08-12-2021 | Andries Bosma

My Conquête des Ardennes PART 1

Some time ago, CycloWorld wrote about the monstrous challenge La Conquête des Ardennes. CycloWorld reader Andries Bosma took on the challenge together with his cycling buddy. Today part 1 of his report on one of the most epic challenges in cycling.

A crazy plan

An app from Dominique: "Hey Andries, shall we go do something crazy?"
- Haven't done anything crazy for ages. What were you thinking about?

My first sentence is correct. But it is not an answer to the question. And not an immediate "yes" either. A link to the website of La Conquete des Ardennes reveals the following:

458 kilometers, 8900m+
Hmmmmmm...

It can be done in 1 day. Or 1 year. Within 24 hours you will be given the unprotected title Chasseur Ardennais, avec les Honneurs. Hunter of the Ardennes, with honor, with support. Without support, without honor.

Before I know it, we're already planning. Thinking long and hard about this kind of crazy stuff, because that's what it is. It's pointless. Thinking can only lead to the conclusion that you're not going to do it. Enough excuses are at hand not to do it. Saying yes is enough to start it.

For € 15, - you can register on the website. A kind of administration fee. Much more you should not expect, they will not get rich from it. Processing your data and placing your results with photos on the website. And the honorary title. Provided you make it.

Planning

No long-term plans. It has to happen this year, this summer to not make it too hard on ourselves and to make the nights as short as possible. We are planning two weekends in July. We may do something crazy, we both like dry weather and hate cleaning bikes. In case of bad weather on the first weekend, we can move the ride to the weekend after. The first weekend looks like it could be a winner. The forecasts are getting better by the day. The rain of the past few weeks seems to finally stop the weekend. Until, in the middle of the week, the heavens open up in Belgium. The news broadcasts even throw in the term "flood". A disaster area is no place for us, we decide. A wise decision, as it turns out.

The backup weekend seems more favorable to us. In the week leading up to it, I build up my bike. We are going for the title of honor, so we are completely dependent on ourselves as far as food, water and possible breakdowns are concerned. Such a trip requires the necessary preparation. Unhindered by any form of prior knowledge or experience, we try to imagine what we will need. To begin with: electricity. My bike is hooked up two days in advance to power up the power meter and Di2. But more electronics devices are needed. And rarely are these equipped with enough reserve to last a day of cycling. At least I've never had to purchase them.

Gear

The 1300XL is my light of choice. The 450 Lumen setting should lasts for 8 hours. More than enough to get through the short night. But also enough light to take a descent into the Ardennes in the dead of night? My Garmin 530 lasts about 12 hours with navigation I think. Never tried it by the way. My longest ride this year must have been 5 or 6 hours. There are battery saving settings to be found, but after a first test that seems to cause only irritation to the user. My iPhone which is at least 5 years old still has the original battery which needs to be recharged three times on a weekday.

Conclusion: a powerbank will be indispensable. The first one goes back to the webshop almost immediately. Too small and too light. Saving on weight appears to have been a bad choice here. The power is too low to wake up the Garmin. Good to test everything beforehand. First learning curve.  Twenty-four hours of cycling without guidance. That means making choices. Cycling light and stopping often or a lot of luggage, take everything and keep up the pace? I decide for the middle way. Often a wise choice in life. More people should do that, even if it does get a bit boring. I will only fill my 8-liter saddle bag for a quarter with a repair kit, pump, two CO2 cartridges, two tires, lots of gels, bars, cookies and energy drink tablets. Gels and bars of different kinds and brands to postpone taste fatigue as long as possible.

Clothing

Dominique thinks it can stay short-short, even at night. My Belgian forecast promises 14 °C in the early morning. Just too cold to keep comfortable. Keeping the pace high to stay warm doesn't seem like a nice option in the dark hours, so I brought windstopper and arm warmers. From our sponsor Parentini, by the way. I also take a hotpack to protect me from the unpredictable rain. Later it turns out that Dominique has based his the night temperature on his residence in Eijsden. A meaningful 6°C difference. He was very grateful for the hotpack.

Start time. It won't save us any time According to Bartjens, that means a start time is of no importance. At any time of the day we are on the saddle. First instinct is to leave early in the morning. But that means making concessions to two night's rest. Shortly after noon seems to be a fine choice. We have all the time we need for a good night's sleep beforehand and we can make a relaxed trip to the starting point. It also cuts the hottest period of the day in half. And, as they say, the least watchful moment of a human being, between 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning, we don't get all the way to the end in this way. Moreover, the seemingly easiest part of the route (read: with the fewest climbing) will be during the night.

D-Day

Friday, July 24. Hoei. Parking place at the top of "the Wall". I only know this parking lot from the provisioning during the La Philippe Gilbert, a nice sportive in which PG himself always participated (does?), with in his wheel a smaller and smaller following as the tour progresses. A must for any more serious cycling tourist. For some reason, it's in my head that this parking lot will be empty today. But the satellite photo from Google Maps is just an illusory snapshot that I've come to mistake for eternal reality. There appears to be some kind of kindergarten up there. A line of at least 150 feet of parents with their 4-6-year-old offspring forms in front of the entrance. The line forms an unexpected welcoming committee of doubtful quality. Quite dissonant, moreover, with what we have in mind. The theme park visitors have all arrived by car and it is still exciting to find a spot for the car. Fortunately, after some driving around it turns out that one spot is enough for our car.

Starting at the top means we'll end up with the wall. That seems like a nice ending to the trip. Heroic efforts can be planned, too. It does mean that the first climb in Huy is not the Wall, but the local Thier. We wonder what the meaning of Thier actually is. On the bike, in my memory, a Thier is never a nice gradual climb. The one from Hoei doesn't change that connotation either. The first few meters are very hard. I want to shift lighter, but the DI2 refuses to shift in the rear. It has been a while since I have been able to ride in the hills, but this is not very promising for the rest of the day. A glance to the rear gives some reassurance. The big ring is still on. At 20% gradient and a speed of probably less than 10 km/h shifting gears is impossible here. No other choice than to turn around and start the climb again on the more manageable inner ring. But even with 36 front teeth my legs are straining and my heart beating much faster than I would like. During such a long ride I don't want to get close to my red zones. Certainly not this early. But my heart rate quickly rises above 150, my threshold is not much higher. 36x28 could have been a bit lighter. I had thought of that beforehand, but a new cassette for 2 extra teeth was a bit too much. The consequences will become clear during the rest of the trip.

An old enemy

The Thier de Huy, with a length of 1.4 km, averaging 11% (max 19%) is a nice warm-up. As far as possible we ride up as relaxed as possible. The descent is not without challenge either. A few hundred meters after the sign "forbidden for all traffic" the road is interrupted over its full width by a gorge of one meter deep and half a meter wide. Without the bike it is an easy obstacle to take, but with and on cycling shoes it is an unexpected challenge. It remains unclear whether this is a result of the heavy rainfall of the previous week or whether we should classify it as a typical Belgian roadwork. With support from each other, we manage to get to the other side and continue our journey. If this is a sign for the rest of our journey it's going to be a long day...

The next few climbs are doable, with names like Haie de Barse and Côte d'Oneux . Even the Redoute, with the handbrake on, is a slope that doesn't demand the utmost from me. At the top, time for the first obligatory photo as extra proof of the route taken. Other selfies have to be taken at the monument of Eddy Merckx on the Stockeu, the Meuse at Dinant, Citadel of Namur and finally on top of the Wall of Huy.

We're approaching Spa. Before we turn into the city the route deviates slightly from the most logical and short route to the center. Not very nicely, the road leads us past the halls from where trucks come and go to supply the whole world with the centuries-old local bottled rainwater. Then the absurdity of this logistical process suddenly becomes very tangible. I think back with shame to the time when I only had my Rocket Espresso machine drinking from the blue plastic bottles.

In Spa we planned our first stop. At the local Spar, Dominique goes in for some refreshments that are a welcome change from the bars and gels. We take our time. With our bellies full of fresh fruit, cold cola (why is cola so good during or after a hot bike ride?) the road immediately heads up again: Col d'Annette & Lubin. Never heard of it. The road winds nicely out of Spa, barely a kilometer in length, but with 11% average and peaks up to 16% it's certainly not easy. From the road we can see the villas hidden in the woods. The temperature has risen considerably and the thermometer is approaching 30°. The leafy surroundings make the conditions quite manageable. Again, I am thankful that my current level of form allows me to build in some reserve with ease.


Hill after hill

After Spa, the route begins its second zone: L'Enfer de la Doyenne. My French is not very good, but good enough not to be particularly reassured. On the one hand, we just started, on the other hand, we have already passed the 5 hours mark. The hills now follow each other in rapid succession. Names like Col du Rosier (from two sides), Côte d'Amermont, Thier de Coo, Haute Levée, Côte du Stockeu and Côte de Wanneranval, for many a familiar and quite brutal. Until Stavelot the climbs are a bit longer than in the first zone, but also considerably less gut-busting. An exception is the climb of Amermont. A beautiful little road that winds its way up in one and a half kilometers with percentages above 15%. The climb ends halfway up, which is not exactly famous for its picturesque nature. We turn onto the dead straight remainder of the Haute Levée. Even though the road keeps going up, the percentages are such that I take the opportunity to give my legs something of a recovery at high cadence uphill.

Before we descend via the Haute Levée, now the first half, to Stavelot we get to see the Thier de Coo. A well-known one of course. Fixed part of the sportive that carries the name but not the route of the semi-classic the Flèche Wallonne. In the renaissance of my cycling life, this charming ride was in my calendar several times. For years I had the images of this climb in my head, I could draw it if I had any talent for drawing. The images, starting in a village consisting of no more than a handful of houses, slowly getting steeper, disappearing into the dark forest, where a sharp curve marks the climax of the climb. It's still like that. This one had made an impression. Only I couldn't put a name to it. The satisfying feeling of old times when you finally turned over the first two matching cards in a memory game: Thier de Coo. Another Thier!

For part 2, click here.

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