Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rando des 4 Chateaus

After a dry thursday it looked like we would have a nice and quiet ride in the sunshine today. When I got into my car at 6.50am the clouds were clear and there were wisps of mist hanging over the land. The river Meuse was breathing some heavy fog when I approached it and crossed the "Pere Pire" bridge in Huy. When I arrived at Stree there were already people getting ready to go. I met up with Geert aka Schijfrem. He also rides a Moots YBB and we decided to ride together as long as possible. I enscribed first and forked over 3.5€ for the 55K distance. There were also rides of 25, 35 and 45K. When I asked at the inscription if they had an emergency number, they replied they did not. Some joker suggested I call 100 in case of trouble. Yeah, that one minus point I honestly did not expect on a ride that carries the Stany Smol tag. Pity.

The Ride:

Geert and I set off for the first couple of K's which plunged us almost immediately into Outrelouxhe. I recognized the trail from my Nandrin rides and knew we were in for a treat. The trail plunged into a rift and then followed a little river into a narrow valley. The dropoff was very steep - I walked it, later I noticed it was a 37% gradient on the GPS track ! - and the singletrail following the river was ondulating up and down just enough to keep the tension on the muscles. Great section. A little later we emerged on tarmac for a short stretch taking us down to the first heavy climb of the day. Over loose rocks and shifting pebbles we worked our way up the slope that approached 19% at places and took us some 100 heightmeters up the plateau. From there we dropped down again - this downhill is well known to me from the Nandrin trails were it has to be conquered uphill - and again care needed to be taken. Heavy rains have seriously deteriorated this track and at times the slope was 21%. Try doing that on loose stones and you get the picture. Very concentrated and a great experience. Below we followed the river again until we were at the lowest point possible in this forest. The Fond d'Oxhe as it is called. Obviously another 100 heightmeter climb was bound to follow. Not as steep as the first one but the trail was very beautiful, with rocks, roots and gullies making it tough to ride. At the top the 45 and 55K distances were splitting off and Geert decided to follow the 45, leaving me alone to continue on the 55K. I made a picture of him before we parted .

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The trail now entered some kind of walking trail nicely circling through rock gardens and forest outcrops. We met some walkers here - girls with dogs - and it was nice to notice they were all very friendly. Especially the dogs.
We stayed on the plateau a while and after an hours ride I came to the first ravito. This must have been some 17K into the ride. All distances merged here . There was some water and grenadine drink, cookies, waffles and also someone who was offering high-energy food and drinks of Nutrilite . I had a taste of everything and went on my way. I dropped down the slope again, before following a nice singletrail along the forest edge. On my right I could see the cooling towers of the Tihange nuclear plant. Impressive.

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A long climb followed and gradually I was leaving the forest , coming out into the open fields before crossing the N66. A little later and after crossing the N641 there followed some very difficult climbs on rocks, roots and stones where I had to walk several times due to the slope and the wetness of the rocks. Just before Marchin I enjoyed the second rest stop of the day. This time there were some Red Bull girls to sheer us up and offer us some tasty beverage. I declined because I already have Red Bull mixed in my water bottle. But they were nice to look at.
I passed the strangely curved church of Marchin and a tricky downhill - roots, stones, wet rocks - demanded my uttermost concentration to keep the rubber side down. A climb and descent into the field - with some grassy gullies to spice things a little and another steep descent before turning right onto what looked - and felt - like an abandoned railroad track. Nice section but I was glad I had a softtail bike here instead of a hardtail. The ondulating track brought me a few K's further before entering Modave. Here we had to follow some tarmac which led us to the entry gate of the castle grounds. Nice little downhill-uphill section here before I got to the 3rd rest stop of the day, exactly 40k into the ride. A great passage on the castle grounds followed , with a very tricky downhill and a passage through a ford. I didn't notice there was a bridge until I got my feet wet from the splashing water. But the sun was out and with some 20 degrees and no wind I didn't mind getting my feet wet. After Modave the slopes were getting a bit milder and before long I was out in the fields again. I noticed my rear tyre was slowly losing air so I decided to replace the inner tyre. Some stony fieldtracks and field passages giving way to amazingly narrow but very beautiful tracks brought me into Ramelot. Another ravito some 50K into the ride and the last couple of K's consisted of twisting trails into moist forests and a passage over a freshly harvested field. Crossing the N66 not far from Tinlot I knew what was coming. An uphill passage through a hollow road edged with trees but followed by a very wet downhill leading back towards Stree. I took the edge of the field on the left of the track instead of all the puddles and was rewarded by an almost clean bike when we finally made it back to the start.

There Geert was already tasting some fine beer and we shortly exchanged our experiences .

The Lowdown:

What I liked:
+ Great trails, with attention to lesser visited tracks
+ the region and the use they made of what is offered
+ dangerous downhills and road crossings well marked on shared trails for all distances
+ distance splits well marked - before AND after the split
+ arrowing sparse but suffiecient and very noticeable
+ 4 rest zones - fruit, cookies , grenadine and water.
+ Red Bull and Energy Drinks stands.

+ all this for only 3.5€

What I did not like:
- no emergency numbers provided by the organisation
- less heightmeters than announced
- no danger signs on the 55K-only sections


Obviously the trails were beautiful, in the beginning very tough in the forest section south of Tihange, with some very steep downhills and a couple of 100 heightmeters + climbs, difficult and long. In the end the ride didn't deliver the amount of heightmeters the organisation had promised, but I didn't really mind. We got nearly 1100 heightmeters on the 55K - that turned out to be almost 60K. And the tracks were never boring, instead surprising me all the time with nice finds and great views. A good knowledge of the local tracks leads the organisors to produce one hell of a ride. The arrowing was sparse at times - I missed an arrow twice - but the arrows used were very visible - black on yellow - and you could spot them from far. The distance splits were very well marked - both before and after the split. A minus point would be the fact that on the loops the 55K did seperately from the other loops, there were no danger signs before tricky downhills. They had danger signs on the shared loops with the other distances. Do they think that the 55k riders were all so experienced they didn't need to be warned? I would include the signs the next time.
The 4 rest stops were well stocked, water and grenadine and some cookies, fruit and waffles. Nothing fancy but with some Energy drinks and food at the first, and the Red Bull girls at the second rest stop who can complain? And all this for a mere 3.5€ ? Yes, indeed. I have no idea about the showers and the bike cleaning facilities since I didn't use either of them. I returned home happy and with a few more tracks to possibly include into my Nandrin trails.
The only point that I would suggest the organisers fix urgently , is the lack of emergency numbers. Some of the downhills were really tricky and I saw a lot of people with broken chains and other mechanical problems. Provide an emergency number please.

The Bare Facts:

Profile of the Ride : CLICK
Profile the organisors provided:
profil 55 km_html_m769eee6c
Map of the Ride :

Pictures of the ride by Schijfrem : CLICK
[the Moots dude with the long pants is ME]

Ride Stats :
60K and 1090/1145 heightmeters (Polar/Garmin) in 3h46mins
Hill Factor:


Saturday, August 2, 2008

On Championship Trails part II

Today I had made another appointment with Albert Dumont to ride part II of the Verviers 2007 MTB Marathon World Championships trail. We met up at the Ardennes Outlet centre in Verviers. The weather had been dry and hot these last few days but now some menacing clouds and a stiff breeze made it less warm and in fact better suited for biking. Because the Moots was still at Filip Sport I took the Merlin out today.
From downtown Verviers we first had to make our way up to Heusy and next to Mangombroux to go offroad along the Domaine Militaire in the Bois de Jalhay. Albert was talking about the history of Verviers in its golden age but before long we had to concentrate on the track that was very stony and running uphill all the time - "french flat" Albert calls it . When the track evened out a little bit we were making our way over roots and next to big puddles. After crossing the N679 we had a good view of the dark forests lying in front of us. A fast stony downhill followed by a climb brought us to Surister. The Merlin was already proving its worth. The rear suspension providing more traction in the climbs and also having a 22 chainring in front was a blessing on the very steep hills (I saw many 20%+ gradients on my GPS profile) . And obviously, having 10cm of travel in front and rear was a big bonus in the downhills.
From Surister we had to make our way towards the River Hoegne. The descents were very technical at times and it was a joy to be able to ride them all - when they were not blocked by fallen trees that is. When we crossed the river Hoegne for the first time , we were in for a real treat. A singletrack meandering up and down high above the river brought us to the next crossing. When I ride my "Longest Downhill" I stay close to the Hoegne, but next time I will certainly try to use this singletrack which starts close to the Croupet du Moulin.
At the Croupet du Moulin we disappeared upwards into the Foret Domaniale de Gospinal for a series of tough climbs followed by tricky downhills. The forests were very beautiful but the loops were taking a lot of strenght out of my legs. Still, the pace was right and the bike was giving me more comfort than the Moots could do. When we came back down to the Hoegne at last we had around 22K and just short of 600 heightmeters.
Wow, this was one intense start. From the Hoegne we then made our way to the northeast and into Charneux. Time for a first snack before we arrived in Jalhay a few kilometres later. Not after another downhill followed by another climb of course. The track builder, Léon Hoenders, was in my mind a lot of time. This man not only seems to know all the nicest trails around here, but he also had a bit of a sadistic streak to him. But, obviously, this was not your "average organised ride" trail - with all due respect to those. No, we were on a World Championship trail and this was supposed to be a very tough and taxing ride.
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At Jalhay we took a break to stock some food and drink. When we rode out of Jalhay and back to the trail, we had to take shelter because of a light rain shower. Mmm, some of those clouds were dense enough to contain showers. Still, the temperature was around 20 degrees and the shower seemed to be very local. We were lucky.
From Jalhay the trail made its way towards the majestic Westhertogenwald. Instead of the pine trees we would now enter a forest where broad-leaved trees are more common. The Hertogenwald extends over 12000 hectares and contains the Barrage de la Gileppe which we would soon encounter, but not after spending many many a drop of sweat. We were enjoying the majestic splendour of this forest and when we caught our first glimpse of the gigantic lake through the trees it would still elude us for many kilometres to come.
First we had to climb up to the highest point of our route - 456metres - next to the N68 before returning fullspeed into the Trou Malbrouck. Here Albert took me to the fawcett of the Tunnel de la Soor, a 2.5 k long tunnel dug to feed extra water into the Gileppe lake. He also told me about the disaster during its building, taking the lifes of 8 men when they drowned in that pipe during heavy rains. Now the outlet was only producing a trickle of water but after heavy rains the force of the water provides for a 50-metre long geyser. Impressive.
From the Trou Malbrouck the trail would now have us flirting with the Gileppe lake a couple of times, but we would have to climb away from it - and some very steep climbs at that - several times before we finally made it to the barrage. In the forest we also did a very nice singletrack downhill. We paused at the barrage to take some pictures of the famous Lion, looking very stern towards the Northeast.
From the barrage we now made out way up towards to a viewpoint - took a picture there - and then disappeared into the forest once more for another series of climbs and descents taking us through the Bois de Goë and the Bois de Hevremont towards Hevremont. The toughest bits were now behind us but Léon still provided for a few surprises. Some very nice tracks near Brou and some beautiful singletrack that would eventually drop us near the river Vesdre east of Ottomont. Some tracks through Verviers itself, with stairs running up and down to wring the last bits of strenght our of our legs and demand high concentration before we spotted the Ardennes Outlet parking lot and the end of our journey.
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Another tough ride. The Hill factor was not as high as the first part, and the ride was less intense but still this is a tough ride. Especially the parts next to the river Hoegne and the Hertogenwald are very demanding - both the uphills and the technicity of some of the downhills - but the beauty of the surroundings make you forget a lot of the suffering. It is impossible to capture all the trails and tracks into writing, you just will have to ride this track to really understand the beauty and the difficulty of it. But be prepared, this is a ride that will take you anywhere between 4 and 6 hours or more to complete - riding time that is !
Thanks to Albert for guiding me around this majestic trails . The Merlin proved to be a great bike - again and we were lucky with the weather - again. Thanks also to Léon Hoenders, the architect of one of the toughest - and certainly most beautiful - trails in Belgium.
My first ride with the Garmin Edge 705 also proved to be a success. I was a bit worried it would jam the workings of my Polar S710 (which the older Garmin Geko did) but I had no trouble with that. Having all the information on one screen was great, and of course looking at the track afterwards provided a lot of information. Another one won over for GPS.

Ride Stats : 70km and 1665 / 1758 heightmeters
(Polar / Garmin) in 5h00mins
Ride profile : CLICK
Hill Factor : 23.8