The alarm was set for 4.15am but I was already awake half an hour before, today was going to be a long day.
At 277km (172miles) Liege-Bastonge-Liege or la Doyenne (the oldest) is a seriously long tough route. Eating breakfast so early is always hardwork but I needed to cram as much in as possible. It's rather a cold start as we reluctantly start pedalling at 6.30am. The course starts with a meandering trip out of Liege, negotiating the cobbled streets and other riders panicking to crack on. After nine miles we are seemingly only just out of the city, and we are faced with the first incline. Immediately it is clear I still have very little power in my legs. I drift back off the pace. 6km climb and then a 14km drag are so insignificant on the LBL that they are not even mentioned in the route guide, the real climbs will start much later. We are due to pass our hosts Claire and Phil's house after 34miles and Davina will be there. I had a heavy jacket and winter gloves to shed but my legs felt so rubbish that I was considering stopping the ride there. I was struggling to see how I could possible complete the course, my legs just felt hollow and useless, but this was a rare opportunity to experience such a classic course, I would be so annoyed with myself if I binned it, so I would have to just suffer. Suffering the pain when at the top of your game is one thing (and quite enjoyable) but suffering when you are lacking form is a nightmare. I play mind games....why are you bothering to put yourself through this? You could be relaxing somewhere pleasant with your feet up. The van was parked at the start, so the logistics for stopping were rubbish. After a lot of swearing to myself and internal accusations of being an absolute waste of space, I massively man up and commit to finishing, no matter what state I'm in.
It's a welcome sight when I see Davina at the 34 mile mark. But it's actually after 43 miles, my elaborate bar stats are a tad out. I spent ages last night converting km to miles and producing it and it seems that this route added an extra starting section that the pro race doesn't do. I swap for lighter clothes and just as the group I'm with start to ride off again, Davina comes out with a mug of tea for me. I get a barrage of abuse but happily slurp down as much as I can, oh the simple pleasure of tea, I'll take the abuse. The last week has been great with such a friendly bunch of new and old friends, all walks of life with one abiding quality.....the ability to apply themselves to the task of physically and more importantly mentally completing the challenge ahead.
After a long descent, it's the cote de Roche that marks the first climb that is mentioned in the route guide, but we have already built up a decent chuck of elevation gain on the Garmin. I am still suffering like a dog, I can no longer bluff my form and seem to be plodding up the climbs with no real drive. By the time we reach the Bastongne feed at 70 miles the temperature has not improved. I think the leggings will be kept on all day. I stuff the cakes and fruit on offer down and head off on the next section, and although it had been so windy up until now this next stretch was described in the briefing as 20km into a headwind, great just what I needed. But in fact it was, the enforced upping of output, snapped my legs out of their hibernation, as I prepared myself for the onslaught of the second half which was ridiculously stacked with climbing.
The first of the legendary climbs is the Cote de St Roch, just 1km long but ramping up to well over 20%. After just shy of 100 miles I am delighted to see Davina waving at the side of the road. I thought I'd wouldn't see her again on the course and in fact til the evening. I was with a strong group and had to make an instant decision to stop or not. It didn't take long to decide, a hug can work wonders to a depleted body. She shoves chocolate in my mouth and I press on. Luckily the group had been slightly delayed in traffic through the town and I get to within 100 metres of them when I bunny hop the kerb and take to the pavement to avoid the cars. I then weave through the last remaining cars (yes dreaming they are team cars and it's the TDF :)) and rejoin the group. Just in time for the start of a real testing section.
The combination of the Col de Wanne, Cote de Stockeu and the Col de Levee was the part of the parcours I recced yesterday. The Wanne is a lovely 3km climb through a forest. The Stockeu is a nasty steep lane but so iconic in cycling. The Levee is just horrible, straight, long and steep. My legs have finally decided to join me and I whip up this trio of climbs. Through the streets of Stavelot and we get more cobbles but my push has started in earnest and I enjoy the brutal vibrations.
Perversely it is after a mammoth 120 miles (when most, if not all normal sportives would be finished) that we get the first of four timed climbs. Riding across the timing maps and getting the 'beep' cannot help but increase the pace. I am working well now, both on the climbs and rolling sections between, and geared up ready for what I been looking forward to ...............attacking La Redoute.
Over the timing mat and power on. At this stage riders are all over the road in varying states of distress, it's carnage. Some are off and pushing their bikes up, all have such despondent expressions. It's steep and longer than I remembered, and after 145 miles, quite a test. At the top, wow there is Davina with a pastry, she is getting everywhere. 'Only' 27 miles to go now but I know it all going to be so hilly.
On an average day the Col de Colonster would pose no problem to a rider, but I left all my legs on La Redoute and I weave and struggle up. Back into Liege and the landscape changes somewhat. From glorious spectacular countryside we now have the very grim industrial side of the city. Disused and decaying it's quite a sight but somehow adds to whole LBL experience. The climb of the St Nicholas may not take us into Liege in style (it's a severely grim, poor, crime ridden neighbourhood) but it's another stupidly steep road and the final timed climb. You wouldn't want to puncture here, lots of dodgy individuals milling a round ready to start their Saturday night of wrongdoings. Although one large resident with his equally large dog seemed to think drinking beer in a classy leather sofa in his front garden was an inviting slight. We then just have the finishing straight to negotiate and of course it's up hill, namely the Cote de Ans. At the top we're taken away from the pro course and head to the start/finish village. Another few miles taking a not too direct route, I'm shot to bits and need to consume a malt loaf just to be able to keep pedalling.
The welcome sight of the finishing gantry means time to rest. Unfortunately only coke, beer, chips and hamburgers are available at the finish, nothing I can have or want, so it's a full 3 hours until I get to eat back at the hotel. My reward...a feared and notorious route ticked off the list. A long painful day......but unforgettable.