Challenge Number One – La Doyenne

And then it’s done.

All the preparation, training and mental preparation built toward yesterday, April 22nd 2017. The Liege-Bastogne-Liege challenge, or perhaps I should be honest and call it Liege-Stavelot-Lige because the 156km version does not go as far as Bastogne. But that’s not something to linger on, it’s still ‘La Doyenne’, or ‘The Old Lady’. The oldest of the five ‘Monuments’ in the European road cycling calendar. Perhaps not that well known if you’re not ‘into’ cycling but…… who cares?

The day itself started early. There was travel from our hotel/hostel/place-with-beds-in-it (doesn’t matter) to the start point and then registration before getting on the road. A long road. In the rain. I was on my own fairly soon but that was to be expected, the group I travelled with were all triathletes and had a good ten years youth on me. No way that I could match their pace and not fair to expect them to wait for me.

The initial rain was disconcerting, especially with the first long descent. I don’t like descending and on that first descent I did everything wrong, effectively sat on the brakes as other riders flew past. No bulls*t I was scared. But it was also the biggest descent I had done, ever; at least until later that day. It was in the rain and I made it, slowly but I made it.

Descents come after climbs. I can’t pretend to be a good climber but, like a true sadist, I like it. Difficult to describe but it’s good to get strong feeling in my right leg. Not like it is dead but simply feeling…… more. Quite important.

And it’s the climbs that stay most in my mind. Steep and hard, very hard. Especially for someone who does not climb very often. But also such a feeling. What will always remain in the memory is the climb at Cote de la Redoute. The path was lined with the caravans of spectators who had already staked their place to watch the professionals who would follow the same path the next day. Flags, music, people who were slightly worse for wear due to beer but who were giving vocal encouragement. The road to the summit was covered in graffiti, adding to the feeling that this was the real thing. But so steep and seemingly never-ending, I made the mistake of looking up a couple of times. Not a good idea. You see what’s coming, not to mention others who have stopped, got off their bikes and started walking.

But, slowly, I made it. A small edge of determination, a quick stand and push harder and suddenly the top is reached. After Redoute there were only forty kilometres to go. I felt elated.

Only forty kilometres.

Forty kilometres containing two steep, nasty climbs as the ride re-enters Liege. Hard work. And an extra piece of sadism from the organisers. Included in the eight kilometers from the professional finishing line to the finishing line for amateurs was a small but, for the unfamiliar, punishing set of cobbles. Punishing for me in any case, an element of unfamiliarity perhaps playing a role. The body was already stirred and now it was shaken to pieces.

It’s always important to be honest. I cannot pretend to have breezed through Liege-Bastogne-Liege and loved every moment. The first sixty kilometres were definitely filled with the thought ‘why the hell am I doing this?’ Rain, tiredness from a nerve-induced lack of sleep, unfamiliar territory and busy roads had a negative effect. Nastier was a hit of trembling after a replenishment stop that led to a moment of real doubt. Fortunately this was just before a relatively benign climb and so I could relax and see if things calmed down which, luckily enough, they did.

But the positive memories are stronger. The ride was never easy but the feeling of achievement was huge after every climb. Descending was never perfect but it did get better as I remembered the lessons of earlier rides and started to pay more attention to the road ahead, not try to spot every pothole or stone. Of course, I was still being overtaken by just about everyone else but but that didn’t matter; well, again being honest, I did get a small kick when overtaking a lot of the same riders on the next climb.

Small, personal moments as well; the young lad in Liege high-fiving all of the riders who passed him or the old lady stood outside of the Soviet style flat atop the Cote de Saint Nicolas encouraging the riders who passed (‘Courage, Courage!’). In such a long period on the bike there will be plenty of idiots to remember but why linger on them? In fact, let’s leave them there.

The finish was massive but quiet emotion, a little too restrained perhaps. I was tired, passive, happy and confused, all over the place. My mind was a complete mess. It’s just riding a bike, I suppose, but this had been a combination of all of the things that I don’t like, descending, riding with a lot of people, bad weather, and riding in unfamiliar surroundings with a kit if climbing that no amount of training can prepare you for. It took awhile to sink in and, eventually, it has.

The biggest pride? Well, I will be honest, again. I am forty-two years old, have been cycling ‘seriously’ for only four years and have been diagnosed with MS for three of those; despite trying, even that wasn’t going to spoil things. I completed ‘La Doyenne’, my own insanity in Belgium. Forgive me, but I am feeling pretty proud of myself today.

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