Belgium is flat. Well, it’s flat in the west, in Flanders, but even that region has its hellingen; short, steep cobbled ramps which test the legs of pros and amateurs alike. These rutted brutes are a feature of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, perhaps Belgium’s most important annual sporting event.
Travel further east to the hills of the Ardennes and you enter a landscape which resembles Shropshire with pine trees. This area is home to classic bike races like the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne- Liege. The finale to LBL (265kms) consists of a series of iconic climbs in the last 70 kms, including De Wanne, Stockeu, Haut Levee, Col de Vecquee, La Redoute, Roche aux Faucons and St.Nicholas. None of these are very long, but they are all punchy legbusters, and on Good Friday 18th April, I resolved to incorporate a couple of them into a 130 kms solo ride.
The weather could have been much worse, for instance like the snow affected 1980 edition of LBL won by indomitable Breton Bernard Hinault, who, to this day, claims that he lost the feeling in his fingers contesting that race. However, I just had a chilly, nagging headwind to deal with on leaving the village of Heyd. The first climb through the shady Bois de Haaré was devoid of motor traffic and took me from 190m up to a height of 475m. There followed a steady descent on a smooth fast road via Harzé to the town of Aywaille which stands on the banks of the river Ambleve.
This is the gateway to the Cote de la Redoute, a climb of 1.6 km with an average gradient of 10%. On big race day, La Redoute is the place where the real contenders for victory come to the fore. It’s a stepped climb which starts with a steep pull up to the motorway bridge at around 12%, then, at the right turn, the gradient eases slightly before a double kick of 17% up to the bench where I took the photo.
From the summit, a plummet to 187m and then steady 6 kms of ascent to 525m as I tracked across country in search of the fearsome Stockeu climb on the outskirts of Stavelot 20 kms away. But it would be a crime not to describe the beauty of the high meadows in the spring sunshine. The muted sound of traffic had faded away to be replaced with the buzz of insects and the prattle of birdlife amid a backdrop of bright dandelions and tall purple grasses.
The Garmin led me up a rocky bridleway, impossible to ride, and down a gravelly farm trail. If Plastic Pete could ride Paris- Roubaix, then I could ride on this loose stuff. Shelled out onto the N606, I followed the signs to Stavelot via La Gleize, where the BMC team bus was parked up outside a pub! I chanced a left turn on the way, which took me up the interesting if unexpected climb of the Col de Coo, a little cracker at 1.6 kms in length, at 8% gradient. A driver wound down his window and wished me luck…I must have looked in bad shape.
In Stavelot I was treated to a couple of hundred metres of cobbles before crossing the bridge and hitting the Stockeu. Hallelujah, it had been re-surfaced. There were three riders spread out in front of me, but this is not one to light the fuse at the bottom. The race circuit itself turns left at the T junction adjacent to Eddy Merckx’s statue after about 900 metres, but I was continuing all the way to the top, 2200 metres at 11%.
Straight into the 34/28 low gear, breathe deeply if possible, control the heart rate if possible; don’t think about the guys in front, they look cooked anyway. After a couple of minutes I had a (slow) but steady rhythm and began to reel in the other riders. They had tried to smash the lower slope which is just an introduction to the 22% ramp situated just after half way. This is a big mistake. Save something for the steepest part and then try to power up to the statue. On this day it worked for me, I grabbed them all. Shit! I felt like I had won the bloody race. No matter, I still had the second half to conquer. There is the briefest of respite before the narrow and now extremely potholed road lurched up to 18%. Thanks a bundle, a least no one could see how bad I looked.
From the top of the Stockeu at 478m, there’s a smashing rollercoaster over glorious countryside which leads to a vertiginous descent of the Wanne via Spineux. Make sure your brakes are in good order or you could end up in the side of a stone barn. Having only covered 70 kms but with about 1400m of ascent, I felt like partaking of some Belgian frites for lunch in Trois Ponts. Suitably fortified, the way home was punctuated by the Cote de Rahier, Cote de Bra and the Rue de Boussines on a mixture of smooth tarmac and impossibly pockmarked bitumen. It had turned out to be an epic adventure due to the severity of the terrain and the history behind it in terms of bike racing. But also, on a couple of occasions I ignored the GPS to explore some little spurious gems which always seemed to go uphill and finish in a dead end.
It didn’t rain, indeed the wind abated and the sun shone brightly as it fell towards the western hills to put the seal on a great day of riding. The Ardennes pose a real challenge for any cyclist, and disprove the theory that Belgium is flat.
131kms 2400m climbing