A priceless conclusion of my one-week Europe trip: Can one dream up a better start of a 150km cyclo-sportive than this?
My sister said I looked like a kid in a candy store—and that’s indeed how I felt (and my wife said she didn’t even see a smile that big on our wedding day!). Philippe Gilbert is a really nice person, taking his time for photo shoots with his numerous admirers—“très, très sympa!” (He even “favorited” my tweet.) As my buddy Andy says:
Cycling is the only sport in the world where you can do EXACTLY the same thing as the world champion or TDF winner right next to him. Awesome.
I was fortunate to spend 3 days in my native Belgium after 4 days of work in Germany. Work hard, play hard (and in that sequence it is one of my motto’s). My friend and co-author Robert (photo below) had signed us up for La Philippe Gilbert. This was the 4th year cyclosportive starting in the champion’s hometown and comes in three parcours: 86km, 117km and 150km. This is a non-timed mass ride with open start times, but Philippe was scheduled to start at 8:30am with the 150km. Of course, we were there at 8:30. My only question was how long we’d be able to hang with him?
The start was surprisingly fast—this was no “rolling start,” but luckily we quickly reacted by moving up. A car and motorcycle were in front of Philippe who led this peloton. Quickly the back door was open so one had to stay attentive to move up. We were going 40 to 50kph on the flats towards the first of 14 climbs. We were riding blind, not having studied the parcours and the nice parcours card being useless in the back pocket…
After 9km, the sign of the first climb: Cote de Fraiture. All our climbs of the day were “sudden:” we take one turn and straight up it goes. (Later on there was one climb with a sudden 90 degree right turn and immediately 17+%. Riding “blind,” I wasn’t prepared and couldn’t shift into the little ring—had to circle down, downshift, and restart.)
My first climb of the day is always “exuberant.” (I should know better and dial in steady threshold watts from the beginning, but it’s hard to do that from the start.) The process is predictable for average riders like me who try, always in vain, to cling with the good climbers as long as possible: revving it up into VO2 power zone and wondering whether the climb will be short enough to survive while the good riders are comfortably below threshold. PG’s must be above 400W (he is about my height but tinier and skinnier than I thought), about 50% above mine—hence my climbing times are predictably 50% longer than world-class. Like a TT, a climb is the race of truth: without drafting it’s all about the engine and your weight. Correction: it’s all physics and numbers. The peloton spreads apart exactly proportional to riders’ threshold watts. And so it was that after about 4min at 12mph pushing 340+W (way above my threshold but comfortable for Phil and good climbers), the elastic started elongating with me dropping back. You know how it goes, slowly at first until you realize you won’t be able to hold on and ride your sustainable 8mph. The climb was about 7min30 (so I probably lost about 1min) and then I regrouped with Robert. Those were our 30min riding with Phil :).
Yet we rode well with fast groups because we saw Philippe again at the first “ravitaillement” (at 53km after 1hr38min) and probably had lost only a handful of minutes. During the day, we experienced the classic Ardennes climbs, including Cote de la Roche aux Faucons at 30km; Mur de Huy (82km), and Cote de la Redoute at 143km. The Mur is a beast, as steep as de Muur van Geraardsbergen, without the cobbles but much longer. Watching the pro’s sprinting le Mur in Fleche Wallone will never be the same. And La Redoute was a painful finish: after 143km my legs only pushed just above average endurance watts, knowing the finish was near. La Redoute starts ok at about 8% but then suddenly goes double steepness. Again, I can’t imagine the pros racing this after 250km.
Summary: La Philippe Gilbert is a beautiful, tough, expertly-organized ride where you can test yourself next to the très sympa former world champ—strongly recommended. (And, being in Belgium, it comes at a bargain of about 15 euros! And a beer and burger at the finish for 6 euros. Why do rides and races elsewhere have to cost 5 times the price of Belgium?)
Did I say Phil is such a nice guy? We ran into him again at the finish and got another memory: