are sometimes smooth and silky, and other times tired and tight.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The route to Côte de la Redoute

Thursday was a national holiday in most of Europe (to mark the holy day of Hemelvaarts, or the Ascension as it's known in English), which meant that the 4th edition of the Steven Rooks Classic was on the cards.

The SRC is an organized ride, departing from Maastricht, that heads south to the hills of the Ardennes. There are two courses to choose from: 100 km or 150 km, and neither of them are flat. In fact, apart from the first 20 km out, and the last 20km coming back in, they’re anything but flat.

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The profile of the 150 km course at the 2007 Steven Rooks Classic

The plan was that we’d leave at 7:00, and get to Maastricht around 9-9:30, weather permitting. I have to say that I wasn’t very enthusiastic when I woke up at 6:00 to the sound of rain, and considering the idea of spending 5+ wet hours on the bike, I did what any sane person would do: I went back to bed.

At 6:30 I got a call, to announce that the forecast was that the rain would clear by the time we got there, so things were going according to plan. That meant that I had to: put in my contacts, get dressed, and get out of the door in 15 minutes, because I had to bike 10km to catch a ride. No breakfast, no coffee, no fun.

What really motivated me to get out the door was one of the eleven climbs of the day, the legendary Côte de la Redoute. Just in case you have never heard of la Redoute, it’s a 1.7 km climb, that has earned its place in history as the launch pad for the winning move in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Back in the late 90s I took a break from my break from cycling. What brought me out of my self-imposed retirement was the challenge of riding a cyclo-tourist edition of the “La Doyenne”. After several years of wine, women, and song, I managed to get myself back into some decent shape. Not the cyclist I was before, but in reasonable enough condition to ride the 240 plus kilometers of the course, or so I thought.

As luck would have it, I crashed on a training ride a few weeks before L-B-L day, and broke my finger in two places, leaving me with a cast up to my elbow. Two days before the ride, the cast came off, but I had tacoed both of my wheels in the crash, and needed to borrow some ASAP, which somehow I arranged to do at the last minute.

Everything was set, more or less. While I hadn’t managed to ride my bike since the crash, the weather that morning in Liege was warm and sunny, my riding companions were in good spirits, it was looking promising. There were only a few problems: I could only brake with my ring and pinky finger on my left hand; and I discovered, within the first 200 meters of the ride, that my fork was also bent. Meaning I had to keep my hands on the bars the entire time, or risk crashing again. If I was smart, I would have called it quits, and gone straight back to the hotel, but la Redoute was calling for me.

I did my best to answer that call, and rode over 170 kilometers until my back started giving out on me, and my left hand cramped up from the burden of braking down the technical descents of the Ardennes. Somewhere, after the Wanne, I called it a day. There would be no Redoute for me that day.

Fast forward to Thursday: I was back in Belgium, this time in flying form, on a well-maintained bike, with my own wheels, and a straight fork. Granted, the weather was horrible: in the neighborhood of 12° celcius, and despite the forecast of clearing skies, the rain grew heavier and heavier throughout the morning. I didn’t like it, but the Redoute was calling me once again.

Eighty wet kilometers, over an up and down course, and I found myself entering the town of Remouchamps. I could see the highway ahead, and knew what that meant: la Redoute was only a few minutes away. I felt a nervous pang in my stomach, and various thoughts passed through my head. Would I be able to ride up te entire climb in my 39x23? Are my legs fresh enough for it? How badly am I going to get dropped by my friends? It didn’t matter, la Redoute was ahead.

There was only one thing that seemed odd. There were a lot, I mean a lot of riders on the side of the road. Maybe they taking a break from the rain, and getting a coffee? As we passed them some shouted something at us, but I didn’t hear it, or understand it, or both. As we weaved through the side streets of Remouchamps, there were more and more cyclists, standing there in the rain, and this time I could clearly hear “gesloten” (i.e. closed), which left me somewhat confused, if not a little alarmed. It didn’t matter, la Redoute was nigh.

We shifted into our climbing gears, and rode under the highway, taking a right, to begin our ascent. That’s where the things turned surreal. I looked up the road, as I pedaled out of the saddle, and saw PHIL, PHIL, PHIL written all over the road (in honor of local hero Philippe Gilbert), with hundreds of motorcycles parked alongside, almost like quotation marks. About half a kilometer further up, was where the road came to an end: filled with a score of cyclists, standing in the rain, trying to get through, to ride the Redoute. Unsuccessfully.

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Traffic jam on la Redoute

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Only one direction to go, backwards.

Somehow, someway, permits for both the 4th Steven Rooks Classic and the 1st Belgian Moto Tour had been given, to ride la Redoute on the same day. There would be no ascending la Redoute on Ascension day.

This time there was no sag wagon, just another +/- 2.5 hours in the rain back to Maastricht. C'est la vie.

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