By Jered and Ashley Gruber
I love the Ardennes. This is my kind of place. Climbs everywhere, but none more than 15 minutes long. I love to climb, but I’m not one for 90 minute vertical slogs. I’ll take ten, nine minute climbs any day – so much more to see, so many different places, plus the added bonus of nine descents!
With that said, we have had a great week at the New Life hotel in the little village of Coo, just outside of Stavelot – the heart of the Ardennes. It was a week of riding, pictures, and work, highlighted by a great hotel with great people and equally great weather.
I’ll get into my love for the Ardennes a little later – rest assured, that we’ve been photographing our explorations of the area, so we’ll take a little pictorial journey through the land in short order.
Today though, all attention goes to Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
This was our fourth Monument of the spring, and despite the rather large assortment of major races, I still found myself awake before the alarm clock, ready to go.
I was a little apprehensive of Liege. From what I’ve heard from a bunch of different people, it’s not exactly a destination city. Fortunately for me, my favorite city in the whole world is our old home of New Orleans, so a little urban decay is right up my alley. It is true, the city looks like it has seen better days, but it’s still a beautiful place to take a walk through…especially the morning of Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
And with the introduction out of the way, let’s get into the pictures!
The press area was in there. How cool is that?!
After having our press passes sized up, flexed back and forth, and ultimately deemed real press passes, we were in – only to realize that there was nothing really there, so we headed back outside and found this…
This Rabobank rider, I think it was Bauke Mollema, but I forget, apparently doesn’t enjoy the anything other than hard plastic between his hands and his shifter. I’ve never seen anything like it.
There were crowds around all of the team buses, but Philippe Gilbert’s Omega Pharma-Lotto team won, 10-1. Belgium, and especially Wallonia, are in rapture.
After a little walking around, we decided to get on the road. Once again, we had no idea what we were doing or where we were going, so we figured a little time for map research would probably be better than taking pictures of disinterested bike riders with a bad, bad final exam awaiting them.
It took us a little while to figure out our bearings on the beginning part of the course, but we found ourselves on the route for the first time around Harze, just outside of Liege, and in the supposed part of the day that wasn’t climb-y. I think it’s criminal that there are no categorized climbs in the first chunk of the race. I know for sure that we drove up a climb that was at least three kilometers long, and we stopped near the top of it…
The initial break had formed, and they were going really, really hard. Three or so other riders were bridging from the field, and the peloton was going anything but easy. There were a lot of ouch faces already. Not a good sign considering what was to come. It’s one of those moments when you think, oh ow, this is going to be a long day. I had that same thought at Milano-Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix. I guess it has something to do with those special races.
We hopped back in the car and headed for Houffalize – home of the world famous Cote de Saint-Roch. I had not ridden the climb ahead of time, as it was a fair bit out of the way for us, but driving up it on race day was a special experience. For such a massively minor climb, it draws a wild crowd. The road was packed from bottom to top of the wow steep climb.
I couldn’t find a place to stand for pictures, due to the packed confines and the disapproving glares from every person who had been there for centuries before me. No worries, I just kept walking aimlessly back and forth until the race came, and then, just like that, a spot opened up next to me.
Ashley didn’t have the same problem – she parked a little further up and go the above shot of Thomas De Gendt absolutely hammering his breakmates on the climb. The Belgian has been solid all year, and he showed it yet again on Sunday with a stellar ride through the Ardennes.
The rest of the break ascends through the madness.
The road opens up a bit above the houses of Houffalize, and the breakaway got a little bit more room to heave their way up.
A few minutes later, the field arrived, led by Omega Pharma and Leopard Trek.
Jens! Do I need to say anything else?
It was unnerving how slowly the riders crept by. Don’t get me wrong, they were going really fast for the road they were on, but the pace was such that a jog was enough to keep up. I can’t imagine what my pace would be described as on that climb. Four-legged baby crawl.
With the slowness demanded by a grade in the high end teens, there would seem to be more time to pick out riders. And there was, but the insanity of the scene made up for that. It was rock concert wild. I loved it.
Then out popped Philippe Gilbert. It was humorous to see how each and every person on that climb was looking for King Phil, even the proud Luxembourg and Schleck flag wavers. The screams and yells would increase a decibel, the fingers would come out pointing – there he is! And there he was. Ice cold, unperturbed, some would say poised.
The only other rider I spotted that could rival Gilbert’s coolness was Alexandre Vinokourov. The guy looked like he was reading the morning paper while sipping some coffee. If it weren’t for a badly timed mechanical (I know they all happen at bad times, but his was really, really bad), he was the guy that would have joined the Schlecks and Gilbert at the front.
I can guarantee you one other thing too – there would have been an attack.
Say what you want about Vino. His past is dirty. It’s true. So are the pasts of many other riders from that period. Moving past that though – the guy drips aggression. Maybe that’s why he looks so bored everywhere else in a race. I think he only wakes up and comes to life when he’s on the attack.
Even with the almost 4000 meters of climbing on tap for Sunday, the Saxo Bank team opted for Zipp’s 404 Firecrest wheelset. Worth noting, I think.
Rinaldo Nocentini squared his former yellow jersey wearing shoulders nicely for this shot. Thanks!
And with the passing of David Moncoutie, who was riding his traditional few meters off the back, the field eased off into the distance, southward to Bastogne.
We’d catch them again in the opening part of the finale – on the Cote de Stockeu. The maddeningly steep climb is just a few kilometers from the hotel, so we’ve had the pleasure of doing battle with it on a number of occasions. It provides a whole lot of ouch for its short one kilometer length.
It was a good feeling to leave the foreign section (to us at least) of the race and return to roads that feel 100% familiar after a week of constant exploration. We even debated what would be the best direction to approach the climb from, briefly considering the dirt road we discovered a few days ago. I love moments like that – moments when you don’t feel like a complete bumbling moron, but actually, just a teeny bit informed. It makes up for the 10000 times I don’t feel informed I guess.
In the end, we decided to approach it from a very simple way, parked in Stavelot, and started our march upward.
These two, er, witches greeted us. The guy inside was happily downing a beer when I raised my camera. He stopped drinking for the shot. I don’t know what it is with Stavelot and the, I’m not sure what they are, but they’re everywhere. This is when someone informs me of the story about the long-nosed witch and how it’s central to the history of the city/region/whatever. Ready? Go!
Like the long nosed unidentified ‘people’ we saw everywhere, but even moreso, the monuments to World War Two’s Battle of the Bulge are everywhere. On race day, riders, fans, and little kids all made this tank home. One kid climbed the barrel. Things have changed a bit in a little under seventy years.
The march begins. The whole climb is steep, but the upper half is brutal. Of course, that’s where most of the fans, ourselves included, migrated.
And with that, I’ll call it a day. Tomorrow: the Stockeu and the always decisive Roche aux Facons.
Note: I apologize if some of these pictures might seem unnecessary, perhaps superfluous. This is, for lack of a better term, a travelogue of sorts. It’s an account of our day chasing Liege-Bastogne-Liege, so I’ve selected pictures that hopefully help illustrate the sights, sounds, smells of another incredible adventure on the road. If you’re looking for a race report, please check out Ed Hood’s excellent account HERE.
Want to see lots more pictures from our chase of Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Head to Flickr!
Questions? Comments? Email me! Want to enjoy the play by play here in Belgium? Try Twitter. If you’re looking for a bit more, there’s always the tried and true, JeredGruber.com