Why did we go to Spa? I seriously can’t recall. Maybe we looked at the map, closed our eyes, pointed at some place along the Liége – Bastogne – Liége course and went? Or we tossed a coin and it landed on Spa? Maybe Spa just sounded like the place to be. I mean, after all, it’s the place that gave its name to all towns and cities in the world with some sort of healing qualities.
Spa it was, and Friday night we parked at one of the switchbacks of the Côte de Maquisard right outside the town, and we were surprised that we weren’t the first motorhome to arrive. We joined a nice little party of three or four others, already well positioned to cheer the peleton more than 36 hours later. They had settled in for the long haul, even placed those fancy yellow levellers under their wheels so they could sleep nice and even. We had seen many people use those and had actually purchased the yellow thingies ourselves, because we belong to the motorhoming crowd. They may come in handy on some steep slopes in the Alpes but that night we kept them wrapped. It was muddy and wet and too much of an effort to get them all dirty.
The view was magnificent from up there. I opened the curtain from the alkoven bed and looked down through the trees into the valley towards Spa.
Over breakfast I spotted a lonely cyclist coming up the road. It drizzled. I didn’t need to poked my nose out the door to know that it was freezing cold. The heater was running and the temperatures had just climbed into the higher tens inside the motorhome. Kudos! I thought to myself. Some people are more crazy for cycling than I am. And then there was a second cyclist. And then a small group of four or five having a loud conversation as they came up through the forest. By breakfast’s end a steady stream of cyclists rode pass and I jokingly observed that this was like the Liége – Bastogne – Liége cyclesportif. Well, doh! It was!
The weather cleared somewhat. It remained cold though. The plan had been to do a 100km ride along the next day’s Liége – Bastogne – Liége course, from Spa following the final 65km all the way to the finish in And, picking up five Côtes along the way and then following the early part of the course back to Aywille and then cut across back to Spa. Being shown up by all the brave cyclists out there, we eventually peeled ourselves out of our motorhome cocoon, drove down to Spa, where we parked right next to the information centre, got dressed and on our bikes close to midday.
By the time we rode pass our previous night’s address, the sun poked out and we joined the still continuing string of sportif cyclists. The Côte de Maquisard is 2.5 km long and a very comfortable steady climb.
From the flat riding around Senftenberg, which was perfect for base training in March, to the short but sharp leg zappers of the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold in early April, we were now progressing to the longer steadier climbs. Perfect training for L’Etape in July, at least that’s what I thought, when I pushed the pace with my fresh legs in pursuit of Alberto. The sportif riders were well over 100km into their over 200km ride on a course described as the toughest of all Spring Classics.
Getting mixed up in the sportif was unexpected but unavoidable. The roads were open to all traffic. We followed lime green course markers (just like the ones at Paris-Roubaix), an insurance for not getting lost this time and also great for a better average speed, not having to stop and check maps and directions all the time. The disadvantage was that it got crowded at some parts of the course and it gave me a feel for what to expect at L’Etape du Tour in July.
We were all set for a comfortable 100km ride until, out of the blue, the clouds closed in, the temperatures dropped and the skies unloaded a fair amount of water and hail on us. Riding in hail was a first for me. The small ice bullets hurt when they pelted my face and made a firework concert of noises when they hit my helmet.
There was a long descend. By the time we reached Aywaille in the valley, I was shivering, despite my full length bibs, my base layer, winter jersey and rain jacket, full finger gloves, beanie and over-shoes. Yeah, I had come prepared but obviously not prepared enough for hail. We were 24km into our ride. After a brief discussion we decided that it was wiser to count our losses and turn around. The chance of getting sick was too big.
We made our way back up the climb and, despite the rain, got progressively warmer. And with the warmth the will to ride returned. A quick check over our shoulders confirmed that the hail had made way for a gentle drizzle and the sky looked already brighter in the distance over Liége. Another brief discussion, and we were on our way again… on route to Liége re-joining the sportif.
Riding the same roads with hundreds, even thousands of like-minded people made the kilometres fly by. The average speed was high, and we reached the Côte de la Redoute, the third climb of the day… for us. While I got over the first two easily, I was shocked to suddenly face another wall. The gradient hit 13… 15… 16% and there were cyclists all over the berg with strained muscles and distorted faces. It was climb #8 for most of them. Alberto smiled, waiting patiently for me at the top.
All I remember from the next climb is that it was steep and painful and seemed to go on forever. With my gaze fixed at the road just in front of my wheel, the landscape and surroundings stayed blurred. I was afraid to look up and give up at the sight of the steepness. I saw girls jump off their bike as soon as they saw what they faced. It never looks this steep on TV… and then we reached Liége and the Côte de Saint Nicholas and the finishing village of the sportif. Even though we hadn’t done the entire course and still had to return back to Spa, a sense of achievement swapped over to me from seeing all the people with their medals.
I had heard about L-B-L that the first part of the race to Bastogne was a flat and uneventful road. Slightly weary from those tough 70km in my legs, I was looking forward to an easy, flat, tail-winded 40km return trip, half wishing I, too, could join the cyclists packing up their cars. But first we needed to find the start and our lime green arrows that would lead us back home… our motorhome.
Half an hour of zig-zagging through Liege’s outer suburbs, a couple of friendly chats with locals at a bus stop who spoke English fluently and friendly police men who spoke no English at all, we were finally back on our way over the bridge with the golden angels and… to my great surprise found ourselves climbing again. Sure, it wasn’t steep, but – hey – flat defined as less than 5% gradient in my dictionary. I did get a little worried, not that I would make it back but how long it would take and whether it would be still daylight.
Tired but very happy we returned to Spa and I couldn’t help but admire those last sportif cyclists still on the road to Liége in the fading day light, so many hours later, still facing those steep hills.
The next day we watched the Pro’s at the Côte de la Redoute and then, on the way down from the hill and in search of a WC, we crashed the after party. We found this tiny cellar club room with low ceiling packed with course commissairs and local cycling fanatics all drinking beer, eating olives, glued to a tiny TV watching the final 25km of the race. They invited us in, shared their space and olives and jolly good laughs.
The mood strangely fizzled out when Igliensky crossed the finish line. I wonder what the atmosphere would have been, had Phil crossed the line as the winner.