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La Flèche-Wallonne sportive
19th April 2011
After the Dutch cycle-fest last Saturday at Valkenburg, the low-key Flèche sportive seemed almost like a club run. A couple of flags helped us find the sports hall in a residential suburb of Andenne. For a mere five euros, we signed up with several hundred others. The organisation was perfect, enthusiastic and caring. I was joined by Rapha Mobile Cycle Club’s roving supremos Ben and Anton and myself rode out under clear blue skies and soon hitched ourselves to a tidy group of local riders. There was a bit of Flemish banter going on, too, but most of the riders were wearing local club jerseys which gave the ride a distinctively friendly feel.
I used to think, like many, that the Flèche was only about the Muur. The race always looks that way, the podium places only vaguely predictable over the last 300 metres of the race. Gradients are invisible on TV. Ride the route, from where it crosses south of the Meuse river, and you will understand just how strong those riders are when they hit the Muur for the last time. By the time we hit it – for our first and only time – our legs were already lacerated.
We had, naturally, chosen the longer of two signposted routes, 145 kilometres along quiet rural roads, past numerous chateaux and ‘chateaux-fermes’: clearly many of the farmers round here have had abundant harvests down the generations. In the first part of the ride the odd, short nature of the climb interrupted our cyclo-tourism. But as Ben commented at the first feed, “We’ve been chugging along, ‘cos it’s never actually been flat!” I check my Garmin and see that he’s right, an average of just over 30kph so far is high enough. The next 50-kilometre section of the ride dishes out more of the same, and I do mean more. The Flèche is the perfect link between the Amstel and Liege. From the short, berg-type climbs of the Dutch Limbourg region to the very real Ardennes climbs such as the Rosier and the Roche aux Faucons (not forgetting the vicious Redoute), the Flèche climbs of the Condroz region sit neatly between the two. Some can be ridden in the big ring, even by us mortals. It proves a tough course but only because we tend to ride these climbs fast (for us, that is). We can’t help it and the sheer number of them gives our route just under 2,000 metres of climbing, just half of Liege’s ‘up’. And, naturally, much of that is in the last stages of the race route.
On the Cote d’Ereffe, we became part of a particularly serious group of riders. It’s the penultimate climb in the pro race loop between the second and third time up the Muur and it was then that I got a tap on the shoulder from my local bike shop owner. He rode up smoothly beside me on his Project One Trek, Di2 ‘n all. I held him in line all the way up the climb while up the road Ben left the whole group in his wake. At least Ben made me feel faster, if only because I was wearing the same Rapha jersey. Said local bike shop owner was impressed. At the top of this deceptively difficult three-kilometre climb we quickly reformed as we prepared for the fast run-in to Huy, the final battle.
Gel tops flew out of mouths as riders chewed nervously on the energy they would need for the Muur. I’d loved to have joined them but although I had a gel somewhere in a back pocket, as we flew down towards the sharp hairpin before joining the main road, there was no way one of my hands was leaving the bars. As our determined dozen or so riders arrived in Huy, the traffic thought best to let us through. We swung a fast right at the roundabout and got ready.
Still riding beside me, my bike shop man confessed he “was dead”. In an attempt to show solidarity I replied, “me too.” Once we forked right, to where the proper Muur climb starts, every man was left to fight his own battle. To try and keep on a stronger wheel is nigh impossible; everyone has to climb at their max. To envisage putting on a ‘spurt’ is pure illusion. I had told Ben to wait until the S-bend and then really go, which was probably a bit cruel. He had to just “volle-gas” from the start and then hang on in there until the top. He pulled it off, too. Respect. I pushed my lungs and legs to their own limits, maybe a bit beyond, because I knew I had a “dead man” breathing down my back and there was no way he was going to get to the top first. At the top, bike shop man, Di2 ‘n all, was beaten. That was all that mattered to me. We shook hands and promised a rematch soon.
Having pushed hard on a climb that is so hard even without trying to beat someone else, I was almost as breathless watching Philippe Gilbert power away from his own “dead men” in the pro race. If he could only go on and win in Liege it would make him the first Belgian to do the triple of Ardennes classics. It would be an emotional moment, probably enough to bring tears to my eyes. But I won’t be the only one.