I rode my first sportive type of event, as mentioned above. I wrote about the experience at length on my own website but I'll reproduce it here for those of you who fancy a long and occasionally interesting read ...
As with so many things in this country, you had to know about the AP Cycling Tour - a whole calendar's worth of sportives right here in Belgium - to ride it.
Thanks to a fellow member of the club I started last year for roadies in the city, I found out about the Cycling Tour just in time to ride the last event of the season: Les Géants des Ardennes.The event
Les Géants is a specially designed and totally epic jaunt through the northern part the region with plenty of the familiar narrow roads, steep climbs and sweeping descents.
was clearly marked with orange arrows, although I discovered that the GPS trail did not
always match reality on the ground. There were three feed zones along the way, offering pooped pedallers energy drinks, fruit, pain d'épices and tardis toilets, all included in the price of entry.
Three versions are available in increasing distances and, given my own experience in the Ardennes and how poor I am at climbing, I opted for the middle one at 113km.Before the start
The start-finish zone at the Country Hall near Liège was rather chaotic when I arrived at 08:45. Over 2,800 riders had brought with them a great many cars and the parking area looked to have been overwhelmed long ago already. Happily, the sign-on process was much faster than finding a verge on which to dump the car and pull on my kit in full view of a crestfallen public.
I had prepared my Look bike with a good wash and lube the evening before. I swapped my usual sundries bottle
for a saddlebag in order to reclaim the second cage for another water bottle: we were expecting thirty degrees Celsius and blazing sunshine and that's exactly what we got. And what I got was a desperately heavy bike with 1.25l of fluids and all the usual junk to carry.
I pinned my race number a bit higher on the back of my Velorooms.com jersey in order to honour our fallen forum comrades Craig and Keith and, ready to ride at last, I wheeled out of the secure bike park.Rolling out
I started the day with club member Susana, the one who had tipped me off about the AP Cycling Tour, and her triathlete friend Céline. We did the first four climbs and about 35km together before they peeled off on the shorter 82km route.
Our pace was very steady for the first hour or so and I found these early climbs pretty easy as a result. Having zoomed down past the University of Liège campus, I recognised the first climb, the two-part Côte de Dolembreux-Hautgné, from my visit with K to Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April. We had followed it in the car on our way to the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons on the opposite side of the valley. I was very grateful not to be riding that
The shallow lower section rose out of the trees to a steeper crescendo which still only hit about 7%. At the top, a car driver seemed confused by all the cyclists and confused us in turn. Céline didn't escape her pedal at the junction and fell over. She probably bent her derailleur hanger and thus inhibited access to her lowest gear, which would give her problems throughout the day.
In a less messy analogy of Brussels' Car-Free Sunday, riding with a lot of cyclists of varying abilities can be an awkward and occasionally stressful exercise, as I discovered on the first big descent, picking lines through busy corners while trying not to drop my companions.Finding a rhythm
There was never much time for recovery between the climbs and there were very many "non-categorised" (or rather simply unlisted) hills and I wondered, especially in my difficult moments, whether this was more a product of the Ardennais topology or the caprice of the course designers.
The Côte de Chaply, quickly followed by the Rue du Fays, was a stiffer test but most riders tried their best to look presentable for the photographer at the latter's summit. I felt really fresh but I lacked the concentration that my later solo performance would require. Fortunately it was still too early in the ride to matter if I forgot to eat and drink enough.
The descent which followed, after the village of Presseux, was probably the most exciting of the day. It was steep, narrow, sometimes rough and characterised by hairpins. I didn't feel jumpy however, even when some kamikaze kids wanted to show off. I recall that I was a very nervous descender as a kid.
My last climb with the ladies followed immediately afterwards and it had to be tackled almost from a standing start, thanks to the busy but marshalled junction at the bottom.
The Côte de Chambralles, which rises up to and beyond the village of that name, was pretty savage. A seemingly endless procession of bends lasting 1.5km averaged at 9.5% with the lower sections topping out at 20%. At our rhythm, I didn't suffer much.Going solo
I said goodbye to the ladies at the split just before Awan. I didn't expect to see them again.
Now alone, I needed to increase the pace. Riding the longer distances demanded an earlier start but my own had been later and I found myself chasing the clock a bit. Two out of the three feedzones that followed later were already winding down by the time I passed them.
The climb that I had feared most was up next, the Côte de Niaster, which features regularly in Belgian races in this region. Similar to - but longer than - the Chambralles, it boasts a particularly nasty middle section. My cadence
was now much higher and I felt like I was attacking this one. Toward the top, I started to catch the first of the late riders.
The upswing hurt me but with the proper concentration I was riding more sensibly now and I knew that I had to go steady and not blow up or else I would be finished later when the distance started to bite.
If my fear of the Niaster was somewhat misplaced, it would have been justified for the Côte de Priestet-Warmonfosse which followed soon after. At 2.1km long with an average of 7.2% and a max of 16%, I struggled in the latter part where the gradients were steepest.
I hadn't had enough time to review the rest of the day's bumps in StreetView and the consequences of that are always double-edged: it's hard to pace yourself on climbs you don't know but often that same ignorance saves you from your own mental fragility.
I stumbled across the first of the feedzones soon after Priestet and stopped for perhaps a minute to refill a bottle and grab some cereal bars, two of which I ate almost immediately afterwards on a rare flat section.
Had I reflected that I was still not yet at the halfway point, I might have felt overawed, but the course designers now threw in a very lengthy rolling section without any particularly tough uphills. I also understand myself as a rider well enough to know that I would have good and bad patches and I had just left a bad one behind.Eating up the kilometres
This rolling section, which played more to my strengths, was a pleasure and I picked up and dropped a few more riders as I pushed on, always careful to keep my heart rate in check.
After a very long and lovely descent through Ferrières, before which my parcours split with that of the longest distance, I tried to fill a bottle at the feedzone in the unpronounceable village of Xhoris but the tank
was empty and I couldn't pee either. After less than a fruitless minute there, I continued on my way.
Ahead of the event, I had counted on slipstreaming a few stronger wheels to help me along but until now there had been almost no riders at all, let alone riders putting down an acceptable pace. Beyond Xhoris that began to change, where the trails of the 82km and 113km riders converged. Indeed from Comblain-au-Pont, not much further on, all three distances were once again united and following the same route to the finish.
I yo-yo'd a bit when I did at last find companions - a couple of gents with a superfit lady - since their pace was slightly erratic. They rode a little too slowly for me on the flatter sections but they were hard to match when the road went up again and I was still trying to shake the earlier, uncategorised Côte de La Rouge Minière out of my legs.
They dropped me by a handful of seconds on the relatively easy Côte d'Anthisnes, just before the final feedzone of the day. There I resolved to eat something other than cereal bars, fill another bottle and, since there were many more riders present than I had seen since long ago at the start, try to catch a proper bunch out of there.
The plan worked spectacularly well, albeit with the frequent interruptions of vehicle traffic trying in vain to pass the groups on the long and sometimes hair-raisingly rough descent to Poulseur in the valley bottom.Hanging on
The climb of the Ry d'Oneux, which brought us back out of the valley, now shaped the supreme irony of my day. With an average gradient of 6.4% and a very brief max of 13%, it looked like the easiest climb on paper. At 2.8km however, it was already a pretty long one, but it continued to drag for another couple of kilometres after the official summit.
And this was the irony: although by no means super hard, I suffered more on the Ry d'Oneux than almost any other climb on the parcours.
There was an excitingly significant number of riders here and I sat in the wheels as many dropped away, much as one sees in the big televised races. The gradient of the lower section was regular enough to hold a mesmerisingly metronomic tempo. This was arguably much more painful because
it was so metronomic.
I reached the top and felt almost exhausted but pretty pleased with myself. I felt that I could live with the final 25 kilometres so long as I found and kept the wheels and that's what I set out to do.
To my relief the course designers, whom I had started to believe were monstrous sado-megalomaniacs, now gave us another long faux plat descendant and I latched on to the back of a trio riding at what seemed like a furious average of around 35km/h but I handled it, as long as they didn't expect me to come through and do a turn!
Just when I thought I would have to renounce the big ring, my fluctuating heart rate settled down to a very manageable 160bpm and this tripartite juggernaut towed me all the way to the Côte de Strivay which, at just 11km from the finish, convinced me that the course designers were monstrous sado-megalomaniacs after all.
According to the blurb the Strivay is 2.8km at a mere 4.8% average and a doable 15% max. Grinding my way up this narrow corridor of agony, perilously close to so many others suffering footdowns, I found that description hard to believe. I was gasping for air, my legs were screaming and I no longer had the strength to get out of the saddle.
At the official summit, a couple of guys were handing out more energy drink in little cups. All I wanted was plain water but I reminded myself over the din of my legs that I had been blessed not to have any stomach cramps despite drinking litres of this stuff from wasp-infested tanks all day long.
The official summit then gave way to another endless continuation, this time made difficult to negotiate by the struggling bodies everywhere.To the finish
Just as I was on the point of something like death, with blinkers forever focused on the horizon that may or may not be the actual summit, I saw some way ahead a familiar triathlete's one-piece. Could it be Céline? If so, where was Susana?
A few metres further up the road, as it turned out. I gave the former a light tap and the latter a wave as I rode by, too worn out to think much about it. At the finish I learned that Céline had experienced more bike problems, such that they had been somewhat delayed. In the meantime, I kept up my slog.
I cursed my Garmin as it now seemed to be stuck on 108km of the 113km total! I was thankful for a short descent before the last climb of the day, the Côte de l'Hôpital, which we had descended at the beginning of what now seemed like years ago.
At this point, it wasn't a matter of catching a breather on downhills but rather "wasting" some of the remaining distance. The marshal at the bottom called out "Courage!" but, although by now severely diminished by the effort, I found this swansong neither long nor difficult.
Three kilometres later, I crossed the line. My legs hurt, my head hurt, my back hurt, my arse hurt. Everything hurt. And I was happy.
Postscript: felt like Quintana but rode like Frank Schleck.