The Old (Laughing) Lady

We did it.

Not for the first time (last chronicled by Orwell’s own Paul O’Neill in 2014) and hopefully not for the last time, an intrepid group of Orwell’s finest completed the famous Liege-Bastogne-Liege challenge on Saturday 23rd April 2016. Chapeau to Connor Cantwell, Niall O’Leary, Shane Phelan & Eugene Dillon. Legends. I’m at the finish in Halles des Foires in Liege with Nialler & Con, having a nice Belgian beer, sitting in the sun - and then in the rain – in a state of sort of joyous pain, absorbing the atmosphere, having the craic and reflecting on the madness of the day. What are we doing here? Everyone has their own story. Me, I’m cycling with my friends in the shadows of legends and having a beer, marvelling how the professionals can do this day-in day-out for a living.

Affectionately referred to as La Doyenne (“The Old Lady”), L-B-L is the oldest of the five European one-day classics of Road Cycling, also known as The Monuments (the others being Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Lombardy). It’s an extraordinary cycling challenge for anyone. The professional route is a testing 253KM. For the amateurs it’s an even bigger challenge with a combination of distance (271KM – longer than for the professionals ) and climbing metres (4,200M). Although there are only 9 “listed” climbs on the parcours, there are at least 20 notable climbing efforts. One might be forgiven for thinking that there are no mountains in Belgium but the Ardennes Hills are lumpy. The max elevation is only around 550M - similar to Sally Gap in Wicklow – but I think it’s fair to say that there are no flat roads on the course. Everything is either going up or going down. And just to make it that bit harder for ourselves, today my travelling companions (Nialler & Con) and I decided to cycle from our hotel to the start and back again so our distance was 290km and 4,400 M of climbing.

And if that didn’t sound hard enough, the Old Lady has planned a surprise with the weather. She’s having a laugh.

Four Seasons in a day

One of the most frequently asked questions amongst our grupetto in the weeks and days leading up to the event was ‘What’s the weather going to be like?’ This has a big bearing on what gear to bring and what gear to wear (not necessarily the same thing!). Regular checking on some trusted weather Apps (Weather Pro or YR.NO) guided cool weather with a chance of sunshine, wind & rain with perhaps some scattered hail & sleet showers. Right so. Better cover every eventuality. Open suitcase and tip in Winter gear, shorts, leg warmers. That’s pretty much everything. As my Uncle Jim used to say, “better be looking at it than for it.” The big decision will be what to actually wear on Saturday morning.

Best Laid Plans….

Our original plans had us flying to Brussels early on Friday morning (April 22nd) and hiring a car to drive to Liege in good time to register (closing at 6:30pm). However, the tragedy of the Spring carnage in Brussels airport led to flight cancellations so we rebooked to Cologne/Bonn on an afternoon flight which left us a bit tight for time to drive in rush hour traffic across Germany to Belgium. Happily the flight was on time, our three bikes & bags arrived safely (never take it for granted!) so we loaded it all up into a very spacious Volkswagen Multivan and hit the road for Liege at 4pm. With Nialler at the wheel, and me spinning the discs in the front we got to the Registration with about 45mins to spare before it closed for the day. We were saddened by the untimely passing of Prince the day before and in his memory we gave his back catalogue a good rattle all the way to Liege. So many classics. Purple Rain. Little Red Corvette. Raspberry Beret. Memories of the gig in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Showing our age I suppose. Anyway, we rocked up to the registration centre and collected our registration kit (jersey number, bike number and timing chip) and souvenir t-shirt. We had also opted in advance to purchase the finishers medal. The organisers were so efficient they were distributing the medals at registration – the day before the event! Now we were morally obliged to start and complete it!

So, all registered, next task at hand was to find our hotel, build the bikes, shop for food and get dinner. The hotel (well, three storey motel) was a little out of town but easy to access and very well served by local shops & restaurants. Cheap & cheerful, there was just enough space in the room for a bed, a bathroom and a bike. There wasn’t room to swing a cat but it was perfectly suited to our needs. We checked in, found the rooms and then met in the car-park to get down to the serious business of assembling and testing our bikes. There’s always a little tension during this process – opening the bike box and hoping/finding that nothing’s been damaged, that nothing has been forgotten (bottles, pedals, wheels, helmet, etc) and that everything goes back together as it should. Happily, everyone’s build had a clean bill of health.

So, bike’s tucked up to sleep in the bedrooms, bike-boxes stored in the van, we set off to find a shop for supplies (rolls, cheese, ham, bananas, beer). Our nutrition strategy for Saturday was to carry all our own food for the day and use water-stops only, thereby avoiding the need to for too much downtime at feeding stations. With the shopping done, it was off to a nice Italian restaurant for a big pasta dinner and then bed at 11pm. Need a good night’s sleep, it’s going to be a long day tomorrow.

In the Morning

Sure enough, Saturday morning greeted us with cold & rain. Rising to the 5am alarm, we made our way to breakfast which the hotel had very generously agreed to put on very early to accommodate the many cyclists staying there. Chowing down this early in the morning is difficult. Described by one of the lads as industrial eating, for the last three months we’ve all been pretty good about diet: eating the right amount of carbs, protein, fats & drinking the right things at the right time. For the last week, there’s been more carbs & protein and less fat. For the last 48 hours more carbs and water. This morning we don’t need to enjoy it, just load in the carbs to get through the day. Porridge, bread, eggs, bananas, jam, honey, coffee, yoghurt, juice, ham, cheese – get it in. Muted conversation about gear. Consensus is full winter kit. It’s shaping up to be a typical winter weather Wicklow spin. The whole kit and caboodle – top to bottom. Hats. Winter gloves. Loads of layers. Bib tights. Overshoes. It’s raining as we leave the motel in the dark at 6am.

Just as we’re about to leave the motel, there’s drama unfolding in the car park before our very eyes. There’s a police raid on one of the motel rooms on the ground floor. They’re in in full battle dress: automatic weapons, helmets, full-size shields, bullet-proof vests, battering ram thing. It’s like watching it on TV. They have their police vehicles blocking the car park exit for cars so I’m glad we decided to cycle to the start. Inside the car park, there’s a convoy of cars full of bikes & cyclists trying to get out and drive to the start. The police are unmoved. They’re on a mission. We get out of Dodge as fast as we can. We’ve 9km to ride to the start. In the dark, cold, wet. Need to be there at 6:30am.

Le Grand Depart

A little unsure of the way to the start, we navigated using a map on a phone (hand-held rather than bar mounted) so it made for some tricky riding, especially across wet cobbles in the dark. We arrived at the start with about 5 minutes to spare and then stood in the rain and cold for 15 minutes until the race started late (it’s not a race!). The first 10km or so is ‘neutralised’ which means everyone must stay behind a lead vehicle driven by a marshal. Once the peloton reaches the start point of the professional race, the marshal drives away and the race begins. The first 10km was painfully slow and very stop-start. This is not a closed-roads event so everyone has to obey all traffic signals. Travelling through the town for 10km meant a lot of traffic lights and we struggled to warm up. The rain continued unabated. It was 2 degrees. I know I was shivering violently until we began climbing our first hill. And so we were off.

“Rule #9: If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period.”

On On

There’s a lot of jostling for position on the road as people try to find their rhythm, find their friends, find a group going at a pace that suits them. Our grupetto of 3 decided that we would stick together for as long as possible. We could review at the turning point (Bastogne) and then adjust our plans accordingly. So on we went. It’s hard to pick out anything really memorable about the terrain for the first 112km to Bastogne. The road is really undulating. It’s like to coast road from Dun Laoghaire to Arklow. Up and down, up and down. None of the climbs is really severe – there is the first listed climb of the day which is 3km long with an average gradient of approx. 6% - but it takes effort all the time. There’s a nice monument to cycling in the middle of the roundabout in Bastogne town which signifies the turning point in the LBL race. There are also lots of monuments in the area to commemorate the 2nd World War. Bastogne was strategically important because it was a point of convergence for many of the major roads in the Ardennes and was the scene of a famous siege in December 1944 between American and German armies, immortalised on the silver screen in The Battle of the Bulge. Remember Telly Savalas riding around in a tank? There are quite a few old Sherman tanks on display throughout the region. Nialler & I took our first water stop in Bastogne but Con decided to push on.

Nutrition & Hydration – getting it right – eat & drink all day, water the plants, no need to stop

Completing an endurance event like this requires physical and mental resilience. Knowing that you have the physical capability to do it makes a huge difference and that’s where the endless hours of training pay off. You have to have it in your legs, in your heart & lungs and in your head. Some days on the bike (as Kelly would say) ‘the form is good’ and other days it’s not so good. Finishing endurance events is about having the physical resilience and mental doggedness to tough it out. Nutrition and hydration are also critical to success on the day. Ideally you need to be sipping liquid every 15 minutes, finishing a bottle every hour (mix of energy drinks and electrolytes). Nibbling some food every 30 minutes is really important to keep a flow of glucose into the system. It’s easy to forget to do this, especially at the start of the event when you may feel ‘full’ and it’s easy to forget when you get tired when all you want to do is finish. A great way to have a constant reminder is to use a pouch mounted on the crossbar with the food staring at you. So that’s what we did with a nice selection of figrolls & flapjacks. In addition, we had the usual stash of gels and bars, and some tasty ham & cheese rolls all stuffed into jersey pockets. One thing I hadn’t made allowances for beforehand was how tight my rain cape would be when my pockets were so stuffed. I was certainly sporting a ‘fuller’ figure for the first six hours until I scoffed some of my stash.

Anyway, Nialler and I refilled our bottles and set off from Bastogne. Con pulled in at the next waterstop when we pushed on and so it continued all the way to the finish. We stopped just once more - at Stavelot - to refill bottles where we bumped into fellow Orwellians Eugene Dillon & Shane Phelan. We had a quick chat and then set off again – into the short section of cobbles before the climb of Haute-Levee.

Jumping someone else’s train/They're finally all the same/ 'cause everyone's jumping/ Everyone else's train

There was a huge mix of nationalities and riding styles. In an event of this duration it always helps to join forces and share the work, especially when riding into the wind or setting pace on a climb. As we were facing 160km into the wind on the return leg from Bastogne to Liege, we took every opportunity to ride in trains. Occasionally it meant being in the wind at the front of a group. Occasionally that meant bridging across to a group. Normally people take turns at this.

“Rule #67. Do your time in the wind. Nobody likes a wheel sucker. You might think you’re playing a smart tactical game by letting everyone else do the work while you sit on, but races are won through cooperation and spending time on the rivet, flogging yourself and taking risks. Riding wheels and jumping past at the end is one thing and one thing only: poor sportsmanship”

It’s agonising to put in a huge effort to bridge across and then the pace is too hot and you just get shelled out the back. It’s agonising to put in a big effort to bridge across and not quite make it so you get left in the wind but more tired than before. It’s agonising to be leading a train when a faster train passes and everyone behind jumps on that one instead of taking their turn in the one you were leading and you don’t have the legs to jump on because you’ve just completed your turn on the front. So much agony.

It would be grossly unfair to generalise and associate a style of riding with one group but I’m going to say that some of the worst behaviour on the road was exemplified by what appeared to be Italian chaps. Passing on the inside, not holding their lines through corners, not doing their turn on the wind. We encountered one particular Italian chap whose behaviour was appalling. Chap wearing a blue cape (if he’s reading this, he knows who he is). Wheel sucking leech. We called him a rude name many times. Very rude name. Very many times. In the end, we decided that Blue Cape was more socially acceptable substitute phrase for the very rude word.

The Long Road Back

Much has been written before to describe in detail every metre of every climb on the way back to Liege – which I’m not going to repeat. For the most part, these are short steep climbs. It’s not like climbing Col de Telegraphe/Col du Galibier in France that goes up more or less continuously for 32km. What’s good is that the listed climbs are well spread out. What they don’t tell you in advance is that there are plenty of other climbs in between which, although not listed and maybe not as steep, are also hard. What makes L-B-L difficult is the fact that the climbs come late in the course when the legs are heavy and the spirit may be flagging. I can distinctly remember that as we hit the bottom of Cote de La Redoute (Length 1.7km, avg gradient 9.7%, max 20%), having already done 235km, the hailstones came down with a vengeance. There was no need for that. In direct contrast, after 263km as we arrived at the bottom of the last listed climb Cote de Saint Nicolas (length 1.4km, avg gradient 7.6%, max 13%), the sun was beating down though still cold.

After the last listed descent, there’s a 6km spin to the point where the professional race finishes – including a nice steady 1km straight uphill drag of about 5% gradient - and then at the top of the hill another undulating 10km through the suburban streets to return to the start/finish point.

The Marshall Plan

My only gripe about the event was the lack of marshalling. Because it’s not a closed-roads event, it’s critical to have major junctions or dangerous road sections marshalled. There was one quite dangerous descent which was well marshalled (somewhat ironically, we saw someone who clearly ignored the marshals and crashed very badly into a ditch) but for the most part, there were very many dangerous junctions that had no marshals at all. Could Do Better.

This is the End

The facilities at the finish were great. Skoda puts a lot of effort into it. There were shower facilities and free massage available – most welcome at the end of a hard day. There were all the essential food types: Burgers, Fries & Belgian Gel Shots (that’s mayonnaise to you and me). There was no pasta which was a little surprising but wouldn’t have been my menu choice anyway. I’ve had enough clean living for the last three months. The three amigos were on the hunt for a nice steak and a bottle of red. And of course there was the Belgian beer.

So, back to my beer. We sat for a while and contemplated the day. We enjoyed the banter with the other finishers. Moments to savour. As the sun began to lower in the sky, we turned our attention to the ride home. It would be a short 9km uphill to the motel. That’s all that stood between us and a well-earned dinner and we covered the ground easily and quickly. The bikes need to be packed away but that can wait until tomorrow. Truly a Rule#5 day. Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1999.

And of course, when I got home to Dublin, there was cake!