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La Doyenne 2013
Words & photos by Gem Atkinson
This past weekend saw the final act of the 2013 Spring Classics. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest of cycling's Monuments, pitches riders against a brutal 260km parcours with some stinging climbs making for one of the hardest dates in the sport's calendar. And this would be my Belgian baptism, taking to the start line of the amateur 165km route on the Saturday, before observing the masterclass from the professionals on the Sunday. We were blessed with good weather and upon arrival at the HQ, a chilled and relaxed atmosphere served to calm the nerves.
The route provided some interesting juxtapositions, with the first and final kilometres weaving around the industrial outskirts of Liège, swinging by looming steelworks and foundries. What a difference an hour or so made, riding deep into the valleys of the Ardennes, where lush green fields and thick forest roll on as far as the eye can see.
Riding in small groups, the exhilaration of picking the right wheel and sharing work with a group rolling up the climbs was amazing. I had the feeling of being part of a fluid group, each working to help lessen the work for those sheltering a few wheels back. A special mention has to be made to the policewoman from Liège who, wearing Radioshack shorts, chaperoned me up the horrible kilometre of main drag around Spa that seemed to arch skywards for far too long. With nowhere to hide, she valiantly tapped out a rhythm that I was soon able to engage with, and I made to sure to thank her at the top for such a classy display.
Without doubt my favorite part of the course was the Col du Rosier, a climb of around 5km at 6% average. From the first steep hairpin, the climb winds its way seductively through the forest, and its gradient is such that, with a decent rhythm, there was the chance to glance around and drink in the surroundings, basking in the spring sunshine. A welcome feed stop came just past the crest, where waffles were stuffed into my pockets, and orange segments sucked with vigour as I zipped my gilet for the descent.
If the Rosier proved the zenith of my ride, the nadir came in the form of the Côte de La Redoute. A true battle of attrition, I found I was in my 27 cog with still so much of the tarmac to cover. I willed the bike forwards on the 9% horror, my eyes bulging at the 22% section of this fierce hill. My tired legs were now made of lead as I focused on the incessant ‘Phil’ graffiti passing beneath me on the slope. Mr. Gilbert’s fan club would amass in their droves here the next day, this climb lying close to his home patch.
The only comfort I took from riding this infamous hill came the next day, when contorted expressions similar to mine suffered up its slopes, albeit light years away in terms of speed and style. We screamed encouragement to the riders and as the race convoy passed, crowds milled onto the road down towards the beer tent to watch the remaining 40kms or so on the big screens. But the crowds parted and cheers rippled up La Redoute as a young Astana rider, Alexey Lutsenko, ground his way up through the throng of fans. Truly off the back, and relieved of his race numbers, a helping hand or two aided the young lad up the climb to find a seat on the broom wagon.
After a few kilometres rolling back towards town, the final chipped climb of the Côte de St Nicolas awaited. The clicking down of the cogs rang out as riders engaged a more suitable gear for the last categorised climb of the day. My pedals were coaxed round as my hips swung forward; battling with the gradients and picking out a clear line as riders struggled to find their rhythm. As the lactic built up to almost unbearable levels, I clutched the drops and pictured the iconic image of Frank Vandenbroucke climbing to victory here in 1999. Modestly powering up and over the crest, the sense of satisfaction was huge at conquering this formidable ascent, at 90 miles into the ride.
Regrouping at the top, I noticed almost every rider wearing Cheshire-cat grins as they began the descent on their way to the finish line. One final slog upwards awaited, the drag where Dan Martin made his decisive move the following day, powering up to Purito at the perfect moment, engaging that extra gear to push on to the finish line victorious.
I can’t help feel that, by riding the middle-distance challenge, I have unfinished business in the ‘Hardennes’. Next year, I have promised to return to the beautiful Walloon region of southern Belgium to test myself on the full 260km course. Inspired by the professionals and that indomitable woman of Portland, Cindy Lew, who, along with some equally strong Rapha folks, pulverized the full distance, a tip of the hat simply wouldn’t be enough to those brave souls taking on the full might of La Doyenne. A true Classic, indeed.
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