Last Tuesday we debated how to kill a week in between the Sunday of the Amstel Gold and the Sunday of Liége – Bastogne – Liége. The question was whether to explore more of the Ardennes area of Belgium or cross into Germany for some cycling in the Eifel region. The Ardennes region has allegedly colder and quite unpredictable weather this time of year, which almost swung our vote for Eifel but our decision to stay around was mainly influenced by catching La Flèche Wallonne, which runs on the Wednesday in-between the other two races.
We spotted a number of team cars and busses when we drove into Huy on Wednesday morning, especially women’s teams. We hadn’t bargained to catch a professional women’s race as well.
The friendly woman in the information centre provided us with a course map and time tables for the man’s race. Huy turned out to be a better strategic spot rather than the start town of Charleroi and there was plenty of time before the race would make their way to Huy after a late start at 11:35am.
It was before midday and the plan had been to go for a ride and watch the race at the Mur de Huy but we didn’t feel like getting on the bikes at all. It was uncomfortably cold – the kind of wet wind that sips into your bones and chills you from the inside. There was a constant stream of dark clouds and showers moving through.
There is this amazing fortress towering over Huy and there are older lanes, churches and houses in Huy than I had seen so far in Belgium, some date as far back as 1066, but Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin probably told you more facts and figures about Huy during their race commentary than I could ever copy from our European guide book so let me get straight to the Mur de Huy.
I had all the Muurs muddled in my head before I arrived in Belgium but now know that this Mur of Huy is not cobbled. The cobbled Mur is the Muur of Gerardsbergen that used to feature in the Tour of Flanders but got taken off the course this year and subsequently we missed it. But we didn’t miss the Mur de Huy and what a ride it was! I’m still laughing and I’m half angry with Alberto for his boldness that pushed me way outside my comfort zone for an incredibly authentic experience.
On the lower part of the Mur was the usual pre-race action: officials, frités and beer tents, barricades, fences, tape, banners, flags, big chalk letters on road and colourful people. But it wasn’t packed, yet. Nonetheless, the road marshall in pale blue anorak with the Belgian colours was serious about his job and stopped us at the right hander that marked the start of the actual climb to the finish line. The road had been uphill already through the red kite arch a few hundred meters earlier but nothing that was like the Mur. It is by far the hardest climb I have ridden but that afternoon I didn’t notice.
So we looked around a bit, pushed the bikes a bit. At an unpatrolled gap in the barrier people let themselves through and walked up the hill on the road. We did the same. Someone cycled pass. If you know Alberto, you will know that nothing stopped him at that point to mount his bike again. The lower slopes were not so steep and there were few enough people to be able to weave through. Walking in cleats uphill wasn’t very comfortable and Alberto was fast disappearing uphill so I jumped on my bike, too. Only, the further I got, the more crowded it got.
When a group of happy-singing drunks stopped me in my path it was too steep to remount. Alberto was somewhere ahead, somewhere up the hill amongst the masses. I continued walking, slowly, carefully avoiding slipping on the steep incline, all the time watching out for Alberto somewhere on the side, who I thought would secure a spot for us to watch the Pros. Only, there was no Alberto and, strangely, suddenly, I was by myself on the road. People were all behind barriers watching me looking lost, pushing my bike. There was cheering and carolling and it was all directed at me. Shit! How did I get myself into this peculiar situation? Should I turn around and find a way to hide behind the anonymity of the barriers? But then I wouldn’t get further up to find Alberto because people were tightly packed.
I no longer could ignore the Fietsen and the unmistakable pedalling movement with hands demands from the crowd. Where was Alberto? There was no way getting out of it. Here I was, pushing my bike up a 20% gradient hill, not just any 20% gradient hill but THE Mur de Huy with people four deep lining the road behind barriers, screaming and cheering and encouraging me to ride! There was only one way to keep face. “Bon courage, mademoiselle!” No sooner had I swung my leg over my saddle I felt hands on my back. Where they came from, I have no idea! A fast acceleration and another strong push and I was up and on my way, now pushed along by the cheers and encouragement shouted from both sides.
It was crazy and cool at the same time, riding up the Mur de Huy only minutes before the Women’s peloton was due to come through. With every turn it seemed to get steeper, and the crowd noisier. My legs burnt. My lungs burnt even more. It was the cold air that I sucked in. My left foot still wasn’t clipped in but there was no stopping until the road finally levelled out and a friendly Gendarme with a knowing smile gently pointed me off the course through the fence on the side. And then I spotted Alberto’s excited face with the same big smile that I probably sported at that moment, all pain and embarrassment and happiness all mixed into one strange bundle of elevation.
My heart rate came back down to a level where I could talk and join the cheering myself, and already did the women’s peloton pass, their faces also contorted in pain and agony. This climb is a bitch. A real wall of a climb! I felt sorry for them for having to do it one more final time after that.
The bunch had strung out. We started rolling after the last girl had ridden pass and before we realised, we were on the course and out of town and on the Route the Romantique.
The little Northern Liege loop of 25km was perfect to follow because it led us back into Huy on time to see the men come through on their second loop and then we had just enough time to organise chips and beer, get pelted by hail, see the sun come out again and watch the finish.
Needless to say, when we went back to the Mur de Huy the next day, this time riding the entire way in the sombre silence of a Monday morning, without barriers and excited cheers, it felt much harder. It felt like it was the toughest climb I ever managed to ride up without stopping and only because I knew I had done it the previous day.