VecchioJo goes to watch the Liège–Bastogne–Liège, amongst other things.
I’m stood on top of a hill, the sleety rain is coming in sideways, again, Jupiler beer is flowing freely, black-yellow-red flags snap damply in the wind and the same pattern is painted on the tarmac and people’s cheeks, but only where it hasn’t been washed off by the days regular showers, in both cases, the Bold Rooster is more common than the Flanders Lion, and I’ve just been given a drunken hug by Philippe Gilbert’s god-daughter, she’s even shown me her ID card to show they share the same surname and confirm some sort of provenance. It’s all glamour.
Do I even have to say I’m in Belgium?
I’m standing towards the top of La Redoute, a key climb in the Liège–Bastogne–Liège race, on the steep bit which appears to be where the Philippe Gilbert Fan Club is camped, or at least where the most drunk Belgians are, it’s possibly the same thing, and where you can hardly see the road for the “Phil” graffiti. There’s a reason for the crowd to be just that little bit partisan - Gilbert was born in Remouchamps, the town at the bottom of the hill, and they’re keen to see their local boy and most likely close relative do good, he won the L-B-L the previous year so has something to live up to. While we’re all waiting for the race to come through the boisterous crowd is chanting a cheery little song to their Philippe, drinking straight from the keg and as I’ve put €5 on Gilbert to win I have a vested interest in singing along and having a beer.
Liège–Bastogne–Liège is one of the five monuments of one day Classics alongside Milan-San Remo, Paris - Roubaix, Flanders and Lombardia, started way back in 1892 it’s often referred to as La Doyenne or “The Oldest”, or if you’re Dutch the Luik-Bastenaken-Luik, and just like the Tour de France, initiated to advertise a newspaper, in this case L'Expresse. It may not have the romance of crowd-pleasing favourites Roubaix and Ronde but it makes up for the lack of classic kudos by being significantly hillier and therefore plays to those with a different set of cycling skills to just being able to be strong enough to hang on over the cobbles. I say ‘just’. The French speaking Walloon region in the south of Belgium where the race takes place is a totally different beast to the colour-by-numbers image of Flemish Belgium that’s become such a popular part of cycling culture, the lazy lacquering a patina of faux-ruggedness onto any bike frame, jersey or tea-mug that the Flanders Lion motif is slapped onto. And while we’re there it’s probably best to not go into the potential mucky political connotations of the Lion of Flanders, especially if it’s pictured without a red claws or tongue as it’s been appropriated by an extreme right-wing movement. It’s a tiny detail but it means a lot to those that know, wear your Flanders socks away from a cycling context and you might get some odd looks. There’s also little in the way of frites and mayo and there are no cobbles, although there is beer. The landscape is totally different too, rather than the flat windswept wastes of Flanders the area around Liege is lumpy with vast forests, and the climbs are considerably longer than the short sharp bergs in the north of the country. It’s still Belgium, but not the Belgium you think you know.
Anyway, I’m standing on a hill in the rain courtesy of Ridley Bikes, for a long weekend of looking round their factory, riding their bikes and watching the 2012 Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Ridley are Belgium, according to their PR, they don’t have the heritage card to play with like other bike companies do, the germ of their business started just over 20 years ago in a garage, painting bike frames for local bike shops, and though they only became a proper bike brand in 1997 they now produce about 30,000 bikes a year concentrating on the higher-end of the road, cyclo-cross and MTB markets. What they’re lacking in heritage they certainly make up for in national pride, the black yellow and red tricolour adorns their bikes and they do all their R+D in Belgium even if their bikes are made in the Far East, something they’re very open about, because they make a very very good bike over there. Feedback from their Pro riders from the Lotto-Belisol road team and the Telenet-Fidea and Sunweb-Napoleongames cyclo-cross teams goes into each frame, and with the likes of André Greipel on the roster mashing frames along the tarmac you’d expect there to be useful pointers that us less thighed can benefit from, as does comment from team mechanics when it comes to things that might look cool on the design page but be a pain in the arse in the real world, things like internal cable routing.
Upstairs from the vast warehouse there’s a lot of graphics going on. This is where your bike will end up once you’ve finished spending too much of work’s time on the Ridley Customizer, an interactive online thing where you can play around with endless frame and graphics colours till your eyes weep technicolour blood. Carbon and alloy frames are being prepped ready for painting and stickering, rows upon rainbow rows of freshly done Ridleys fill every space, modern art splashes of paint overspray and sticker swarf decorate the corners. Workers in booths sand and spray carbon frames while others apply intricate stickers to frames with a speed of scalpel and dexterity of thumb that would have the rest of us with stumps for fingers by lunchtime.
Enough of looking at bikes, it’s time to ride them. We’ve each been assigned a Ridley Noah Fast bike for the weekend, tough gig, and after the usual not-my-bike saddle, bar and pedal fettling, tyre pumping and hacksawing integrated carbon seatmasts to fit, as you do, we’re off out on a short ride back to the hotel. Dealing with unfamiliar frighteningly expensive bikes with the brakes the wrong way round riding through an strange town not knowing where we’re going on the wrong side of the road with wobbly people we don’t really know through a heavy cloudburst that makes braking on carbon rims variable is, um, interesting. No-one dies. Just.
The next day we’re going for a 90km ride on our bikes, taking in some of the L-B-L route, getting a taste of some of the climbs, stopping off for lunch somewhere on a hill and generally noodling about and gatecrashing the Liège–Bastogne–Liège sportive for a bit. We start off from Remouchamps at the base of La Redoute where there’s the mamilian frenzy of a sportive feeding zone and we escape south along the river to experience the hills and forests of the edge of the Ardennes. It’s hilly wooded terrain, so pretty damn good for cycling, if you like climbing. The first hill of the day is a long long steady climb of a good few kilometres, made longer by not knowing where the top is, a theme that would continue throughout the day. The group splinters as we determine the pecking order, we’re men, it’s what we do, but we still politely regroup at the top, mainly because we don’t know where we’re going. It emerges that the not insignificant ascent we’ve just done doesn’t even register as a proper climb round here, oh.
The climbs here will punish the impetuous, they start off steady and encouraging to a keen climber with the temptation to keep it in a big gear and power up the grade, you’re strong if you can keep this up for any length of time because they just keep on going, there is always one more corner, there is always another bit, what looks like the top of the hill never is, and there’s usually a steep ramp in there somewhere to really crumple the legs. The typically Belgian weather we’re having isn’t helping, making the tarmac greasy furthering the need to hunch further over the bars, dig deeper with the legs all the while trying to not slip the rear tyre on the damp road. The Côte De Wanne, Côte de Stockeu, Côte de la Haute Levée, Col du Rosier, Côte de La Redoute are all on the list today and with the exception the last one you’ve probably never heard of them, which is a real shame. The short sharp cobbled climbs of Flanders hog all the Belgian limelight with their romantic rugged black and white images and in contrast the climbs of the Walloon are just hills, but that’s to dismiss them unfairly, they are wonderful hills, they are hard hills, and the wooded landscape of the Ardenne, should you get a chance to glance up from the bit of tarmac rearing up in front of your wheel, makes them such a nicer place to suffer than the empty bleakness of the north.
We stop towards the top of the Côte de Wanne where the Ridley bus is parked and take refreshment, the weather is rudely crashing past yet again and the temperature drops so we huddle where we can and wait it out in not enough clothing. Eventually it relents and with bright sunshine on wet roads, which makes the following descent an involving prospect, we pass teams of people putting arrows up for tomorrow. Our mini peloton continues up and down the hills and smiles are gradually fading from legs, no wonder this is considered one of the toughest one-day races. It’s relentless.
After the climb of the Haute Levée Belgium resorts to stereotype again and we ride into a wall of hail on a long descent, the kind that takes layers off any exposed flesh and lesser men to run whimpering for shelter. Luckily it’s a brief interlude and stops hurting just as we take a dogleg right to hurt on the Col du Rosier. The sportive route goes up here so we join the throng up the winding road through thick forest, at 4.5kms long it would be considered the headline climb of any British sportive, making it Hardcore, and Epic, over here it’s just a hill, one of many en route. At the top it’s clear that some riders in our group are flagging badly and as the temperature has shrunk to the low single digits and we’re damp and cold the decision is made to cut and run for home back down the hill and along the valley floor. Thanks to a combination of time constraints and the group consensus being that they’d had enough we miss out on the planned ascent of La Redoute to round off the day despite the warming sunshine, which is a shame. I make note, this place needs to be revisited, carry on past the easy to tick Belgian boxes of Flanders and ride something different. Thin lycra, brown with Belgian freckles is gratefully peeled off and warm clothes put on, cake is eaten.
Sunday sees an early start as we hoof it in vans to the start in Liege and a day of chasing the Pro race round Belgium. The town is a melee of cycling with team cars and fans and coaches and barriers making it bit of a free-for-all scrum.
Holy crap, that’s Jens Voigt, and Philippe Gilbert just went past, I think that was Sean Kelly, he’s won it twice, and there’s Johan Bruyneel giving an interview to anyone who will listen. We camp ourselves by the friendly Lotto-Belisol bus to see what happens. Riders hide in the bus for as long as possible and only come out to pedal off down to the sign on just to pedal straight back again. In between the safety of the bus and their bikes they look awkward, all tall and gangly and uncertain, but as soon as they’re on their Ridleys they look perfectly at home, because it is.
The start gun goes off and as soon as the Pros are on the road the square empties and we follow suit, jumping in the vans to meet the race somewhere else, these Ridley guys know their stuff and before long we’re parked on the side of the main road outside of Remouchamps and rushed down the hill just as a heavy shower hits and the peloton swishes past, even by race standards these guys aren’t hanging about, a flurry of rain splash and capes flapping in the wind and we sprint back to the transport to hurry to the next location.
Manhay, a non-descript collection of houses on a main road that just for the day is crawling with people and where the race entourage comes sweeping down a wide straight road through the village to veer off to the right, then we’re off up to the Côte de Wanne and the same corner we had lunch yesterday. There is proper Ridley hospitality going on here with other invited guest and an E-Z UP and wine and nibbles, there are worse ways to wait for the race to arrive. A once empty hillside slowly fills up with spectators and by the time the helicopters are overhead signifying the imminent arrival of the riders the road in the middle of nowhere is lined with people. Changing of gears, squealing of tyres, shouting, the last race vehicle goes past and we’re back in the vans and outside Remouchamps again, but further up the hill this time where we leap Armco and cross a field to get onto La Redoute to see the final stages of the race play out. The road is packed, there’s the usual camper-vans, flags and a field to the side has a vast TV screen and the usual beer, fast-food and wooly hat and iffy team jersey vendors. We wander up the hill and stumble into the rowdy Belgians, this is obviously the place to be.
La Redoute comes at about the 220 kilometre mark in a race of just under 260kms so is a decisive feature at a key part of the race. It starts off what might be described as if not easy but as a steady climb out of Remouchamps but it ramps up as it turns left up the hill, and then when it turns left again it gets very steep indeed. We’re stood at the top of this steep section, backs braced against the showers that are rolling in again, stealing corners of other people’s umbrellas. Proof of how steep it is shown by the forward team cars who struggle up the gradient through the gap the crowd is reluctant to cede, several stall, a Radioshack car gets a wheel stolen of the rack whilst it’s momentarily stationary, which prompts a massive cheer from the crowd and a couple of policemen to turn up a few minutes later just to calm things down a bit. The race fights past in a melee of noise, colour and drama right under our noses as Valverde struggles with his bike and panics as he waits for longer than anybody wants to for a team-mate to swap bikes with.
Excitement over we frantically regroup from our various vantage points over the hill and speed into Liege for the finish, although we don’t make it that far, having to decamp by an off-ramp on a dual-carriageway, run down a grass bank, over a couple of fences, it’s all a bit freeform this spectating lark, and find some sort of vantage point near the finish line. Despite an impressive attack from Nibali the Astana rider Iglinsky catches him with a kilometre to go to claim victory to restrained yet polite clapping from the crowd, it’s not the winner they want, and the local boy Gilbert could only finish sixteenth. From the finish line it’s a short walk to the supermarket car-park where the team buses are parked; mechanics hose down bikes and riders give interviews amongst the shopping-trolleys and mother-and-child parking bays as another shower moves in to finish the day. It’s all glamour.
Thanks to Ridley Bikes.