After a two-year absence almost 4,000 mountain bike enthusiasts flocked to Houffalize for the seventh edition of Roc d’Ardenne. Great weather and beautiful courses saw participants crossing the finish line with a big smile.
For me it had been 24 months without racing at this level I felt ready to step on the gas again. In previous years this region of Belgium has almost become a second home and it felt great to be back. Ahead lay 110 kilometres through the Ardenne hills here at Roc d’Ardenne. With it being one of the first European UCI Marathons of the year a competitive field was likely. Two years ago I finished 2nd here in the snow, what would be possible today? This race has become a regular for me, at a short 3-and-a-half-hour drive from Calais it’s an easy trip to make for any Brits looking for a fantastic event.
In stark contrast to many of those on the start line this was my third race day of the year, the fifth if you include the two road races. Many of the pros have ridden the 6 day Andalucia Bike Race, the 8 day Cape Epic and the 5 day 4 Islands stage race. No time to overthink these numbers though because I’m not gridded on the front row, I’m back in the second pen with zero UCI points. This is some contrast to the end of 2019 when I was ranked 7th in the UCI world rankings. The start gun goes, number 68 coming through, the front guys aren’t going to wait for me so I need to get the elbows out and push my way forwards. On the pavement, in the gutter, on the grass, anyway to squeeze through the mass of riders. Fortunately at this race we start up a huge steep climb, the Cote de St.Roch, 3 minutes 32 at 487 watts and I’m in the top 10 before the first descent.
Elbows were out, there was no trundling downhill, we were 2 or 3 wide into the descent battling for position. The speed went up and up, the dust was flying, rocks flying. Back down to the bottom of the hill and I’m back on the pedals to move forwards to the middle of the front group. Next climb and we are stamping on the pedals, today’s pace was hot but I’m feeling super strong. The first few climbs disappear quickly and I’m feeling on fire.
We are speeding along, already at 30 kilometres, we begin a super steep climb, as I shift up into the easiest gear the chain drops down the cassette and jams. I jump off and sort the issue. Me coming to a halt has split the front group, two leaders are now up the road and there’s four of five people just ahead of me who I catch.
I spend the next 20 kilometres chasing the front two with one other person sitting on my wheel. I commit to the chase but I’m maybe not as confident of my abilities or limits having not raced much the last couple of years due to covid travel restrictions. I’m burning matches quickly but holding the front two at 30 seconds. Eventually though the elastic snaps and we fall back to the riders behind. For the next kilometres I hide at the back of the group and just do the minimum amount of work possible when it was my turn to set the pace on the front. I refuel and prepare myself for the final quarter of the race which I knew included some of the most difficult kilometres.
The legs still feel absolutely amazing though, I’m frustrated to have let the front two slip away but extra motivated to secure that third and final podium spot. I recognize many of these final climbs and trails, I’m counting down the distance with my Wahoo ready to empty the tank. I sip the last drops in my bottles and take on the last gel so I have every possible bit of glycogen available to me for this final push.
We head towards Houffalize before heading back out for one final loop. We head up the river side singletrack trail past the Vayamundo hotel. These final hills are a killer finish, if you’re on your limit these next few trails will finish you. Steep rocky rooty ascents followed by equally punishing descents. Make a mistake here in a tired haze and you’ll easy come to grief in one of the technical sections or hit a rock and puncture. We finally head back down the hillside towards Houffalize via the old world cup cross country course. I’m sat second wheel ducking and diving to find my way past the rider in front. The last climb is coming up, I nudge my way alongside but the path in front narrows and there’s a sheer drop to the right. I don’t get the move done. Why have I felt amazing all race, let the first two slip away and have probably now missed my chance of a podium? My confidence needs to be better. We rapidly descent down onto the cobbled finish straight through town, we dodge left, we dodge right, the finish line appears, time is up, we sprint but there’s not enough meters. Fourth place. I wanted that podium but I’m still buzzing with excitement, what a race!
Wout Alleman, the national champion of Belgium, romped his way to victory with an eventual margin of 4 minutes ahead of Tim Smeenge in second and Frans Claes in third. In the women’s race Estelle Morel took top step on the podium and a big haul of UCI points ahead of Irena Lutzelschwab and Stefanie Dohrn. With Chouffe beer on tap at the finish from the local brewery everyone could celebrate a brilliant weekend of racing around the Ardenne Hills.
What an absolutely amazing event, a brilliant weekend, this region of Belgium is something special, if you’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit the Ardennes and Roc d’Ardenne add it to your bucket list! There are so many reasons to visit this region of Belgium, from sporting events or cycling holidays on the plethora of cycling routes, the beautiful towns which are great hubs for tourists and the world war history which is spread around these wonderful hills are just three of the many reasons to make the trip.