Monday and I was still in a dilemma about how I was going to travel down to Belgium for the Ardennes Classics.

I finally decided on driving down and so hurriedly booked a ferry crossing for the Tuesday morning. I then booked a little B&B for the Monday night to break up the journey and ease the drive the other side of the channel on Tuesday. The B&B is just two minutes from the turn off from where the M20 becomes the A20 and so only a few minutes drive away from Dover ferry terminal.

It?s along a quiet country road and perfect for an overnight stop. Very reasonably priced too. Along with booking the B&B I booked a night in the Ibis Calais Car Ferry for the Sunday night after Liege-Bastogne-Liege so as to break up the journey and get the ferry back to the UK on the Monday morning. It would also be an opportunity to drop in to the Cycling Weekly offices in Croydon on my drive north back to Sheffield.

With all the booking done and the head feeling clearer about things I decided on a pedal before setting off down the motorway for Folkestone. It would also be my last chance for a ride for a week with being away in Belgium.

The weather had picked up as the day had gone on. The morning seemed grey and overcast but by 13:45 when I set out the skies were brightening and there was a feel of Spring in the air.

With about three hours for a ride it had to be my Matlock run. The legs were feeling ok and much improved from my rides at the start of the previous week. With the ride today I?d have 284 miles clocked from Monday to Monday.

Pedalling through Chatsworth Park I could see the herd of Fallow Deer resting under the trees on the far side of the park beyond the river. They are often there and reminded me of one day last year. It was October time and I was pedalling through the park late afternoon and the whole herd ran across the road in a single string. They seemed to go on for ever. Fantastic sight and to be so close too.

Managed to keep a good tempo going from Beeley through to Matlock and on to Cromford. Spirits were lifted as I saw the Kingfisher perched over the mill pond on Via Gellia. He, as regular readers of my blog will know, is often there. A favourite fishing perch bathed in the spring sunlight.

As I mentioned in my blog last week, the woodland floor up Via Gellia is carpeted in green with the wild garlic and wood anemones. The wood anemones were putting on a fine show with their white star shaped flowers. I even spotted the odd bluebell coming in to flower in the sunnier spots. Still a week or so before they will be at their best.

As I made my turn at Grangemill I spotted two Swallows sitting on the telephone wires above the fishing pond there. My first Swallows in the UK this Spring. They, as the Swallows I?d seen in France the previous week, looked happy to be back home. They sat preening themselves and getting their feathers in order after their long journey. Just a little further up the road at the next farm I spotted a couple more chasing around the dairy farm buildings with their bubbly calls bouncing round the out buildings. It?s good to have them back.

The morning was completed as I road over the flying mile near Foxhouse when three House Martins passed overhead. Spring really is in full swing.

Got back home and it was a matter of getting something to eat, put the last few things in my bags and get on my way down to Folkstone for my overnight stop.

Tuesday and I was up early, took a quick breakfast and set off for the short drive to Dover for my 08:25 sailing. A pleasant morning with hazy sunshine and calm seas made for a good crossing. Stood on the aft deck and watched Dover disappear in the haze.

Rolled off at Calais just before 11:00 local time and got on the auto routes towards Charleroi. Arrived at the accreditation pickup point in the stands of Charleroi?s football stadium by 14:30. A bit early really as the photographers meeting was at 18:00 for the distribution of bibs. Used my time sitting in the car in the car park making a start on this blog and getting a few thoughts down. Simon Richardson and Lionel Birnie made a call to say they were on their way after getting a Eurotunnel crossing around midday.

The last couple of times I?d made my overnight stop in Charleroi I?d stayed at the Ibis opposite the train station at the bottom end of town. Unfortunately I wasn?t able to get in there and so found myself booking in to the Ibis in Dinant. It proved to be a good choice even though it was a 45 minute drive away. I?d never been to Dinant for one and secondly the setting for the hotel was great with it being right on the banks of the river Meuse. The centre of town is over shadowed by high cliffs topped by a fortress which is reached by cable car from the ?telepherique? station just behind the cathedral.

Dinant

There are many riverside bars, restaurants and shops which make this seem an attractive place to spend sometime in. You can even take boat trips down the river of varying lengths to Anseremme, Freyr, Waulsort and Namur.

Dinant

I watched a coxless four row up the river as I stretched my legs along the riverside walkway.

Dinant

They only went a short way before turning back to the boat house at the northern end of the town. During my stroll to find a place to eat I discovered several little shops claiming to their ?Fabrique De Couques De Dinant? status. Their windows were full of the intricately crafted gingerbread type biscuit creations, a speciality of the area.

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A hazy mist hung over the Meuse as Wednesday?s race day dawned. The sun soon lifted the worst to give a beautiful morning as I drove up to Charleroi for the start outside the football stadium. I wandered down to where the team buses were parked and started getting a few pics of the bikes. There seemed that sense of ?lightweight? being the key to the bikes now after the heavier wheels and the various other bike adaptations for the cobbled classics I?d seen earlier in the month. Lightweight wheels like the neat Campagnolo Hyperon or Fulcrum equivalent were the order of the day.

Went back up to the rider sign on area and got some portraits of the riders as the teams came up one by one to sign on for the day. I always have that thought, ?Could I have photographed the winner this morning already??

I left just before the start and headed for the Mur de Huy in the town of Huy just between Charleroi and Liege. It takes just under an hour to get there but by the time you have got through the town of Huy and up to the press parking there is not long before the riders come through for their first ascent of the Huy. The climb starts with a steady rise from the town below before it turns right up a narrower side road where the real climbing begins. The gradient gradually increases to the first steep left hairpin and ramps up to a right hairpin where the road straightens and still holds it?s gradient.

There is a slight easing in the slope before 200 of the final 250-300 metres steepens again, just easing off once again as the finish line is in sight. It?s a great hill to spectate on. You can watch the riders come through, walk up to the top and watch them on the big screen as they go out in to the country, then wander down again to watch the second passage. Stay a while there and watch the women?s race come to a climax next and then an hour later watch the men?s race finish.

I took my first pictures on the outside of the right hairpin as it then gives you a shot down to the left hairpin and a shot up the hill towards the finish.

It?s only about 40 minutes before the men appear again for their second ascent of the ?Wall of Huy?. Andy Schleck led the field up and they were still all together. After the second passage I found I was in front of an English couple, Nigel and Wendy Martin. It turned out the Martin?s were living and working in Belgium for a few years and had taken the opportunity to see the race live for the first time. As we chatted it came up that they planned to see Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday too. I tried helping by giving them some info on the easiest and best spots to go and see the race from my experiences.

The next action on the hill is the finish of the women?s race which had started from the top of the climb around three hours earlier. Judith Arndt was on the front grimacing with the effort and had taken Marianne Vos with her. Cooke and the current World Champion were battling to hold the opening gap to Arndt and Vos. Vos took the honours, with Arndt holding for second and World Champion Bastianelli coming third. Cooke unfortunately faded and finished eighth. Emma Pooley came through and was able to pass Cooke to take sixth on the day.

The skies over the Huy started to darken as the final women came up the hill. I chatted to Mike McGarry, who I?d found on the barriers with 150m to go, while I waited for the men to finish. I?d met Mike on the Tour of Britain over the years as he?d helped out driving the press minibus. Spots of rain started to fall before there was a steady flow from the heavens. It had gone quite dark and was making it difficult to decide on exposures for my pictures.

As ever the TV bike covering the action get far too close to the lead riders and so wrecks the static photographers chances of getting a long shot of their approach. I seemed to miss Kim Kirchen pass me as I focused on Cadel Evans and Rebellin doing battle, pain etched on their faces.

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After the majority of riders had passed through it was up to the podium for the presentations. Kirchen was obviously in good spirits as he bounced on to the podium. Evans was in complete contrast as he looked blue with cold and shivered violently as he received his medal and flowers. Cunego seemed in better spirits as he completed the podium.

The women?s presentation then followed with Vos taking the overall in the World Cup series.

After, I drove over to Liege to my base for the next four nights in the build up to Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Booked in to the Campanile which is just off the E25 below the race finish in Ans. It was also the hotel I stayed in in Liege when I first came to see Liege-Bastogne-Liege back in 1991. 17 years ago, that?s a frightening thought.

Up and out Thursday morning to try and catch up with Saunier Duval down at the Holiday Inn. I wanted to get some tech pictures of the bikes, so early morning is always a good time to catch the team mechanics prepare the bikes. Most mornings at around 10:00 the riders will leave for a hour or twos ride to spin the legs. With racing on the Wednesday it?s just a chance to stretch sore legs.

Got the pics I needed in pleasant sunshine. I had a few bonus shots of Ricardo Ricco getting ready to ride out with the team. He was also doing a quick TV interview with RAI the Italian TV company and was an ideal opportunity to get some candid portraits.

Once they?d left I went over to the Slipstream hotel near the station to see if I could get a TT bike to photograph. No luck there, only the race bikes needed for the Ardennes.

I then headed off in to the Ardennes to refresh my memory of the points I wanted to get to on race day and how I?d get between them. You never know there maybe road works on a link from one point to the next and you don?t want to be finding you are navigating on race day if you are on your own.

I started with how I?d get to the top of La Redoute. Took some pictures of the climb too as that was my other objective for the afternoon in gather pictures of all the categorised climbs on the run back from the race turn in Bastogne. They were all to go with the web story being done by Alasdair Fotheringham. So one down, nine to go.

From La Redoute it was back on to the auto route (E25) to junction 50 to go down to La Roche-En-Ardenne. It?s a pleasant village on the River Ourthe which is overlooked by a ruined castle. I had a bite to eat before heading off to my second race day point just a kilometre or so after Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne. It?s a great spot where you can see the race coming towards you from some way away.

From this point I cut through to Houffalize and made a stop at the Cote Saint Roch, the third categorised climb of the race and the first after the turn from Bastogne. There is an old Panzer tank at the bottom of the climb.

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Did a few pictures here for the web story and then drove back to the auto route to join at junction 51 and drove up to junction 50 to then head for Vielsalm and on to the Cote de Wanne.

Checked where I?d stop for the race and took some pictures once again. From here I drove the route all the way to the finish in Ans on the north side of Liege. The descent of the Wanne is fast and technical with some tight steepening bends to catch people out. The next climb is the Cote De Stockeu which is a shock to the legs after a reasonable amount of descent. The Stockeu probably has the steepest pitch of any of the climbs I?d say and is on a really narrow and poorly surfaced forest road out of Stavelot. The top has a tight left hairpin (where the Merckx monument is) before the hair raising descent in to Stavelot.

You rattle over the cobbled bridge across the River Ambleve and the cobbles continue through the heart of Stavelot and continue up to the cross roads out of the town before you hit the smooth tarmac marking the bottom of the Cote de la Haute Levee. The Haute Levee at 3.4 kms is the second longest of the day and the fourth on the return leg. A concrete crash barrier runs the length of the first section of the climb before the climb goes through some s-bends before straightening up towards a roundabout. The climb still continues for a further kilometre after the roundabout before there is any respite.

Cote du Rosier is the next climb and the longest at 4kms. It snakes through typical Ardennes forest before opening out a bit as it passes through a pretty farming village. More forest comes towards the final drag to the top and it?s then they turn to descend down to La Gleize. This descent is fast and the road is poorly surfaced with plenty of patched potholes to catch out the less vigilant. There then follows a few kilometres of rolling valley roads before the turn at Stoumont and up the Cote de la Vecquee. It?s similar to the Rosier climb in gradient but a kilometre shorter.

The gradual rolling descent towards Aywaille is probably welcome before the twisty approach to the bottom of Cote de la Redoute. Passing under the auto route it?s sharp right and up the narrow climb that runs parallel to the auto route. The climb then swings away from the auto route and kicks up and snakes across the hillside towards the communications mast at the top of the climb. The pitch varies but with 226.5kms in the legs it?s one that sorts the contenders for the finale into Liege. Only 34.5kms to the finish in Ans. Over the top and the road suddenly turns right and heads for Sprimont and the short Cote de Sprimont. The linking roads over the closing climbs are narrow and you seem to be for ever twisting and turning. After the Sprimont the new climb soon comes up the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons.

It starts as it crosses a railway line which has a very rickety crossing point. The climb goes up through a leafy residential area and narrows at one point where there is also a deep storm drain across the road to negotiate. Through some bends up through woodland the climb continues to drag on a little further before there is any respite. There are then some real twists and turns in to the back of industrial Liege. Passing the Stade de Liege it?s into the closing kilometres here. There?s a right in to a narrow terrace lined back street that is the Cote de St-Nicolas.

It is steep and there are a few cobbles to rattle over at the top before the drop down through the back streets of Liege. A left turn and then the right up the sapping unclassified gradient of the final couple of kilometres before it?s the left turn in to the finish straight. It is a truly epic finale to this classic race. It?s punishing enough in the car. The strongest man wins.

Spent Friday morning sorting the pictures of the climbs and sent them along to Lionel Birnie to put in to the web ?Climbs of Liege? preview. I then drove up to the top of La Redoute to watch the teams out making their reconnaissance of the final kilometres of the race route. For anyone wanting to see the teams I advise you get there for eleven o?clock. There is usually a good gathering of spectators to watch the comings and goings as the teams ride through over the next 2.5 hours or so.

imageFleche Wallonne winner Kim Kirchen and team High Road

imageAlejandro Valverde on La Redoute

imageValverde and team-mate Joaquim Rodriguez

The Ardennes is a really nice part of Belgium and is one of the reasons why I like Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The blossom is always good at this time of year here and La Redoute was no exception with the delicate blossom of the Blackthorn shrubs, amongst others, seen along sections of the climb.

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Friday afternoon and I drove along to Lanakan to a team hotel to get some bike detail pictures for an on going project.

It was about 18:30 by the time I got back to my hotel. Had an evening meal and then started to sort some pictures and got them started on their way to the FTP site.

Saturday and I spent the morning writing some blog. Stayed at the hotel and had a light lunch before heading down in to Liege to get my accreditation and photo bib. A beautiful warm Spring day. Again it was just after 18:30 by the time I was back at the hotel.

Whilst having my evening meal I saw my first Swifts of the year. They were about a dozen or so gathering over Liege. Of the Swallows and Martin type birds that come back to breed, Swifts are the last to arrive in the spring and first to leave come the autumn. I guess the warm weather of the day has finally pushed them up to the area.

Fantastic birds that spend their life on the wing, only coming to land to breed under the eaves of older buildings. They are the ones that screech and chase around the roof tops on warm summer evenings. The house across the road from my flat back in Sheffield has a couple of pairs breeding under their eaves each year. I look forward to seeing whether they are about when I get back home on Monday.

Sunday and race day dawned to sunshine. A beautiful warm pleasant start for the build up to the 10:00 race start. I was up early and out of my hotel by 08:15 and parked up in race ?Avant? by about 08:40. It gave me an hour to get a few pictures around the start. Caught up with Steve Cummings and did a ?Bike of the Week? with him. Grabbed a few pictures of Cadel Evans as he came away from signing on. He then pedalled off, pulling a wheelie as he did so, back to the Silence-Lotto team bus. Met some Japanese fans I have got to know from the races and learned that they follow my blog, so a special hello to them all this week.

Managed a quick picture of Paolo Bettini as he rolled to the sign on before I went back to the car to leave at 09:45. I?d arranged with Yuzuru Sunada, the Japanese photographer whose pictures appear in Cycle Sport and Cycling Weekly, that he could follow in his car for the day to the points I?d planned to go to. We set off down the course in good time and headed out of Liege in to the Ardennes.

Managed six race sightings, one just before Aywaille on the way out, the second just after La Roche-en-Ardenne, the third at Houffalize with the Cote de St. Roch, the fourth at Cote de Wanne, the fifth at the top of La Redoute and finally the sixth being the finish in Ans, Liege.

Saw Nigel and Wendy Martins who I?d met on the Huy earlier in the week in Houffalize. Said a quick hello before setting myself up on the Cote de St. Roch.

I have to say I enjoyed the day. It was a surprise to still see Pierre Rolland heading the race up La Redoute with round 34kms to go. He and four others had been away all day with a maximum lead of 8 or 9 minutes when I?d seen them at La Roche-en-Ardennes. But La Redoute was where they were being reeled in and the race really got motoring with Gilbert leading the charge, before Bettini put in an electric attack just before the summit of La Redoute.

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I managed to grab one shot as he made his attack on the left of the narrow climb before an over zealous young Italian fan jumped in front of me to shout ?Forza Bettini? and wreck any opportunity I had to get any more. Maddening.

Got to the finish line in good time as Daniel Mangeas was hardly drawing breath in his commentary, building up the excitement as the trio of Rebellin, Schleck and Valverde closed in on the finish line. You can see the action on the big screen that?s on the distant corner that preludes the finishing straight. Fans strained from every vantage point as the three finally appeared round the corner. Valverde glanced behind before immediately putting in his sprint for the line leaving a despondent Rebellin and Schleck in his wake. Fantastic.

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I dashed to the back of the finish area and joined the scrum to try and get some post race reaction shots of Valverde. His team mate and Spanish road champion Rodriguez came across to congratulate Valverde. I?d seen the pair on Friday putting in a good training effort together on La Redoute during their teams reconnaissance ride.

After the finish presentations it was straight on to the auto route and up to Calais. I?d decided to stay over night there and get the ferry in the morning. Arrived about 20:30, quickly checked in, dropped my gear off in my room and went down for something to eat. Unfortunately there wasn?t much choice left, steak or lamb chops. I went for the lamb chops and immediately regretted it when the three small chops arrived under a pile of fries. It didn?t look very appetising and even less so when I discovered the meat was barely cooked, it wasn?t pink but raw in the middle. I couldn?t bring myself to eat it and the waitress seemed most put out by my reluctance to tuck in. So apart from the small salad starter I?d had, I went to bed feeling a little hungry.

Monday and I headed off from my Ibis for the five minute drive to the car ferry. Arrived in good time to have time to sit in the car with the computer sorting some pictures. Rolled on to the car deck at just after 09:15 for the 09:45 sailing. The Pride of Kent was teeming with French and German school kids of various ages. I was taken a back by the number of older ones that smoked. Stood on the aft deck as the ferry left Calais and photographed the ever hopeful seagulls following in the hope of a morsal of food being thrown their way from the school kids.

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It was nearly 10:30 local time as I left Dover and started heading up the M20, M26 to the M25 and then the M23 up to Croydon. Dropped by the office and left a DVD disc of pictures from Fleche and Liege.

Started heading back to Sheffield at around 17:00. Made good progress really. Stopped at Toddington Services on the M1 for a snooze. Had a call from Simon Owens asking whether I?d be at the Peak RC get together later that evening. Initially I said perhaps not but as I got to Sheffield at just before 21:00 I thought I?d meet up with them.

They had arranged to meet at the Cricket Inn in Dore/Totley at 21:00, so I thought I?d get an evening meal there too. I arrived at 21:10 to find that they had stopped serving food at 21:00 and were already clearing the kitchen. I saw the lads and said I?d pop along to the Dore Grill Restaurant up in the village and meet up again later. The Dore Grill did me proud and I have to say the best evening meal I?d had all week.

Popped back to see the lads for the final half hour before closing.

So, that?s the Spring Classics over for another year.

Catch up in a week.

Andy

Andy Jones is Cycling Weekly’s resident photographer, and has covered pretty much every major cycle race there is, from downhill mountain biking to the Tour de France. You can see many of Andy’s photos in our online Gallery section.