"La Doyenne"

The Côte de Wanneranval (1.6 km at 9.4%), if indeed the road I had climbed was the one, was residential for the first 600 meters or so. From the bottom, the climb looked menacing. I circled a couple of times to shift down to 39x21, put my head down, sighed, and started climbing. What a monster! Unless my legs were lying to me, this could not have been a road that averaged "only" 9.4%. I quickly shifted to my largest gear, 39X23 as the grade was more severe than it looked. The road started well north of 12% and stayed that way throughout. After a bending to the right, then left, the road narrowed and its surface deteriorated. Then it got steeper. I particularly recall a 50-meter stretch where I had simultaneously struggled to stay upright and avoid a few giant potholes in the road. At a couple of spots I had to literally stomp on the pedals to propel myself forward and to avoid losing balance. Perhaps the hill wasn’t really that steep, and perhaps it was only fatigue that made it difficult. Regardless, some sections felt in excess of 20% to me. For the first time in this ride I started wondering whether I had the necessary leg strength to make it to the top of this climb. . Ever so gradually, I felt an easing of gradient and soon the top appeared. I had ridden close to 80 miles at this point, shortened route and all, and was absolutely exhausted by this wicked trio of climbs.

(Below: Pockmarked climb from hell. Top of Côte de Wanneranval. Or was it?)

A tribute to Eddy Mercx stood at the summit of the climb. I suppose there was symbolic significance having to climb a steep hill to reach this tribute. By the way, Mercx, born in Woluwe St Pierre, Belgium, won the Liège-Bastogne-Liège a record 5 times (1969, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975), in addition to winning the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia five times each, being the World Amateur Road Race champion in 1964, and the professional champion three times. By the time he retired in 1978, he had won more races and classics than any other rider in history.

(Above: Erasmus catching his breath and posing in front of the shrine
to Eddy Mercx, cycling's demigod)

I turned left at the intersection and headed towards Trois-Ponts again, only this time, down a steep, cobbled road. The sensation was akin to falling down a flight of stairs on one’s behind. Thump, thump, thump. I felt my brains getting scrambled.

Utterly exhausted by the last series of climbs, and thirsty from the heat, I refilled my water bottles yet again then continued thump thumping my way very slowly through the cobbled streets of Trois-Ponts.

(Above: The cobbled streets of Trois-Ponts)

NOTE: A couple of people who have read this account had since e-mailed me with comments as to where I actually was. Apparently, the climb was the Stockeu, not the Wannerval. Here are excerpts from both notes:

"I got back from doing some dream rides in Flanders and the Ardenne a few weeks ago and stumbled across your "La Doyenne" ride from last year. Most maps are pretty useless as far as determining what climb is what (you realized that yourself). I was lucky in that I purchased a CD-rom street atlas of Belgium at 1:25000 scale with zooming capabilities in certain instances to 1:10000. That combined with 10 years worth of LBL videos allowed me to figure out 'what was what' and 'what was where'. There are like 6 different ways to get to Wanne and Wannerval, and it's hard to figure it out even with my map software what climb your on. However, I can help you correct a few things about your ride. What you thought might be the Stockeu is not the Stockeu. I'm not sure what it is, but if the descent "ended near the center of moderate town with cobbled streets", I think you were in Stavelot after coming down off of the Cote de Wannerval. Just on the other side of town (1 km) was the Haute Levee(a lot harder than I was led to believe). What you thought was the Cote de Wannerval was the Stockeu. It shows up perfectly on my software leaving the town of Stavelot and there was even a little placard on the side of the house at the bottom. Your description of the climb is exactly what I experienced except the pot-holed section at 20% has been fixed. The Merckx statue is on your right at the top (the orientation of your bike next to the statue is how I came up the Stockeu). The Stockeu has a 340 cotacol rating!!! If you make an immediate left at the Merckx statue, you are on the Cote de Somagne. I flew down this road until it merged with a steep cobbled street for the final 500 meters. I don't know how the pros hold on to their bars at speed. I wonder if this is the same road you came down."


"What you call 'cote de wanneranval' (statue of Eddy Merckx at the top) is the 'cote du stockeu' (it is the Rue Stockeu). (Liege-Bastogne-Liege). What you describe as the Stockeu, I really don't know."

Thus it was with great relief that I got on the roundabout and slingshotted my way out of Trois-Ponts and into the N653 for Stoumont. The first few miles past Trois-Ponts were downhill and busy and thus required tremendous concentration; it wasn’t until I got to La Gleize that I realized I had missed a turn at Roanne for the next climb to the Côte du Rosier. I assessed my situation. I was approaching the limits of my endurance, and I had at least three more climbs to do after the Côte du Rosier (given the difficulties of riding in Liège, I had earlier decided not to tackle the Côte du Sart-Tilman and the Côte de Saint-Nicholas). I decided to skip Côte du Rosier and to continue on.

(Above: Though it looks historic, this chateau along the N633 is new.
Hmmm, has Bill Gates taken up residence in the Ardennes?

The next several miles saw me riding the other half of the N633 east of Stoumont that I hadn’t ridden this morning. But gone were the rustic ambience of the dewy leaves and the singing birds and in their places were the flat sunshine of the mid-afternoon sun and the irritating sounds of revving engines. After 16 kilometers, I reached the junction for the turn-off to a bridge and to the base of the next climb, the Côte de Lorce (4.4 kilometers at 5.5%). I briefly stopped on the bridge and watched the people playing in the Amblève river. They were shrieking and laughing as they canoed, swam and lollygagged on their inflatable toys, enjoying the summer-like weather. I was tired. I hated them.

(Above: The inviting Amblève rivière)

The lower section of the Côte de Lorce, at around 7%, and gently twisting about, was quite manageable. It reminded me a lot of a favorite road in the Berkeley hills—Pinehurst Road from the Castro Valley side of Redwood Road. Côte de Lorce levelled off as it entered the town proper before resuming its uphill direction at a somewhat steeper rate. After about three kilometers, the road flattened as it reached a plateau with very handsome views of an expansive green valley down below. This was followed by a very long (six kilometers) descent to the quiet town of Harzè, and, shortly thereafter, to Aywaille and the approach to the next climb on the route.

(Above: The town of Lorce)

I stood at the junction where I thought the start of the climb to Côte de la Redoute ought to be, but I couldn’t find any road save the long on-ramp to the E25 motorway. If, indeed, this concrete monstrosity be Côte de la Redoute, it would be a massive letdown. With a shrug of the shoulder and a skeptical attitude, I started climbing, along with lorries and twelve-wheelers and dozens of other motorized contrivances. As I neared the top, I noticed that there were no other outlets to this ramp save the E25 north motorway to Liège and the E25 south motorway to Bastogne. I was about to give up when, lo and behold, a narrow road gradually emerged as if from under the on-ramp. Côte de la Redoute! That had to be it! But how to get there?

As I turned around and crossed over to the other side I noticed a tiny connecting road that had been sealed off. Well, here’s another predicament. Imagine an exhausted cyclist having just climbed a road (granted it was the wrong road) with only a two-foot barrier standing between him and what appeared to be the top of Côte de la Redoute. I tried to rationalize what I was thinking. Shouldn’t my efforts to climb the concrete abomination I’m on now count for anything? It may not have been pretty, but the ramp was steep nonetheless. I crossed over, came upon a small triangle of grass with a stone plaque in tribute to the Côte de la Redoute and the Liège-Bastogne-Liège race. There were a lot of road markings in orange and in white, in French, in English, and (best I can determine), in Dutch.

(Above: Côte de la Redoute, an unkind road)

I started second guessing my initial decision to bypass the climb. Surely if it warrants a plaque the climb must be noteworthy? What if I skipped the climb only to find out afterwards that it is one of the defining climbs of the race and I hadn’t ridden it, having climbed a motorway on-ramp instead?

I’ve come all this way to taste precisely what these climbs are like and I was chickening out. OK, death is nature’s way of telling one to slow down. But until then…Hey, let it not be said that I don’t suffer for my "art"! Pointing the handlebars south, I pushed off and headed back down, uncertain what lurked below… After only a kilometer, the road bottomed out somewhere near Remouchamps. "See, that wasn’t so bad," I said to myself. Emboldened, I turned around and started climbing back up. I even managed to make it back to the plaque using "only" 39x19. Not too shabby. But I was tired, no question about it. Still, I shifted down to a smaller gear. By my recollection, I only had one more climb to go, the Côte de Sprimont, which didn’t look that bad when I rode down it earlier in the morning. I was pre-occupied with this and various self-congratulatory thoughts and was thinking about what I would like to have for dinner when I was almost stopped dead in my tracks by the road which seemed all of a sudden to have awaken and risen angrily. I looked down. There were even more road markings here. "VDB!" (Franck Vandenbroucke). "Axel" (Mercx). And, somewhat surprisingly, quite a few "US Postal" and "Lance" (Armstrong) markings. "S---, the climb is not over," I muttered through clenched teeth as I tried my hardest to turn the cranks. But every bending seems to introduce a section steeper than the one before it. I tried every mental trick I knew to try and take my mind off the difficulty of the climb. Don’t look ahead, just look down. Count to 10, then you’d be closer. One Mississippi, two Mississipi, three Mississippi…Then I tried to imagine myself in a breakaway, with the peloton trying to catch up from behind me. Less than 100 meters to go…C’mon you can do it…50…10 more pedal strokes…

(Below: Yes I can (pant...pant), yes I can...)

(Above: This, too, must pass. Top of Redoute)

I was too exhausted to feel elation when I finally summited. I did a few circling turns at the top to get my heart rate down, then snapped a few pictures before stupidly going downhill the wrong way. I checked myself before going too far down and then rejoined the N30 just north of Florzè.

The next climb, the Côte di Sprimont, at a meagre 3%, was a breeze compared to the others and I somehow managed to climb it comfortably with a 39x15. From Sprimont, I retraced my outbound route and managed to ride the last 10 miles back to Liège without much difficulty.

The end.

Post-Scriptum: Later that evening, as I went out for dinner, the temperature reading at 20:30 was a still-sweltering 32C, thus making it extremely likely that daytime temperatures approached 40C.

NB: The Tilff-Bastogne-Tilff finishes at Tilff south of Liège, while the Liège-Bastogne-Liège finishes at Ans, north of Liège.

Last Updated: January ,(, /),(