Monday, December 21, 2009

Saturday Dec 19th : Minus 12.7 degrees C this morning and when I rode out around 11am it still was -10 degrees. The snow was around 10 to 15 cm thick and I decided on a leasurely stroll through Meerdael Forest. The snow quality was good for riding , it was dry and hard. A lot easier to ride through than my last snowy ride, in the beginning of January this year. I stopped frequently to take some pictures, gradually becoming more confident and upping the speed as I rode along. More snow is forecast this weekend so there may be other opportunities for some short rides like this one. I leave you wit a couple of pictures to get you in the mood to go out and enjoy the snow too.

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Ride Stats : 17,5K and 175/205 heightmeters (Polar/Garmin) in 1h24mins. -9 degrees C average temp

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Theux Signal de Botrange Theux KBC MTB ride

Warm weather was forecast with only a slight chance of precipitation. A perfect day for a solid Ardennes ride. Meeting up with the KBC MTB club at the Theux railway station around 8.45am and just before 9am we set off on the Longest Downhill. As regular readers know, this is a ride that consists of 2 parts. One part is the uphill from Theux to Signal de Botrange. I have been perfecting this part for a couple of years now to include as much offroad as possible. In the days when the Downhill was published in O2 Bikers - issue #59 to be more precise - the uphill part was as good as ignored. I did publish a first part of what was a long tarmac uphill followed by a roadbook from Le Petit Normand up to the Signal de Botrange in 2001. But I was not satisfied with all the tarmac between Theux and Le Petit Normand, so I set out with 1:15000 scale maps to find a more suitable and mountainbike-worthy uphill. As it stands now I am pretty pleased with the result. Arriving at the Signal de Botrange you have around 750 heightmeters under your belt and have passed some nice singletrail sections on the 32k stretch.
Taking a rest with the group at the restauration/cafe up on the Signal, the figures on my GPS speak for themselves. During the uphill we had split up in 2 groups, each with a rider having my GPS track from 2 days ago on a Garmin Edge. I was leading one of the groups, taking a more leisurely pace upwards. As usual I stopped at the Passerelle Michel Thorez for a snack. Even so we only arrived 10 minutes after the faster group. Hearing the remarks at the table it looked like they liked the uphill bit very much. And the best part was yet to come - the famous "Longest Downhill in Belgium" . 

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The Longest Downhill is a mixture of everything that make riding a bike offroad in the Ardennes so special. Starting in the Fagnes, we take in quite a bit of doubletrack before arriving at a small track with a river crossing. Then, arriving at the Vecquee, things turn wet and soggy forcing us between the trees to negotiate hundreds of roots. A very stony downhill follows, taking us close to the river Hoegne. Another very difficult downhill, with lots of stones, small rivulets of water and gullies, takes a victim. One flat tyre, from the looks of it a snakebite. Then we zoom down again towards the river Hoegne. A section with a couple of river crossings by wooden bridges, forest tracks interspersed with roots, rocks and small puddles, a little uphill section through a river, a fast singletrail downhill, its all there. During the downhill at one moment the group split up in 2 parts, unfortunately exactly at the spot where I had foreseen a very interesting singletrack. A singletrack out of the 2007 World Championship Marathon circuit in Verviers no less. The second group had taken a right turn where they should have gone left. My fault, I was assuming the group was more closely together. As it stood, I had no option but to leave the singletrack be and take my part of the group after the runaway members. We found them 1.5K further, waiting at the end of an offroad section not far from Neufmarteau.

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Near the end, reaching Polleur, there was an option to return by tarmac, as the original O2 bikers version did. But being mountainbikers and - it must be said, the level of fitness and technicality was very good in this group - we all choose for the offroad version, even if this means climbing two more hills - one with an 15% climbing grade. Near the end, the forward running GPS rider misses a turn and we are sent to Theux via a very, very steep downhill ending at the famous steps near the Lycee. Checking my GPS data after the ride, I found it to be a 24% grade at its steepest. Ouch.
I had been looking for this particular downhill for a while now and I'm glad we found it, a lucky accident one might say. It also features in the Ardennes Trophy, a marathon race held every year and starting in nearby La Reid. Here it is an absolute crowd-stopper because of its inherent level of danger.
Arriving in Theux we are offered a bite to eat and drinks to go with that, courtesy of the KBC MTB Club. I hope they all enjoyed our day out - I certainly did. The weather was perfect with 17 degrees up on the Fagnes, nearing 24 degrees when we where back in Theux, some 550 metres lower.

Ride Stats : 66K and 1045/1090 heightmeters in 4h10mins


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Theux Signal de Botrange Theux recon

Since the KBC MTB club changed the date for their annual Ardennes ride from October 3rd to September 19th - meaning NEXT weekend - without first asking my opinion I was forced to take a day off from work to do a recon of the route. Why ? Because I am the guide and as such I need to know if there are any track changes and also because it was a while ago since I last did this route completely. Now, obviously, I am not sad to have a reason to go to Theux and muck about a bit on the trails, but the last time I did this ride - last year in September - I made a bad move on my bike causing my back to get hurt. Of course this was playing in my head and I didn't want the same to happen again.
I contacted my friend Roger to ask him if he would like to come along and I was glad he said yes. It's always safer to not ride alone on these kind of trips. I had manually prepared the GPS track on Mapsource and was set to follow it on the Edge 705. We arrived at the Theux train station at about 10am and quickly after that we were on the move. The weather was grim but dry and with a forecast of clearing skies later in the day.
The KBC MTB club insisted on leaving at the Theux station - me I much more prefer leaving at the Chateau de Franchimont. The extra couple of K's joining the Theux station to the start of the uphill were a bit of a maze into the Theux city back streets. Especially at the local school we were forced to find another track around the school. So I started off on the climb towards the Franchimont Castle. Halfway up there is a track leading down again, dropping us onto a meadow with a 'Private' sign. We could see the track we needed to get to, less than a 100 metres further , so we skipped underneath the barriers and quickly made our way towards the trail. No harm done.
Leaving Theux on the 'Devant Staneu' tarmac street, the climbing begins. Quickly the trail drops back down and re-ascends very steeply to run parallel to the railroad and next to the majestic "Bois de Staneu" for a while. Then I am skipping trails and we were climbing steadily along the Clementine ruisseau towards the Golf de Spa. A bit of tarmac and a nice twisting singletrack leads us towards another trail that Roger enjoyed very much. Me I had been here before but I also love this little singletrack, which goes up and down like a big tobogan with on the right a big dropoff and on the left the forest and the hill going upwards . In Sart another bit of tarmac but quickly we are on a singletrack again. This leads us upwards towards a big road. Crossing this we descend on a forest track towards the real start of the uphill, the "Passerelle Michel Thorez" . This was the exact spot where I hurt my back last year so I was a bit awkward riding here. We stopped to have a little snack and take some pictures.

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The track then sets into the fagnes with a long ascend on bad tarmac turning eventually into a gravel road. The sun peeps through the clouds and Roger is thinking about removing a layer of clothing. I am glad he didn't because there are colder climes awaitign us higher up.
A little descent and then the trail meanders upwards towards the Signal de Botrange. At 692 metres this is officially the highest point in Belgium. It took us 2h30 to reach it and we were about 33K into the ride. Taking Roger towards the viewpoint looking out towards Germany, we noticed it was cold - 14 degrees and a cold northerly wind and still a bit misty. Although the sun was making an effort to pierce through the low cloud cover. We had a snack, took some pictures and got underway for the downhill part of the ride.
The downhill is a lot more technical that the uphill. At first it is easy with the big gravel roads, but then I take a little track through the Fagnes towards the Vecquee. Having to cross a little river and riding on some wooden elevated paths we reach the larger Vecquee trail. At some points on the Vecquee there was some water - not mud, but plain water - that forced us into the pine tree forest next to it. Here there were roots making life difficult for our full suspension bikes. But things got even more difficult when we reached the end of the Vecquee and came on a rocky and stony doubletrack leading us towards the Hoegne. Having a full suspension bike turns out to be a blessing here. And things got even more technical when I set onto the downhill towards the little pavillion looking out over the deep Hoegne valley. Rocks, ruts, little rivulets crossing the trail and the plain steepness of the descents made us enjoy these trails to the fullest. This is the real Ardennes stuff. Tough and rough. Quickly we were ejected onto the tarmac track we had followed less than an hour ago upwards. But this time we were speeding down towards the Passerelle Michel Thorez again. Here I turned to the right and we encountered the river Hoegne again, having to cross it several times using small wooden bridges. And between the bridges we followed a foothpath strewn with roots, rocks and small puddles. Again our bikes brought us joy.

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At one point I got confused when the GPS reacted too slow to a number of direction changes and we took a wrong turn for about 100 metres. Then I came to my senses and turned around, and so did the GPS. A bit of uphill tarmac, a right turn and we were enjoying the Ardennes again. Track after track, at one point riding into a little river for a short uphill stretch. We came to some kind of chicken garden and again I hesitated and the GPS was too slow deciding where to go. We did a long extra loop. The good thing about navigating with the Edge 705 is that it always gets you back on the track you should be following. But the simple lack of trails made us do an extra 4 or 5K before we were back on the right trail. We were nearing Neufmarteau now and the last stretch of trail along the river Hoegne. In Polleur we had to climb again , and most decidedly so, since we were following a trail that brought us nearly 100 metres higher up the slope. Downhill again - we were on the Red Theux route but riding it in the opposite direction. Arriving in Sassor I take us into a right turn leading towards a steep uphill. Its the last one because after shedding many a droplet of sweat we can see Theux lying below us. Zooming down the downhill we arrive at the road to Verviers again and turn towards the Theux train station and our car.
We were very lucky with the weather. It was around 15 degrees when we started and it remained like that until we were descending again. Temperatures then went up towards 18 degrees and the sun was shining more, bringing us light and warmth. Furthermore the tracks were almost dry with only some water high up in the Fagnes. I really enjoyed the ride and from the grin on Rogers' face I'm pretty sure he enjoyed it too. Afterwards I edited my GPS track so that the KBC MTB club could use it next saturday. I uploaded the un-edited version to my Garmin account. Click on the link below to download it and ride this beautiful trail yourself. Be warned though, it takes a fair bit of fitness , some Ardennes experience and a good bike to enjoy it to the fullest.

Ride Stats : 66k and 1140/1215 heightmeters (Polar/Garmin) in 4h29mins

GPS Track on Garmin ConnectCLICK


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Theux Green and Blue and Red and Ninglinspo valley

Yes, this morning I took my Mazda and drove it to the Franchimont castle in Theux. My plan was to start on the Green, hop over on the Blue and then on the Red. On the Red I would then descent into the Ninglinspo valley, looping over the Blanches Pierres and the Tour Drouet, ascent along the Ninglinspo and then follow the Red again, hop over on the Blue and finish in Theux. At 10am I was ready to roll. It was fresh with only 14 degrees C but at least it promised to be dry. It took a little while to get back into Ardennes mode but once I found my rhythm I found my legs to be better than I expected. The tracks are rocky here, so I took care to add a couple of psi to my tyre pressure. Even with a full suspension bike, and especially on tough circuits like the Theux Adeps routes, a little bit more goes a long way. The tracks were surprisingly dry as I thundered into Polleur where I rejoined the Red route for a little while climbing into the outskirts of the Bois de Staneu. The Red then goes straight while the Green veers to the left for the first long climb of the day. I could do the climb on my middle chainring but after a while I decided it might be better to put it on the little ring in front. Better not tyre my legs unneccessary. Arriving on top I had to follow the tarmac road for a while before coming to the first long descent. A rocky number this one, and I had to change lines quite a few times in order to stay on the bike. But as usual, the Merlin did its magic and inspired me with the confidence needed when doing rides like this one on your own. Into the valley and hopping onto the Blue route for another long climb, back over 300 metres. Another descent and I was on the road to Spa. Crossing it and then disappearing into the forest again for the next - very rocky - climb. After a while you leave the forest and I noticed the sun was shining intermittently, just warming things up a little bit. The cool temperatures were great for my form because I was really feeling strong. Onto the Red route and slowly climbing up to the 400 metre mark.

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Just before reaching that I came to the edge of the Ambleve valley. Here I left the Adeps route for a descent into the valley I call dreamland. Descending towards the Blanches Pierres rivulet and on a big forest track making good speed on the 18% slope before arriving at the Tour Drouet, which offers a great view over the Ninglinspo valley. The Ninglinspo is a little river that drops from the plateau down towards the Ambleve river, some 270 metres deeper. I took a break at the Tour Drouet, some  26K into the ride. Having a bite to eat and taking some pictures, I notice som white constructions on the horizon. Strange, they look like big blocks, but what is their purpose? Time will tell for sure.
Deeper down into the valley and I was ready for the long ascent, following the little Ninglinspo river on its trail. Some 3K long and offering a height gain of 250 metres, this is a nice climb and especially today, when it was very dry and offering good traction to my Nobby Nics. I met up with a runner who was a local and was doing a 16K run in and out of this valley. Strong guy! When I arrived at the top I had already decided I would abandon my plan to get back on the Blue and follow that into Theux. I felt good and so I decided to follow the much more difficult Red route. This offers quite a bit more climbs, and some tricky descents, especially the drop into the Forges Thiry is to be treated with respect. As is essentially every descent on the Red route, which has its toughest section near the end.

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Near the end I was suffering on the last climb, a very steep number climbing from downtown Theux up towards the Franchimont castle. The slope is between 11 and 18% and even reaches 20% at one point. After 60K in this kind of terrain is a tough cookie. But i managed it and with some relief I saw my red Mazda standing still on the parking lot near the Franchimont castle. This combination of the 3 routes + the descent into the Ambleve valley is a nice ride, not for the meek I hasten to tell, the terrain is not to be underestimated and has surprises around every corner. A good bike and some experience in the Ardennes is a must on these kinds of rides. There are some sections that offer a bit of recuperation but - especially on the red route - most of the time you are either climbing or trying to ride one or the other technical downhill. I nearly lost it when my front wheel washed away over some stones in a corner whilst descending a 14% slope on a double trail field track. The tracks were narrow and extremely rockstrewn and only a quick reflex and possibly a combination of a good bike with good tyres saved me from a trip to the hospital. Things like that tend to happen near the end of the ride, when concentration is a bit less and fatigue is building up. But they might just as well happen in the beginning, when you underestimate the trail and/or overestimate yourself. So be warned, stay safe and keep the rubber side down.

Ride Stats : 63K and 1500/1550 heightmeters (Polar/Garmin) in 4h00mins

GPS Track on Garmin ConnectCLICK


Saturday, March 21, 2009

MTB Orienteering Kesselberg 2009

I had received an invitation for this mtb orienteering event from one of the organisers of the SLOK 2009 Kesselberg MTB-O. Since I'm always in for something including my mountainbike and furthermore I also love the region I decided to take part in this race. The SLOK had set out 3 parcours - 10, 15 and 20K - in the hilly region around Kessel Lo and Linden. The start was given at the Abbey of Vlierbeek. Nicely situated in a broad valley just southwest of the Kesselberg area. I rode over from home to arrive around 11am at the 'Rozenkrans' pub where the inscriptions were taken. Since it was my first ever orienteering event I wasn't sure what to expect. But at the inscription I was ably explained the basic rules . You get a map with on it several marked and numbered points. You have to get from one point to the other - choosing your own way - and get a mark at each of the points. For that you receive an EMIT chip. This chip records a timemark when you put it in the trasmitter situated on the marking point. At the end of the race, this information is downloaded from your EMIT chip into a computer and you get your result. The one that completes the complete tour in the shortest time, is the winner. Simple, but as with all things, it isn't as easy as it sounds.
After the inscription I followed the markings towards the official start. Here I received my map and the girl explained to me how I should go about putting my EMIT in the marking stations. She already made the first mark so my race was already running when I was still there listening to her explaining me how things worked. I had brought the cardholder I used in the 2000 Coast to Coast Pyrenees so I could put my map there. The EMIT module I could fasten to one of my fingers.
At the inscription they asked for my identity card as a guarantee against the EMIT but I wasn't going to leave that behind. So they had to settle for my UCI licence.
Looking at the map I got underway and I quickly learned that riding fast AND trying to read a map at the same time wasn't easy. Furthermore I had to refold and turn my map all the time - my card holder is only A4 and the map we got was nearly A3 format. The 'real' orienteering guys had some kind of rototable on their handlebar. So they could turn the map to keep the place where they were going to, on top and in the front.
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The weather was great, after a cold start the sun shone in truely spring fashion and riding through and around forests was a joy today. In the meantime I had arrived at my first marker and took a few pictures before heading off to the next one. The first couple of markers were relatively easy, but then things got more complicated, with a mixture of big and smaller tracks. You had to find the quickest path, and this was not always the shortest one. The difficulty was that in order to make a good time, you needed to look at the map and make a decision on the trail which you wanted to follow, whilst driving your bike through offroad trails. Sometimes they were easy, but there were also some steep downhills and sections with gullies . Luckily all the tracks were bone-dry. Here lies one of the big challenges of this sport. You obviously need map-reading skills, but you also need fitness and sometimes catlike reactions when your wheel hits a branch at the exact time when you were peering down at your map deciding on your next direction change. When things really got complicated - read, when there were a lot of tracks converging or several forks really close one after the other, I did stop and had a GOOD look at the map. One mistake could set you off in a completely wrong direction. Fortunately I am pretty good at reading a map and I didn't make a single mistake trackwise. Approaching Marker #12 ( see the map below ) I chose a dotted line which looked to lead to marker 12 very nicely, but all of a sudden I couldn't see any more trails, so I clambered up a very steep hill. This must have been my lucky day since I arrived on top at the exact location of the marker. While I was there I saw some other riders arriving from a different direction. Obviously I had taken the more difficult - but shorter - path. The section with markers 14 to 17 was also a very nice one, by now I was getting more confident and during the last section I really got under steam. In the end, connecting all the markers took me almost 37K and 2h02 of riding time.
I am very happy to have done this, its a combination of several skills and it involves riding a bike in nature. The only pity is that there are not that many MTB-O events around in Belgium. Next year this event will be held in my own Meerdael forest and I will look forward to participate to that. In the meantime I will certainly look out for similar events in Belgium, I had a really good time. Thanks to all the people at SLOK for making this event possible and to Jef Boeckx for bringing it to my attention.

Ride Stats : 61.5K and 570/588 (Polar/Garmin) in 3h11mins

MTB-O Stats : 37K and 408 heightmeters in 2h02mins
MTB-O Official result
: 2h19mins52secs on 23280m or 6mins/km

Garmin Map
KesselBerg MTB-O 21032009

Organisers blog
Official results : CLICK