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10-12-2021 | Andries Bosma

My Conquête des Ardennes PART 2

CycloWorld reader Andries Bosma took on the epic challenge La Conquête des Ardennes together with a cycling buddy. Read part 1 here. Today, the second and final part.

After the descent, we come across the signs for Stavelot again. We often see the same place names on signs because of the large loops in the route. Not very pleasant for the feeling that we are making good progress. Supermarkets are already closed, but fortunately we can fill up the night supply at the petrol station when entering Stavelot. Difficult to make choices. Later, candy and ham-cheese crackers turn out to have been a good idea for a welcome nightly change.

Dinner for two

We decided in advance to eat some pasta in the centre. The terraces are well occupied. The first restaurant we found on Google Maps has to say no, but luckily we can find another place down the road. We quickly order a linguine Bolognese and shove it inside in order to be able to continue our journey and stay on schedule for the sub 24-hour trip. The service is quick, but secretly our dinner takes a lot of time. We lose an hour. A little after ten o'clock we continue our journey. Dusk has fallen and the lights are on. We turn on the lights on our bikes as well. Soon, we will know whether the capacity of the lamp is sufficient for the circumstances. For the time being, a low setting is sufficient. The eyes get used to the dark and the clear night in combination with the full moon ensure that pitch-darkness is not an issue for the time being.

For cyclists Stavelot is almost synonymous with the Côte du Stockeu. For the pros in La Doyenne it is never a killjoy, if only because of its early location in the route. But for many cycling tourists it is a name that inspires fear. I myself am a little afraid of the full pasta belly and the effect that a 20% steep slope will have on it. That fear is unjustified. I realise that until now, every slope was taken with little reserve. Today and tomorrow it is important to go uphill as slowly as possible. And that goes well. At the Eddy Merckx memorial, I take a photo and quickly continue. For the glory of the professional race, they have put that fugly sculpture just one kilometre into the climb. Where the pro's in LBL turn off after barely a kilometre, our climb happily goes on for another kilometre and a half with gradients that rarely fall below 10. During the day there is always a mismatch between what the legs feel and what the eyes think they see. In the darkness, there is no dissonance. Only the feeling in the legs matters. Visually, the full moon slowly reveals itself between the sparse clouds. Almost fairy-like.

The hills of the Criq

After Stavelot the route continues towards La Roche-en-Ardenne. For me this is the familiar territory of the Vélomédiane Claudy Criquiélion (or "The Criq"). A beautiful gran fondo, in which I was always amazed that it is possible to make a 170 km Ardennes ride and finish with an average of above 34 km/h. In the light of the moon, the deserted roads, the time of day and the now slowly increasing fatigue makes this an experience of a completely different order. Different, shall we say. Different is also the way we take the Maboge Wall. Where in the Vélomédiane this is one of the sharper sections, we now descend this steep wall at night. I still do not know what is more comfortable, cycling up or down 20% in the dark. The disc-brakes prove their service and we can continue our journey without any damage.

The big advantage of our chosen starting point and time is that we do the relatively easiest part in the dark. We have the little tailwind in this zone, a lot less ominous than the other zones this La Grande Traversée as it's called in the route book. As if we had planned it that way. The less hilly terrain also makes it easier to stay close to each other. In the dead of night, we try to have a conversation now and then. The dialogues soon fade away. The most profound questions and issues are crushed in two sentences. Every thought process stops after a few considerations.

Dominique is starting to notice that his eyes are almost closing. What I had been afraid of beforehand doesn't happen to me. At home I have always been a regular person, going to bed between ten and half past ten, getting up at half past six and at the weekend sleeping in until seven. Apparently, my body has built up a good sleep buffer.

After La Roche, the climbing is very limited, at least upwards. A few long sloping descents with few bends are our share. Delightful, this stage of the route.

Route barrée

After Rochefort, we have to watch out in Eprave. We have to deviate from the route here. Google Maps was our friend. By loading the route and turning on low traffic, the bottlenecks come into view. It turned out that a bridge had been closed at the crossing of the river Lesse. There were other points in the route with a warning, but they were all labelled "possibly closed". The bridge over the Lesse was marked as closed. Our assessment was that the river had made the bridge impassable due to the heavy rainfall of the previous week. We decided to avoid the bridge and take the gamble of choosing the cycle path that runs along the same river without crossing it. There is a chance that the excess water has polluted the cycle path. I feel quite safe with my 28 mm tyres. Dominique is more heroic with his 23mm retrofit. The choice turns out to be a good one. The cycle path is perfectly passable, very nice even. We end up at the bridge, on the right side of it that is, a collapsed bridge.

The only disadvantage of the detour is that the Garmin is out of control. The route is no longer clearly signposted and no turn instructions are given. The route is still plotted on the map, but in the dark the alternative colour is hardly distinguishable. It could also be my fatigue that makes it almost impossible to focus my eyes on the small screen. A couple of times we have to retrace our steps when the navigation indicates "off course". Quite irritating, Dominique agrees, the speed is considerably reduced this way, while the idea of the nightly traverse was to catch up with the schedule.

Hopefully we look at the eastern sky to see something of a dawn. At the southern horizon we see the clouds light up. Thunderstorms? Substantial precipitation had not been planned, thunderstorms were even a no-go in the decision matrix in preparation. This stream of thought is also quickly suppressed by the lowered level of consciousness. The lightning is taken for granted and we stoically continue on our way.

The only thing we have to do is to get to the other side of the road. Once we arrive in the other city of the Meuse, it's light. Dominique says that his eyes have the tendency to close more and more. I too am beginning to feel tired, or rather sleepy, and this is taking on serious proportions. It is now clear that we are not going to make it to the 24-hour mark. We still have over 100 km to go. The pace including stops is less than 23 km/h. When I calculate it later, I must have made a mistake somewhere. At the time of writing, I know that my calculating capacities were no longer up to scratch. At that moment, the (wrong) result was a drop in the glass.

In Dinant, we are confronted with the first of the samples of the final. The final zone is ominously called La Bataille des Murs. Montagne de la Croix is a short climb of one and a half kilometres. With an average of 10% and a maximum of 21 rising metres for every hundred. The first 800 metres have an average gradient of 16%. Pretty tough, but we make it to the top. I am surprised to see Dominique coming up not much later. Considering the condition I saw Dominique in a few minutes earlier on the banks of the Meuse, I had not expected that he would conquer this wall at all. Even though I don't feel bad, judging by the relatively small time difference on this climb I am objectively not that much better off.

Belgian roads

After Dinant, our perseverance is again put to the test. The asphalt road has been worked on in the Belgian way. The top layer has been scraped off. That alone is not pleasant, but when the old asphalt is also draped over it in thick boulders, cycling is almost impossible. After inspecting the digital road map, we found a simple diversions. But even these kinds of interludes take the speed out of the process. The increasingly dark skies and the first drops of rain are the next drops in the glass that is overflowing by now. We decide to take the least hilly road back to Huy.

It becomes clear that our critical thinking skills have dropped to zero when Google sends us over a unpaved bicycle path. The name path is hardly sufficient, let alone that you can ride on it. Instead of turning around in time, we keep following the path, partly on foot where cycling is not possible at all. I lose control and run like a snarling bull. Angry at the situation, angry at myself for not having paid more attention when choosing the shortcut to Huy. So this is what it takes to be confronted with your rudimentary self. Dominique sees a side of me that will be unknown to him. Yet it gives me the last energy to reach the paved road. After 3 km and 30 minutes of struggling, Dominique even appears to have fallen once, we can continue our journey in a normal way. At home I will check the state of my bike, because I know that carbon is not meant for these kind of roads.

The last bits

In the meantime it has started to rain hard. I don't really care at the moment. The last kilometres to Huy are waiting for us at our last summit. The Wall. Easy on the not so steep approach and survival on the steepest part. The Wall is not unknown territory for me. I have climbed it several times, but I don't remember it taking so long. Despite the high power I have to pedal to keep up the pace, my heart doesn't feel like it. At 135 beats per minute, it stops. Normally, I am still in my aerobic zone 2. In order to get the oxygen to where it needs to be, there is another mechanism that makes sure more blood is pumped around. Heart rate minute volume is heart rate times stroke volume. If the first lags behind, the second can compensate. Big beats my heart makes like the slow revs of an oil tanker's engine. Boom, boom, boom. A very strange feeling I've never had before. Not even on day 6 of our famous cycling holidays, where every day the stage doesn't end under 150km and 3500m+.

The only thing I can say is that it's not true. As it should be according to Google. Tired, satisfied, but also with a small disappointment. The original goal was not achieved. We descend by car and treat ourselves to breakfast in the local cycle café.

The aftertaste

In retrospect, the goal of completing the lap within 24 hours is certainly achievable. With less long breaks, you can make it with an average cycling speed of 22 km/h. Given that you do not encounter any further inconveniences and bad luck. For us, the conditions were almost optimal, apart from the rain at the end. Little wind, optimal temperatures (although in the afternoon it was still close to 30°C) and a full moon. Immediately after the finish I didn't want to think about it, but when I write down my experiences I start itching to do it again and finish it in 24 hours. But then a hotel to relax in afterwards. The car ride back home was the most dangerous part of the undertaking. A nap on a car park was inevitable to sleep off the worst of the fatigue.

The recovery from such a trip was also something I was very curious about. Actually, I was only tired the first day after the trip. Physically tired. On Monday, I did a short ride to feel how my body was doing. The legs felt fine, but the heart still wouldn't work. A trip like that really requires completely different aspects than the rides I was used to. Riding yourself to exhaustion in 5 or 6 hours requires much longer recovery time than an endurance race. Because of the slow pace, you don't seem to do much damage to your muscles. The amount of food we consumed was also not too bad. Especially at night, it was quite limited. The low tempo means you need far fewer calories than you're used to.

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