Liиge is done and dusted as a Tour town for a little while at least. We roll out this morning, south-west towards Braives where we pick up the race route. It’s at kilometer 46 for the riders, and immediately it’s a crackpot sequence of sharp turns, narrowing roads and questionable slopes. It doesn’t seem necessary as we reach Oteppe.
It’s overcast and cool this morning. We escape the twisty turns onto some arrow straight roads – could be interesting if the wind gets up. Surely too early to cause major damage in the peloton though.
Along to Lamontzee and the red poppies are gently lolling by the roadside, the corn grows tall. Just like the Tour, they’re the signs of summer.
We round a corner into Burdinne, and these two guys are up out of their seats, hooded tops whipped off and vintage maillots to the fore. It would be rude not to stop! Their mother rolls her eyebrows, but if the spirits are still as high when the race comes through, it’ll be a grand day out for the family.
A farmer’s field of dead and decaying tractors rusts red as we head towards Namur. Unfortunately, the town has managed to leave up a massive yellow construction crane which won’t look great on TV, but we’re sure the Citadel will make up for it.
The climb starts with a sharp right from the banks of the Meuse and the barriers are already in place. We hairpin upwards. It’s not the Alps or the Pyrenees, but it’s a decent workout nonetheless. Onwards, we think we’ve reached the top, but it’s only a momentary levelling in the gradient. Round a corner … 1 kilometer to the summit!
We park up just on the top and have a look at the L’Hermitage restaurant. The clouds have been burnt off and the whole place is starting to look like a fairytale location. Louis XIV of France, the sun king, had a crack at taking the citadel during the Nine Years’ War. In 1692, Vauban led his forces there and took the town in 11 days. Menno van Coehoorn helped the Citadel hold out alone for another 25 days. From bottom to top today, the riders will lay waste in about ten minutes.
The weak side of the Citadel was supposed to be that bordered by the Sambre. The French didn’t know that when they signed truce terms though. This caused them to take longer to get the job finished off, even with Louis’ boys outnumbering the garrison by at least ten to one.
The Tower of the Count’s Chateau dates from the 11th century, but the actual site has been important since Roman times. The strategic points remain the same today as I’m sure they were then – the police try to secure the little bridge, next to the tower, into the heart of the upper Citadel with about 800 meters of the climb to go. It’s not a battle they’ll win easily as fans flagrantly defy them and stroll across. Louis XIV’s ghost wonders why he didn’t think of that …
Right by the bridge, Guy Delforge runs one of the most important Parfumeries in Belgium, working in the ancient cellars under the Citadel. He’s an independent, selling only on site or on the internet. The classical music piping out of the shop is drowned out by the thundering commerciality of the Tour’s publicity caravan.
The anticipation builds, still two hours from the race arrival. The Tour is a big deal in bike-crazy Belgium. The national flag is everywhere; given the political problems between Wallonie and Flanders, I’m not surprised the Flemish Lion is less than conspicuous so far!
Not all the caravan’s participants take the climb – it’s not advisable for the bigger vehicles. The fans don’t care though …
… the welcome is as fervent as usual! Necks crane, kids on tiptoes!
The freebies skitter over the cobbles and against the stone kerbs. At least the road is ancient and the cobbles are worn smooth in most places. There were a few ‘broken teeth’ on the inside line towards the top.
The ramparts are fearsomely high. It’s an impressive feat of engineering. Even more impressive is the obvious lack of safety barriers. Somehow no-one goes over the edge. In the UK, health and safety would have probably shut this to the fans!
Lunchtime passes. I’m sat in the shade looking down over the city. I watch the fans snap their souvenir photographs. An elderly dog slumps against a wall, tongue stretched out cartoon-style.
Race time is coming. The fastest schedule has the riders reaching the Citadel at 2.27pm. They’re late, but you can’t blame them.
Like something out of a war film, TV helicopters clatter into view. The fans know they’re friendly. Welcome, for the Tour draws near!
Way, waaay below us, Roux of FDJ-BigMat, Morkov of SaxoBank-Tinkoff and Europcar’s Christophe Kern sweep over the cobbles.
By the time they loop around and reach my viewing spot, Morkov has taken over and drills it to the top for the King of the Mountains point. Roux’s left arm flaps around, like a bird’s injured wing.
The peloton is taking it as easy as possible, cruising by the Meuse and onto the climb. A local flotilla of boats takes to the water for their moment on the world’s TV screens.
Lotto-Belisol lead the way; with Jurgen Van Den Broeck for the overall and Greipel for the sprints, they’ve got a lot of work to do.
In the heart of the field, it’s calm, composed. None of yesterday’s mayhem … yet.
Cavendish’s world champion’s bands are safely in the field, and he’ll have no problems getting over this climb.
The cops have won the day on the bridge and although both ends are swarming with photographers, there’s enough space for the riders to go through.
And then they’re gone. Even on such a shallow climb, only two kilometers at 4.5%, it’s still surprising just how fast they took the Citadel.
There are some excitable fans, babbling below us. They’re singing in Spanish and look as if they’re on a Tour and soccer high after they won the Euro 2012 title last night. One guy was practically breaking his mate’s ears: “They were this close!!”
Time to get off the mountain, so we turn skywards and head for the car. Something is distracting us. It sounds like an approaching army, a new attempt to take the Citadel.
“Edddddd-Vald Booooooo-Asson … EDD-VALD-BOO-ASSON!!” The noise is like the fabled Marshal amps in the Spinal Tap movie. The guys marching through one of the tunnels under the Citadel have a magical dial that goes up to eleven. The volume echoes thunderously towards us.
It’s Espen, Mikael, Bjшrn Inge and Espen the Teacher, who’ve been singing so full throttle since the Tour start that Espen number 1 is now losing his voice. They’re a lovely bunch of guys, and Espen is from Thor Hushovd’s hometown Grimstad. We’ve met Thor – and he’s a nice guy. “You see that is so good for me to hear. I know Thor’s mother, his father. It makes me even prouder of him that he is a champion but also a good person.” Espen and his pals were also good people, sharing their cold drinks with us as the afternoon got hotter and hotter.
“Meeting people is the biggest part of the game for me.” Espen’s parting words as we shake hands. Too true, Espen. It was great to meet you, too.