La Doyenne – Liege Bastogne Liege 2023


It was the week that the NFCC domestiques were sunning themselves, eating Tortillas and doing short training rides in Girona, Spain (the winter base for many UCI pro riders). Most of the same UCI pros were making the journey to the Belgian Ardennes for the final race of the Spring Classics season, the Old Lady herself, the oldest of the Classics and the fourth Monument of the season – La Doyenne, Liege Bastogne Liege. A call went out to the remainder of the NFCC crew for the Ballers, the A-Listers, the absolute Rock Stars of the club to represent NFCC on the L-B-L Challenge ride the day before the Pros took on the same course. A mere 251km and 4500m elevation stood between our guys and everlasting glory. Unable to muster up any of the aforementioned Ballers the mantle was bravely taken up by Stuart and Sean – what could possibly go wrong.
Winter training rides were completed in all sorts of horrendous conditions, going out even on +8 days on the Phil Harris misery scale, i.e., some of the worse conditions known to man. The brave duo knew that there was a possibility of the famous Neige Bastogne Neige 1980 edition, so all conditions had to be ridden in and survived. None of crashes and broken wheels (Stuart) nor wine, ski trips, beer, Covid, Irish family weddings and whiskey (Sean) would undo the good work done on a diet of Audaxes, club rides, hill reps and early morning interval sessions. Our local heroes were (almost at/close-ish to) race weight and flying fit and following one final shave of the legs were ready for the Monumental task ahead.
Travel day dawned bright and with bikes packed it was off to the Tunnel to drive through northern France and the fields Flanders to arrive in Wallonia where registration was completed without fuss. The enormity of the ride to come was laid bare by the undulating landscape of this part of Belgium. To say that there was little flat land would be an understatement. Nothing was flat – it was either going up or it was going down. And steep – everything was steep. The farm animal of choice were goats. Hmmm.
Then the thunder and lightening started. This Old Lady was not going to give it up easy.

Ride Day – 22/04/2023

The day of the Ride started bright and sunny but a bit chilly. Rain was in the forecast for mid-afternoon and the wind was blowing about 20 km/h but crucially for our protagonists it was blowing from the South meaning a tailwind when it was needed most. Merino jerseys and rain capes were the uniform of the day – and with a nod to the current cycling fashion, white socks. Sacrificial socks that would most likely never be white again. Got to look the part, right?
Absolute car parking mayhem at the start village of the Sportive meant that Stuart and Sean had to ride an extra 2 km to the start point. This 2 km had more elevation than the 25km NFCC Chain Gang loop – as mentioned nothing was flat. Minor mechanical setbacks were overcome and it was time to roll.
The organisers let riders go in bunches of 100 or so. The peleton rolled along nicely for the first 10 km downhill through villages on fast roads. The first 10 km were covered at near pro speeds. The difference was we were going downhill only – their average includes the uphills too. After this joyous opening we saw the road going the wrong way i.e. uphill. Unlike the Big Mountains where you can see the target and know you have to get to the top, it was a series of 200, 250, 300 or 400 metre stretches of road where 20, 40 or 50 metres of elevation was gained. Cruelly followed by a tiny descent with maybe 2 metres flat between the downhill and the next uphill. It was a general drag to get to the top of the Ardennes range (approx. 550 m above sea level).
The inner ring was used.
We were also introduced to the Granny ring for the first of many times that day.
And this was the easy flat bit…

The Côtes of many colours

And onto the first Côte of the day. Following a glorious 6km descent on fast, flowy roads the sad truth of our reverse gravity life choice hit us. What goes down must go up.
3.3km at 5.6% average had the people with no sense of the future charging up the hill. Thankfully the NFCC club members are generally old and grizzled with the knowledge that the last hill matters more than the first. Côte #1 crossed off, it was into the headwind, the up-hills, the down dales, hiding on the right side of the road from the skinny boys flying past and picking off some of the “Côte #1 Chargers” all the way to Bastogne and the 2nd feed station of the day.
Feed stations consisted of (approx.) 1000 Flemish, Walloon, French, Dutch and German bike riders (with a few interlopers thrown in) wearing all sorts of colourful garb, (approx.) 1000 carbon bikes, (approx.) 2000 deep section carbon rims, enough bananas to keep the Gorillas in the Mist happy for the next year, free gels and chews from the sponsors of the day, (approx.) 1000 oversized sunglasses stuck upside down into helmets and 1998 shaven legs (you know who you are!!).
After Bastogne, duly weighed down with bananas and free “energy” food it was time to enjoy that tailwind. 8 kms of super-fast, false flat downhill highway, 8 km of cross country rolling terrain and 8km of downhill brought us to our next Côte of the day – a ferocious beast of a climb called Côte de Saint-Roch or the Wall. Through a village, round a 270 degree bend and Bang. Sustained sections of high teens had us crunching into the Granny gear and pressing 350 watts to ensure some sort of forward momentum thus avoiding the dreaded topple and dismount. Many riders chose to take the walk of shame on this hill, but not our NFCC chaps. We winched ourselves to the top and enjoyed the relative peace of the rolling terrain of the Ardeche.
Next up was Côte de Mont-le-Soie. A mere 1.7km at 7.9% followed by Côte de Wanne 3.6 km at 5.1%. Easy, right? Nope. That 3.6 km included 1 km downhill so in reality it was 1.2 km at 13% and 1.4 km at 12%. Cruelty to Mamils – someone call the police!
This was closely followed by the famous Côte de Stockeu, the climb that Eddy Merckx would use as the springboard to launch his solo attack into Liege. There were attacks by the NFCC bunch – but only on their own legs, lungs, cranks and morale. An equivalent to 8 Bolderwoods put on top of each other without the run up, the flat bit, the less steep bit or the nice bit. Just relentless steepness for 1km. Top man Eddy. The downhill was also too severe to let the bike run, so it was on the brakes back down to Stavelot and a well-deserved stop at the next feed station.
At this point, the Pros really push on meaning we were left with no alternative but to channel our inner-pro and push on also. At this point, the speedy boy peletons were long gone and some of the stragglers from these bunches were on the road ready to be caught, joined and passed by our dynamic duo. During this point onwards we passed more people than would pass us. The old “hare and tortoise” trick well learned from Audaxers.
The hills kept coming. Côte de la Haute Levee, Col du Rosier, Côte de Desnie and the most fearsome Côte de la Redoute.
And then the rain.
At 200 km the heavens opened and the previously bangin’ descents became glistening double diamond pistes cut through the Ardennes forests. Luckily Sean was wearing his Sean Kelly cap which brings the inner “hard man of the classics” to the forefront. The worse the weather, the better the performance and he was simply glad of the rain to cool the leg muscles. Sadly, it was very much the death knell for the pristine socks. A small price to pay, one would have to agree.
Côte de la Redoute – where legends are made. 1.1 km with patches hitting 20% and long stretches above 15%. The only road in the world with more Phils than a NFCC group ride. One of the Phils nearly brought Stuart to a grinding halt with a wheel spin on the face of Phillippe Gilbert – not the real one but a likeness painted on the road. Remco would spin in the exact same spot the next day – he should have called us for some advice. We would have mentioned that box-fresh white clothing might not be the best idea as well as the danger posed by a shiny faced Phil Gil on the Redoute.

With this beast out of the way, it was a mere 25 km to the end point. The danger of the DNF was more or less gone. Now to concentrate on keeping the rubber side down and save a bit for the sprint. Stuart had other ideas and didn’t trust his sprint against the more (ahem) powerfully built athlete in his company. He made a last ditch jump to the coattails of another bunch of skinny boys and snapped the elastic to Sean. Stuart being the more experienced of the ways of Monument cycling, as he already had a Roubaix in the legs, knew how to close the deal. Sean will have learned from this experience and will no doubt be wary of the jump during his next Monument.
The kilometers were ticking down very quickly by now. Before they knew it, they were within sight of Banneau which was the start and end point of the ride. It was certainly before Sean knew it as he was expecting one more murderous climb to come. Due to his demented state of mind from having climbed the equivalent of Milford on Sea to the top of the Matterhorn in just one ride, he forgot that the final Côte the pros do is missing from the route of the Sportive. A quick “conversation” with a French chap told him that instead of 12 kms and one more Côte, there was just 2 km of false flat to go. A miracle. There was still enough time for him to follow a Dutch chap around the wrong turn to add an extra 700 metres to already sore and tired legs.
Coming into the finishing straight, Sean managed to grab the wheel of 2 local Walloon flecheurs coming past, hold their wheels until the final 75 metres where he dropped one last Watt Bomb and flew past for the glory on the line. That move brought his finishing place up from 3275 to 3273! (Finishing positions are a guesstimate).
What a way to finish a truly Monumental day.
La Doyenne had shown her kinder side and not killed either of us.

Share this post