Friday, June 25, 2004

Liege, Belgium

Friends: When I crossed into Belgium from Luxembourg I was hoping for a billboard or banner welcoming me to "The Home of Eddie Merckx, Greatest Cyclist of all Time," or perhaps a statue. But I had to wait 25 miles before I came upon a monument to "The Cannibal," one of the most voracious competitors in any sport, a man bent on winning every race he entered, not focusing on just a specific few as is now the custom.

The statue was outside the town of Stavelot at the summit of a very steep climb that is part of the annual spring classic bicycle race Liege-Bastonge-Liege. I didn't realize the race passed through the town, though I should have known that some significant Belgian race had to pass nearby where ever one might be in this not so large country. When I asked the woman behind the counter at Stavelot's tourist office if there might be any bicycling museums or memorials in the vicinity, not a totally unlikely question, as the Belgians are right up there with the Italians in their fervor for bicycle racing, she seemed delighted to respond to a question she's not ordinarily asked.

"Yes indeed," she said. "There's a statue of Eddie Merckx just out of town at the top of a hill
where he made one of his legendary breakaways to win the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race." She pulled out a small map of the town and showed me how to get there. I was well aware of L-B-L, as it is one of the one-day spring classics that has decades of tradition and was won by Tyler Hamilton a year ago. It was his greatest victory until he won a stage of last year's Tour de France. At the base of the hill was a small sign with Eddie Merckx on it and an arrow pointing up.
It didn't look like much of a hill at first, the road not wide enough to even have a line down its middle There was a slight hedge on both sides and a few scattered houses. More imposing was
a WWII vintage American armored vehicle across the street, dedicated to the Americans who died in the Battle of the Bulge fought nearby. The hill shot upward with L'Alpe d'Huez steepness and only got steeper, though there was no hint at how steep it would get or how high it would rise, eventually up into a forest. It gained 370 feet in six-tenths of a mile. That much altitude gain in a mile is a leg-breaker, about what Mont Ventoux averaged for 12 miles, so this was a genuine killer hill, most worthy of a monument.

At the summit was a large boulder with a life-size bronze sculpture of Merckx bursting out of it on his bike, eyes bulging in fury and hair flying. It identified him as "The greatest cyclist of the 20th century with 525 wins including three world championships, five Tours de France, five Giros d'Italia, five LBLs, and seven Milan-San Remos."

And now I'm in Liege, where a week from today all the present day Hercules of the Bike will gather for the start of the Tour de France. It will spend its first three days in Belgium. It is a big deal with banners welcoming The Tour and a museum exhibit profiling the 100 year history of the Tour. I've also scouted the 6.1 kilometer course the riders will race as an individual time trial next Saturday through the downtown of this old city of several hundred thousand. The Tourist Office had a glossy eight page brochure giving all the details. I would love to be here for the prologue, but I have a few other bicycling shrines to pay homage to down the road and will instead wait until several stages into the race before I officially connect with it.

I'm more excited than ever to witness this spectacle after seeing all the images of frenzied spectators along the road at the exhibit. As much attention was given to the spectators as to its participants and the lore of the Tour--the great rivalries and camaraderie, the crashes (including up close photos of two of the three rider deaths), protests, the agony and ecstasy of the racers, showing them eating and drinking and resting, and the pre-race caravan of advertisers. I may
well go back and give it another look before I leave town.

Even though the roads of Belgium are the worst I've encountered so far with stretches badly in need of repaving, its nice to be back in a country where there are cyclists in racing garb out on the road, some training and others just exercising and fantasizing. They are the first I've seen since leaving Switzerland a week ago. There's also much less traffic than in Germany and the only signs I've seen relating to bicycles are here in Liege on one-way streets that say
"Excepte" on them with a bicycle, meaning that bicyclists are welcome to ride the wrong way down a one-way street. And there have been no road signs with tanks on them. That was the lone photo I took while in Germany. I'm heading straight to NATO headquarters here in Brussels to let them know.

Luxembourg was pleasure cycling as well, though I had only 50 miles of it up its eastern flank. The roads were wide and at times had more than a whisper of a shoulder. There were grazing cows, and logging as well, so I had another nice night of forest camping. But for the first time in these travels I can vent about headwinds. About 20 miles before Trier, the last city I passed through in Germany and its oldest founded just before the time of Christ as the first human settlement north of the Alps, I could seen huge wind generators in the distance. One only sees
them where there is wind, and unfortunately I was headed west, the direction from which winds generally prevail. And those winds and generators continued through Luxembourg, though at least by then I was headed more northerly than westerly. It made for a tough final day in Germany with lots of climbing through the undulating terrain and into fierce headwinds. I've
been lucky to be spared them for so long. But it remains quite chilly, barely 60. I've even had to
resort to gloves on occasion and almost need tights.

I'll now take a short swing through Holland and then head back to Belgium and across the north of France where I will make my much anticipated rendezvous with the Tour de France.

Later, George

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