Sunday 27 October 2013

Rouler avec Philippe! My day with the former World Road Cycling Champion (well, sort of)

The last time I saw Philippe Gilbert was as I stood on the slopes of the famous La Redoute climb at Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2011 and he zoomed by on his way to humiliating the Schlecks as he dashed towards the finish line.  I was standing in the middle of the Philippe Gilbert Fan Club and grown men were weeping for joy.  2011 was Fast Phil's Anno Mirabilis as he swept all before him.  He won the Strade Bianche race in Tuscany (where several months later I rode l'Eroica on some of the same roads at a more, uh, leisurely pace), then went on to take Brabantsje Pijl, Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallone and L-B-L.  Nobody has ever won all four of these Ardennes rides in one year.  More victories: the Belgian National Road and Time Trial titles; the Clasica San Sebastian;  the Tour of Belgium and the GP Wallonie and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec.  Plus he held the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys at various points of the 2011 Tour de France as well as winning the UCI World Tour that year.

He subsequently switched teams to BMC and has not seen the same results since, unsurprisingly since a year like 2011 will probably only happen to a cyclist once in a lifetime.  His unimpressive 2012 season, highlighted by two stage wins at the Vuelta only, was redeemed by his convincing attack on the Cauberg in Valkenburg, Netherlands to win the World Road Cycling Championship. 

Not much has happened for Philippe in 2013 but the Philippe Gilbert Fan Club has of course not lost faith in its namesake, still one of Belgium's beloved cycling idols.  So to close out the season the club organized a free "Rouler avec Philippe" event to which everyone was invited to share the road with the Great Man.

Square Philippe Gilbert, Aywaille, Belgium

On Saturday I jumped into my rented Volkswagen Golf Plus (not sold everywhere it resembles a cross between a minivan and a guppy) and headed to la Belgique on an hour and a half drive.  The start was just south of Liege in the village of Aywaille and, more precisely, at the Square (not Place, oddly) Philippe Gilbert.  The Square is actually under construction and things were a bit chaotic, to say the least, as I joined the estimated 700 participants jammed up under the start banner.

Philippe Gilbert was indeed there and he began proceedings by setting off on a ride with a group of children.  I was impressed by the way he talked with the kids and everyone seemed happy and relaxed.  He was wearing his BMC kit with the rainbow stripes that World Champions get to use for the duration of their careers.  He set out with with his children's group at 1 o'clock on a ride of 6 kms and the plan was that he would then join up at the head of our peloton at the end of that.  It was, alas, the last I was to see of Philippe on my "Rouler avec Philippe" day.

The police escort car rolled out of Square Philippe Gilbert at 1:15 and we were off!  It was certainly a very large group but everyone was pretty careful as we negotiated the first little climbs.  It was a lot calmer than the Italian granfondo ride I did in May last year but still there was a crash only 4 kms into the ride, with someone lying on the ground and waiting for medical help.  The ride was well-organized and emergency crews were present, along with police escorts on scooters and motorcycles, and included an ambulance at the rear of the convoy.

The route followed the Lesse River for 23 kms or so gently uphill.  People stood in their front yards and driveways and cheered us on.  I was surrounded by a lot of very fit-looking cyclists, a large percentage of whom were riding BMC bicycles and more than a few were wearing the tricolour Belgian National Champion's jersey, just like Phil had!  The road was in excellent condition and I could admire the autumn leaves when I was not focused on the cyclists everywhere around me.  We were supposed to keep a 25 km/h minimum in the rolling closure plan and this did not seem to be a problem at all with smooth roads and both lanes open to us.

Around Km 24 we turned and suddenly were confronted with a steepish hill that went on for a while.  Several of the Belgians suffered on this but I could do a good part of it using the big chainring (admittedly on my compact crankset) and really enjoyed the climb.  At the top the road flattened out and then turned right for a wonderful high-speed descent, again on perfect asphalt, before rejoining the road along the Lesse where we retraced our route back to Aywaille.  I was seeing some pretty high speeds here as the peloton had broken up a bit and it was very enjoyable.  I saw the effects of a second crash on a flat stretch soon after where several riders were apparently injured but it had to be through someone's carelessness as conditions were perfect for riding.  We had a few drops of rain but nothing to worry about.

After 1 hour and 51 minutes of riding and 52 kms I found myself back at Square Philippe Gilbert.  I looked around briefly at the crowds and then heard that it would be 45 minutes before Philippe would come out for the promised autograph session.  Rather than stand around in damp cycling clothes I decided to head for home, missing my Photo with Philippe session but having enjoyed a great afternoon in the Ardennes and riding a very pretty route.

After packing my guppy car, I realized I had not eaten all day and since I was near a frites stand I enjoyed the only vegetarian food (next to beer and chocolate) available to me in Belgium before heading back to Germany.  All part of the Belgian cycling experience!

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