Liège-Bastogne-Liège – La Doyenne – the oldest classic and reportedly the most challenging of the classics on the circuit. Had the Expatries bitten off more than they could chew? Well, only time would tell…..
The first to hit the road was Nick’s group in the team van, with gusto singing provided by Jamie and Kathryn in the front and some serious snoozing from Jeff, Frank, Seb and Blythe in the back. On arrival into Belgium, we were greeted by rain, traffic jams, road works, potholes and a grey and run-down Liege; into a hotel that was more akin to staying in prison cells – what were we doing here? We were joined by Paul G from the train, Dave Bishop hopped over from Brussels and Paul S brought up the rear with Cat and James in his car. Adrian was somewhere close-by and Rabi and Caroline were lucky to not be able to get room in the inn and staying elsewhere! Suitably pasta’d up, we went to bed and prayed for a dry day in the morning.
Race Day: Nick was up and away at 6am to tackle the 276km course (or so he had us believe – was he actually still in bed?) For the rest of us, the race started with a focused shopping spree – the only team to be buying kit to put on as they’d underestimated the cold and wind chill factor!
With good intentions for all on the 80km and 160km to start together, this soon became impossible, as no one knew when or where the official start actually was (which turned out to be 30 minutes in and at the base of a hill). And that set the tone for the rest of the course – the hills kept coming. Who said Belgium was flat?
All agree, it was not a nice race, but it was definitely eventful. Having reached the first food stop together at about 40km in, Paul G and Kathryn regrouped with Frank and Jeff. After stocking up on some tasty Belgium waffles, we promptly set off in what we thought was the right direction. A few kms down the road, Thomas France appeared on the course and exclaimed “well done for attempting the 160km course”. Er, hang on a minute; with the exception of Paul G, we were most definitely doing the 80km. Now Frank and Jeff saw no shame in turning round, but Kathryn on a whim decided to carry on and as she was to find out, perhaps had just made the most foolish decision of the day. Besides, she couldn’t leave Paul G on his own – right?
Not long after, the 155km food stop came up and we were reunited with Expatries team 160km – Paul S, James, Jamie and Dave. A quick rendition of the sun has got its hat on from Jamie and Kathryn (to try and stave off the cold) and we descended as a group. Riding together didn’t last for long as we hit the first of the marked hills on the 160km course and Paul G and Kathryn found themselves alone again. Little did they know how long a day it was going to be for the cycling duo. It was at the top of the first timed hill (Col du Rosier, hill no. 6) at 80km that Kathryn realized she was at the furthest point from home, had another 80km to go and a dodgy knee developing. A Dutch man at the top helpfully commented that “Pain is a given, but suffering is a choice!” – and the worst was yet to come!
After several cramps (which always seemed to hit immediately after crossing the time trial beeper) and a brief stop at the Red Cross ambulance to strap the knee, we had 40km left to go and were on our way to tackle the infamous Hill 9 – Cote de La Redoute. At a maximum gradient of 20% in parts, this was a challenge for all. We had turned the bend and started the ascent when there was a loud clang and Kathryn’s chain snapped! Unbelievable. We were 115km in. Could this race get any worse? Would we be able to see the finish? We were picked up by the repair van and found ourselves back at the food stop and the Mavic repair station. Questioning whether it was ‘lucky’ that they could temporarily fix the chain so that we had the opportunity to finish the race, we had to re-start La Redoute for a second time! Sheer grit, determination and needless to say some tears, saw Kathryn and all of the Expatries team make it up that hill and on to cross the finish line, which seemed to be always around another corner and at the end of yet another hill.
By the time Kathryn and Paul G crossed the line (in 9.5 hours of actual cycling), Nick had already successfully and without much fuss completed the 276km course in a commendable 11 hours.
None of us had done the course before and with the exception of Adrian, none would have the desire to come back and do it again! Amongst us, one flat tyre, several slipped chains, one broken chain, too many inhospitable hills and a lot of pain. Yet we all completed it and for many, it was their first race and longest ever bike ride. I am not sure what the right words are to sum up the race? Painful, exhausting, ridiculous, pure stupidity, eventful beyond belief, an epic, or all of the above? Overall though, it was an event to remember. Congratulations to all and many thanks to Nick for sorting out the logistics and to the drivers for getting us there and home safely. It was a great and memorable weekend away with the team.