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WORDS & PICTURES: Phil Deeker
To attend to things in life that do not revolve around the magical machine is probably quite essential to my general physical health and to what’s left of my questionable sanity. Nevertheless, before I realise it, weeks disguised as days have slipped by and two months disappear without any saddle contact. I reason to myself that I am no pro and that it must be good to ‘have a break’. But also promise my guilt-ridden conscience that training will begin in earnest after New Year’s Day.
Given that we live at an altitude of 500 metres, which in Belgium is where oxygen levels in the air tend to drop dramatically, and where Flandrian roadies come to remind themselves what a long hill feels like, January is not the best of months to get base miles in. February is usually not much better either but I have just ‘lost’ two months, so the situation has become urgent.
Two days before the Liege-Bastogne-Liege passes in front of our house the road is swept smooth and clean for Gilbert, Evans, Wiggins & co. But that is the end of April. Now it’s early January and it’s white, icy and very tricky to cycle on. Since there is “no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”, and since getting out there in the ‘dark’ months is where one discovers the soul of our sport, I’ve got to get outside.
Embrocation is applied to help awaken sleepy winter legs, the formula baselayer + long sleeve jersey + softshell jacket is then added, which has been thoroughly tested in -5°C to -8°C conditions; and deep winter tights to block ALL cold out. Then feet and hands are wrapped in three layers too and the head gets winter cap and neck-warmer (brought up over mouth to ‘warm’ the air before it cuts into my lungs). A bidon full of hot tea laden with molasses (I never get thirsty but force myself to drink) and I am away.
I wobble my way along the ice until arriving at a road that has been salted and I start the body heat pump working. I say a little prayer to the Kevlar God (a puncture remains my nightmare in these conditions) and cut through the icy air. It’s exhilarating, liberating and painful.
No motorists give me a strange look. Cycling, even in the winter, is the norm here. In fact I am often given a friendly gesture of admiration. My neighbour told me recently that his ten-year-old son has just joined a local club and in winter has six hours of ‘theory homework’ per week on riding in a peloton, drafting, echeloning, etc. Need I say more?
I recently read wise words somewhere about training being good for you if you come back feeling you could do more. I liked this and use it as a good reason to keep rides to around 60kms. Round my way that means nearly 1,000m of climbing, so after two hours I am ready to come in and hug the wood stove. I have managed two 200km rides in January this year, however, since the daunting prospect of Paris-Brest-Paris doesn't leave my mind for long. When the weather was forecast dry and temperatures were promised to creep up close to zero, I added some longer distance rides to my programme.
I can find many ‘walls’ around here to spice up a ride, but in January I choose the long drags. Later in the year I will try to sprint up them, relatively speaking. This is an area for the power climbers and has produced current stars Philippe Gilbert, Maxime Montfort and Sebastien Rosseler (who kindly acknowledged my determination with a thumbs-up, dressed in his new Radioshack kit, when we crossed paths on a snowbound road last February).
I never feel alone on these roads, the aura of the spring and summer races lingers, even in the bitter cold. The almost ghostly presence of the riders gives purpose and reassurance that I am not totally mad. All miles put in now will make it easier in spring. Still it hurts though.
Having managed to battle through a harsh January, February this time round is looking to be a lot kinder. I feel perkier too. Time to fling the old winter bike at some Belgian walls. First up is usually the Mur d’Huy. It’s a 50km warm-up ride over to Huy and then I prepare myself for the obligatory three rounds with the Wall.
It’s literally a gritty climb this time and I have to climb it sitting down for traction on the back wheel. First time up the breathing is OK. Legs could be better. I top ‘n drop by hanging a left after the café at the top and coasting back down the main road to the town centre.
Second time the front wheel lifts as I go through the steepest, 22% S- bend section. I have to stand for a while even if the occasional downward leg push seems to send me backwards. But I am stronger than the first time and go on to win on points in the third round (I am both fighter and referee). As long as I don’t put foot to ground and can still breathe at the top, I grant myself another well-deserved victory.
Ironically, as I write this ‘winter’ article, today was a spring scorcher, which brought out a few of the local riders, impeccably kitted out. It’s not even mid-February and a balmy 5°C with dry and safe roads, once the sun had dealt with the morning ice. To celebrate I took on both the Redoute and the Stockeu for the first time this year.
The Redoute never gets easier. It’s Phil’s climb (Gilbert, that is) but even seeing my name all over the road doesn’t soften the blows it dishes out to my body. It’s the toughest part of my 158km ride even if its contribution to the 3,200m of climbing doesn’t seem that significant. In the last 10kms I thought back to those wise words I quoted earlier on about arriving home with energy left to burn. This was not really a training ride, because I was definitely running on empty. It was the first of my own Ardennes Classics and for early February it was enough.
There will be many more.
Bodily exhaustion simply fuels my appetite for more days like this on the bike, knowing that I will be stronger next time and that the hills and roads of the Ardennes will provide even more “smiles for miles”, to quote Slate ‘Smiler’ Olson.
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