed down cobbled streets to reach the banks of the Meuse. But there was one more piece of drama.

Just 300 metres from the finish line we encountered the scene of an accident with a cyclist sitting on the road, dazed, but lucid with his helmet off. People were coming to his aid. Two shattering patterns could be seen on the windscreen of a car. Again, we didn’t stop. We just kept going. There was nothing we could do.

It felt special crossing the finish line, especially for Eugene, who had completed his hat trick of monuments, having also done the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix sportives in recent weeks. We were both exhausted yet exhilarated, completing the course in just over 10 hours and 30 minutes. It was an incredible journey and, having witnessed plenty of riders who were less fortunate than ourselves, we were glad we got through it unscathed. There was so much that could have gone wrong but thankfully lady luck had been smiling down on us.