Friday, 22 April 2011

An Interlude in the Ardennes

Through a complex series of connections, my Easter long weekend is going to be on big bike adventure. My coach from California, Rob Panzera, of Cycling Camp San Diego, is here with a small group to ride in a ten day Ardennes Classics training camp and then watch the Liege-Bastoge-Liege race on Sunday. I have joined them for two days of cycling, and then I will go off to Liege by myself to meet up with a different group for a minivan tour of the race and a VIP dinner at the famous La Redoute climb. Rob, who has written a coaching book that I will review shortly, offers a great program and support for cyclists, whether in California, Virginia or in Europe.

Organizing my transportation from Düsseldorf to Belgium turned out to be quite a chore as the railway would take ages to get to the nearest town where the group was staying and I would then somehow have to make my way with my bike and gear over there. The solution turned out to be pretty simple as I found a car rental agency in Düsseldorf that would rent me a small car for 29 Euros per day, all inclusive. Of course, the car would have advertising all over it, but it was all the same to me.

So: can anyone guess how much my rental car cost?

Picking it up on Thursday, I put in the TomTom GPS from the office and navigated my way home to pick up my luggage and the bike. The car was an Opel Corsa five door hatchback with no fewer than 92 km on it. Of course, it has a standard transmission but I managed to get back to the apartment with a minimum of fuss and even found a street parking spot directly opposite.

Loading up everything (the Corsa is very roomy with the rear seat folded), I left at 7 pm, an hour later than I had originally hoped. Getting to the autobahn did not go so well this time as I had a couple of stalling episodes. Germans get hysterical if they are delayed for a moment and they immediately lean on their horns if you don’t leap away from a traffic light. En route, the TomTom misdirected me off the autobahn and I had to turn around and that was also a bit complicated doing this in heavy traffic but all things are possible. Once I was on the autobahn, I had no difficulty, although the car is no Porsche and at higher speeds it feels pretty unsteady on its little wheels. But by the time I reached the hotel in La Roche-en-Ardenne after two hours of driving, we were on good terms.

The others were in La Roche itself for a drink, so I enjoyed an excellent plate of pasta with fresh vegetables and then a beautiful Eiskaffee (La Café Glacé in Belgium). The group came back just before I went to bed so we talked for a bit and then I slept very soundly.

This morning we have a very good breakfast to fortify ourselves for the trip ahead. Jo, Robert’s business partner, had sent GPS coordinates for the trip, and I managed to load my Garmin Edge 305 successfully on only the second try. My pleasure was short-lived, however, as when I later wanted to put the unit on my bike, the screen went blank and has stayed that way. After five years I suspect that the rechargeable internal battery will simply take no more charges, so I will probably need to send it to Garmin for an overhaul. I will try to find a spare unit on E-Bay since I do not want to be without a GPS on my rides. I did save the route on the Internet and it is shown in this posting.

Phillip gets us psyched up, Ben in the black Rapha pro kit

Just before 10:00 we met Phillip, who had set up the route for us and lives nearby, along with two British riders, Ben and Anton (a strong rider on a steel Condor bike with mudguards and a 44 tooth small chainring!) connected to the Rapha Condor racing team. They were all discouragingly fit-looking. Phillip had set out a course for 80 kms, with roughly 1500 meters of climbing. He claimed that there would be five climbs. Looking at the profile, this seemed very doubtful as the roads in the Ardennes all go up sooner or later.

Our group consisted of these three, plus Robert, Jo and the group of hobby cyclists from the US: Graham and Sonny from California and Rachel and Kevin from the East Coast. And me.

Leaving our very charming and comfortable hotel, the La Claire Fontaine, we headed north, crossing a small river, the Vespre, before almost immediately beginning a longish climb. It was not terribly steep but coming within 500 m of the start of the ride I could feel it pretty quickly. It has been some time since I have carried this much weight and I was not enjoying the effects very much.

Rachel modelling with the Trojan Horse

There was a fair amount of up-and-downing after this, until we began to get into a serious climb near Heyde. Phillip took us on a short detour, up an agonizing little hill, to see a hotel that has theme rooms. We were all enchanted by the big Trojan Horse, which is not something you see at every hotel. There was also a lovely view. The Ardennes are heavily-forested, rolling hills and there were many flowering trees. And an amazing amount of pollen in the air.

Graham modelling with the Trojan Horse too

Next on the agenda was a quite hard climb of around 9 kms. It was not terribly steep but the length of it and my lack of training were not a good combination. But I could keep Graham and Rachel in sight for most of the time, so it was not discouraging. At the end, a quick short downhill brought us to a café for a break at the 46 km mark in Manhay. I need to practice my French as well as my climbing since the waitress ignored my order for café au lait and mineral water and brought me an espresso and tap water with ice instead.

Kevin and Graham, near our hotel

Back on the bikes, we now had a 5 km climb, followed by a section of fairly flattish road into a headwind. The headwind was a bit discouraging and I was beginning to drag a bit. I loaded up on gel and some other quick-energy foods and felt better as we came into a great stretch of flat to downhill road that ran for about 6 kms, followed by a huge descent that brought us into La Roche. The really good riders blasted through this but I was not encourage by the state of the asphalt and took my time. It seems that in this part of Wallonia the roads are either excellent or pretty bad.

La Roche-en-Ardenne, with its castle ruins, river and colourful kayakers

La Roche was crazy-busy, unlike last night when I drove through. The others had already identified the best bakery, where I picked up a rhubarb turnover and a apricot jam-filled waffle, and then we all met in the main square of the town to eat and recover from the ride. We were on our own as the Phillip and the Rapha boys had left and it was fun to watch the Good Friday crowds enjoying the amazingly warm and sunny April weather.

Happy Ardennes Classics campers (from right to left): Rachel, Kevin, Jo, Rob, Graham

I rode back to the hotel along the river with Kevin and Graham. After a brief nap, I went to the bar to meet the others and we enjoyed some fine Belgian beer and an excellent dinner. The forecast tomorrow is for more excellent weather and another great ride.

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