GP de Wallonie - May 24
The GP Wallonie is ridden in and around Namur, a picturesque city about 20 kilometres away from the Mur of Huy, the famous climb of the FlŤche Wallonne. For me it's a good hour's drive to get there; so I spent the night before happily in my own bed, something I really like to do. Whenever it is possible, my director Kim Andersen lets me drive to the race myself.
So, the morning of Ascension Day (24th of May), a public holiday in Belgium, I gathered my gear; shoes, helmet, Adidas sports bag, wife, kid; oh yeh, can't forget the bike and we set off, at 8 o'clock precise, well organized as we are, exactly the departure time I had set the evening before during the" family briefing".
The weather was stimulating my good mood; the weatherman predicted 28 degrees Celsius and it looked like he was going to be right for once. My son SaŽn sat in the back, first quietly, still wiping the 'sleep-dust' out off his eyes but later on singing along with his favourite song "I'm blue dabbedee-dabbeday, dabbedee-dabbedee, dabbedee-dabbeday..." (Blue-EIFFEL 65)
The roads were quiet and even the tear-your-hair-out peak-hour traffic jam point on the Brussels Ring caused no delay at all.
We arrived in Jambes, a little suburb of Namur and starting place of the GP Wallonie, not quite two hours before the start. I parked the car only few metres away from the 'Permanence'. SaŽn and Sabine organized our traditional morning picnic in the boot of the car. I had my sandwiches and cup of coffee and some of the cycling fans cruising up and down the street stopped and had a little chat.
After the usual ritual of signing some team photos and answering the question "Ready for today?" about fifty times, I called Kim to see where the team car would be. Soon after, they arrived and the three team-cars parked on the other side of the narrow street. I took my bike over to the mechanics, got my number and got dressed.
196 km on the schedule, 8 climbs, most of them between 2 and 4 km long; from 8 to 18% gradient. The first 100 km are reasonably flat. Knowing that, the guys who knew they didn't have much of a chance on the climbs, thought they'd better go up the road and get a bit of a head start. First one in that frame of mind was Jans Koerts. He attacked when we had covered a mere 2 kilometres of the race parcours. This, of course, started a chain reaction of attacks, which got us riding speeds from 50 to 60 km/h for the next two hours!
There were several early breaks before the feeding zone (115 km) but there were plenty of teams to do the chasing. I picked up my musette with fresh bidons and a few power gels. I was going through a lot of water with the warm temperatures.
It was a funny sort of a race with constant attacks in between the climbs. On the flat sections small groups would go off the front and you had to be vigilant the whole time to see who was with it and who wasn't. There were a few Belgian pre-race favourites 'cause naturally, the Belgians are always very eager to win Belgian races.
Lotto was there with a strong team containing Baguet, Van De Wouwer and Van Dijck. Domo went the whole way with a great team; Museeuw, Peeters, Merckx, Bruylandts and Kleynen. Mercury had Van Bondt, Vansevenant and Vogels; Ag2r was riding for Demarbaix. Cofidis with Chris Peers, Nico Mattan and Peter Farazijn were very motivated too.
I had my trusty team mate Roberto Lochowski at my side until the climbs started; he kept me out off the wind and moved me up when dangerous moments announced themselves or when it looked like things were splitting up.
At 152km, on the fifth climb, the peloton exploded. There had been some crosswinds coming up to this climb and the peloton had already been shredded to pieces before it. It sort of came back together at the foot of the Cote de Warnant.
I was hanging for a bottle but because the peloton was split up that much I was unable to get one from the team car. I radioed my team director that I really needed a drink. Kim told me Marcus Ljungvist was in possession of a bidon with my name on it and that he was trying to get to me as we spoke. Marcus managed to hand me my bottle just before we started the fifth climb; I didn't see him again after the group split up over the top.
We were then a group of fourteen riders in front but it wasn't working; actually, it wasn't doing anything. There were a few of us trying to move it along but there were as many happy just to sit in our wheel. This is when Axel Merckx (Domo-Farm Frites) decided to attack and Stremeersch (Vlaanderen) went with him. I thought, "This will get the group going, something to chase". I thought wrong, they just sat there!
Merckx and Stremeersch quickly took a minute and I knew it was time to do something. Serge Baguet read my mind and went on the climb. Wim Vansevenant and I went a bit later. We picked up Baguet. Demarbaix who had bridged the gap to us, tagged along as we set out chasing the two leaders.
We never caught them. As we went up "la Route Merveilleuse" (the marvellous road) to the top of the Cote de la Citadelle for the second and last time, all we could do is sprint for third place. Belgian Champion Axel Merckx was strong and had big motivation for this race and Domo was in need of a home-win.
I got that third spot on the podium. We got the flowers, trophies and a huge bottle of Belgian Duvel each handed to us by the podium girls. Duvel, or "Devil" for Anglo-Saxons, is a top fermented Belgian Ale of 8,5%. This little one sure is going to taste good with the next BBQ my friends got organized during my break at the end of June, all three litres of it! But, first I have to do another 12 days of racing, only a couple thousand of kilometres more, in the Tour of Germany (2.2), Scheinberg Rundfahrt (1.4) and Tour of Luxemburg (2.2).