Liège-Bastogne-Liège: From a Beginner’s Perspective

It was an inauspicious start. On the way to Liège, we encountered heavy traffic, and roads in terrible condition—little did we know we would have to cycle on them later and both would become staples of our race! When we checked in to our hotel, we were all a little traumatized to realize that there is, in fact, a world of difference between a normal Ibis hotel and a budget Ibis hotel. The ExpaTRIés were definitely not staying in the lap of luxury this weekend, but more like in the lap of the ghetto industrial zone with regulation cell block-sized rooms.

But we tried to make the best of the budget Ibis, at least it was close to the starting line (one of them, anyway—more on that later!) and we were there on a mission: to test ourselves on one of the oldest and toughest courses in Europe that the pros would do the next day.

Before this daunting European classic, many an ExpaTRIé wondered if they’d taken on more than they’d bargained for—and none more so than me, as probably the only beginner cyclist on the team!  The first time I’d ever ridden a road bike was when I showed up for session 1 of Paul S’s excellent ‘7 Weeks to Better Cycling’ class—with no air in my back tire and no real grasp on how physically to change gears! It didn’t help that I’d only started using clip in pedals the week of the race, which as we all know, results in falling over a lot and isn’t exactly a confidence boost before your first bike race!  I had also never cycled 80K before and had only a few days before learned which gears to use for uphill and downhill.

Needless to say, I just wanted to get round, have fun and be safe. Like a lot of the other ExpaTRIés, I was also looking forward to getting out of the city and biking in the countryside where I would be free from worries about clipping in and out.

The morning of the race, it was freezing cold. We wore all the biking clothes we’d brought, but we ended up all being underdressed! We cycled to the start together and then we had to cycle on to the other start line 13km farther into the race (cycling races usually have a 13K warm up, although we didn’t know that at the time). We ended up getting separated here, there were just so many cyclists on narrow streets all following signs to the starting line, but I knew everyone else would do great, I’d figured I’d do most of it alone at my own relaxed (meaning slow) pace.  We biked entirely on city streets and given recent clip in pedal trauma, I kept thinking, “please don’t make me stop on a hill,” and “if I have to stop at this traffic light, I hope there’s a curb I can put my foot on!”  Finally, we crossed the official start line and thought we would finally get out of the city.

There were fairly constant rolling hills, the landscape was thankfully less urban, but still not exactly the countryside we’d hoped for and none of the roads were closed to traffic. The beginning of the course was a steady climb, but not particularly steep. Things went smoothly and before I knew it, I was at the first (and only) rest stop about 35K in. I made sure I knew what direction to take off in again, drank some water and ate some bananas and bars.

I was shivering when I got back on my bike, the weather still hadn’t warmed up and everyone’s feet were numb for most of the ride. Going downhill into the wind was a whole new level of cold. To my surprise, I ran into Jeff and Frank after the rest stop, both looking strong, who had taken a wrong turn onto the 160K course (no thanks!) and had doubled back. They zipped off to tackle the first hill and it was a nice boost to see some teammates. The first of the 3 steep hills on the 80K course was the worst, the infamous Côte de la Redoute.  This hill was nearly vertical with a 20 percent grade and I was not the only cyclist who ended up walking my bike up part of it… But the worst was over.

The second hill was pleasantly manageable, la Côte de Colonster was only maybe 5 percent and although it was long, didn’t feel particularly steep. This was the only part of the course that was out in the countryside, with cows and fields, exactly what we’d expected. We assumed it would stay like this, but no, we went back into town, to traffic lights and potholes!

After this hill, the course became very urban again, and since it was later in the day, there was more traffic. The worst parts were when we were routed onto the side of the highway (yes, a real highway!) and the last hill, la Côte de St Nicolas was on a busy road with traffic and the requisite Belgian potholes. As a beginner, I wished they had at least closed that one road to traffic.  This hill was also steep and tough because it came so late in our race, around km 75, I think, but it was mercifully shorter than La Redoute. After this hill, my Garmin gave up and died due to a weak battery and I thought I was more or less done. Getting to the finish line took longer than I thought, and here was the only place where the otherwise well-marked course became a little confusing. There was a sign for the finish for the longest distance, the 277K, and I asked other cyclists if that were for us, too, and the general consensus was yes and from then on, we realized we were following signs to the start line and hoped this was the same as the finish line. This part of the course seemed the longest. It was all urban, though the scenic industrial zone and even went very close to the budget Ibis.

Finally, I crossed the finish line and the sun came out, I saw Frank and Jeff at a picnic table covered in what seemed like a Belgian mirage: beer and frites! This was by far the highlight of the entire race! We discovered that we could return our race numbers for a 5-euro refund, which went to cover more beer and frites. We ate, drank and swapped cycling tales and then Seb, the first of the 160K crowd crossed the line, looking strong but ready to be done with scenic industrial zone Belgian cycling.

All in all, the ride was hard, but boosted everyone’s cycling confidence. We also thought we probably wouldn’t do it again, there was general disappointment that the short course hadn’t really gotten out of the city, although the longer courses had. If anyone is considering doing it next year, I would recommend doing the extra training for the 160K for a nicer, less urban course—although you’ll have twice as many hills! For more about what to expect on the longer course, see Kathryn and Paul’s write ups of their eventful rides.