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Chasing races: Seeing Liege-Bastogne-Liege seven times from the roadside

24 Apr 2019

Words and photography Jack Elton-Walters

For quality of life and general wellbeing, sitting at home all day on the sofa in front of the television for long periods is to be avoided. With the exception of watching cycling, of course. More and more races - like Paris-Roubaix and stages of Grand Tours - are being broadcast live from start to finish, so it's never been easier to watch all the action from the peloton with snacks and a toilet within comfortable proximity.

Live TV footage is all well and good, great in fact, and remains the best way to keep up to date with what's happening in a race, but nothing quite compares to being roadside and cheering on the best riders from the world of professional cycling.

There is a downside though: unless you've gone full-Dutch and turned up in a camper van about a week before the race to stake your claim on a patch of grass next to a famous ascent, and that camper happens to have the capability to broadcast the race, you're probably going to spend much of the day wondering what's happening, trying to glean what you can from social media.

Multiple views

But what if you could get all the thrills and excitement of seeing a peloton of top riders whoosh past more than once on the same day?

The easiest way to do this would be to attend a criterium like an edition of the Tour Series, a fantastic evening of city centre racing at locations around the UK. The next step could be to find a race with several events - like a men's and women's race - on the same course.

However, there is a more exciting way to see the action if you're willing to do a bit of planning before the day: route hopping.

Race routes are known months in advance and WorldTour races such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege take place on public roads that are closed to non-race vehicles for a period not that long before the race trundles through until a little while after.

Next to the roads used by the race are normal public roads, open to vehicles as per usual. Plan accordingly and it's possible to park on a certain side of the race parcours allowing for a quick getaway once the main peloton has gone past.

From there you simply drive - within the speed limit and obeying road laws, this article isn't a lesson in urban rally driving - to the next pre-chosen spot before the race gets there.

Time it expertly enough and you might even be lucky enough to arrive at each location after the publicity caravan has gone through.

Hopping around Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Ridley

Visiting the 2018 Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Ridley Bikes, after we'd taken on the medium distance sportive in unseasonably glorious weather the day before, we headed to the start of the race in convey with Lotto-Soudal.

The start village was the group's first opportunity to see riders, staff, bikes and the sheer number of vehicles involved in a WorldTour race.

Just before the convey headed out of the centre of Liege we skipped ahead on the still-open roads and made our way to the first of five points out on the race route, seven if you count the start and finish lines.

At 260km, Liege is one of the longer races on the calendar which allowed for so many visits to the route. Run as essentially an out-and-back between the two settlements in the race's title, the distances covered and faster, larger roads away from the route made moving about much easier.

Cheering from the flats, cheering from the climbs

Our first stop was a pretty nondescript large T-junction, common to this industrial area of Belgium, on a flat part of an otherwise lumpy route. Just as well we weren't here for the scenery.

Soon enough the first vehicles came through and after them was the breakaway. Doomed to be caught but getting valuable exposure time for their sponsors, the riders rolled through in formation, cycling together in a temporary alliance of cooperation.

At this early stage in the race most riders in the main bunch looked relaxed and many were talking to friends in rival teams. Spotted towards the back of the bunch was Philippe Gilbert, possibly telling a colleague about the hotel he owns just up from the T-junction and within sight of the race route.

Once the team car convey was in sight, we skipped our way back up to where the vehicles were parked, waiting for a large coach that had blocked us in to get clear and made our way to the next viewing point.

Ridley's Event Manager, Filip, a veteran of Belgium's airforce, had a plan of military precision to execute meaning I ensured I was never last back to the vehicles.

Our next destination placed us on a fast section of road at the bottom of a gradual descent. Locals had gathered in greater numbers than where we'd been before and the nearby pubs and cafes were doing a roaring trade.

A narrower road and a faster moving peloton meant the riders were in much closer proximity this time, but thankfully there were no errant selfie-takers or loose dogs.

Taking our time

For the Ridley group, next on the well-planned itinerary was lunch. A stop we took our time over and ended up waiting well over an hour before the next passage of the race.

Such a delay in the middle of the race - which I welcomed, I should add - means that for anyone looking to rush around and see the race an even greater number of times, there would have been ample opportunity: five may have been conservative on our part, others could have seen the race many more times.

From lunch it was a trip over to one of the day's big climbs: the Col de Rosier. Familiar from the sportive the day before, the road takes a sweeping right hander before the steeper gradient kicks in.

Watching from this position I was wincing as the riders were forced into a narrower space, convinced I was about to see a pile-up. Thankfully everyone stayed upright and made their way up the climb.

Disappointment on La Redoute

The Col de La Redoute is the most famous and probably toughest ascent on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege route. I say probably because Saint Nicolas can feel much harder thanks to its position later in the race and even more so if you've gone too hard on La Redoute and the other earlier climbs.

This is where there should have been fireworks, attacks, action. In the end, so little happened that this part of the race didn't even make it into the 90-minute highlights programme that Eurosport aired the following day.

That said, stood at the side of the road it wasn't much less exciting for it. Yes it would have been great if Bob Jungels had launched his race winning move here but even so, seeing pros struggling with the pace, the heat, the incline made my own little skip up there the day before not seem quite so sluggish (although still much slower than the pros, obviously).

Before the last stragglers were even halfway up and getting onto the tougher gradient, we were back in the vehicles and ready to head to the finish line.

Advertising obstruction

Arriving later than the locals to the barriers around the finish line, finding a spot with only children and small adults ahead of me was a bonus. Even better was the screen on the finish line gantry showing the race, great.

Well, great until the ticker hit 1km to go and the screen switched to a static advert for a machine rental company. Walloon-French has many of the same swear words as Standard French, it would seem.

By this point only a disaster was going to stop Jungels from winning and the roar of the crowd further down the funnel told of his arrival. Arms aloft he swept across the finish line.

For the seventh time that day I saw the riders, and this time the exhaustion and the effect of the heat was plain to see. Tired faces and salty jerseys told a story of their own, but the smile on Jungels's face when he stepped on to the top of the podium told another.

Cycling is the best sport in the world, and really should be seen from the roadside.