Phil Deeker, creator of the Cent Cols Challenge, lives in the Ardennes region of Belgium and so, fittingly, organised a mouth-watering week of riding and watching the pros race in the lowlands of Europe.
The menu was a winner: Ride the 250km Amstel sportive on Saturday, watch the race on Sunday. Ride the best part of the Flèche Wallonne on Tuesday, watch the race on Wednesday. Ride the full length (and more) of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Saturday and watch the race on Sunday. In between we would ride in the heart of the Ardennes with a Stage 2 Tour de France recce and local hardmen sportive “Criquelion”. The sum of all the parts: 1300km, 20,000m climbing, seven days of cycling at a bunch average of 27kph.
No wonder then that the places for this trek around the hilly part of Belgium were quickly filled and that the six fastest finishers (including Rapha’s Graeme Raeburn) of last years’ Cent Cols Challenge took half of them. As their ‘guide’ I was supposed to be leading them around. Apprehension was a mother of an understatement.
The riding was hard, the riders were buzzing. As Jo, our one girl in the group, said; “Belgian hills are like their beer, high in %, lots of them and after a couple you might just fall over!” But it was watching the races, having ridden the routes already that took us somewhere special.
After the Cobbled Chaos of Flanders, the Amstel was a ride in the park. Hardly surprising that all 18,000 places sold out in 30 minutes last January (whereas you could sign up on the day at Flanders): The route here explores each and every hilly bit of road in the picture-postcard southern tip of Holland known as Limbourg. It’s not an easy route, especially when following the 250km route, but it is a charming and tranquil corner of the world.
We chose the penultimate hill of the route to view the race on the Sunday, as the pros climb it twice. The helicopter hums, a few shouts go up and motorbikes cruise up the narrow lane. Then they appear. We had to climb back onto the bank to avoid the racers riding over our toes. First time round the breakaway was still clear, second time Andy Schleck was at the front and Gilbert was looking good. A bunch of serious faces held on to the leaders, then followed a procession of pain as the race took its toll on our heroes. Even Jens Voigt was battling the gradient a long way back from the action. He didn’t seem too bothered by the pain though. We then idled back down the hill to a packed local café and watched Gilbert sprint up the Cauberg, as if it was flat, to win the race. When will TV be able to show gradient on the screen?
The Fleche is all about the 700m of very steep climbing up the Mur (Wall) of Huy. We had ridden all the other climbs in the race the day before, and had of course ridden the Mur three times (four times for Mike and Tim, “The Diesel Power Duo”). The other climbs are there to suck the life out of your legs, metre by metre. Having ridden over to the race we hung out at the top of the Mur, where beer, hot dogs, tartiflette and frites were consumed as Dave Arthur’s Project One Trek (on test) caused frequent double takes.
For the 3rd ascent of this Wall of Pain though we bagged our spots at the roadside and witnessed Alberto NOT giving Cadel a Look as the Aussie fighter powered passed the Spanish doll, who did not look happy on the 3rd place podium step. We were all delighted for the World Champ
Strolling back to our meeting point, I almost bumped into the Schlecks in front of their bus as they casually explained, in a beautifully low-key way, why they had not won (again) to a handful of reporters. The accessibility of cycling…
The L-B-L is a grand race. We had ridden all the main climbs the day before and more (naturally), along with dozens of others riding the “Philippe Gilbert Sportive” (PG is from Aywaille, the town at the foot of La Redoute). Comments had been made in the group about how the first 150km were not flat at all – which is how they looked on TV…See my point above about ‘flat screen’!
The Cote St Roch with it’s 12% all the way up is the first of the Big Guns, once back from Bastogne, and it doesn’t get any easier after that brute. They keep on coming. The triple whammy of Wanne, Stockeu and Haute Levée (which the race didn’t do this year, but which we did) will push anyone into the red.
We drank coffee in the sun outside my house as the race came by at km 55. Riders were chatting, even though they had just come up a half-proper climb. The breakaway had come through eight minutes earlier, but no one who was anyone seemed in a rush this early on. We waved with infantile enthusiasm as pro cycling worked its magic on us once again. The caravan, complete with flying bits of plastic freebies, had transformed our tranquil village into Party-Town-for-all-ages for a few brief minutes.
In Stavelot we sipped more coffee and talked through the route as the race made its winding way towards us. Beside us in the café the ‘Belgian Carlos Sastre Fan Club’ in their red t-shirts were sinking beers before their hike up to the top of the Stockeu, or as far as they could make it.
The Stockeu is stupidly steep in places, and the road surface has been due a skinning job for a decade or two, so you don’t tend to pedal very fast up it (except for the Diesel Duo). We sat on the verge where both gradient and road surface are frightening, and waited for the helicopters. I crouched on a small grass verge and snapped away as the break came through first, followed sharply by Jens, on some kind of solo mission to bring it back – who else but Jens would accept an order like that? Typically his determination looked greater than his pain.
The peloton soon appeared en masse round the steep corner below and I found myself making a fast retreat into the stream in the ditch as they weaved and searched for every possible bit of road to use to get up the 20% section. A rider or two got a push from a fan to help him stay upright. The change in their faces from couple of hours before told of what they had been through and of what they knew was still to come. I don’t need a hero of mine to wave at me or smile. To see him deal with the pain right in front of me means so much more.
On the road up the La Redoute there was no room left for any other name than “PHiL” but even this wasn’t enough for a home win. Thousands of cheering fans helped him up the brutal climb, yet another in this pitiless race, as he honoured their support with a brave show of power up the hill he first climbed as a boy. 35kms later he came in fourth, behind two more ‘controversial’ riders…There’s always next year, Phil. It’s in my diary already.