Having joined Velo Classic Tours on several of their trips over the years, we’ve come to know their trademark “epic cycling, authentic culture and exemplary service” is more than just a tag line. As part of his Spring Classics II – The Ardennes trip, VCT’s owner Peter Easton has us deep in the heart of the Ardennes – and luxury – in Stavelot, Belgium. This crucial axis in Liиge-Bastogne-Liиge is also our prime viewing spot for the race. Now into their 6th year guiding cycling trips to Europe, Easton knows the region like a local and lays out the terrain for our ride over a demanding and pivotal 80-kilometer section that will include 6 of the dozen climbs the riders face on their 262-kilometer figure eight loop.
The picturesque climb of the Cote de St. Roch comes early on, but it’s always photographed!
Our Ride Stats
Distance: 100 km including climbs over:
– Cote de Wanne 2.2kilometers 7.6% average grade max 11%
– Cote de Stockeu 2.4 km 9.5% 15%
– Cote de la Haute-Levee 3.4 km 6% 15%
– Cote du Rosier 3.9 km 6.3% 10%
– Cote de la Vecquee 6.2 km 5.3% 11%
– La Redoute 2.3 km 7.4% 19%
Though not overly long, the climbs of LBL are steep and come in a flurry. And don’t be fooled – the terrain in this part of Belgium is either up or down. This is where the race contenders will show their strength, the challengers will begin to fade and the winning break will form.
On the morning of our ride, the clear blue sky and crisp spring air was enough for warmers and a heavy dose of warming oil. Following our traditional Belgian hunter’s breakfast – fresh eggs scrambled in warm milk with local Ardennes ham and sausage – we hit the course.
CSC drives it on the Stockeu.
A Quick History Lesson
The oldest of the classics, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is affectionately known as La Doyenne – the Old Lady. First run as a professional race in 1894, it was originally established as a dry run event in 1892 for the ill conceived Liege-Paris-Liege, similar to the popular Paris-Brest-Paris that had been started the previous year. The turn around was conceived as nothing more than a convenient point since it was accessible by train for race referees. Starting from the Place Saint Lambert in Liege, the race heads south along the Ourthe River to Bastogne, before doing an about face and heading north into the hills of the Ambleve Valley and the meat of the course.
The Cote de Wanne signals a stretch of racing that come race day will see riders rise and descend 9 climbs in less than 100km on their way to the finish in Ans. Narrow, steep and twisting above the main road, the first climb gains elevation quickly through a cover of pine trees, something we realize looking down across a wide valley. Hmm, the old lady huh? A grandmotherly image comes to mind, sitting in front of the fireplace, sipping tea.
The field marches through Stavelot.
Good Witch Bad Witch
Peter knows well the fast and steep descent back into Stavelot, and advises we brake well in advance before the sharp right onto the bastardly 15% grade of the Cote de Stockeu. Stefan Wesemann made a brave solo ascent here in 2006, grinding up the impossibly steep and narrow pitch, a very slow and painful kilometer that’s brutal even for the pros. The old lady is starting to resemble a witch. Not sure yet if she’s good or bad. An evil looking monument to Eddy Merckx (an omen?) points us down hill and the road plunges into the village, rocketing across a narrow bridge, blazing past store fronts and clanging over cobbles, the road spitting us out at the base of the Haute-Levee. What?! again, so soon?! La Doyenne my ass!! This old bag is killing me!!!
Steffen Wesemann made a brave lone effort in 2006.
The Haute Levee was added to the race in 2005, the concrete divider in the middle a reminder of the horrific runaway truck accident in 1999. A little more evil doing for sure I think that’s sure to force some funneling on race day. A bend to the left and a stiff sharp right, and it begins to recede as we cover the remaining 4 kilometers to the town of Francorchamps, famous for the Formula 1 Grand Prix track. The distant scream of engines can be heard. It is the cars, right?
The Ardennes offer much in the way of vistas.
Easton leads us deep in to the Ambleve woods – a stronghold during the infamous winter of 1944 – the irony of waging war across the hills is not lost, though there is no comparison between the severity of war and the innocence of bicycling. The route strikes a grandmotherly chord again, as a beautifully pastural descent is a pleasant reminder, passing an enclave of homes, before arriving quickly at the base of the 4-kilometer climb of the Cote de Rosier. Suddenly the bad witch is back, as we come to a virtual standstill turning onto the initial steep slope of the climb. This is where Jens Voigt and Vinokourov blew the race apart in ‘05, recalling their 60+ km battle to the finish.
Climbing through the damp forest, it’s easy to envision Little Red Riding Hood and visions of a chained and bound grandmother, the evil wolf watching your every move… suddenly I’m too wide on the descent and braking frantically as I overshoot a turn and spew gravel at my riding partners. What kind of evil speed will these guys carry along here, I wonder? A sharp right puts us on the main road to Stoumont, and climb number 5, the Vecquee. It’s good to be out of the woods. The Vecquee is a moderate climb that finally allows us to catch our breath. Alright, I’ve got to stay close to someone this time. I ride alongside Peter to get the lowdown on what lies ahead.
The view from the Cote de Wanne.
At the top, our support vehicle, driven by Lisa Easton, is waiting. Lisa fills us in on what she’s seeing from the driver’s seat – including the boys in green from Credit Agricole. Right on cue, here they come, and Peter and a couple guests quickly take up on the back, as the team car lets them in with a friendly beep of the horn. Recounting their ride, Peter said the pace was quick, and they were riding with (actually behind, as he put it) Dmitriy Fofonov and Nicolas Vogondy. moving along about 25 mph, and covering a few rises, they heard the guys chatting and joking. La Doyenne, right guys! Ha! Wait until you meet the evil one on Sunday! They followed the team along the twisting descent into Remouchamps and the tricky approach to La Redoute.
Looking at the monster La Redoute climb from afar.
The Final Push
La Redoute is the most famous climb in LBL, and the most pivotal. The road weaves through a back alley, past a raucous chicken coop and around someone’s back yard before paralleling a highway exit ramp. Passing a few campers staking out their spot, Sunday will see the road pulsating with a maddening crowd of Belgians, Dutchies, a few Luxembourgers and plenty of Italians. I feel the wrath of evil approaching, and after a quick turn under the roadway, the grade suddenly becomes stupid, climbing steep like through the barricades that have been put up in preparation. Accounts varied among our group, but 19% for quite some distance felt about right. Our family fun with CA long over, the bad witch is smiling wickedly, her rotted teeth thrust in my face and her bad breath crawling across my neck. I can’t help think, other than I’m going to fall over, that amid this evilness surely this is where the winning move would be made?
Follow the trusty signs!
La Doyenne meets the Bad Witch
After riding those climbs a couple days before the race, watching Wesemann hit the cobbles through Stavelot was as exciting as any moment in race viewing I’ve ever seen. Maybe it was the noise of the approaching race vehicles and seeing his reflection in the shop window a split second before coming into view; maybe it was the fact that he had the stage all to himself, much like ourselves; maybe, it was the fact that we had done the very same thing, and in our own heads, had done it with just as much intensity, though surely we had more fun, right? Smiling, I think of La Doyenne, knowing all too well the wrath of the evil witch of the Ardennes will soon be clawing at his back!
For more information on this and other great tours to the best races in Europe, log on to www.VeloClassic.com or call 212.779.9599 for a 2007 color brochure and itineraries.