Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Raid des Sources

Rise and shine at 7am. The sun was out and half an hour later I was on my way to Chimay. This is a 1h30 car ride from Leuven. When I neared Couvin the hills were covered in mist. Still, no worries, I was about to embark on a marathon mountainbike raid over 100k so I was not exactly screaming for heat. Only dry weather would suffice because the extra warmth only adds to the exhaustion..

The Ride:

Around 9.30 I was at the inscription where I forked over 12€ and got my number and a little card attached to a lanyard. This card was to be used for punching in the control markers at the feed zones along the ride. There were 5 feed zones evenly spaced out on this distance. Great, so let's go!
I had a possible riding time of 6 hours in mind when I started out, but things would evolve. Read on.
The first kilometers were relatively easy, the track was reasonably dry - small wonder after last thursdays' downpour, so I could settle myself into a nice and comfy pace. We were going through some fields and the sun had dried out the trails here . After a while, I was remeniscing my last outing here some 5 years ago , when all of a sudden the first uphill appeared. Steep and wet in an overgrown hollow road and I was too late to drop my chain on the small ring. So I had to grin and bear it. I made that hill but I would not forget to drop my chain the next time. At the top of the second big climb there was a photographer – I think it was Denis Hardy, the organiser - taking some pictures.
I quickly shifted onto the middle ring - looks better on the pics - and tried to look calm and collected.
After crossing the N99 , road that connects Couvin to Chimay, the “real” Raid des Sources was about to begin. We were entering the forests now and the height lines started oscillating between 200 and 350 meters. Things were getting serious quite quickly !
After 13.5k we had a first feed zone and after 25k the second. This was also the place were the 100k split off from the 65k distance. We were at the rivers’ edge here, so instinctively I knew a big climb was following . From here on I would ride relatively alone. Having started late and with most chrono riders going for the 65K distance, this is one of the great advantages of doing the longest distance. The extra loop started with a 27% climb on tarmac (thank God!) out of a village and slowly but surely I creeped into the forests again . At one point I was riding next to a big lake – barrage du Ry de Rome - at 270 metres of altitude. After that, a small trail took me up to the plateau at 330 metres through some damp forest which reminded me of the Vosges. At the plateau the track was following a singletrail for several kilometers on end , green and lush landscapes galore.
I had to look constantly for the best passage, since we were crossing mud-holes and little tricklets all the time. There was a fair amount of water and mud here, but due to only 75 people riding the 100K, the trail was not beaten to a pulp and fairly easy ride-able.

Far from easy were the descents, some rather rechnical with wet rocks and roots thus demanding the utmost concentration not to let the speed get up too high. I managed them all very well but I screamed a few times because I thought I lost it. Luckily my bike got me through . The uphills were typical of the Chimay region, steep - usually around 20% - and due to the wet floor pretty difficult to ride. My wheel was slipping all over the place with the sticky mud filling up the gaps between the knobs on the tyres and sometimes I just made the hill, sometimes I didn't and had to walk a few meters. About halfway through this 40k loop we encountered our 3rd feed zone and control point.
I was passed at one point by the eventual winner - Wouter Cleppe - and I was amazed at his speed and seemingly ease with which he was tackling a mean uphill. He rode the 100K in 4h29mins, which is quite amazing.
After an amazingly beautiful – but very tough – loop we were back at the barrage where we had about 1.5K of tarmac to relax our muscles a bit. After that, an impossible climb had me walking up a crest and I was back in the rough following some forest trail again meandering through the trees.
With some 65k I was at the 4th feedzone (which was actually the 2nd - I had now completed my extra 40k loop) and I took my time eating and drinking. At this point the mental thing comes in. You realize that you would already have finished had you not chosen the longest distance. With still an average TT distance to go you have to keep your mind firmly on the right track. Furthermore the fatigue was making itself feel and the tracks were now worse due to the many riders having ridden over them. After that 4th feedzone there was a long climb taking us all the way up again. It was very steep at places and along the way I was passed by an enduro motorcycle of the organisation. I had seen him at the rest stop and he replied to my gentle wave with a ‘Bonne Chance’ while he poured on the horsepower and rocketed upwards.. Yeah, I would need some good luck for sure! I was thinking how nice it would be if we could swap our bikes for a while but quickly let go of that tought when a mean downhill was announcing itself.
The relentless succesion of climbs and technical descents were effectively sapping the strenght out of my legs. I saw some riders standing next to the road, they were waiting for the organisation to pick them up – wasted and dead- tired and probably having seriously underestimated the difficulty of 100K in this area.
Around 81K into the ride I came to the last feed zone. I had teamed up with a team-mate of Wouter Cleppe and we more or less rode together for a few kilometers. The track wasn’t wide enough to ride next to each other but we managed to talk a bit along the way. The trail was now very muddy. Tough conditions due to the fact that all the distances had passed over this trail, effectively munching it into a brown splashy pulp. A few sections were really really bad, and I had to jump around from dry side to dry side to keep my feet out of the muck - the gullies were too deep to ride . Luckily we were sent onto some bigger forest tracks as well, so we could recuperate a bit between muddy patches.. This nearly was ‘Trop is teveel’ – too much of a good thing. Some 10K before the finish we came back onto field roads and the trails were dry now. I was feeling elated and actually found some hidden strength and started accelerating , enjoying the small tracks between the barbed wires. The last couple of K’s were on tarmac, having me zoom along at 30kph. After 6h36 of riding time and 6h57 actual time I was clocked off at the finish. Taking some pictures along the way and splashing out at the feed zones takes some time of course.

Got a nice finisher T-shirt and a one-litre bottle of Chimay. Rinsed my bike and got a shower before heading home again. It was 6.30pm when I arrived – tired but satisfied after a very long day.

The Lowdown:

What I liked :

- Arrowing was flawless, both red paint markings on the floor/tarmac as arrows yellow/black panels.

- Plenty of feed zones , evenly spaced along the distance.

- Feed zones were well stocked with food and drink and friendly people.

- Great trails !

- Bike-wash was sufficient at 4.30pm.

- Shower facilities first-class.

- Danger signs at the really tricky descents and at the road crossings.

- Nice to get a t-shirt and a one-litre bottle of Chimay beer.

What I did not like:

- Bike-wash might have been busy before 4.30pm with only 3 jets.

- Damn mud !

- Dangerous passage in Chimay village at the end of the ride.


Clearly a very professional and well-honed organiser and team, with the 15th edition this year they clearly know their fantastic – but unfortunately slightly underestimated - region and make the best of it, lacing together a 100k trail is no mean feat. Trails are tough and singularly beautiful , a combination most mountainbikers will appreciate. Succession of sometimes very steep climbs and sometimes rather technical descents and kilometers of singletrack , 80% through forest – must be mountainbiker heaven. I did ask the organisers to consider moving their ride back to the 15th of August though, as it has been for all these years. That date has become a landmark in the calender so why change it?

The area of Chimay – Viroinval – Eau Blanche and Eau Noire - is a bit underestimated I feel and not well known to the mountainbikers in Belgium. The valleys are not as deep as in some parts of the Ardennes but the region is well compared to Houffalize . It offers a lot of trails – I saw several marked routes along the way – and as I already said, the hills are steep - to be compared with La Roche perhaps - and offer between 100 to 150 meters of vertical ascent in one go. But what really makes this area shine is the amount of singletrails – credit has to go to Denis Hardy and his team for lacing them all together – some next to the rivers , meandering up and down with lots of roots and rocks making them very technical at times. I particularly remember a trail near Bruly-sur-Pesche where I had to walk quite a few times due to the technicality of the track. Of course the rain had made it a lot wetter than it usually is. The only drawback this region has is that is not along any of the major highways in Belgium, which means that getting there by car is not evident.

Some pictures..

The Bare Facts : Ride Stats : 100K and 1650 heightmeters in 6h36mins Hill Factor : 16.5 Mud factor : high
Organisers' Website : CLICK
Ride Profile : CLICK

Results Marathon 100k :

Video Footage from the ride: CLICK (copyright Cédric)

Google Earth Map of the 100k marathon :


Saturday, August 4, 2007

Ride The Red

It was 7.46 am when I turned my car onto route 666 leading towards Banneux and its Catholic Pilgrimage . It struck me that 666 was the last number I would expect in an area like this but I guess someone at the Roads' Department must have had a weird sense of humour. Took me some time to find a suitable parking spot not far from the N62 where I could get on the Red Theux route. This route - which I already did before - has the reputation of being one of the toughest in Belgium. I wanted to start real early to beat the heat. The sun was already making it's way up and the morning dew was evaporating quickly when her rays touched the wet grass. I started in Banneux because I wanted to have the toughest bit of the Red route in the beginning of my loop. The great singletrack descent towards the Forges Thiry was sadly not completely ride-able. At least at 4 spots some big tree had fallen over the trail, which meant descending from the bike and getting started again afterwards.

At the bottom of the descent I spotted the signage for next Sunday's UCI Marathon World Championships , which are held at Verviers. They are descending the Forges through an alternative path I believe.

After crossing the busy N690 I could start on one of the many steep and tricky climbs the Red Theux is famous for. The Championship track follows the Red trail for a while until they enter some private property and I had to take a right turn. After a while of going up and down, mostly through forests but also some little stretches of tarmac and lastly descending into Theux itself I was on the very steep climb which follows the Rue de Chawieumont out of Theux and up to the road leading towards the Franchimont castle. This is where the route I was on officially starts. At one point I had to walk because I was not prepared to push that hard in the beginning of the ride. When the steepest - middle - bit was over I got on my bike again. There was a family - Man, Woman, Child - taking a rest at the top of that climb and they knew exactly what I meant when I passed my hand across my throat. We shared a laugh and I was back on my way.
This is a real killer climb, especially since it is near the end of the route and it wrings the last ounces of power out of your legs. But smart as I am, I had this one near the beginning - relatively speaking since I was some 20K into my ride.
When riding towards Sassor I spotted a few bikers before me who were also doing the Red. They just left and were relatively fresh. I missed a turn near Au Fays - I always seem to miss this one - so when I got to the E42 I was in front of them. I stopped for a little snack and they passed me going down into the Thier de Polleur, a very nasty descent. In the next uphill, leading into the lower regions of the Bois de Staneu I passed them. They seemed to be already tired or were maintaining a slow pace. They confirmed me they were doing the Red route and I wondered if they would make it judging by the speed they were going it would take them a while to say the least. But then, each has his or her own pace. Mine was faster than theirs so I continued dropping out of the Staneu Forest onto the road from Polleur to Theux.
After a while I disappeared into the forest again for a steep climb towards the route du Pré des Lis. Down towards the railway track and then a little tarmac passage leading over the busy Spa road and to another rocky ascent parallel to the route de Becco . This was the first ascent which had me shift onto the small ring in front. It would not be the last. The trail then climbs more or less all the way through Hestromont, with a lovely little track leading into a green valley. But beware - the track is rock-strewn and partly overgrown with grass so it is quite dangerous if you misjudge your speed here !

Up towards the "Maquisard Inconnu" monument it now goes, via a large gravel road which leads through le Gros Thier , a nice forest. The height is creeping towards the 350 metres mark as I stop for a little break near the monument. When I leave I notice a strange sound coming from my front wheel and lo and behold, a big thorn has found its way into my tyre. Another break coming up !
I took my time fixing the tyre - must let that adhesive vulcanize - and after a while I could continue towards Banoyard , the 400 metre mark ánd the top of the Ninglinspo valley, a valley which I refer to as Dreamland . I remembered exactly which track to take from the last time I was here . Some 100 metres down I enjoyed the view from the Point de Vue Drouet, this time in full summer and the greens were even more lush. Deep down in the valley I could hear children laugh and yell. Which reminded me that I had to take care, there would be a lot of hikers and families on this saturday, enjoying the marvelous surroundings of the little Chaudiere and Ninglinspo rivers.

I took another little snack at the Point de Vue and got back on my bike for the descent which would drop me some 250 metres towards Sedoz. There - after shortly following the busy N633- I turn to the right and follow the track nr 38 all the way back up again. This is really a climb which any mountainbiker should do. Alternatively over rocks, crossing the little river and just plain steep it winds its way up for about 3-4K and 250 heightmeters. As I expected , I passed a lot of hikers, some of which were cheering me on as I passed them. On top I joined the Red route again which was now staying on the plateau for a while - I did NOT complain and enjoyed putting the big ring on for a change - and then dropped into Jehoster for a technical downhill over rocks and loose stuff which was relatively dry. The rest of the route was muddy at places but a few really deep puddles notwithstanding all was easily ride-able. A long steep climb towards Ménobu and I began to feel the exhaustion by now. I spotted a biker in front of me but then lost him again. When I came out of the Bois Renard - with a great downhill - he was behind me again - a guy in the Discovery shirt riding a Trek. I let him pass and he took a turn off the Red route - so he obviously was not following the same track as I did.

I was almost back in Banneux now and only had to conquer one last muddy passage in a dense forest before joining the N606 which lead me towards the N62 again and into Banneux. My Mazda MPS was still where it was supposed to be and I just put the bike in and drove home. It was almost 2pm by now and the sun was at full blast. Apart from the flat tyre I had no major technical worries and even though I felt tired I was not spent. Already planning another ride here soon.

Ride Stats : 70K and 1565 heightmeters in 4h55mins
Hill Factor : 22.3