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Photos: Andy Belfrage, Phil Deeker, Joe Hall
A little after 7am, and after just five hours sleep, we straddled our bikes under dark grey skies and rode out from the centre of Liège. Over the ‘roof’ of Belgium and back again, we returned almost 11 hours later; cold, wet, hollow and hungry. Two hundred and seventy kilometres, with over 4,000m of climbing, it was the longest of the three route options of the Doyenne Classique sportive. I saw a rider with number 10,400. It was hard to understand why, rather than rolling over in bed that morning when the alarm went off, another 10,399 riders had also registered.
What is harder to understand is why James Fairbank (Rapha), Gerald Moser (Rapha Condor Club) and myself had returned from this ride smiling; and more than that, collectively picking out our best moments. It wasn’t simply food for our egos. We had proved, I think, that we could be ‘hardmen’ and we could certainly tell tales of pain endured. We had ridden reasonably fast under testing conditions. And we were overtaken fewer times than the number of still-numb fingers on my left hand. It was something far more subtle than simple pride or a sense of achievement. It was something about taking part in a version of the oldest, and possibly toughest, Spring Classic of them all.Perhaps it was because, as they hauled themselves over the Stockeu or La Redoute, we had watched the pro race just inches away from our heroes.
On Sunday, 60km into Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as the pro peloton came over the brow of the hill and past my house, we could hear the gaggle of light conversation before we could even see the riders.
One hundred-and-eighty clicks later, when we caught the race for the second time, Nibali was crunching Gilbert’s legs in front of us as the chase for victory was on at the top of the Roche aux Faucons. It was hard to believe that it was the same bunch of riders. Gilbert was being put to the sword but still managed a smile (or was it a grimace?) to his fans.
The stragglers were grateful for our support, vocal and physical, acknowledging it with brief, thousand-yard stares. They were running on empty – and probably had been for a while. But in those few seconds, as simple fans on the roadside, we could connect intimately with the kings of our sport. Their suffering was palpable.
Not just because we, too, had experienced our legs and minds burning as we fought our way up the same roads the day before. But because of the simple but total sense of exhilaration that results when sheer effort triumphs over pain.
When I ride, when I’m tested by tough gradients, distance or just the wheel I am trying to follow, all my senses become extremely intense. Everything on the bike has to feel right: the bar tape; the saddle; the sounds of the chain over the cogs; the bite of the brakes; and of course, the pedals. Similarly, every part of my body is demanding attention. I have to measure how hard I push on my thighs (because it is still a long way home). I need to feel some pain - pain is my gauge.
Managing it is the key. When cycling just under threshold one almost feels elegant. The upper body is relaxed, the ankles rotate smoothly, and your torso is held low and compact. These are the good times, the moments of grace. They come and go, interrupted by moments of extreme effort, when body and bike are just fighting each other. Or those moments when your body temperature sinks dangerously low, edging your numbed mind and muscles towards a state of abandonment and the impression that finally it is time to give up.
To go in to and come through these dark moments – ‘pits’, as James calls them – seems the only way to discover the pure, simple joy of cutting through the air at speed on your bike, of keeping a perfect line though a corner, or of topping a hill without a fight.
I need to feel this love for my sport, since I choose to suffer on my bike. We all do. You have to. To test this by spending ten hours out in atrocious weather is perhaps not necessary for everybody but the three of us arrived back in Ans, above Liege, knowing that we had shared something very special.
- The team also racing the Ras in Ireland this week. Currently Aaron Buggle is the team's top placed rider in 15th overall.
- Tour Series resumes tonight in Stoke on Trent. RCJ line up is House, Clancy, McCallum, English and Mellor.
- Arboretum → http://t.co/cJXOyDWnK0 #raphasurvey #sanfrancisco #sf #cycling
- There are still a few of these sweet Rapha + Raeburn jackets at the SF @raphacycleclub. http://t.co/C2d98yCRL0
- The hills above. #raphasurvey http://t.co/jlIkXowxyT
- U23 winner in 2012 what's in store for @RichHandley90 in the @anpostras http://t.co/xyZWX3NbtG
- Sunday morning race day, church car park scene. @anpostras #ras2013 http://t.co/2E1UlfAxhe
- Will all these numbers be able to wear the coveted t-shirt in one weeks time? #menoftheras #ras2013 http://t.co/ai1oqnDIyh
- Team about to start the @anpostras probably the Worlds friendliest race.
- RT @nedboulting: Kristian House's Grandad was a fantastic man. He told me about him once. Then I read this: http://t.co/ZCeYbm4sFU