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25-04-2023 | Herman Nekkers

LBL Challenge, a nice day of suffering in the Ardennes

The Liège-Bastogne-Liège Challenge is a special touring event. It's not just the cyclist's version of one of cycling's landmarks. The longest version is also one of the toughest tour rides in the Benelux. Previous participations in 2015 and 2016 were a struggle with rain and cold. Last year the weather was nice, but then I was stranded with material failure. This year I want to try again to finish LBL in nice weather conditions.

Together with cycling buddy Joppe, I drive to Liege on Friday where we find a fairly simple accommodation at the Campanile Hotel. This is also where the Arkea team of Warren Barguil and others is located. I take some time to look at the Bianchis that are here.

Not Liège but Banneux

Early Saturday morning we leave just before 7 a.m. from Banneux starting point for the beastly distance of 251 kilometers and over 4400 meters of climbing. The thirteen official slopes are only a slim reflection of reality. The number of hills that do not count is at least as large, and then there are dozens of short kickers. The ideal recipe for getting hammered big time. Apparently, this is no problem, as some six thousand cycling tourists are at the start each year, many of whom come for the longest version.

Since last year, the start is in Banneux instead of Liège. Probably to avoid the busy Saturday traffic in the city. I am a fan of the "scan & ride" procedure. With your bike in hand, a code is scanned which allows you to start. Not only fast, also very safe.

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In search of a good group

Banneux is a fine location, but it is high up. The first ten kilometers are mostly downhill and I'm glad I put on my rain jacket and neck warmer. My buddy has better legs today and I have to make sure I don't get tempted to ride too fast at the start.

Heading toward Bastogne, things are moving fast. The pro race casts its shadow ahead, because in La Roche-en-Ardenne the complete Jumbo-Visa team is ready for a training ride. Moments later, they ride by. I propose to take the wheel of a bunch of Spaniards, who do not care. Catching a good group is an important part of the fight for survival anyway. Although the wind is blowing firmly from the south, we arrive at the feed stations in Bastogne within three hours and fifteen minutes.

On the way back north, we rejoice in the tailwind over the wide Ardennes roads. In Houffalize, the Côte Saint-Roch awaits: really tough at up to 20%. I notice that I have no climber's legs today and consider myself lucky with my 36*34 gear. At the next feed station there is cold pasta. It tastes delicious. And then the kilometers of typical bad Ardennes asphalt roll under our wheels again. After 150 kilometers it is finally time for the finale with one horrible hill after another.

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A bad day on the bike beats a good day in the office

The best shape is already gone and it's still long. Mont-le-Soie, Wanne, Stockeu, Haute Levée. Nasty climbs. The Rosier goes fine, although I remain far from a PR. Along the way there is a sign to encourage participants: A bad day on the bike beats a good day in the office. And so it is. The Côte de Desnie, which follows, I know only as a descent and is pretty tough. The power levels that I easily achieved in the morning are nowhere near what they used to be. How many more hills? Four more official ones, including the Redoute and the Roche-aux-Faucons.

At the feed stations at the bottom of the Redoute, the clouds become more threatening and I seriously wonder if we will stay dry. The climb itself goes only on my lightest gear. I still get up fairly well, but without any power. The Hornay that follows is really not much. The road surface is damp, but there is no serious rain. I always struggle with the Roche-aux-Faucons, it rarely goes well. Not this time either, I miraculously manage to master the double digit percentages. The slope also has a long, tricky spur. With the tail wind it is doable.

In my head it is now done and I descend to Tilff. There are still 16 kilometers to go, but unfortunately the rain completely breaks loose. The Côte de Cortil is a long gradual climb, but between the Saturday afternoon traffic and the rain, the fun is soon gone. I seem to recognize some of the scenery, but it doesn't interest me. All I care about now is the mileage countdown.

Then finally the redeeming sign: Finish 2000 m. Like drowned cats we roll over the line. Completely wasted, but very excited about this achievement. It was another heroic edition. Will I come back again? Definitely, because it remains an awesome sportive..

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