When Phil Arundale did the Tour of Flanders – I was a bit cheesed off that I didnt get an invite.
This year, I find out that he had booked me onto the L-B-L (Liège–Bastogne–Liège) challenge.
You can imagine the deep joy when I looked at the website to discovered that it is 173 miles, and 4,000m+ of climbing. That was enough to focus my mind on training all the way through winter.
Between January and April I managed to put in around 3000 miles so that I went into the event feeling fairly fit, having done mostly zone 2 and 3 training – with a couple of rides over the 100 mile mark.
The weekend of the race arrived, and Phil arrived in our disguised bike-mobile of the Arundale’s Fruit van with racking for five bikes in the back. A great design for a bike van – who would think to look in the back of a fruit and veg van for £20k of Cervelo‘s!
My bike is loaded into the van, and off we go to meet up with Simon, Richie and Martin – before heading down to the Chunnel to spend the night in Travelodge with all the delights that cheap Indian food can bring somewhere near Folkestone.
Having travelled down together Martin chooses this moment to tell us that he has been ill with a stomach bug and the runs for an entire week – that and it’s going to just be white rice for him!
A quick trip through the Chunnel greeted us in the morning, before a blast across Belgium and France to the Roubaix Velodrome where Phil and I meet back up with Simon Martin and Richie – already in the Roubaix clubhouse drinking beer. Obviously, it would have been rude not to join them.
Getting changed into our cycling kit, we grabbed our bikes and rode into the Velodrome. No gates, no guards, no charge. It’s strange how a stretch of banked concrete can make your hair stand on end when you know what has gone on there.
A few slow laps, and a few quick laps followed. Taking care to avoid the glass bottles that had been thrown down the banking, before back into the van and car and on to Liege.
We drive straight into signing on. The organisation is impressive. Banks of booths for signing on – where on completion you are presented with your finishers t-shirt and medal (which seems a bit of a cheat really!). When I say it was well organised – there were hundreds of porta-loo’s…. which Martin predictably made use of.
Having checked in – we noted (thinking that will come in handy tomorrow) a 200m long bar (as you do), wandering off we found a small tabac where we organised some more beer and orange juices for Simon and Richie and some croque monsieur which seemed to take an eternity – I think the girl may have actually made the bread!
Off to find the hotel. It looked it had been firebombed from the front: Doors missing, boarded up windows… but once we were inside it was reassuringly all very plush. We made ourselves at home in our rooms, up on the fourth floor, with no opening windows and poor air con (due to the suicide view) – before heading down to carboload for the next day.
The hotel recommended a pizza restaurant and drew a map for us – “Turn left out the door, walk 100m, turn right, and there is the Pizzeria.”
Fortunately for us, not only were the instructions correct – but there was a rather nice restaurant next door to the pizzeria. In we went, lovely meal, Martin got very friendly with the waiter, and I busied myself with a lovely steak washed down with a liter of red wine. Proper classics carbo loading.
Heading down to the restaurant the sun was cracking the flags, a really hot evening… however, here we were on the other side of our meal, making our way back, and drops of rain were starting to fall.
Despite Phil’s best efforts with his snoring and the stifling temperature – I slept well. Earplugs were no good – he snores so loudly the whole room vibrates. However when you combine these with the litre of red wine – the outcome was favorable.
The five o’clock alarm sounds, and we are planning to ride at 0630.
There is a five mile ride into the start, before we take on the 173 miles of the course.
I look out the window – and it is dark. I thought to myself “that cannot be rain” – and I was right – it was a Monsoon! Water is bouncing off of the rooflines, there are massive puddles everywhere – but we have traveled so far we have to go.
So it is on with the cycling kit. Arm warmers, leg warmers, Gabba – and then goretex over the top, then down to the restaurant for breakfast.
Did I mention we were planning on riding at 0630? I get to the van at around 0620, cycling shoes on, climb in to shelter from the elements, and wait. Eventually the rest of them start coming across and continue faffing around until around about 0650.
We then get on the bikes and make our way to the start for around 0710, when Martin decides that he needs the toilet. Again.
Talking with some of the guys from the Attack cycling club Amsterdam while I am waiting. I met these guys whilst at train in in Spain – and was hoping to ride with them again today, however some had already left, and the rest appeared to be faffing more than we were.
0729 came into view. Martin is now safe, and good to go. So we make our way to the start and off. The rains ease off a little – now down to a mild persistent drizzle – but still not warm. I am thinking the start will be a quick one, so despite the cold, the coat is off now.
Martin and Phil are off. There is no looking back. No wondering where I am. It seemed only right to give chase. After about 20 minutes the reality is dawning on me “come on guys we have 160 miles to go – we cannot keep this pace up” – so we settle back into a more manageable pace, with the three of us working together.
It has been said on this ride that “you have to feel like you have not started by the time you get to Bastogne.” – Bastogne is about 110km from the start – as I look down and check my Garmin as Martin decides he needs to the toilet again – and it is apparent that even though there have been no categorized climbs – we have already done 1,800m of climbing. Further more I do feel like I have been riding. I feel like I have been riding over some gnarly little buggers, up and down through the wind and rain all morning.
As we turn, we turn more into the headwind. This leg takes us across before we start to head back towards Liege. There are some lovely houses, some nice trees, good forests, but few views manage to take your mind off of the wind and rain. ….and THEN come the categorized climbs.
There are nine. I will not name all of them – mainly as I do not remember their names … but I do remember the Col De La Rosier.
Just 13km after the last feed is a timed climb. We ride down to it, turn right and hit a 20% ramp that just goes on and on. On getting to the top you are rewarded with a video camera, videoing your face as you grind up this incline into the wind and rain into the last corner, before turning left and descending down down down, to the bottom of the climb – emerging about 20m from where you started.
Did I mention that Martin had been stopping at feed stations to go to the loo? Well, just before the Cote de La Haute-Levee he stopped at the feed station. I stopped with him, and Phil – well Phil rode on. Whilst Martin was in the toilet again – I was feeding my face with honey waffles and honey biscuits at the feed station. The problem was – at this time I had not realised that this feed station was at the bottom of a (wet) cobbled climb – so as we came out there was no choice but to go flat out for the next 500m before the climb leveled off at around 4 or 5% for the next 4km. We are about 200km into the ride and I feel awful. Blood digesting food not powering legs!
My power output is down. My legs are aching. My head is aching. Martin is trying to ride away from me. Phil, has not stopped. Martin is now fretting that if Phil beats us we will never hear the last of it.
I just dig in. I dig in and start on the shot blocks.
Within half an hour my legs start to come back.
Another 20km you have the Cote De La Redoute – one of the most famous climbs of the L-B-L. Lined with camper vans ,beer tents, and people shouting, it is a 20% climb – that after 150 miles – I am surprised we were able to ride up it.
Passed the Col Redoute to the next feed station at Sprimont. Phil is there, just coming out -looking a bit sheepish that he dropped us and went on alone. Feeling a little better now it was time to make him suffer!
That would be suffer for the second time – at around 120km we hit the first of the categorized climbs, and Phil went backwards… muttering “I am a shit rider I am”…. Only too glad to respond “yes, yes you are. Man up and get on with it” 😀 This time Martin and I start to pile the pressure on. We start working together again – pulling back group after group after group.
By this time the weather had been improving. Descending now, at about the 230km point, the wind and rain really swept in again as we headed back towards Liege and the last two timed climbs. My pacing seemed to have worked well – and putting out the same kind of power on the last two climbs, as I was putting out over the first two, and I felt strong. It was oh so very good to see Phil and Martin start to suffer.
After 264km we arrived at the official pro finish. Only another 9km to go before we could climb off our bikes, and head to the bar for a well deserved beer.
Having got to the finish – I felt this was the best sportive I had done, even though the conditions were terrible. I had also gone harder than I had done in any previous sportive. Moreover I had achieved my personal goal of being under 11hours –10:00:30 with my pacing right, and still feeling strong at the end.
One beer was enough to make my head spin.
Early to bed that night. Not much sleep. Phil’s snored like a Trojan.
The next day it is off to watch the pro-race. Martin’s idea is to get the train. This should be no problem, as our hotel is around 100m from the beautiful Liege TGV station… but no, of course not, our train does not go from there.
Whilst Phil gets a lift with Billy, who is going home that day – and driving towards where we were planning on going we start walking to find the other station. In the rain. Did I mention that it rained while we were in Belgium?
Well we walked, and we walked, and we even found some railway tracks – but no station.
Martin then announces that despite using Google Maps – we are probably walking the wrong way. The station is in the other direction. Cursing ensues, and all manner of new names for Martin are uttered, before heading back another 30 mins to somewhere not all that far from our hotel and Liege Station. At this point the suggestion “lets get a taxi to where we want to go” surfaces.
Phil phones back to let us know where we were planning on going has no screen, no beer tent, nothing. So, as we get into the taxi (Simon’s car as he has no intention on paying for a taxi) we decide to drive to Redoute where we found beer tents, frites, big screen, and finally some sunshine. Happy days.
The beers. You have to buy beer tokens. Naturally it seems wrong to buy less than ten, so we all chuck a few into the kitty, and start on the beers and frites. Phil at this point heads off and starts chatting up Phillip Gillbert’s mum trying to get a free t-shirt with surprising success.
Eventually the race starts on the big screen. Watch it coming up towards us the publicity caravan as you would see for the Tour de France is throwing out lots of sweets – so there is a fair amount of scrabbling going on… and then the riders come.
It seems there had been a crash at the bottom of the climb before… so the peloton is now split up. The impressive thing to see was the pain etched deeply into the riders faces.
I knew how they felt, I had ridden up there the day before.
15000 ft climb