Riding the Liege-Bastogne-Liege Challenge sportive

Last year I rode my first Spring Classic sportive at the Tour of Flanders (http://girodilento.com/the-tour-of-flanders-from-the-gutter/)

It was a fantastic experience in which amongst other things I learnt about riding on cobbles (by doing it mostly quite badly). Almost before I’d finished my post ride beer in Flanders, I was wondering which of the remaining four other Spring Classics I should be targeting next .

After some discussion with my friend David Alvarez at Stoemper bikes, who has a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of all five Classics, we decided on Liege-Bastogne-Liege (LBL).

It was the winner for a number of reasons. I wanted less cobbles next time, so Roubaix was out. I like rolling hills and great views and I wanted to choose a ride that perhaps your average cycling fan might not.  In fairness, that criteria could have almost equally applied to Amstel Gold and I can’t really tell you why LBL won, other than it’s the oldest of them and “La Doyenne” – but it did.

Last year David and I invited Dave Arthur from Road.cc to join us for Flanders to try out a Stoemper on the cobbles and we had a such a good time we invited Dave to join us again for another adventure.

Dave and I drove over to David’s house in Belgium on the Thursday evening before the ride and got to enjoy Brussels traffic at rush hour as we crawled along the motorways that surround the Belgian capital. By going on Thursday we had an easy Friday including a relatively short 30ish km shakedown ride in 24 degrees and sunshine – hardly spring classics weather but extremely welcome.

Our leisurely Friday spilled over onto the Saturday morning as we debated how late we could sleep in before we had to get up and still make the ride, largely because I am the antithesis of a morning person.

sportograf-47200177LBL is a much smaller sportive in terms of numbers than Flanders. Flanders is now limited to 16,000 riders and sells out in advance – my guess is that LBL had about half that number and most of them seemed to be looking for a car park when we got there to do the same.

Signing on at LBL - efficient and easy
Signing on at LBL – efficient and easy

We hadn’t registered in advance but signing up was fantastically efficient and easy. As was getting out and starting the ride apart from a bit of squeeze rolling out of the gateway and into the road to begin.

And we're off
And we’re off

As with Flanders last year – I didn’t really know what I was riding into apart from a lot of hills and climbing. I knew we were doing 167km but I didn’t know how many meters of climbing that would bring. My previous record for the most climbing was about 1850m. My previous longest ride was Flanders at just over 130km. I was expecting both of these records to be broken….

In the first few meters of the ride ... looking a touch nervous
In the first few meters of the ride … looking a touch nervous

After about 15km we got to the 0 kilometre board which confused me (not hard) but it was simply where the pro race started from after the neutral zone. The ride till that point had really been all about trying to exit Liege and if you’ve watched the race on TV, you’ll know it’s not the most attractive of French cities.

The route card we were given at registration showed seven categorised climbs for the 167km route. As we left Liege and began a climb, David was quick to point out that this wasn’t one of them. In fact we’d climbed over 800m before we hit the first “official” climb. For the first 50kms or so I rode pretty well. The speed and standard of the riders in Belgium was very high but the three of us were covering ground at a decent speed without going mad and chasing faster groups – it was going to be a long day out after all and for us it was a social ride above all.

All was going well until somewhere between say 50 and 90km where I had a proper mental wobble and started to worry about whether I would be able to complete the course. The number of meters we had climbed was ticking up fast but most of the categorised climbs were in the second half. I was starting to wonder how much climbing really was in front of me – was it 3,000m, 4,000, or even 5,000? Given the most I’d climbed on a ride was substantially less than any of the amounts, they all felt like a huge jump. Especially when you consider I was also going to ride 30-40km more than I had ever managed before. As any of you reading this blog will have noticed, I had been using a Wattbike for training (and it’s been great but the longest session I’d done was 90minutes) and I’d only managed to get half way through my 16 week programme. This was weighing on my mind too. Add in the fact that I was descending gingerly on faster sweeping roads than I’d ridden before and losing contact with Dave and David each time and I was finding all of these thoughts snowballing into genuine concern about my ability to complete the ride.

I felt worst about 70km in where I thought there could still be up to 110km to ride and a lot of climbing (maybe). The two Davids seemed to be riding well but definitely noticed my change in body language and general demeanour (mental note: don’t take up Poker).

It was around this point that David suggested we do an extra climb – the Cote de Stockeu. I moaned a bit about this and said I was happy to give it a miss but was talked around – reluctantly. David’s logic was impeccable: the Stockeu is an iconic climb – complete with the statue of Eddy Merckx at the top. It is also pretty, bloody steep at 1.1km long with an average gradient of 10.5% but it kicks to over 20%.

sportograf-47215902Now that I have ridden it I have to say it’s a pretty cool climb and that David was right. You climb up and into the trees and each time the road kinks it seems to kick up steeper. Dave Arthur shot off and attacked as it was a timed climb and disappeared almost in the blink of an eye and he went on to do this on all of the special timed climbs.

Dave Arthur "attacks" at some point or another & I fail to notice
Dave Arthur “attacks” at some point or another & I fail to notice
Here's Dave still "attacking" & I still haven't noticed ;-)
Here’s Dave still “attacking” & I still haven’t noticed ;-)

The next climb we got to was the Côte de la Haute Levee, which is 3.5km at an average grade of 5.6% and a maximum of 12%. Not long after that was the Côte du Rosier which is a bit higher average gradient at 5.7% and a kilometre longer at 4.5km. Rosier is just that bit steeper and is harder to maintain pace on but it’s still a very picturesque climb through the trees on a quiet road.  The other great thing for me about getting to the top of the Rosier – was that it meant we were over half way round and I was starting to feel a bit better again. Not awesome, but better and there were “only” 4 of the 7 categorized climbs left to ride.

sportograf-47234141It got still better at that point, from the Rosier there was almost 30km of mostly riding downhill. During that there was also a wonderful section along a river where David and Dave sat on the front and dragged along a peloton that started with 4 of us and finished at about 60 riders – none of whom wanted to jump off the front. So we all rode together at about 35kmh, which was a fantastic way to tick off a chunk of miles.

Having a quiet contemplative moment on my own ...
Having a quiet contemplative moment on my own …

The next climb to come was the famous Côte de la Redoute. It’s another tough one but it’s fantastic too – lots of painted names on the road (mostly for Philipe Gilbert and he had a party tent half way up for his fans with a big screen outside). It was also my first time riding through all the camper vans like you see during the Tour. Redoute had dozens of them on the climb up and plenty of their occupants were at the roadside cheering us all on, which was also great. Dave Arthur once again danced off up the climb like Contador, whilst David and I, shall we say, took a more measured approach ;-)

Looking "focused" on Redoute - it's also my FFS face
Looking “focused” on Redoute – it’s also my FFS face

From the top of Redoute there was also less than 30miles to go and that felt like a good moment. Whilst I didn’t realise it at the time, we’d also done all of the biggest and hardest climbs. I popped one of my last two energy gels at that point having decided to use them as encouragement at the 50km and 25km to go points. Of course at every food stop I’d been eating the waffles because …. well you have to.

Once we got back to Liege, it was a blast to recognise some of the industrial buildings and the town’s football stadium as we rode past sights I’d only previously seen on TV.

The last climb of the day was another of those iconic ones from the pro race, the Côte de Saint Nicolas – which winds its way up through a poor neighbourhood in Liege. The climb is only 1000m long but averages 11.1% and tops out at 17% and that’s not easy with the best part of 100miles in your legs. Even though we were riding up it late in the afternoon, there were plenty of kids out waving and shouting “allez, allez” at us, which was wonderful and helped put a smile on your face while battling along in your granniest of gears.

One more draggy climb up the straight road that Dan Martin crashed at the top of on the Sunday. When we rode it, there was plenty of motor traffic, as well as lots of bikes trying to finish the ride. This mixture also included a bus stopping and starting as we rode up – it wasn’t ideal but it was the last bit, so it was fine.

At the finish line!
At the finish line!

We rolled down a hill into the start and finish area and all felt delighted to complete a fantastic ride and to tick off another Spring classic sportive. We gave the event numbers back off our bikes (converting each into €5 for beers), collected our medal, got our free t-shirts, then frites and a celebratory beer each (in a glass we could take home as a keepsake). Hands were shaken, backs were slapped and there were lots of smiles.

I had ridden the last 50km really well and felt great at the end – like I could have carried on riding – but I was glad I didn’t have too. We’d all ridden well and I’d learned a few more lessons and things for the future. Like working out exactly how much climbing I’ll be doing for example.

I’m particularly delighted to have done my first 100m ride at such a special place. I take a bit of extra confidence from the amount of climbing on the ride – especially as we’d ridden sensibly enough that I didn’t feel wrecked at the end.

I still get a kick out of seeing those Mavic cars on rides I'm doing
I still get a kick out of seeing those Mavic cars on rides I’m doing

LBL had also given me my first proper taste of fast sweeping descents and I had a learning curve on these. For the first half of the ride, I descended like my grandmother would, nervous about the braking power on the fantastic Reynolds Aero 58’s I had on my bike for the day. I got better as the day progressed and am looking forward to the next time already. LBL also showed me I need to spend more time learning to ride with a group – I’m not happy to sit on someone’s wheel if I don’t know them and even when I do I’m not close enough. Hayfever had given me lots of issues with pollen/grit in my eyes and that was annoying. On the plus side I rode much better on the flat parts than I had before, which I think the Wattbike has definitely helped. On the few cobbled sections, I rode them much, much better than last year, which was really pleasing. The locals who rode the ride were very good. I’ve never been passed so much in my life, including by plenty of women and I was delighted to see so many women riding. I was particularly impressed by the number of people climbing fast in the big ring in the last third of the ride – both male and female.

Learning to descend round sweeping high speed corners having long been dropped
Learning to descend round sweeping high speed corners having long been dropped

As someone who moans a lot about the dangerous driving of many British drivers, it was disappointing to see plenty of equally awful Belgian driving. The roads for the sportive had a lot more cars on them than I remember at Flanders. Rider behaviour was generally very good though.

If you like the idea of doing a spring classics ride but aren’t so keen on cobbles – do put Liege Bastogne Liege on your list – it’s a fantastic ride. If you want a really big challenge – do the full 279 in a day and climb the best part of 5,000m. A lot of people did and I take my hat off to them. I think the LBL course is a more interesting one than Flanders if you’re doing the full course as the first 100km of Flanders isn’t the most interesting but they’re both brilliant days out. We were lucky with the weather – summer clothing and sunburn.

I've got one of those!
I’ve got one of those!

We were all happy and a bit tired on Saturday evening. We agreed to not go too crazy on Sunday morning, so rather than chasing the race all day we opted to go to a restaurant across the road from the La Choufe brewery – had a large lunch and some of the fine beer and only then went to see the race.

We drove to the Côte de la Redoute and positioned ourselves on a bend just near the Philipe Gilbert party tent. We arrived about half an hour before the riders, cheered them as they went past, then sat on the grass and watched the rest of the race on the big screen that was probably the only one for miles around.

No idea who the locals favourite was ....
No idea who the locals favourite was ….

It was a terrific end to a fantastic weekend. I’m already wondering which one to go for next year. I quite fancy doing Flanders again, but Amstel Gold might be fun too.

Thanks for reading!

My Strava for the day is here if you’re interested:

A nice shot of someone getting to the top of Redoute
A nice shot of someone getting to the top of Redoute