Last year, I made the discovery that is is possible to ride the course of most of the Classics, as a Sportive, on the day before the professional race. Paris-Roubaix was great fun, so this year's ride was La Doyenne, the oldest of the Classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This was the 101st running of the race since 1892. They skipped a few years for the First World War, and a couple more for the Second, but they haven't missed many. It's a race steeped in history and tales of cycling heroism - Hinault in the snow, Merckx in a 100k break to victory and many others.
It's an Ardennes Classic, quite different from the Flanders Classics like Paris-Roubaix, so there are fewer cobbles. There are some, of course, or it wouldn't be Belgium, but it's mainly about the hills. Lots of hills, the stuff of cycling legend. I had formed the mistaken impression that the Ardennes were rather like the Surrey Hills, which is true to a degree, but the scale is bigger. The Côte de la Redoute, for example, is steeper than Whitedown at 21%, but is nearly three times the length. There are eleven classic hills, nine of them used this year, and they are joined by un-named hills, some very long, so you spend the entire day climbing or descending. It's even a 5k drag up to the finish. Unsurprisingly, the locals are very good climbers.
The Sportive offers three distances, the full course at 273k; mid distance at 156k and a shorter version for old people and children at 75k. I went for 156k, which turned out to be nicely over 100 miles by the time you had ridden from sign-on to the official start and from the finish line in Ans back to the Sports Centre for medals and beer.
|Nairo Quintana behind ...|
There were more than ten thousand entrants and the event was immaculately organised. Excellent signposting, helpful Marshals and cheerful staff at the Food-Stops, where rock music kept you in the mood. Great stuff.
At the finish line there was excellent security for your bike, so that you could collect your medal and have a beer without worrying, then back to the Hotel for a long hot shower and a traditional Belgian supper.
A proper day out.
ps - on Sunday, Alejandro Valverde won the pro race in much the same time as I took. He had done 100kms more, of course, but then, he is a younger man ...