La Fleche Wallone

Overall Distance 112 miles Time Taken 8:03
Height Climbed 3000+ m Overall Position n/a
Distance Climbed 17 Cotes + 1 Category Position n/a
Date  May 2006 Country Belgium
Entrants  5,000 Region Wallonie

This year's Fleche, the 28th edition, had to take place without the use of the Muur de Huy as the pro's were using it for that day's stage of the Tour of Belgium; which was being won by Tom Boonen.  To be honest I can't say I missed it as it seemed the organisers had found every other Belgian hill that wasn't being used for us to ride up.  Well 17 of them, although somehow I managed to squeeze in another one mid-ride!

But first Dianne had some unfinished business.  Last year she "forgot" she had a triple chainset and tried to ride up La Redoute in the middle ring!  She got 20 metres from the top when gravity overcame her 50 kilos.  This year we had a plan.  Get it in the little ring at the bottom, just as we pass Philipe Gilbert's house, then pace ourselves to the top.  We'll see.

Where's the start?
Having done it so may times before, we drove straight to Spa, no problem.  Just a kilometre or so from the world famous racetrack I could almost get there without a map.  But I didn't, we took a mate's Tom Tom; every car should have one.  Once in Spa we found our hotel and the start was only a further 500 metres away.  How good is that?

We signed on, paid our six Euro's (Belgian events are the bargains of all time) and picked up our numbers and various other goodies.  The start was from 5:00 am to 9:00 am.  Guess which one we chose?

Not wanting to be held up, knocked off or distracted by lecherous Italians, Dianne wanted to do her ride of La Redoute, the day's second climb, with as quiet roads as possible.  So we decided to leave at five to nine just before the cut off.  With our carnet stamped we turned left from the start and headed a kilometre down the road, turned left again for another kilometre to the first hill; the four kilometre Cote Le Maquisard, which, after a 2K warm-up, has a Cotacol rating of 116.

What's a Cotacol?
In Belgium two riders, Daniel Gobert and Jean-Pierre Legros, documented over a 1000 of their climbs and rated them with Cotacol points.  A 1K, 10% climb may have a long 20% bit in the middle and 2% shallow bits at each end.  So how hard is it?  Is it as hard as a 1K climb of exactly 10%?  To better rate the climbs they've calculated the percentage gradient for each 100 metres of a climb and used a monstrous scientific formula to give each climb an "energy expended" rating.  It's that accurate it's now used as a rating by the Belgian Cycling Federations for all their events.  The higher the number the harder the climb.

La Redoute
Once we'd got over the Maquisard, we headed down the 5K descent to Remouchamps arriving at the foot of the spectacular Redoute.  It's not in the Fleche but we have to climb it to get to the climbs that are.

Just as you pass alongside the autoroute and hit the first real corner, there's the granite stone marking the foot of the climb.  On it is inscribed “Here, the greatest cycling champions forge their victories in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”   This was to be a personal victory, but it was no less heroic for that.  This is a brutal, iconic climb.  Whatever speed you climb it the hurt is the same.  Pro or club rider, there is no easy way to the top.   Anyone who gets over it is deserving of praise and respect.  Especially a lady of a certain age!

Picking her gear, Dianne climbed at a constant pace and remained in the saddle the whole way.  It really is a nasty climb that fully deserves it's 150 cotacol points.  She obviously had a dip in speed where it hits the old 18% for a bit but she kept plugging away without the hint of a zig-zag.  There was even a slight sprint at the end when she crossed the line where the local clubs obviously conclude their events.  Once over the line, there was a quick peck on lips for a job well done.  You really don't want to full-on snog someone who's just climbed a bloody big hill, but love and duty called. 

With mission accomplished Dianne rode back down the hill and to the foot of the 5K climb we'd previously descended, for a "gentle" ride back to Spa.  I now had to head off for the rest of my ride while ominous clouds gathered overhead.  There wasn't a soul to be seen.

Is anybody there?
The first checkpoint is at 60K so my mission was to get there before it closed.  I put my best race head on and got in to the groove.  Then it started raining, and I mean raining.  It was so dark and the water was so deep running down the road that I somehow missed a turning marker and ended up dropping in to Ambleve.  Where I found the best bike shop ever.  Sadly, I had no money and felt embarrassed (me?  I know!) about dripping water all over his lovely shop.  So I quickly got directions back up the 5K climb I just came down to get to the turn I missed at the top of the hill. 

Every junction has the arrow logo (pictured at the top of this page), painted on the road.  I was cracking on a bit and in the dark and rain just plain missed it.  I got back on track and carried on over some really lumpy countryside for the next forty miles or so.  I was still the only rider on the road when I came to the foot of the two kilometre, 13%, Cote de Roche Frene.  My carnet had it down as a 260 point hill, so I knew it was going to be tough.  Still, the feed station was at the top so happy days.

I may have been the only rider on the hill but I wasn't alone.  Two horses were screaming towards me on the wrong side of their field's fence.  Now last time this happened, in the Quebrantahuesos, there were three "donkeys" going the same way as me.  These, however, were full on race horses coming at me.  Somehow, we all missed one another and when I opened my eyes they were gone.  Next thing I see is some Dartagnian character, all jodhpurs, goatee beard and Kevin Keegan bubble perm, running after them!  Only in Belgium...

At the top of the climb I see the first cyclists of the morning.  And like all good cyclists they're eating.  My 40 mile time trial is over, I get my carnet stamped, grab a cake and energy bar, fill my bottles and get back down to business.  By the way it's still raining.  The last time it rained like this Noah was building a boat.  Maybe that's what the horses were looking for. 

Deja vu, again!
Leaving the feed we went through a few hamlets then came to a massive out-of-character building, village square and a cemetery.  I've seen this place before but can't remember when or where.  Then there's a sign warning of dangerous descents for the next 5K.  Yes, I remember it well, the Liege-Bastogne-Liege ride.  Last time I did this it was dry.  This time I can't even see the road it's so dark.  With riders around me I need to get to the front and stay there, it's safer that way.

After an interesting descent, where one or two tried to stay with me we reached the foot of the Ancienne Barriere.  This is a long, long climb that the Tour covered this year when it left Belgium for France.  It's 5K at 6% and is pretty straight so you can see what pain is ahead of you for a long time. 

My form seems to be coming back.  Rather than being passed on the hills by those I left on the descents, I'm now catching and dropping people.  This has three effects; it makes you feel good, you feel warmer and you stop worrying about the rain.

Some new friends
At the top of the Ancienne Barriere I pick up a Dutch team with a complete package of chase car following and a van that races ahead to the top of every climb with photographers, spares and bottles.  These are super-fit looking boys who I jump on at every opportunity. 

They climb, slightly faster than me and I lose the wheel in the last quarter of each climb.  I pass them on the descents with the aid of their chase car.  I hit 55mph at one point as their car took me back to their bunch, dropped them while they waited for stragglers, then they'd catch me again as they'd through and off on the flats.  This went on for about four hours.

When climbing the 1K and 14% Cote de Ligneuville one of them looked at me with that look we all understand.  It's hard, yes? I ask.  "Oh yes", he says, "but the strongest is at the back".  His mate translates it to the "worst is yet to come"   Thanks for that.  Just what I wanted to hear.  At the top I get my carnet out.  This leg-stinger was 165 points.  We have five categorised climbs to go.  None of them are under 200!  We're six hours in and the rain is just beginning to ease. 

Do you add points for rain?
It's 10K from the Ligneuville to the Stockeau.  Believe me, after six hours this isn't enough time to recover.  The Stockeau is a killer. it's 2.3 kilometres and averages 10%.  It's steepest bit, but it's a very long bit, is 21% and it gets a cotacol rating of 365!  It's that hard, it was the place chosen to put the commemorative stone and plaque to Eddy Mercx.  It's that fact that keeps you going.  You daren't stop, slow or show any signs of weakness; not in front of such a monument to our sport.  The rain is now torrential and it seems to add another 50 points to the hill.  The good thing is, you can't see the top.  You're in a forest and it's really, really dark.

Once over the Stockeau, there's another climb to Wanne past the memorial to the 517 parachute regiment who all perished in the Battle of the Bulge.  There is nowhere in this area without a memorial.  Every field, bridge and hill top was fought over and every town was bombed to destruction during WWII.  The fact that it's all so peaceful and beautiful now means the dreadful past shouldn't be forgotten.

The 2,2K, 8%, Cote de Wanne comes next.  After the Stockeau it seems easy-ish.  You get to the top grab a drink and a bite and try to work out, is that really a ski lift?  Skiing in Belgium?  Evidently so.  It can't be a mirage because I haven't seen the sun all day.  However the rain has now eased to a drizzle.  It's not been cold all day, it's just wet.  Once more my fantastic Continental Grand Prix 4-Seasons have been perfect.  Not one puncture in three years.

So near yet so far
The Thier de Coo is the second hardest climb of the day and is three from the end.  It's been nearly seven hours in the saddle and this 2.6 kilometre, 8% climb hits 17% for around 300 metres as you reach the top and the final feed of the day.

As the day wore on I began catching more and more riders and was jumping from group to group.  This wasn't me getting stronger it was just the fact that I was catching slower, bedraggled, tired riders.  Whatever the reason the result on morale was the same.  I had to dodge zig-zagging riders on the Coo and to be honest at one point I had to get out of the saddle for a bit of the same.  I passed three Dutch riders just before I reached the top and got the final stamp in my carnet.

I grabbed another delicious bakewell tart type cake (my fourth of the day, they're only little) two pieces of Belgian chocolate and a drink.  As I threw the food down my throat and queued for my stamp, I saw two Dutch climbing in to their broom wagon.  Which was sad really.  They'd come so far and given it everything and were only 25K from the finish.  But when you've blown, you've blown.  I nodded, they gave a wry smile.  They'll be back next year.

It's all downhill
Twenty-five kilometres, two 200 point cote's to go and about 15K of rolling, non-classified climbs.  It's back to Stavelot and the Haute Levee.  How looking forward to this am I?

The 201 point Haute Levee is a long, long 3.6K drag alongside the apparently only road in Belgium without a speed limit.  The road is a car and half a bike wide, with a solid concrete barrier to the left of the cars and a three inch drop off the tarmac to the right of your bike.  Guess which the cars drive closer to?  It wasn't the wall.  It's not clever but it is big.

At 6% it's length is taxing at this late stage in the day and it hits 12% as you approach the roundabout at the top.  Then it drags and drags and drags.  After a quick drop down, which is bad because you know you're going to have to go up again, you reach Ruy and the run in to Le Rosier.

Again I climbed this on the Bastogne ride and it's a nice climb.  It rises steadily for 6 kilometres at 5% through a fantastic, heavily forested road.  There was a surreal calm to the place as riders climbed a steaming road, in silence, with their breath blasting out, dragon-like, from their mouths and nostrils.  The birds were singing and there wasn't a car to be seen.  The only people missing were Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.  For the younger readers, they're not old cyclists.

Then two Dutch, screamed past me.  Followed by the remnants of their team mates and their team Zafira with the dejected passengers inside.  I picked up my pace and hung on to the followers until we reached the top.  As they eased up I kept going and gave it everything I had, which wasn't a lot, on the descent.  Topping out at 45mph I decided I'd try to see if I could get down the 5K hill without braking.  I'd done it before in the dry but this would be a good experiment in the wet.

After one slight "okay I bottled it" dab, I was back in Spa, determined not to let the Dutch catch me before the finish.  I rode past the hotel, with it's warm sunken bath, English TV and hot food, to head the 500 metres down the slightly falling road to the finish.  Sprinting for all I was worth not even thinking of looking back.  Job done.  Over the line, in to the finish, carnet stamped and out again, just as the Dutch appear.  We acknowledge each other and reflect on our eventful day.

Rain, what rain?
After 112 miles, eight hours and three minutes in the saddle and 18 Cote's with over 3000 metres of climbing (I did one too many remember!) I can honestly say it was one of the best day's riding I've ever had.  I just love Belgium.  The rain just added to the atmos.  It was a real classic, ridden in real classic weather.  At the end (right) I didn't even look too wet or dirty.

The hotel was fantastic, just 500 metres from the start, all you could want is in the town of Spa and again the people just want to see you on your bike and enjoying their event.  And while it's on, the Tour of Belgium is happening just down the road. 

Come a day early or stay a day later and watch the pros in action on the roads and hills where you've just suffered.  Does it get any better?  It may well do, but for us not today.  A fantastic Ardennes Stew for dinner, a dessert to reward our individual achievements and the sleep of the innocents as tiredness finally brought an end to another perfect days cycling.

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