L'Homme dur d'Ardennes
|Riders begin the day's journey from the Chateau de Namur.|
We crest the top of a short rise and gaze down on the valley of the river Meuse, coursing sluggishly through the Belgian city of Namur. The chipped road undulates down a ridgetop like a tarmac rollercoaster, rising and falling gently until it dips out of sight around a bend.
The last fading rays of sunlight that manage to penetrate the slate-grey stratus clouds overhead glint off the polished stem on my bicycle as we shift into a higher gear for the descent. At 30 miles an hour, the already chill air of a Belgian spring is even colder, and the fine rain that's been dogging us for several hours begins to turn to snow.
Far off to the left we can see the jutting prow of the Citadelle de Namur, a medieval castle built on a hilltop overlooking the town proper. A magnificent edifice of crumbling mortar and stone, it's also our destination for this inaugural day of touring in Belgium. But to get there we must first descend to the valley floor.
As we cruise through town, an older cyclist, a local, passes us with a taciturn "bonjour." Seeing this tough, wizened character stoically brave the weather, I imagine him as a veteran "L'Homme dur Ardennes" ("Hard Man of the Ardennes"), the nickname bestowed on the elect few whose seemingly masochistic ability to tolerate pain allows them to succeed on the racing circuit here in Belgium's Ardennes region, an area renowned for having some of the toughest cycling conditions, not to mention some of the toughest cyclists, in Europe. Standing on the pedals of his Merckx bicycle (what other kind for a Belgian?), the hearty soul disappears into the rapidly thickening snowfall.
Off to the left is the road to the Citadelle. Gears snick down into the low range as we tackle the mile-long cobbled rise to the summit. This road is the finish of the Belgian semi-classic Grand Prix Wallonnie, and its six switchbacks and rapidly changing grade make it a challenge in any conditions, much less riding over the large, wet flakes that coat the limestone cobbles with a slick layer of effluent.
Charging upward through the fog and snow, the high stone walls of the ruined Citadelle churn slowly past. The soft silence of the snowfall lends itself to philosophy and fantasizing; I feel like Andy Hampsten during his 1988 Giro d'Italia win, when he broke away with Erik Breukink on the Gavia Pass in a blinding snowstorm. It's just a one-mile climb, in the middle of a city, and at the end of a 60-mile day of riding in the wet and cold I should by rights hate every pedal stroke. But the snow, the cobbles, and the Citadelle itself make this simple one-mile rise a fantastical playground for both body and mind, making it the best road of the day (in no small part due to the knowledge that at the top lay the four-star Chateau de Namur hotel and one very long, very hot shower).
I look down at the cobbled road, with its tightly-laced stones laid out in a fan-like pattern, and am reminded that in Europe, the term pave is open to a considerable degree of artistic license. I witnessed this in action just the day before while watching the Paris-Roubaix, one of what are officially known in the sport as Classic road races.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication