The Ardennes with Christophe Brandt
DISTANCE 100 miles (160km)
MAIN CLIMB Haute Levée and Côte du Rosier
ACHTUNG! La Redoute descent
This is a big year for Christophe Brandt. Cadel Evans, the Tour de France favourite, is the leader of Brandt’s Silence-Lotto team, and Brandt is a climber with plenty of Grand Tour experience.
He’s not the man who will take Evans up the final climbs. “We have Yaroslav Popyvich for that,” he says. But for every glory hour at the end of a mountain stage there are two earlier hours when a Tour contender needs a team-mate to begin the whittling down process.
That’s the job that Brandt wants. There’s no glory, but doing it brings professional respect. I asked Brandt what was the proudest moment of his career was.
“It was when Robbie McEwen won in Montpellier in the 2005 Tour. Six guys got a big lead early on. We spoke to Robbie, but he said it was going to be difficult and he didn’t insist we try, but we did — Mario Aerts, Wim Vansevenant, Johan Vansummeren and I. We rode for 160 kilometres on the front, just us. It was incredible.
“It was very hard, very hot. In the last few kilometres two guys were still away, Horner and Chavanel, but we were dying. Then US Postal went to the front. They helped, but they had the leader and we had done their job all day. We caught the two and Robbie won. We did a big job that day and it felt like we had won too.”
The memory of all the work he shared that day means a lot to Brandt, but sentimentality has no place in cycling at this level, and Brandt is no shoe-in for the Tour team this year. He is on his way back from a very serious accident in 2006, which left him with multiple fractures and in a coma for days. He also damaged his spleen and lost a kidney.
He hardly raced in 2007. “It was a terrible year. In hospital they told me to see a psychologist to help me recover, but I didn’t. I just thought that if I worked, if I had spirit, then I would get back. It was terrible though, fighting to stay in the group, not making progress.
“My team tried to protect me, giving me a light programme, but I just thought they were trying to get rid of me. I was paranoid. You don’t see straight when things like that happen.
Eventually I did go to a psychologist and he helped me deal with it. My problem was just fear — fear that I would not return to the level I was.”
Today’s ride is the biggest of Brandt’s week. He has just finished the Tour of the Algarve and has been selected for Paris-Nice. It’s been snowing, but the big ride still has to be done.
“The only problem with this region is the weather,” says Brandt, as he skirts the city of Liège. “If the snow is too bad I go over the river Meuse. It’s strange but there are two climates here in winter. It can be cold and snowing where I live, south of the Meuse, but three or four degrees warmer north of it. I like this region though. This is the nicest part of Belgium. It’s hilly, but I don’t like flat rides.”
Not surprisingly, Brandt’s favourite race is Liège-Bastogne-Liège. “I know it very well. I don’t always ride up the climbs. This route descends La Redoute, which is the start of the finale of the race, with Sprimont and Sart Tilman coming quickly after it. There are lots of other climbs in the area that the race doesn’t use, and I climb Haute Levée and Côte du Rosier on this ride,” says Brandt, before obligingly turning around and riding back up La Redoute.
The other setback
Haute Levée and Côte du Rosier come after Stavelot. A stop near the Spa racing circuit gives me a chance to talk about the other incident that interrupted Brandt’s career — the positive drugs test he gave in the 2004 Tour at Namur.
The substance found was methadone, a chemical used to treat people withdrawing from heroin addiction. Brandt subsequently proved that the substance got into his body innocently, but it was a terrible thing to live through. “It was awful. I tried all my life to do my job in the best way to avoid this. Sometimes it’s easier to choose another way and earn more money, but I never wanted to be pointed at as a cheat.
“I felt like it was the end of the world. I was sacked by my team, and I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world, two types of friends really — those who believe in you no matter what, and those for whom I was now dead.
“Eventually I proved my innocence. What happened was that I had a check-up after the Tour of Italy and my doctor prescribed some amino acids, which I had to have made into capsules by a local pharmacist, but he had been working with methadone before he made up my capsules. However, it wasn’t enough to say that and offer it as an explanation. I had to show the UCI that the methadone traces in the pharmacist’s capsule maker exactly matched the amount needed to explain the concentration in my urine. It was very complicated, but we did it and I was re-instated and I got my job back. Today I only have one kind of friend: my family and the close ones who stuck by me.”
The affair wounded Brandt, but it made him tougher. It maybe helped him get over the other dark time when he was injured. “I will know soon if I can get back to where I was,” he says hopefully.
“I am feeling good. I really questioned whether I wanted to go on after the crash. My wife was at the race, and she was totally lost when it happened. I asked if I wanted to put my family through that, and I realised I didn’t have to race to have a life. We talked and we decided that I should continue. I’m glad, because I really enjoy what I do,” he says, before heading home for a hot shower with another brick placed in the wall of his re-build.
YOUR GUIDE: CHRISTOPHE BRANDT
- Born in Liège. Age 30. Lives in Olne. Married with one child
- Began racing at 14. Did a lot of early racing in Italy. First pro contract with Saeco. Races for Silence-Lotto
- Likes to spend time at home, or go on holiday, with family and a few close friends
- Wants to win a stage of the Tour one day. “I’m not a helper who has forgotten all of his ambition,” he says
ARDENNES RIDE: GETTING THERE
From the Channel ports take the A16/E40 north to Dunkirk, then the A25/E42 south-west to Lille. There, take the A27/E42 towards Brussels, but after Tournai follow signs to Liège via Mons and Charleroi on the E42. Approaching Liège, take the E40 and follow signs to Aachen. Leave the E40 at junction 1 of the E42 and head for Verviers, which is the best place to start this ride.
Take the N61 west from Verviers to Chaudefontaine on the outskirts of Liège. Head south, crossing the A26/E25 motorway and head for Tilf, where the cyclo-sportive Liège-Bastogne-Liège starts and finishes. Loop west then east to Sprimont, then south to Aywaille and Remourchamps, where La Redoute is. Head south for Strumont and Trois Points before heading east to Stavelot. Head north over Haute Levée to Eau Rouge, then carry on to Spa and back to Verviers.