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23rd April 2011
We rise at 4.30am and after a dip into a bowl of muesli, we’re on our way over to Ans, just northeast of Liege, to start our final hat-tipping to the big men of the classics.
Smart organisation by ASO/Golazo at the military complex where the sportive starts and finishes means that by, 6.30am, we plunge down into Liege in a quickly formed peloton. The city still sleeps as we follow the race arrows of the ‘neutralised section’. The air is fresh but there are no regrets at leaving gilet and arm warmers in the van. It’s going to be a hot day. Again.
We have a Big Belgian Beast (BBB) on the front of our 25-strong peloton; he is quite clearly ‘The Boss’. His legs are an anatomy lesson on a bike, with bulging veins leading the eye from one set of muscles to another. We have found a serious bunch but Ben and I decide we can handle it. Anton chooses the more sensible option and waits for a more sedate group to come along.
TV coverage rarely shows the race as it makes its way down to Bastogne but this ain’t because it’s a dull one. The road rolls up and down non-stop and the iconic St Roch climb in Houffalize offers a sobering warning of what’s to come when the rollers hand over to the ramps. Ben rips it up with the power climbers, the 11% gradient lasting long enough for him to work them all over. I follow from a safe distance, amused at the looks Ben gets.
We arrive in Bastogne after an average speed of 30.5kph and which my legs clearly aren’t happy about. I make a tough choice to let the group go, knowing I will be riding a long hard straight road back to Houffalize solo. But I want to have legs left for the proper climbing that’s all packed into the last 90 kilometres. Within minutes the group is out of sight. On the drops, head down, my legs now comfortable, I settle into my own world and smile at life.
The Wanne-Stockeu-Haute Levée trio of ascents kick my climbing legs into gear as the true nature of this gruelling race reveals itself. It is the hardest classic by a long shot. It is also, we agree later, the best one to ride: the Rosier and the Maquisard show off the beauty of the Ardennes; the Mont (Theux) climb is an ugly, busy, thankless stretch of straight 10% tarmac; La Redoute is buzzing and we could almost be at Le Tour, the sunshine, camper cars, banners, beer and road graffiti. The soul of the race is right here. And of course it’s Big Phil Gilbert’s hometown, which helps.
By now, I begin to pick off riders from our morning peloton (with some satisfaction, it has to be said). Riders are, unsurprisingly, looking less tidy than they had done earlier in the day. On the second part of the Roche Aux Faucons I catch a pair of locals. “C’est dur, non?” one says, which roughly translates as: “Hard, innit.” I nod. “Le Grand?,” he asks, “The Big One?,” referring to the long distance. I nod again. Respect is acknowledged. We chat a bit then I go on, I’m feeling good.
I catch another rider I recognise from the morning as we weave our way through the dilapidated industrial wastelands of Liege. People live and work here but you’d never think so. The official race arrows are our only reassurance that we’re not being led into some local bike-jacking ambush. The rider yells ‘Assos Man’ from head to toe and he looks vulnerable. The St Nicolas climb is approaching. It’s time for the Monochrome Match, my all white and black Rapha ensemble versus his Assos equivalent. The St Nicolas is a quite extraordinary climb. Children, while not wearing rags, are begging for money along the route. A handful of the parked cars look roadworthy but most don’t. What a way to finish such a race. After the lush beauty of the Ardennes, the urban grime and poverty adds a real sense of drama. The next day, Phillipe Gilbert will show the Schleck brothers who the boss is round here, in great and understated style. But right now, Assos Man is making a move. I go with him and can hear his panting. Time to change up a gear. Or is it? I’ve never ridden this climb (I’d never dared come here on a posh bike) and maybe I’ve gone too early? My legs let me chug away and as I listen to the silence behind me I realise my man is cooked. I charge through the six kilometres to the final climb, a one-kilometre uphill finish that is extremely hard to spot on TV. Assos Man is threatening to come back for more, at least he’s worked a bit to come back. But with the finish in sight I don’t hear him again. Victory is mine; the beauty of the sportive is that you can always win your own race-within-a-race.
Ben Lieberson had come in 20 minutes earlier, with tales of suffering and his own victory. He had reduced our peloton to just three after the Rosier and had brought them in with the help of Matthias, a fine rider who will be the first Belgian to ride the Cent Cols Challenge later this year. Bravo Ben.
The next day we parked the Mobile Cycle Club truck on the Maquisard and became part of history. Gilbert’s win was the fulfilment of his own childhood dream and the crowning moment of a unique month for Belgian cycling. That night, Ben and I were in the big tent hosting the Phil Gilbert fan club, at the foot of the Redoute, to witness the celebrations. From the moment Big (Super-Modest) Phil arrived in a humble Lotto team car to the moment he stepped up on to the tent’s stage, the noise was deafening. You would have thought Belgium had won the World Cup. Gilbert tried to say a thank-you but couldn’t make himself heard above the crowds singing his name. It was a real goose-pimple moment. The standing/singing ovation went on for twenty minutes. No words. Just pure emotion, pride and respect, all shared by a packed, and quite drunk, crowd of faithful local supporters. It was a privilege to be there and the best possible way to end an unforgettable month of classics.
Having driven back home a little later than planned, Ben and I had a quick supper, packed our bikes and set off for Oostende, where we still had a Paris-Brest-Paris BRM 300km qualifier to ride. Reaching the ride start, we slept in the van for two and-a-half hours before setting off, with a small group of wacky audax type riders at 6am. No replica team jerseys here but boy, could they ride. We took our places in a fast group of 15 riders and were a bit taken aback by the 35kph average. Another Big Belgian Beast was on the front. Leaner than Saturday’s BBB, this one looked like he could go on until the road ran out. He stayed on the front for the whole ride, apart from very brief turns from others (I managed three short ones.) Once our group had slimmed down to six, we could chat a bit. The BBB was using this ride for training, ahead of an attempt on the record for the fastest time around France. An established coastal/mountain route with control points, it was a 5,000-kilometre round trip he hoped to do in 12 days. On the PBP qualifier, we averaged 32.5kph over 300km, the fastest ride I personally have ever done. Back in Oostende, we bought the BBB a few drinks. If it’s true what they say, that in Flanders you can never hide from that wind off the North Sea, he probably deserved a full barrel.