Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Het Ardennenweekendje

Even though I lived in Utrecht for nearly 3 years and was a member of Hellas Triatlon for most of that time, I never managed to make it to one of the club's patented weekend training trips to Belgium -- til now. This past weekend was the road cycling variant (in November it's the mountain bike one), so once I had confirmed that I could go, I set about planning how I was going to get all the way from Kingston to a little village in the Belgian Ardennes called Petit Mormont.


It began with Jim dropping me off at the station in London for the 06:59 Eurostar train to Brussels, where I grabbed a Belgian Intercity train to Liège, then loaded up a rental car to drive the last 90km to Mormont. Everything went smoothly, though I cursed my soft-sided bike bag with every step I had to carry it through the train stations and down to the rental car place. Certainly the bag is a lot more discreet than a giant bike box, but some small wheels would have been handy! Traffic along the E25 highway was light and I managed to arrive around 1pm at our hostel-like accommodation in Mormont. I unpacked and built up my bike, and got ready to head out on a sunny but windy ride.

By then several others had arrived from Utrecht, so we got a small group together and did 60km through the Ardennes, taking in villages with names like Samrée and Erezée and Manhay. Villages in that part of Belgium, I soon found out, consist of a few houses, some cows and maybe a gas station. Hardly a pub or cafe or convenience store to be seen. And judging by how quiet the secondary roads were, I had to wonder what these Wallonians did for provisions, let alone for fun. Then again, I suppose there just aren't many of them living there. After spending several years in crowded Holland and England, I guess I've forgotten what it's like to be in the middle of the real countryside where there's maybe 30 people per square km. In fact, the Ardennes reminded me more of rural Canada than anywhere else I've been in Europe so far: forested valleys as far as the eye can see, logging operations along the twisty and rolling roads, and friendly albeit simple and slow-moving local folks.


By morning our full complement of 40+ triathletes had arrived at Mormont. Most of the bunk beds were taken and the common areas were jammed with bikes and various clothing and gear. In typical Dutchie fashion, the cars coming from Utrecht carried not only people but bins full of the groceries we needed for the weekend -- everything from huge sacks of potatoes and kilograms of cheese to a few dozen packages of ontbijtkoek -- so our only local requirement was fresh bread from one of the bakeries in a nearby town.

After breakfast, the cycling groups for the day began to form, based on distance and speed of the ride (and the company!) desired. I ending tagging along with the "long, fast and strong" group heading into Luxembourg, led by one of the club's cycling coaches who was marked closely by our club's resident pro Dirk Wijnalda. I figured at the very worst, if I couldn't keep up, at least I had my Garmin to find the way back. But I needn't have worried; even though the first 2 hours were a hammerfest at times, as the stronger guys relentlessly attacked each other up every climb and across the flats, I managed to hang on pretty well without blowing up.

At the 60km mark, our first stop for coffee and cake, the group split into two with half turning back for home to complete a respectable 110km for the day. The rest of us ventured further into Luxembourg, with the highlight of the day being Vianden and its 6km climb from the river valley to the castle above, the first km of which was on typical Euro cobblestones (photos found on flickr and courtesy of HappyMac, since I forgot to bring my camera along).

The rest of the day ebbed and flowed, the biggest ebb being at 135km when we realised we were over 35km from home, it was beginning to rain, and we'd nearly run out of food. A quick stop at a Wiltz gas station and its miraculous bakery section with fresh cakes and bread for an energy refill and we were off for the last hour or so, climbing yet another beautifully paved 6km 4% grade traffic-free Luxembourgian road and then descending into the less-well-maintained Belgian roads back home through Houffalize. In the end I was quite happy with my day: 172km, 2220m of climbing, 174 watts normalised power, for just under 6 hours of riding at 28.8km/h. I even managed to hit the final 2km climb with good legs, hitting an average of 230 watts (pretty close to my FT) and proving that the longer the ride, the better I get relative to most of my riding companions!


This was the day of Liège-Bastogne-Liège aka Luik-Bastenaken-Luik aka La Doyenne, the final race of the spring classics season. The riders were going right through Houffalize, a mere 9km from where we were staying, but since they weren't due to pass through til 2pm or so, a few of us decided to ride west towards one of the earlier climbs on the route at Ny. We got there just in time, dropped our bikes by the side of the road and tried to create something interesting for the TV cameras to see (note the yellow helmet in the photo below; from left to right Peter, Jeroen and Gerard hamming it up).

Within 10 minutes the caravan of trucks, motorcycles and official race cars had started to drive through. Then we heard the helicopter and spotted the riders through the trees below, with the peleton moving very fast to the bottom of the climb. Even on the climb they never dropped below 30km/h, I'm sure. They were past us so fast there was no time even to identify the riders! I did make a video of them going by, however, catching the beginning of the attack off the front that would turn into the day's long 4-man break, not to be reeled in til more than 150km later. And listening to this video makes me realise how annoying my voice is and how bad my Dutch has become...

We had planned to head to Houffalize where the riders would come through again in a few hours, but in trying to avoid the busy main road, we ended up underestimating how far it was and realised that we'd miss them. So instead we rode a leisurely few more km, a couple more long draggy hills and nice fast descents, stopping for coffee and to sit in the sun for a bit, then continuing back to Mormont. I grabbed a quick snack then a few of us rode down to Houffalize in search of the town's beer tent where they were showing the last bit of the race on big TVs. Wallonian Philippe Gilbert had escaped solo at this point so the crowd was quite excited; a short while later, Andy Schleck caught and dropped him and then went on to win the race, much to the Belgians' disappointment. We rode back up the hill to Mormont for 120km on the day, with 1600m of climbing over 4.5 hours.


It rained quite heavily overnight, and the morning dawned with a chilly wind and variable weather. With 350km of cycling in my legs for the weekend -- added to the 250km I had already done in England earlier in the week -- I was happy to take a day off the bike and go for a short run instead. Many of the off-road routes around the Ardennes are well-marked with signs on the trees and arrows pointing the way, with big signboards showing how they intersect. Mistakenly thinking that since the paved roads had all been a nice gradient, the walking paths must be as well, I followed the 5.5km route down to the river and was met with a narrow path that descended 60m in 240m: a 25% grade! In my running shoes on wet, slippery, rocky and rooty ground I descended as carefully as possible, and didn't dare turn around and try to go back. The path along the river was equally treacherous, but I was finally rewarded with the climb back up to Mormont, an Achilles-punishing kilometer averaging 10% that I half-ran and half-walked. It took nearly 40 minutes to run 5.5 km in the end, ouch!

Though I didn't have my camera with me, I managed to find some shots taken by a previous traveller, Karen Hendrix, of the same path, giving a pretty good idea what I was up against.

Monday afternoon I drove back to Liège and took a train to Brussels, then dropped my stuff at the left luggage kiosk at the station and wandered around touristy Brussels for a few hours until my train back to the UK was ready to board. My legs are still recovering from the weekend's punishment, but in a few weeks I'll be all the stronger for it.

And I had a great time! I got to hang out with my Dutch friends for a weekend, re-experience my summer camp days, cycle tons of miles, catch a bit of a pro race, see two countries I'd never visited before, and tax my brain to remember a bit of its rusty French. Definitely worth the trip!

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