I could see it from where I was sitting on the terrace outside the cafe. The street dropped off towards the valley where the river used to run before turning and rising steeply – too steeply for how I was feeling – up along the dam and out of the valley. What was worse was that I could see the other riders in the distance struggle up the hill; their pace and the the crooked routes they follow toward the summit made it all too clear how much they were struggling to get up it. This looked like a beast.
Although I was feeling better with each plate of mayonnaise-covered fritte my dad was feeding me, I was starting to have serious reservations about climbing back on my bike. Paps (Dutch kids call their dads “Paps”) kept ordering more fritte until he was satisfied with where on the spectrum between yellow and green the color of my face fell. I had bonked after about 250km of riding, give or take. This was Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the one thing I knew was that the hill I was staring at was the least of my worries.
We had arrived at Schiphol earlier in the week. We unpacked our bikes and loaded up giant Blackburn undersaddle bags, and started to ride. We were riding from Zeevenaar in the Netherlands down to Liege in Belgium to participate in the Liege-Bastogne-Leige cyclotourist “race”. Any race where the start time falls within a two-hour window is not a real race in my mind, but we were thrilled at the chance to ride the route of LBL nonetheless.
There are several of these types of races: the Tour of Flanders, Liege, and, of course, L’Etape du Tour, in addition to many I’m sure I’m not aware of. Each of these are different, but each of them share the fact that the races are organized by the organizers of the pro race, held on the same course as that year’s race, and the roads are closed to traffic. They also share the fact that they are hard and they are awesome.
We left for Liege on Friday and arrived late Saturday evening. We hadn’t booked a room yet, and it seemed every hotel we came across was complet. It’s funny how, as travelers, you generally assume these things will work out with almost no planning whatsoever. It wouldn’t be the last time I would be poking around some European town, looking in vain for a hotel, but it was my first, and I was a bit tired to fully appreciate the right of passage this experience really is.
Finally, we found an available room. I don’t know what it cost, but I remember my dad wasn’t very happy about the price. I fell into bed and into a dreamless sleep, expecting to wake up early, climb back on the bikes, and ride our race. I awoke about an hour later to the sounds of kids racing motor cycles in the street below. Sleep was impossible.
We rode to the start, which I remember was at the top of a big hill. Arriving at the sign-in, I was already feeling tired, but my excitement overwhelmed any reservations I might have had going in. We rolled out of town and Paps explained to me how the ride worked. The organizers had painted arrows on the road to designate the route, and all we had to do in order to find our way was to follow the arrows.
The routes of these races change from year to year, so each year gets a different color arrow indicating the route. The year before, they had used blue arrows, and this year would be white. Everything was going well until we found ourselves descending a long, gradual descent towards a small town. There was only one problem: we were alone. Really alone. We had been riding more or less alone most of the race, but we saw other riders regularly. This was different. No one else was on the road. We got into town and followed the white arrows through centre ville. We were starting to wonder where everyone was when I spotted Stephen Roche’s name painted on the street. Roche had retired in ’93 and had not raced the 1994 edition of LBL, so it was highly suspect that his name would be painted on the road. I stopped my dad and explained. We pulled out the course pamphlet and finally realized that we had been following blue arrows – blue arrows that had paled to nearly white during a full year in the elements – along the previous year’s route. We now had a 50km long gradual climb back to the route. By the time we were back on course, we had made a 100km detour.
The route from Liege to Bastogne is rolling but fairly easy, without very many of the short, steep Cotes that litter the route back from Bastogne to Liege. This is where the real racing happens. We were behind schedule and had picked up the pace to make up time. I vividly remember sitting on my dad’s wheel and watching, helplessly, as his wheel started to pull away from me and my legs refused to raise the tempo. Up until then, I hadn’t felt tired in the least. In fact, I was going very well and didn’t think I was tired at all. But then the Man with the Hammer came along and bopped me on the head, and I was finished. I remember catching up to my dad who was rolling along waiting, wondering what had happened to me and whose expression was somewhere between disbelief that I had been dropped and horror at what that meant for the rest of the ride.
“Did you have to stop to pee?”, he asked, hopefully.
“I don’t know what happened, but I can’t go anymore. I’m completely empty. How far is it?”
“Well, about 140km. I think we need a plan.”
That plan turned out to be fritte. We stopped at a cafe on the roadside and ate loads of them. And, finally, some life came back into my legs.
The funny thing is that I don’t remember the climb out past the dam. We just got back on our bikes and rode. I remember some of the famous climbs – La Radoute, St. Nicolaas – but the climb out of the valley doesn’t register in my memory, despite the fact that I sat starting at it for the better part of a half hour.
I was tired the rest of the way back to Liege, but as we got onto the last 10km or so of the ride, I was so thrilled to be riding on the roads my heroes had raced just weeks before that the pain left my body and was replaced with excitement. Even now, when I watch LBL, I can still smell the rain on the street and feel the rhythm of the turns.
By the time we got back to our hotel, we had ridden 390km and over 4000m vertical that day; the LBL route was about 270km. Come to think of it, were it not for the detour, I would have timed my bonk almost perfectly, with only 10 or 20km to go. Everyone knows that’s a great time to bonk, so I feel pretty good about that.
The next day we got back on our bikes and rode back to Holland. I don’t remember much of the ride back, but I will never forget that day on the streets of the Queen of the Classics – just Paps and me, and our bikes.