I’m not sure how I ended up doing LBL. On the back of our cycling trip to Majorca the year before plans were put in place to do it again that fell through. Somewhere in the midst of this Jeroen had mentioned doing LBL as he had wanted to do it since he was a boy (being Dutch the cycling Spring Classics are a huge event).
A commitment was gradually made. We would take the motorhome via ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam and then it only meant a short drive at either end and accommodation and logistics were sorted. After checking who else wanted to come Roy also committed.
We arrived at the ferry terminal in Newcastle after an uneventful drive down to find the car park very quiet. Having not read the instructions very carefully we had arrived not at check in time but a few minutes before it was due to close. No problem though as we were straight on the boat and it was time to go with no waiting around!
We put our bags into our cabin which brought back memories of “Prisoner from Cell Block H” with its twin bunks and minimal room. We wouldn’t be spending much time in it though so it would serve a purpose.
After a surprisingly nice buffet meal and the first of many games of gin rummy we avoided the discos and settled down for the night.
The following morning we set off in nice warm weather down to Liege. At this point we had no real plans apart from get near the start line and see how close we could park to stay the night. Liege is quite an industrial looking town as you come into it from the motorway but trusting in Google we got to the start line and registration hall. We had received an email from the organisers on the way down that showed event parking which included a motorhome area that was 50m from the start line. With a looped course this would be one of the easiest logistical events to take part in.
We completed registration and collected our Finisher T-Shirts; glad they were so confident in our abilities. The weather was still warm so it was shorts and T-shirt weather for an easy 30minutes spin to loosen the legs.
After that we got the awning set up and outside table and got our pasta made for dinner. It wasn’t the most scenic spot to be staying but it was definitely functional.
The weather forecast in the morning for the day said 10-12 degrees with a couple of hours where it may rain. This prompted many kit discussions (as we had every weather option available) but we decided on shorts and a few light layers to protect from showers. This turned out to be a huge mistake.
There are 3 ride options to chose from. We had chosen the medium which covered 10 of the 13 climbs but at 147km was quite a way short of the full 266km route (I suspect we will be back!).
I got my phone out to get a photo of us going through the start line and then found I was on my own. No sign of Jeroen or Roy anywhere. I didn’t want to cross the start line in case they hadn’t started but couldn’t see them anywhere. A phone call to both got no results, so what now. Doing the whole event on my own wasn’t part of the plan. Fortunately, a call came in from Roy and they were 500m up the road. So, we got back together and joined a large peloton leaving Liege. About 8000 people take part so hopefully finding groups all day should be possible.
It is 8km through Liege which in get Pro race is neutralised. We passed a sign saying “Official Race Start” which was right at the foot of one of the many climbs that isn’t listed as a climb. This was one of the worrying unknowns of LBL, there is not really a flat part on the course. The major listed climbs are nothing like a long steady Alpine climb but are shorter at 2-3km but have steep sections up to 20% on some climbs. We commented about what would make you try to attack here and get in the breakaway for the day with 260km to go and very little chance of succeeding.
As we got over the climb the rain started and got heavy very quickly. Whilst being in a peloton meant we were getting shelter from the wind it also meant all the spray coming off the other wheels kept you very wet. We stayed in this good group until the feed stop at 45km.
The first of many Belgium waffles was consumed and we tried to get moving again as quickly as possible. It was too cold standing still. Gloves were taken off and wrung out and off we went. Within this section we would now start getting into the proper climbs of the race.
I’m sure this next section took us through some very picturesque parts of the Belgium countryside but we saw none of it. The rain was so heavy and the wind chill was making you so cold. All you could do was focus on the road in front of you. Try to get warm when you went upwards and get down as fast as you can and keep concentrating so you didn’t crash on a wet bend.
We arrived at the next feed station at approx. 80km and stood shivering and hardly able to move. We ate as much as we could to get energy levels up and as I watched someone climb into the ambulance to warm up, I considered joining them. I was now shivering uncontrollably and couldn’t stop it. Again it was time to start moving as staying still didn’t help.
I knew the climb of La Redoute, one of the most famous of the race, was at 107km and felt with one more climb after that if I could get through that point it was a fairly straight run to the finish. As I set off though I could hardly keep the bike straight due to shivering so much as we went down the descent. I was genially beginning to worry about getting hypothermic. I was somebody in front of me start wobbling really badly, the road service on this descent was rough and poor, and manage to recover. He said he got a speed wobble and thought he was going to crash but got lucky.
We turned up for the next climb the Col du Rosier and I knew I just had to go hard and get warmth through my body. As we got into the climb it went through a nice wooded section, the rain stopped and you could briefly feel some warmth from the sun (if not see it). It was enough though to get recovered and get in a more positive mind place again.
Once through the forest and back on the open road the rain started again and then turned to hail! It was sore but by this point it didn’t seem to matter just try to keep the power down and keep moving. I didn’t feel tired, we had paced the ride well at the beginning so even with the remaining climbs I didn’t feel it would be an issue to commit a bit more.
We arrived towards the climb of La Redoute. It had cleared up again and Jeroen pointed out the restaurant he had booked for dinner that evening. There was an open field with plenty of motorhomes parked up so we had a location for where to stay that night. Then quickly into the climb. It was already lined with motorhomes for the Pro race the next day and had “Phil” (as in Gilbert) written on the road the whole way up. It gets steep quickly, then gets steeper! Some people were now walking. You don’t want to be that person. The road is very narrow and in front of me 2 people both walking were nearly blocking the road. I moved left to avoid them and one started walking (slipping in his cleats) to the left as well. I think I politely asked him to hold his line and stay out the way or I may not of. The road slightly flattens in front and you think you’ve made it then as you reach the crest it rises again for the next section. Over the top of this and then another 500m of relative flat to the official summit. A quick photo stop was had as we felt it was now in the bag.
After descending we then wound through some narrow farm roads in between fields. It felt like you were definitely in a typical Spring Classic. This became reinforced as we came back onto the flat and the hailstones started. It didn’t really feel cold just very sore as we were making good speed on the charge for home. This rush for home then appeared a bit premature as we then turned onto the Côte des Forges. There was a sign saying telling you it was a 1400m climb. It definitely felt like they got their measuring wrong! It was steep and seemed to just keep going.
After another fast descent there was one climb to go the La Roche-aux-Faucons. 9.7% average gradient and 15% max. Like most of the climbs in LBL it is not too long but the accumulative effect makes it far harder. We were over and just had the fast run in back to Liege.
The route into Liege was really nice with sweeping descents and fast roads until you hit the city centre. It isn’t a closed road event so there were quickly 100 plus cyclists all together going quite slowly getting stopped at multiple traffic lights. Liege seems to have one of the maddest road infrastructures in a city centre. We then arrived at a large blow up archway which seemed a really disappointing finish chute and not back at the start as expected. The pro teams were being introduced on a stage to our left for the race the next day and a lot of cyclists were stopped at the barriers. We were handed a beer token and were thinking, Is that really it!”, the distance seems a few km short as well. It turned out it wasn’t. It was one of the sponsor promos. We quickly got going again and started following signs to the finish.
Finally, back where we started. The proper finish line with photos, lots of people and a celebratory atmosphere.
We got showered, ate some hotdogs and had a beer then drove back to park at La Redoute for the pro race the next day.
We had parked in the field we saw earlier in the day which was ideal and sat eating our lunch their as the pro women’s race came through.
After that we walked back up La Redoute to join thousands of others on the climb to watch the men’s race. There is a large beer tent and big screen TV’s half way up the climb so you could still see the whole race.
It is a great way to finish the weekend with a crowd of Belgium’s who see cycling as their national sport.
LBL is definitely an event worth doing. The logistics are so easy and there are 3 event routes so all abilities could take part. We did the medium but I think if I come back it will have to be to try the 266km long one!