*Words by Phil ‘the Goat’ Deeker | Photos by Claire Deeker*
There is definitely a bit of goat in me – a road winding its way up a hillside holds an irresistible attraction. I used to keep goats, as did my dad. They are stubborn, free-spirited creatures and the most athletic of all domestic farm animals. You only have to watch young goat kids shoot up steep banks then twist their rubbery bodies as they throw themselves to the ground below. If you didn’t already know, goats are great descenders but it’s a reputation that rarely fires the imagination; somehow Paolo Savoldelli, the young Italian rider whose daredevil descending has earned him the sobriquet ‘the falcon’, wouldn’t seem nearly as glamorous if he were known as Paolo the goat.
I used to walk my own goats in the hills and loved to watch the cunning, agile technique with which they made their way to the highest places. Something always seems to attract them upwards. I genuinely feel the same thing on a road bike. No matter how hard the climb, there is something indefinable that drives me on as I get ever nearer to the top. Although it is satisfying to look back down at the view below, the summits above hold a far greater fascination. To try and explain the attraction is difficult; it is not a complicated process, certainly not an intellectual one. A rock climber has a far harder time finding his chosen way upwards but some things, thankfully, are better left unexplained.
Once at the top of a climb I am thinking of the thrills – and possible dangers – of the descent that awaits. I am receptive to the beauty around me, of course, but I’m not bathing in the glory of my achievement. That has all happened on the way up: when there were moments of doubt; when the sweat was blinding me; when I was dropped; when the pace slowed and my legs felt heavier with each pedal stroke; and when I didn’t give in.
I am fortunate to have ridden up many long climbs alongside other riders, sharing this very private sensation. It’s a state of grace, of happiness, that is fleeting. One moment you’re celebrating the feeling of your body being a perfectly attuned to your bike and your surroundings; the next you’re questioning the whole time-consuming, not to mention, expensive process that led to you grovelling up this steepest of inclines. There’s no real need to do so, I mean, why kick oneself in the nuts? Yet it’s this inner battle that I love and with so many vertical miles now behind me, I like to think I’ve become somewhat hardened.
At this time of year, Europe’s high mountains still slumber under a blanket of snow. To find, in April, hills long enough to simulate the European giants is difficult for most of us. Yet the lower slopes, which are largely snow-free year round, are not to be underestimated. For a good measure of the state of your climbing legs this spring, La Doyenne Classique is as good as it gets. The sportive version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for which Rapha has designed a range of commemorative products including the official jersey, the full route of 270kms will give you the ultimate understanding of the charm of this oldest of Monuments.
Even the shorter version (at 155km and which includes all the ‘finale climbs’) will provide an unforgettable day out. I ride these hills as often as I can in spring and never tire of doing battle with them. The first 160 km have more than a few notable bumps, including one that brings the race past my front door. But it is really at the Cote de Wanne, which always feels longer than the three kilometres it actually is, that the race starts to bite. With the exception of a couple of 10% ramps, it’s a climb that, although hardly punishing, will open up your chest, lower your pace and remind you why this race is considered such a special Spring Classic. Stavelot is just a fast descent away, and it’s here where things begin to get really serious.
Indeed, residents of the first 500m of the Stockeu never fail to be amused to see amateur cyclists frantically changing down from top to bottom gear in one hit as they turn to face the wall previously hidden by a sharp right-hander. I rode it once beside a Belgian ‘power boy’ who was grinding his way up on a 42/25. Surprisingly, neither chain, knees nor back snapped but at the top he was reduced to a crumpled mess, collapsing over his bars as he waited for me. The Eddy Merckx ‘stèle’ at the top gives the climb the iconic status it richly deserves.
Some horribly knobbly cobbles make the climb up through Stavelot harder still but then the smooth surface of the Haute Levée is hardly better news. The straight road uphill, which takes you up close to the Spa-Francorchamps F1 circuit, is a cruel kilometre with nowhere to hide. Fortunately, the Col du Rosier, next up on this multi-course menu of climbs, makes up for the ugliness of the Haute Levée. It is what the Ardennes does best, a winding, wooded climb of about five kilometres which, unlike the steeper climbs it is sandwiched between, allows legs and lungs to find some sort of rhythm.
The Maquisard and then the Theux (essentially Haute Levée, part two) prevent the legs stiffening up before it’s time to attack the famous Redoute. A strange start to this one, as it climbs first under, then alongside, a motorway slip road before hanging a left and going semi-vertical. The camper vans will line the road on the eve of the race; this is Big Phil Gilbert’s home climb and always has the best atmosphere on the course. After the steepest section, the 22% that arrives mid-climb, the last few hundred metres refuse to get much easier and this is where the most successful attacks are often made. If Eddy had not already broken clear by the Stockeu, it was here he moved to crush any aspiring contenders still hanging on his wheel.
A flattish ride along a plateau follows, allowing a break to stay away, at least until the sweep down to Esneux brings riders to the foot of the ‘youngest’ of the L-B-L climbs, the Roche aux Faucons. The climb through the houses to the top is never less than 10% and often steeper. And then there’s the top. Which, it turns out, isn’t actually the top at all. The short descent would fool anyone on their first time here but when the road pitches upward again, 500m later, it is a stern test of just how much, if anything, is left in the legs. The view down to the riverside industrial mess that is Liege tells you there is only the Côte St Nicolas to find some energy if you still have plans to conquer. The Brothers Schleck tried a move on Gilbert here in 2011, but this is the type of climb on which Big Phil is untouchable.
For the rest of us, however, it means simply another bottom-gear battle. But take heart. Summon your inner goat, remember the end is near, and remember, too, that this is one climb that will concede to determined legs. That just leaves the run (up, obviously) to the finish line at Ans, which is only tough if there is a result at stake. Which there usually is, even if you are only trying to beat yourself. Maxime Monfort, our second local hero, now lives and trains in Nice during the winter but still says he prefers the roads (and climbs) of La Doyenne to any others. Call it sentimental attachment but I can relate to that. The Belgians are a nation steeped in racing history. So many champions have given so much on these roads and we all leave something of ourselves behind on these climbs. They demand that we do. No one could call them spectacular but the goat in you will absolutely love them.