I didn’t know Bjorg Lambrecht and don’t remember ever exchanging a word with him, but the young Belgian did play a central role on one of the most memorable days I’ve ever spent watching bike racing, and it’s for his part in that that I will primarily remember him.
It took place during the 2017 edition of the Ronde de l’Isard, an under-23 race that takes place largely in the Ariège region of the Pyrenees and often highlights some of the best upcoming talents who are about to break through into the pro ranks. That year’s ‘queen’ stage, which took the riders over the 2,001-metre Port de Pailhères, the Col de Chioula and finished at Plateau de Beille, was worthy of the Tour de France in terms of its difficulty and would draw attention to some outstanding prospects.
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It took place on a gloriously clear Saturday morning, the kind of day when you can see forever when you’re up high, the perfect day to give my kids a taste of bike racing. The Ronde de l’Isard is so low key that we were able to wander among the teams gathering at the start in the small, mountain-ringed town of Quillan and then drive up the course for 40 kilometres to a hairpin a kilometre or so below the summit of the Pailhères, which is undoubtedly one of the most majestic passes in the Pyrenean range.
From our eyrie-like viewpoint, we could see several kilometres back down the Pailhères many switchbacks, tracking the peloton’s progress as it weaved steadily upwards towards us, watching the front group getting smaller and smaller as it approached our bend, where we were the only spectators.
The race had become a battle between the BMC Development Team, headed by Pavel Sivakov who had won the previous stage and taken the race lead, and Lotto-Soudal, supporting their climbing ace, Lambrecht, who was lying second on GC. Both were prominent as the yellow jersey group passed, the pace being set by BMC’s Pascal Eeenkorn, now with Jumbo-Visma, Marc Hirschi, third at the San Sebastian Classic last Saturday in Sunweb’s colours, and Steff Cras, now with Katusha. Also in the little group were Britons James Knox and Stevie Williams, and leading French hope Valentin Madouas.
As they passed and we shouted encouragement, my kids were delighted to see bottle after bottle being flung their way. As their collection of bidons grew, it didn’t take much to persuade them that they might like to expand it still further by watching the stage finale at Plateau de Beille. So, as were making their way up the Chioula after bulleting down the Pailhères, we cut across to the final climb.
The tiny cross-country ski station at Beille is an unusual place, unremarkable because it comprises just a handful of low buildings and an immense car park, but at the same time absolutely stunning as it offers an almost 360° view across snow-capped peaks. A corridor of barriers ran across the expanse of tarmac to the finish, where there were no more than a few dozen spectators.
We didn’t have to wait long until the first riders appeared, Lambrecht sprinting up the final straight with all he had left, Sivakov glued to his wheel. They crossed the line in that order, almost a minute clear of Cras in third, with Lotto’s Harm Vanhoucke and Knox the only other riders to come in within a minute of them.
Over the two subsequent years, I’ve followed the progress of many of the riders who featured on that fabulous day with particular interest. Several are well on the way to achieving great things in pro racing, and Bjorg Lambrecht was definitely among them. Second to Egan Bernal at the Tour de l’Avenir later in 2017, he took his first pro win at the Tour of the Fjords last year, when he also went close to a summit stage win on his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta.
I’ll also remember his daring last-kilometre attack on the steep run up to the finish of the second stage of the Tour of the Basque Country in Gorraiz, his effort thwarted by the irrepressible Julian Alaphilippe, who overhauled him just before the line.
While hearing of his death yesterday was an awful shock, reflecting on memories like these provides some measure of comfort.
As I said at the start, I didn’t know Bjorg Lambrecht, but I’ll never forget him racing to victory at the end of a glorious day, snowy mountains all around.