Liege is not the most celebrated of European cities. Visitors to Belgium flock to Bruges, and are then surprised to find Ghent is better, that Antwerp’s station is breathtaking, and that Marvin Gaye lived in Ostend.
They don’t stay on for Liege, unless they cycle. And if they cycle, then Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a name to bring chills of excitement. Less famous worldwide than Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderens, LBL is one of the Spring Classic one-day races that gets Belgian people’s blood pumping faster than a special delivery of Vedette.
Liege itself is a little like Sheffield. As Sheffield has the Peak District on its doorstep, Liege has the Ardennes. Suburban streets are outrageously hilly. Both are not quite post industrial, both feel real, Liege shades it for a lovely medieval centre. Sheffield probably has better cheesy chips.
I’d come here to cycle out of the city, into the Ardennes, and back. Only the pro riders and those on the 273km version of the ride make it to Bastogne, by the way. For the rest of us we had Liege – Rain – Liege to look forward to. On Friday I was optimistic the rain forecast for the next day wasn’t going to come. Ascending Liege’s dramatic Montagne de Bueren, stair after stair to a superb view over the busy Meuse and the city below, I’d puffed my cheeks in the warm sunshine and thought about the ride to come. The prediction of non-stop rain must be wrong, surely?
At 5am I had my answer. The rain dripped into the tiny courtyard outside my bedroom. I padded over to the other side of the flat that was my temporary home and peered hopefully out of the window. Puddles were forming on the cobbled alleyway. At this point fatalism appears through the pre-dawn murk. I was alone in Liege. I had come all this way to ride the LBL challenge. Mentally there was no way out but to stiffen my sinews and remind myself that once my are was wet it would stay wet. At least I had ignored the traditional cyclists doctrine and left my rear mudguard on. I don’t know if the Belgians eat porridge but I ate enough that morning to feed a nation of Walloons, hobbled down the narrow staircase in my cleats and then pedalled off toward the start line.
In retrospect the rain and the hills blur into one. This was an unmistakably wonderful ride whatever the weather. The first few miles heading out of Liege gave way to some gentle climbs which became steeper as they wound their way into the Ardennes. Sometimes forested, sometimes threading their way between open fields reminiscent of Yorkshire, but always climbing a little further than you would think. Here are hills with bite, if not the sharp-fanged steepness of the English Lake District. At times I found myself grinning, but not really sure why, as one hill gave way to another. “Remember you enjoyed this’’ said either the devil or the angel on my shoulder, presumably in case I tried to paint the whole thing as a terrible rain-soaked mistake later on. No mistake. This was the business, and worth looking forward to all through the winter commute.
There are plenty of sites out there that can more fully guide you as to what lumpy bits await on this ride so I won’t detail them all. Besides, I am slow and ponderous on my steel-framed bike, so probably no judge of the relative challenge of the hills of LBL. For me La Redoute was by far the most challenging, bringing out the primal scream just before the finish, which turned out to not even be the finish at all. By the time we were charging up the Cote de St Nicolas I was grinning even more, with plenty of puff still left in my legs. It had, incidentally, stopped raining by this point. Why does it always stop raining in the hour before you finish soggy rides?
As we rolled back into Liege through the city’s post-industrial outskirts there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful. I had avoided any cramping or bonking, two clouds that got in the way of enjoying last summer’s White Rose Classic. I’d seen a large part of a whole new and very beautiful part of Europe. I’d also overtaken the annoying gentlemen who had been jumping in front of me at inopportune moments on the final descent into Liege. Most of all, from here the agenda read: home, shower, food, beer, sleep. And the home was dry, the shower warm, the food plentiful and cheap, the beer Vedette and the sleep very peaceful.
Belgium for cyclists: it delivers big time.