Top Rides: PEZ Vs The Mur de Huy
I first discovered the joys of riding in Belgium over a decade ago, and have been lucky to get back a couple more times over the years to ride the cobbles & bergs. But one place that really struck me was the Ardennes region of Belgium – host of the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallone, and Liege Bastogne Liege.
One memorable day back in 2007, I was travelling with Peter Easton (owner of Velo Classic Tours as a guest on his Ardennes trip. After leaving the chaos of the Amstel Gold Race and its over-crowded cyclosportif ride, the tranquility of the forested hills was both relaxing and breath-taking. Chateaus, lush rolling hills in Spring bloom, sunny days and some truly great riding were all on the menu – every day.
In a world without Covid, the Fleche Wallone would have run on this day – the Wednesday after the Amstel Gold Race. So while I’m daydreaming about better days ahead, hopefully this will inspire you too – and if I highly recommend you consider a visit once we start travelling again.
Here’s a look at one Top Ride I may never do again, but am sure glad I made this record of for the PEZ historical archives.
The thing about the Fleche Wallonne parcours that surprised me most was just how hard this 200km ‘semi-Classic’ is. There’s nothing ‘semi’ about it… This hard course deserves the prime time and throws up 11 rated climbs, including 3 passes over a 1300 meter brute called the Mur de Huy. Here’s how it happened to me…
As part of Velo Classic Tours’ 2007 Ardennes Week, we rode the final 80km that included 7 climbs – each one progressively tougher than the last – both as the kms bog into your legs, and because each climb comes longer and steeper. When you finally reach Huy, and turn right at the traffic circle to start the feared Mur de Huy – sportif riders should expect to be down to their last few matches – and they’ll burn fast here.
The parcours follows the Meuse River, and each climb takes riders up into the steep hills that border the river, and a rolling rolic across farmlands to another descent back to the river, to be followed by another climb away from it. They range from 1 – 3.4km in length and gain 200-300 meters in height, with average grades range from 4.2% – 9.3%. But the Mur kicks up to 19% in places… ouch.
The terrain and countryside are beautiful in this southwestern corner of Belgium – the parcours ranges from tree shaded lanes to wide open fields of giant-tilled clay soil or blooming yellow flowers, to picturesque stone towns, and the ever returning stretches along the river as the race heads north. This day was even better as the sun shone and temps were in the mid 20’s Celsius… perfect.
For anyone who’s watched the race on tv, the sight of memorable landmarks is worth an emotion or two – especially as I saw them in person for the first time.
The last few kms are worth taking slowly to savour each meter, and to save what strength you have left for the Mur. After the 5km run along the valley to the left turn under the brick train bridge, you know your date with destiny is almost upon you.
The fear starts to rise with the slope at 1300m to go. That’s future World Champ Alejandro Valverde holding onto the car. He wasn’t feeling to chatty though, as he snubbed me when I gave him a shout on the way by.
It Begins With A Growl
The lower slopes of the Mur aren’t bad – an almost gentle ramp up past a school where the children shouted to me: “Monsieur, monsieur! Monsieur Cycliste…!” No time to chat kids, I’m on a mission here.
Then Bares Its Teeth
It’s only a couple hundred meters at most, then the road forks – the Mur draws you to the right, where around the corner it steepens noticeably, then another fork – left is ‘do not enter’ – local traffic only, right veers again but to a less step grade.
The Mur Bites Back
It takes only a second to know the way… I point my bike left and pedal past the race barriers, around the corner of another brick building – and then BAM – the grade goes from around 6% to much closer to 10-11%. In fact the climb holds some 900 meters that average 11.6%!
There’s no longer guessing – I’m on the Mur and the real work is under my wheels. I’m already down to my last gear – 34×25 – and I hope it’s enough. The stone wall on the left runs the length of what seems a city block – veering right around the stepped brick buildings – not that there’s time to take in the scenery. Breathing is hard now – this climb is in my face laying down some smack.
The finish is just around the corner by that silver car… but it might as well be 100 miles away at this point.
Up ahead I see the sharp left hander – maybe 50 meters, maybe 100… but there’s no avoiding it – the grade kicks here again – ever steeper.
CRUUUNCH – the inside line of the corner is steeper than anything I’ve seen – I move to the outside and stand on the cranks – jamming with everything I’ve got. I feel my rear wheel slip and adjust my position to make it stick.
It’s no holds barred now – me vs the Mur. My thighs scream from a thousand spears of fire and the grade is unrelenting. I drop back into the saddle and hope for the best.
Somewhere you begin to notice the permanent paint on the road – Mur – Mur – Mur – scribed one after the other just egging you on. My heart’s going ‘au bloc’ – my breath pounds into my ears like the slave ships in Ben Hur: “Ramming Speed!”
The road veers again to the right and I’m into the eye of the beast – it’s 20% if it’s 10% – and ahead there’s still no respite. I’ve watched the pros battle on this climb for years, and always wondered what damage I could do – or be done – given the chance.
Today is my day ‘bro… and it’s all out fisticuffs in Belgium.
The beast roars again – I’m throwing everything I’ve got at her – boiling oil over the ramparts, nails under her tires, salt in her eyes – and she throws it all right back.
Thoughts are running through my head – crazy thoughts – I vaguely recall considering … stopping. I snap back to my senses and realize I did not travel all this way to be defeated.
Up ahead I see Pete Easton of Velo Classic Tours still turning his pedals and going up– we’ve been riding together all day, pushing each other and swapping turns for the last 79 km… you’re my carrot, Pete.
I see the summit – at least I hope I see the summit – there’s blue sky above the tarmac – and the road looks to level off, or is that my imagination? – maybe another 100 meters to go. I see the church on the right and I’m almost home.
The race crew setting the barriers for tomorrow barely pays us a glance as we roll by – bottom gear, slow enough to fall over… and gasping for breath – and hoping my ticker doesn’t choose this moment to check out.
After a rather lengthy recovery and lunch under the watch of the old church at the top, we moved onto our home for the next couple of night at the Hotel du Sangliere in Durbuy – a wonderfully preserved Medieval town somewhere deep in the Ardennes.
Durbuy really does feel like another world, and was perfectly peaceful in April, although I can guess the crowds invade come summertime…
Of course we enjoyed delicious meals – one of the hallmarks of Velo Classic’s trips, plus I recall sampling cigars and a snifter of a 1962 armagnac. Good times.
PEZCYCLING travels with Velo Classic Tours through the Ardennes Classics – and you should too.