Gran Fondo Eddy Merckx

Overall Distance 165k Time Taken 7:08
Height Climbed 3100 metres Brevet Silver
Distance Climbed   Category Position  
Date June 2008 Country Belgium
Entrants 1200 Region Ardennes

If I have to explain who Eddy Merckx is, and his vast palmares, then you've probably stumbled across this website by mistake and are leaving right now. 

Even those who think they know him well are still amazed when they find he had 525 professional wins in his career.  There's not much he hasn't won; which is paradoxically ironic, because there's not much that I have! 

But somehow, fate has thrown us together in the event that bears his name. 

A monumental rider requires a monumental event.  With 3100 metres of climbing squashed in to 165 kilometres of non-mountainous terrain, suggests that the hills in this one come thick and fast.  Well thick at least; seventeen hills is more than one every ten kilometres.  But first, the logistics.

Are we there yet?
Hamoir is a small town deep in the Ardennes of Belgium.  It's a glorious one horse town, surrounded on four sides by hills, big hills.  There's only one way out and that's up. 

Finding the sign on area was a doddle.  It closed at 7:30 pm and we got there at 7:29 and was outside at 7:31 with our numbers, timing chips and goody bag.  Myself and Mr Davy compared notes and hill profiles, while Dianne tried to get a freebie out of a stall holder.  We got an Eddy Merckx bottle each.  Good one, wifey.  Job done, let's find the hotel. 

We stayed about 10k away, at the Hotel La Caleche in Durby.  It's in a spectacular valley setting (actually the smallest city in Europe!), has only 13 rooms, and the food and staff were absolutely fantastic.  Well worth a repeat visit even if you're not racing.  So, after a top dinner, a relaxing sleep in a comfy bed and a hearty breakfast, we set off in eager anticipation for the big-un.

Timing is everything
On the evening before, you could only register for the big ride .  So Dianne had to get her stuff on the morning of the event.  Luckily (we thought) we managed to park right outside the door of the event HQ.  The start was half a kilometre away and we had loads of time as the
a-la-francaise start ran from 8:30 to 9:00.  It's only 8:45.

Then just as we clicked in our pedals, the important looking man with the armband and radio says, "you can't park there, it's for ambulances".  His timing was lousy.  I explained there were no signs or markings to suggest such, and apologised for our mistake.

Seeing we were English, he said we could park in the VIP area, 10 metres away.  Nice man.  Then he radioed the start gate and told them to wait for us as we were on our way.  We needed to cross the mats to activate our timing chips and start our clocks.  He wished us well as we left for the mats at 8:59.  A very nice man.

Cote XhorisWe hit the timing mat, which was peeled up literally as our back wheels passed over it.   We crossed the large, marshalled road junction to start the first 3k, arrow straight climb of the Cote Xhoris. 

We were sack last, chasing shadows further up the road and on a bloody big hill at that.  That'll be the warm up then?  Only 164.5K and sixteen hills to go.  As we reached the top we caught our first riders.  But I needed to stop.  Doh!

I broke the news to Richard, "My front brake's not centred".  I'm meticulous about my brakes (some call it anal); I don't use them much but when I do it's full on or nothing.  So to make up for my shamateur mistake of not checking them when I put the wheel in, I now have to pay the price and stop.  Richard uses the time to adjust his heart monitor.  I think he's lost weight.  Thirty seconds lost, we'll make it up later!

Warp Factor Nine
For every up there's a down.  And this one was a biggie, with a massive hairpin at the base.  Which caught the attention and fully justified my earlier stop to adjust my brakes.  Well done me, I thought, smugly.  I know it's hard to picture me being smug.  But suspend your disbelief.  I was.

Eddy Merckx FinishBy now we're with the tail end Charlie's and hitting the big groups.  Even though we started dead last we had a top game plan of tempo riding and climbing to the first feed, crack on to the second and race to the finish.  How could we go wrong with a plan like that?

We picked up loads of riders early on and often found ourselves at the front of the groups dragging everyone along.  No problem, it's a nice day, everyone's trying their best and appear to be enjoying themselves.  Life's grand.

The climbs are ground out and the descents are blitzed, it really is a game of two halves.  But I'm having the time of my life and although it's sunny and very hot climbing, it's a little chilly on the down bits.  So the arm warmers and gilet zip are up and down like a lavatory seat.

The first feed was at the top of the majestic 5 kilometre and 6% L'Ancienne Barriere.  It's the fourth time I've raced this climb in Belgian events (well they wouldn't be any where else would they?) so I know it well and know what's next. 

We stopped for 30 seconds max, to fill the bottles as our food was lasting well and rule number one is never leave a station without filling bottles.  So fill we did and cracked on to Trois Points.

Au Revoir for a bit
This is where it gets a bit murky.  Mr Davy's definition of climbing tempo and mine, differed by 1kph.  As we scaled the Cote Daismont, Richard was on the front with me second wheel and we (he) knocked out a fantastic pace.  Three quarters up the 5k, five percenter, where it hit seven percent, I decided to ease back as I knew what came next.  Experience is a great ally in sportives!

Richard pedalled away gaining a centimetre with every pedal rev.  Unfortunately (for me) he didn't look back, assuming I was as strong as he was.  As he reached the crest he eased up and those around him went past.  I wasn't there.  He now faced a dilemma.  Wait for me or stay with the big group riding away from him?  He went with the group.  Which to be honest is exactly what he should have done.  Or should he?

StockeauHow hard is this?
Very is the answer.  On leaving the Daismont, you descend directly, no rest, no respite, no warning, in to the mouth of the waiting Stockeau.  Again, a climb I knew well and the reason I'd eased up previously. 

On the right is the final corner of the Daismont descent,  On the left is the first 12% metres of the road to the forest in to hell.  You don't even see it coming.

The Stockeau is your worst nightmare.  La Redoute, the Muur at Gerardsbergen and the Kemmelberg are all pussycats compared to this leg breaker. 

It appears right out of nowhere and starts at 12%!  Most people were still in the big ring from the descent. I'd never seen so may unshipped chains and people toppling over or doing track stands, going nowhere.  The first 500 metres average 12%.  As you enter the forest a 21% wall stares you right in the face.  Near the top it "flattens" to just 9%. 

Once more experience paid dividends as I knew exactly how hard to go, or not go was more the point, as a few "cheeky" riders overtook me at the bottom.  I passed three of them standing at the side, well more the middle really, of the road, unclipped, hunched over the bars and in one case being very sick.  It wasn't nice. 

Still no time to gloat, I pay a cursory acknowledgement to the Merckx commemorative stone near the top of the first section, but I need to crack on to find Trickie Dickie.

Flamme Rouge ~ showing offOnce again it's a couple of kilometres descent, that'll be two minutes rest, before we hit the triple-decker assault of the Logbierme, Les Quartieres and the Werbomont.  With the latter being climb eleven, kilometre 110 and the feed station; I stick with my game plan and knock out each challenge at a metronomic 220-240 watts. 

At the top of the Logbierme I show my outstanding climbing skills by riding up it with one hand behind my back.  Actually I'm getting my gilet out to put it on for the descent.  It looks sunny but it's still chilly in the shade of the forests.

I pick up loads of riders and storm in to the feed station not expecting to stop.  But I need to fill an empty bottle.  I still have enough drink to get  me to the finish but it would be foolish to miss the opportunity.  We're still on for a gold ride so no need to take any chances.

Mr Davy's back in town.  He's sitting at the feed having devoured,  three bananas, four energy bars and a full bottle of drink.  He looks a little jaded but he's a big boy and can battle on.

We leave the feed just as an old-boy and a young, lady of the fairer sex, leave ahead of us.  I ride past but look under my arm to see Richard glued to the blonde's back wheel.  No surprise there then; he's feeling better.  It's a one click climb and I think he's just getting back in to the groove after the feed.  But I'm afraid it's more serious than that.

It's going to be a long, 50k and six climb haul back to the finish for him.    We get to the top and he struggles to come past our femme fatale.  I'm climbing really well and ride at the front of the groups as we start climbing the long, long drags back to Hamoir.  At the top of the climbs I ease back and hold on for Richard.  He's now paying for his earlier efforts.  A harsh lesson learned after such a fantastic start. 

He feels a little bad because he realises we now can't get the gold time.  But just being here and taking part in this epic challenge is what it's all about.  The time is a bonus, just not one we're going to get today.  We ploughed on to the top of the final climb in the "autobus" where we got tailed from a large group we were riding with comfortably.

Here comes the fun bus
Now it's payback time.  The group are around 30 seconds ahead of us and we have a 5K descent to the finish.  Let battle commence. 

We pick up speed on the false flat and we're just off the back of them as two cars pass us and get in the gap as the real descent begins. 

The cars pass the front riders and we're already doing 60 kph as we pass those at the back.  They try to jump on and just get to the back of us when we dive past the first car doing 70 kph.  Richard comes past and gives a huge kick to take us to the tail of the next car as a left hander approaches.  I get a tow and dive under the car at 80 kph and take another two riders in front of him.  As the car exits the bend Richard follows and we scream in to the finish area a 100 metres ahead of the riders and cars.  As befits an epic ride, we finish in an epic style. 

Or rather we don't.  At the base of the climb we get turned off the main road and on to the riverside cycle path to take us to the finish timing mats and cruise in at 20 kph.  A perfect end to a monumentally classic day.  I even manage to cheer Richard up at the end with my Larry Grayson impression!  "What a grey day!"

Flamme Rouge & SIS

We grab a cold drink, swap stories with a group of Belgians then ride back to the HQ for a post race nosh.  Richard gets ready to return to Durby and me and the missus get ready for our seven hour drive back home.  Saving holidays for later in the year.

Our actual competition time, gave us a hard earned Silver brevet. 

Dianne had a great ride on her 75 k route with 9 climbs and 900 metres of upness.  She even got to meet Eddy Merckx when she finished as he parked next to us in our VIP parking area.  Unfortunately he'd gone to do the presentations by the time we arrived!

How hard can it be?
As we packed up I asked Richard to compare events.  This is an accomplished IronMan competitor remember.  "If a club run is one, and an IronMan is ten, where do you think this fits?" I asked him.  "Twelve" was his answer without even pausing for breath.

To double check I asked him again when we got back to Jersey to see if he'd re-evaluated his "snap" diagnosis.  He hadn't.  It really was that hard.  Still, it's the Bernard Hinault next week.  How hard can that be?  It's in Brittany, I'm sure it's flat!  Until then...

website Gran Fondo Eddy Merckx

Hotel La Caleche