L'Homme dur d'Ardennes
On our second day out the weather alternates from sunny and warm to snowy and windy, often below freezing. As we ride to our second night's stay in Durbuy, a snowstorm overtakes us, despite our heads-down hard riding. Despite the fact that on a daily basis we could expect at least some rain and often snow, the weather never deters us, and is often "what riding in Belgium in the spring is all about."
What it is also about is the route. There is no such thing as a dirt road in Belgium. They pave everything, from cart paths hardly wider than our Fiat sag van to massive eight-lane auto stradas that rival American superhighways. The cart paths though, are what are most important to us. These chipped, pocked farm roads lead us through the heart of the Ardennes region and exhibit a unique character that make them the highlight of the riding portion of our trip. Whether it's flying through a field on an unmarked access road or making long sweeping descents on perfect tarmac, like the four-mile drop into the Luxembourgian burg of Clervaux, the riding is universally superb.
It's also a very stiff week of riding. One criticism of the Flandrian countryside is the lack of variable terrain, something from which the Ardennes region certainly doesn't suffer. For the final two days of riding we more or less followed the race route for Liege-Bastogne-Liege, including 12 of the categorized climbs, such as the Cote du Stockeau, Cote du Haute Levee, and the most brutish of them all, the La Redoute, with its sustained 14 percent grade and maximum pitch of 20 percent.
"I wanted a vacation where I could come over here and really ride my bike," says Andy Peslin, a service manager for Young's Bicycle Shop on Nantucket island. "When I get home I can say I rode the Mur de Huy."
For those who might think that these trips are nothing more than riding and race-spectating, though, think again. Each day's route is planned to take participants from one night's stop to the next and includes some of the more fascinating tourist stops in the Ardennes. Our first day's ride featured a two-hour plus stop at the Abbey of Villers la Ville. An 850-year-old monastery, it was, at its peak, one of the religious centers of Europe. Placards dot the considerable compound, detailing in several languages the functions and history of everything from the dungeona dank, nitre-encrusted subterranean slice of blackness reminiscent of Poe's The Cask of Amontilladoto the flying buttresses and soaring hundred-foot-high ceilings of the ruined chapel.
Art and architecture aren't the only attractions. Numerous war memorials dot the landscape, and stops in towns like Tournai (the first Belgian town to be liberated by the Allied forces in WWII) drive home the sobering lesson that the World Wars are much more than a history lesson here. Here daily reminders of those wars are as easily found, like the haphazard, blotchy architecture of Bastogne, rebuilt after the town was taken by Allied forces but nearly destroyed in the effort.
A trip to Belgium in the spring is an off-beat adventure for the cycling enthusiast, one that offers everyone along something to enjoy. Along with being the chance to ride some of the most challenging and beautiful terrain in Europe, it's a trip for someone who wants to get away from it all, combining the armchair spectacle of bicycle racing with the thrill of riding the same roads yourself. On top of that, tour participants also learn the cultural lessons of another land and get to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of a four-star chateau.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication