Tales of a Cyclotourist, Part I: 1994 LBL

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.

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17 Replies to “Tales of a Cyclotourist, Part I: 1994 LBL”

  1. 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

    That’s a hell of a Part 1. Your Paps sounds as insane as you. That is one mighty slog for a youth, powered by frites no less. And what a course!! Huge distance and 4000m climbing. I’m impressed.

  2. @john
    It was a hellish day, but that’s how it goes. The memory of the pain fades quickly, and what remains is the memory of overcoming a challenge.

    Craziness fades throughout generations. My dad is way crazier than me. He bought a farm in Wisconsin due in no small part to it’s proximity to the Mississippi River valley and it’s similarity to the Ardennes. He measures his rides not in distance, but in vert and the unit of measurement he uses is km. He routinely does 4km in one day.

    We should all be so crazy.

  3. Well written post – fun read. Sounds like an awesome ride. Someday, someday – I’ll ride in Europe.

    Being a dad with a 10 year old son who rides and races with me. I hope his memories, a few years down the road, are as cool as yours.

  4. @Dan O
    It was a great way to grow up. With my family being in Europe, we made many vacations there. I first rode Alpe d’Huez when I was thirteen. This trip to Belgium was when I was seventeen. An amazing way to grow up.

    But it’s more than the setting, it’s the experience. My memories of traveling out for vacations of training in the Cascades when we lived in Minnesota are just as special as those of our trips to Europe. Now that I live here, my parents come and visit and we head back out to ride on our old mountain biking turf – the memories are just as sweet.

    And those are the memories that make you pass up the sweet full suspension ride and end up buying an MB-Zip instead.

    I can’t imagine your son could ever feel any different about it than I do.

    He might get pissed later, though, when he realized you sold your Zip and how cool that bike is.

  5. Okay, now that I’m not on my iphone (which only loads the comment section 1/10 times). Really cool story. Most kids from this part of the world have hunting and fishing stories with their dads (which is fine), but this is cool. I always thought it would be cool to ride LBL, especially around B, because my grandfather was in the Battle of the Bulge and I could see some of the countryside he did. I’m planning a trip to the Giro next year and am really stoked. Getting my bike there though sounds like it’s gonna either be really expensive on the plane or I’ll have to ship DHL or something beforehand. Any suggestions?

  6. @Marko
    Marko, for what it’s worth. I stopped putting my bike on the plane because it got too expensive unless it was a trip that did not involve stop-overs, but with these crappy US airlines charging extra for napkins or use of the toilet god knows what they will ream you for with a bike. It burns me golfers can put their massive golf bags on without charges, I reckon CEOs play golf? And getting bike/box to and from airports is a pain.

    I use FedEx Ground-Home delivery for bike shipping. I haven’t used it for shipping to Italy but FedEx rules, they will clear it through customs. My experience with DHL in the US has been sour, they might have already bailed on US service. You can get a quote on the FedEx website.

  7. @Marko
    That whole part of the world is amazing. On an earlier trip to the area, we saw a german Panzer tank near Spa. It was an impressive reminder of the people like your grandfather who fought there. Belgium is well worth a visit. And that’s without even talking about the beer.

    As for the iPhone, the site should be fully iPhone happy now. I’ve noticed that the site wasn’t working on mine, either, and have worked off-and-on since the site was set up on trying to get it functional. It turns out that the caching plugin (WP Super Cache) has some rewrite rules that don’t make the iPhone happy, at least given my setup. I switched to Hyper Cache this weekend, and things seem much happier. Either WP Super Cache doesn’t actually support the iPhone, or it doesn’t work when you install WordPress outside your site’s root – I’m not sure which, but all my blogs that had WP Super Cache had the same problem.

    I bet you were dying to know that.

  8. @john
    I think next time I travel avec le velo I’ll FedEx it. Traveling with a giant bike case is a pain in the ass.

    That said, I’ll miss feeling like a pro, wandering through the l’aerogare with bike case, cycling cap, and shaved leggs.

  9. So allow me to geek-out off topic a bit. Perhaps you’ve seen these: http://www.walzcaps.com/ . I just ordered the wool with ear flaps for cool weather riding and nordic skiing. It’s very cool. I even had them embroider Alan Bicycles – Italy on the side. So that got me thinking, perhaps a more traditional one with the Velominati logo would be cool…

  10. @Marko
    Spectacular idea. DAMN. What do you need to provide them? I don’t see an option to upload a photo.

    I have a few wool caps and some cold-weather caps, too. They are awesome, way more comfortable than classic caps. Great for travel since you can smash ’em up without damaging them. You could say I’m a bit obsessive about cycling caps…

  11. @john
    By the way, that was one cool thing about my time consulting for telecom companies here in Seattle. Many of the execs rode instead of golfed; in fact, many of the current execs used to report to Bob Stapleton before his Columbia days. Cool company, at least in that regard.

  12. You may have to email a gif or something. Let’s figure it out and place an order.

  13. @Frank

    Cycling is the new golf – so they say. It’s great to read when “Execs” take up cycling. If they’re doing it, they’re diggin’ it. Cycling is too hard to be a total poser. You would hope the trickle down effect would create bike rooms at work, incentive to bike commute, etc.

    On the ZIP. No real regrets. Way cooler that you’re enjoying it, instead of collecting dust in my garage. Use it well.

  14. @Dan O
    I hear ya 100% on cycling being too hard for the wussies. My building just installed a shower downstairs, and so did Michelle’s. It’s coming – but Seattle is way ahead of the curve, I think.

    I’m glad you sold the Zip. I love that thing. It is in good hands. I gotta say, aside from the ride, that Suntour XC Pro rocks. I used to have Superbe Pro on my road bike in the early 90’s and that was awesome, too. I wonder why that company went the way of the Whippoorwill?

  15. Wow! Still combing the “older” threads and came across this one today. What a ride, and to do it with your Dad as well, just amazing.

    I noticed that you did not list the Paris-Roubaix Cyclosportif in your list. It is the one I dream of more than any other. It’s held every other year and has three different lengths. I cannot imagine how punishing that ride would be but I cannot wait to do it some day! (please excuse me if you already know all about the P-R one or have even ridden it!)

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