“YOU want to ride the Classics in a weekend? You’re mad,” said the Editor. “Not all of the Classics, just the best bits. It’ll be great,” I replied. “Well, okay, if you really want to.”
Fast forward a week or so and Ed Pickering and I are descending a long, steady climb that will take us to the main road that leads to Huy. The hail is stinging my face. The cold has frozen my fingers into painful talons that are clamped round the brake levers. Both Ed and I are yelling, as much to let the each other know we’re still alive. It is bitterly cold. The temperature gauge in the car had been hovering around one or two degrees Celsius all day. It is miserable and the worst is yet to come.
“This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever had.” Ed doesn’t disagree.
It’s almost six o’clock. The road into Huy, recognisable to aficionados as the final run-in to the Fleche Wallonne Classic, is particularly grim as it passes warehouses, disused mines, a quarry and several derelict buildings. We only have a handful of kilometres left to ride but the final 1,300 metres will take us up to the summit of the Mur de Huy. The cold in our lungs will be balanced by an equally unpleasant heat in our leg muscles shortly. It is, undoubtedly, the low point of the Challenge and the horrid thought I can’t expel from my frozen mind is that we’ve got to do this again tomorrow. With cobbles. We must be mad.
The plan was straightforward. Would it be possible to ride key sections of all six spring Classics in a weekend? With careful planning and detailed maps the logistics should be just about manageable. And setting a modest target of covering between 75 and 90 kilometres each day would surely be within our capabilities, wouldn’t it?
Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t quite that easy.
10am AMSTEL GOLD RACE
31km ride finishing at the Cauberg
Drive 61km from Valkenberg to Remouchamps
25km ride taking in La Redoute
Drive 68km from Remouchamps to Huy
5pm FLECHE WALLONNE
25km ride finishing on the Mur de Huy
Drive 138km drive from Huy to our hotel in Halle
First of all, other commitments meant it was impossible to attempt our Challenge at the weekend. Instead, our two-day midweek trip coincided with a spell of extremely cold and wet weather. We set out on day one in good spirits despite the cold, pleased as punch that, at last, I’d have the opportunity to use the line ‘Amstel Cold Race’.
On the face of it our minimum target, to ride 25 kilometres at each Classic venue, looked easy. Even after a lay-off, I was confident I’d be able to ride 75 kilometres each day without a problem. But I hadn’t considered the numbing effect of the freezing temperatures or the stop-start nature of the two long days and after a while it began to take its toll.
But as we dodged the street furniture and roundabouts around Valkenburg all that was ahead of us. First things first, the Cauberg, which we tackled with gusto and finished with a flourish of sprinting. Everything was going swimmingly, although we perhaps spent a little too long in a café in the town centre waiting for an omelette and two pancakes. Over coffee we checked the map and decided our Liege-Bastogne-Liege leg would take in La Redoute.
Luc tapped the details into his GPS system and we set off, not in the least bit concerned that our dilly-dallying in Valkenburg meant we were already 90 minutes behind the notional schedule I’d scribbled on a napkin at breakfast.
On the drive over the slate grey skies turned charcoal, then angry black and the rain fell, then it turned to sleet, then snow. We arrived at Stockeu, in the heart of the Ardennes, in a full-on blizzard. It took all our willpower to get out of the car and put the bikes together.
Neither Ed nor I had a cap or bandana to put under our helmets for insulation. Luc had a copy of the previous day’s Het Laatste Nieuws. I tore off a few pages – the cycling pages, naturally – and fashioned them into a makeshift hat, which I put my helmet back over. It looked preposterous – like a newsprint version of the knotted handkerchief favoured by English seaside visitors in the 1950s.
“You can’t allow yourself to be photographed like that,” said Ed. He wasn’t wrong.
The descent to Aywaille was brutal. The cold cut you half. Riding past the DIY superstores and supermarkets on the main road through Aywaille looking for the left-hander that would take us up La Redoute the snow stopped and the sun came out.
“No one will believe we’ve done this on the same day when they see the pictures,” Ed mused as we started on the lower slopes of La Redoute, a long, steep climb that forced me to breathe hard right from the start.
Ed and I indulged in a spot of gallows’ humour. Only the Mur de Huy to go.
Now, I’m no stranger to going round the block so my Cateye reads 100km instead of 98.4 but this was taking junk miles to an extreme. We rode on upwards to Marchin, a village with very little going for it, then turned round and went back down again. This was easily the coldest I’ve been for a very long time and even six layers of good quality cycling clothing designed for the purpose was struggling to keep the heat in.
Then it began to hail and that really was painful. Like being pricked with a thousand pins by some cruel invisible giant, I thought, my mind addled by the cold. We cursed our luck and laughed at the absurdity of riding of it all. There was no joy in the laughter though. The gallows’ humour of earlier subsided and I was, metaphorically-speaking, just longing for the trap door to open and the noose to tighten to put me out of my misery.
I was dreading the Mur and had begun to doubt whether I’d make it. In the end, it was only the presence of our photographer Luc on the ridiculously steep left-hand bend that forced me to keep going. I could easily have given up.
When we reached the top and I had my breath back, Luc said: “Hey, don’t worry Lionel. Last year I saw Bettini suffer on that corner.” Yeah, cheers.
Our day’s work was done but perhaps the most mentally taxing couple of hours were to come. Without a hotel already booked, we’d banked on driving over to Geraardsbergen and checking in with enough time to enjoy a beer and a steak before bed.
But by the time we’d put the bikes in the car it was nearly 6.30pm. “I hate to say this but the GPS says it’s two hours to Geraardsbergen. I suggest we drive one hour then look for a hotel.”
An hour or so later we arrived in Halle to be met with a road block. Luc stopped. “Our hotel is the other side of this, so we’ll have to find our way round.” We snaked round to be met with the sight of a carnival in full swing. The big wheel was spinning and crowds of people were heading into town to enjoy the fair. Luc found the hotel and went in.
After quite a few minutes, I said: “Well, he’s been in there a while so there must be rooms. He must be booking us in.”
Still longer we waited, then Luc emerged with an unreassuring look on his face. “It’s full because of the carnival. I got them to ring the other two hotels in town and they are full too.”
“Welcome to Halle,” I said. Ed didn’t laugh.
We drove on to Ninove, the town that welcomes the riders at the end of the Tour of Flanders, pulled up at a nice looking hotel and again Luc went in. He emerged looking even grimmer. “I don’t know what’s happening. A Monday night in March and they’re full. This is very unusual. There’s one last place we can try,” he said.
Ed and I were both thinking the same thing. Emergency Plan A would be to turn back and drive to Brussels. Plan B would be to go to a McDonald’s and then sleep in the car. We drove on in silence. The tension as Luc went into our Last Chance Saloon was palpable. The relief when he emerged and put his thumbs up was immense. Three beers and three steaks please waiter.
Drive 21km from Halle to Brakel
10am TOUR OF FLANDERS
32km ride including the Muur
Drive 81km from Brakel to Wallers
20km ride taking in the Arenberg Forest
Drive to Roubaix, ride round the velodrome
Drive 52km from Roubaix to Kemmel
Ride 25km finishing on top of the Kemmelberg
Refreshed, if a little heavy-legged, we tackled the three climbs of the Tour of Flanders with renewed enthusiasm. The Muur is always special to ride and even the light sprinkling of frozen rain we encountered as we arrived back at the car in Brakel couldn’t dent that. Nothing could be as bad as yesterday, we thought.
The next transfer, the longest of the lot, took us over to Wallers, through the ugly industrial area of northern France that does not have an awful lot going for it.
When we saw the cobbles for the first time my heart sunk. Unlike the relatively uniform stones in Flanders, these were misshapen beasts. Huge lumps like over-baked loaves of bread that looked as if they’d been laid by the shoddiest of workmen.
This was the first time my weight was an advantage. I was able to grip the bars and just ride on, whereas flyweight Ed, a full 16 kilos lighter than me, got chucked about all over the place.
The ride through was horrendous. I was terrified something bad was going to happen to my bike, or worse, my poor bruised body. I didn’t fancy a trip in a French ambulance with a broken knee.
“It’s good to ride these roads and see at close quarters just what the professionals go through,” I said. It’s so easy to write how Tom Boonen made a tactical error by going too hard in the Arenberg Forest last year, scattering his Quick Step team-mates about in his wake, but then you ride it yourself and it’s a reminder of how good those guys are.
I remember Peter Van Petegem once telling me that the way to ride the pave was to look four or five metres in front and pick the best line, spotting any hazards and pitfalls well in advance to allow time to hop about on the cobbles.
I looked down and all I saw was a blur. I couldn’t pick a line, I just tried to ride on the crown of the road and hoped not to hitting anything really nasty. My average speed over the cobbles must have been just under 30 kilometres per hour. The pros hammer through Arenberg at around 45. We’re not even participating in the same sport, if truth be told. It was like playing a round with Tiger Woods and finding there’s 50 shots in it.
After a late lunch in Hem we headed for the cheekiest part of our challenge – the Roubaix velodrome. Much to our surprise, getting in was a piece of cake. We just rode straight in and onto the concrete bowl. There was a group of schoolgirls being put through their paces by a running coach, though none of them looked particularly motivated about running.
The rest of the velodrome and adjacent park was a hoodie hang-out for French yoof. For cycling fans the track is the stuff of legend but it’s sobering to think that half of Roubaix has probably lost its virginity on the bleachers there.
Ed and I did a few laps, though the track was extremely slippery, with leaves stuck to the concrete making it dangerous to go above the black line, particularly at the end that was in the shade.
Time had rattled on, it was now gone 4pm and with the drive up to Kemmel still to come, and the weather worsening again, I began to doubt we’d be done before dark.
This is where my head fell off. I began fantasising about getting lost – although Luc’s GPS system made that unlikely. I almost cheered when we got stuck behind a tractor for a few kilometres. And so, when we set off to ride our final 25 kilometres in the cold, mentally I was already back in the car and heading for the channel.
A punishing headwind did for me entirely. Every time Ed applied the pressure I lost ground. I was cooked, or rather, deep-frozen.
We looped round, keeping the copse of trees that line the Kemmelberg on our right. I knew we were going round on ourselves and when I saw a road sign that said “Kemmel 3” I cracked. I stopped. “Look, I’m going to take that.”
“But you’ll fail the challenge,” said Ed. “If we do another 3k up there and then go back the way we came we’ll get up to 25.”
“Yeah, but if I go up there I’ll be at the Kemmelberg in 3k.”
Ed looked at me. I looked at the floor. “I don’t care. I’m freezing.”
Zipping up his hair shirt and straightening the rod in his back, Ed rode on. I ground my way back to the Kemmelberg and creaked up it.
I got into Luc’s car. Ten minutes passed. Then 20.
“I hope he’s not lost,” I said.
“Hey, Ed’s a smart guy,” said Luc.
“If he was that smart he’d be sat in this car with me.”
“So, what’s the idea for the next Challenge?” asked Luc.
“It depends on the weather.”
Where is it? Valkenburg, Holland
Maximum gradient: 10 per cent
Summary: It may not be the longest or steepest but the Cauberg is the last of 31 hills in the Amstel Gold Race and so it’s more a test of brute strength for the pros.
The hill bends up through the town, past bars that on race day are packed full of fanatics, some of whom may have imbibed rather too enthusiastically. The day after the Tour came here last year the road resembled the morning after the night before’s rock concert. The street was strewn with thousands of crushed plastic beer glasses.
Where is it? Near Aywaille, Belgium
Maximum gradient: 15.4 per cent
Summary: La Redoute is where Liege-Bastogne-Liege bursts into life. There are still around 35 kilometres and four more climbs to go to the finish but if you lose ground here it’s game over. It’s easy to see why. There are some horrible steep sections and it just goes on and on. As ever with these climbs, though, it’s the false flat at the top that sorts the men from the boys and those who suffer on the way up can be burned off with an injection of pace there.
|MUR DE HUY|
Where is it? Huy, Belgium
Maximum gradient: 26 per cent
Summary: Known as the Mur – or wall – the road’s real name is Le Chemin des Chapelles, the pass to the chapels, the section of this hill that strikes fear into the heart is the bend and the stretch immediately after it where the gradient hits 26 per cent. It goes on much longer than is comfortable too and the final couple of hundred metres hurt. The route of Fleche Wallonne takes in the Mur three times, including the final climb to the finishing line.
Where is it? Brakel, Belgium
Maximum gradient: 8.7 per cent
Summary: Tenbosse is a little residential street that rises out of Brakel and takes the Tour of Flanders riders towards Geraardsbergen. In recent years it has been the third last hill but this year another climb, the Eikenmolen, will make its debut on the parcours, slotting in between Tenbosse and the Muur. Tenbosse is where Peter Van Petegem will get the biggest cheers – he lives in Brakel. It’s smooth and quite steep but not difficult to ride in isolation. It’s the fact that this is where the final phase of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen starts that makes it strategically important.
Where is it? Geraardsbergen, Belgium
Maximum gradient: 19.8 per cent
Summary: The infamous Muur – which also means wall, the Flemish language inserts an extra ‘u’ – is one of the most iconic venues in cycling. The first section up through the town is not steep and the cobbles that run through the square are uniform. That’s where the organisation put up the big screens and beer tents and thousands of fans make a football stadium atmosphere. Then the Muur ‘proper’ starts and it is steep and rough. Even though the cobbles were relayed in 2004 ready for the Tour de France’s visit, the surface has already degenerated considerably. The hardest part is the left-hand bend that takes you up to the café before the right-hander round to the chapel, or Kapelmuur. This section is only used in the Tour of Flanders. In Het Volk they go straight on over the top.
Where is it? Atembeke, Belgium
Maximum gradient: 11 per cent
Summary: On it’s own the Bosberg is nothing to worry about but at the 245-kilometre point and after 16 hills it is the final springboard and the riders hit it fast and give it everything to force the gaps. The false flat over the top is evil, especially if the wind is howling into their faces, and a couple of bike lengths lost on the climb can become an impossible gap in the first few hundred metres after the top.
Where is it? Wallers, France
Summary: There can be little doubt this stretch of ‘road’ through the forest is the worst surface the professionals will ever face. The cobblestones are wrecked, despite attempts by the Paris-Roubaix preservation society to improve them slightly. It’s not hard to see how Johan Museeuw came to grief here. It’s difficult to know which direction is worst to ride. Uphill it’s very difficult to maintain momentum, downhill is like placing your life in the hands of complete stranger. Every few metres the bike makes a dreadful sound and you’re convinced something has broken. The constant jarring is bad enough but the heavy contact of hitting a stone at the wrong angle hurts the palms and elbows. There’s nothing for it, just put your head down and hope for the best.
Where is it? Kemmel, Belgium
Maximum gradient: 17 per cent
Summary: Ghent-Wevelgem is not blessed with the most exciting parcours but the Kemmelberg is one of the greatest places to watch cycling. It’s steep, it’s cobbled and the riders come past twice in quick succession. The two restaurants on the climb are always thronging and the atmosphere is electric. The climb itself is hard, particularly after the drag that leads up to it, but it’s the super-dangerous descent that worries the riders. Descending down a cobbled road with a gradient of 23 per cent is one of the riskiest manoeuvres of the year. If it’s wet it can be treacherous. Hesitate here and the gaps open and the race is over.
PICTURES: Luc Claessen
This feature first appeared in the May 2007 issue of Cycle Sport