Quick info

Website: sport.be.msn.com/

Distance 81/138/162 km

Major climbs 14/12/9

Terrain Hilly and challenging

Participants 3,000

Number of finishers 2,876

Best Wheels to sit on

Worst The battle for Gilbert’s wheel

The Ronde van Vlaanderen cyclo-sportive attracts over 15,000 riders, and the Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège Challenges also attract large numbers, but these are by no means the only options when looking for a European ‘Classic’ experience.

Across France, Belgium and the Netherlands, there are dozens of opportunities to ride in the wheeltracks of the pros. Choose La Philippe Gilbert and you can actually ride alongside the champion of the world – or attempt to.

La Gilbert starts in Aywaille, a sleepy Walloon village deep in the heart of the Belgian Ardennes. The stone houses straddle the Amblève River and sit near the base of La Redoute – the climb that often lights the fuse in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic. This is the valley where Gilbert grew up, cut his teeth as a rider and still lives and trains for much of the year.

Weekend off

The Belgian is able to meet and greet and of course ride because it’s held the weekend after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, when the Classics campaigners get a breather. It’s not a big sportive, but Gilbert’s world title helped boost numbers to over 3,000.

Over 100 of those lined up behind the BMC pro at his pre-declared starting time of 8am. We started in this ambitious bunch, a long way back, knowing that what lay ahead meant we were unlikely to see Gilbert’s wheel again.

La Redoute, only five kilometres down the valley, was the inevitable wrecker of our vain ambition. An aperitif to the other 13 climbs, La Redoute is less than 2km long but is a relentless pull with a maximum gradient of 20 per cent. Despite passing half a dozen riders wearing rainbow jerseys on that first ramp, Gilbert was over the top and well out of sight, accompanied by his team-mates Greg Van Avermaet and Klaas Lodewyck.

There were plenty of other groups to settle into, though, as we headed north through one wooded valley after another and over lesser known climbs: the Côtes de Hornay, des Forges, and de Fleron. The routes bypassed the urban sprawl of Liège and headed towards the Dutch border and the Amstel Gold Race region of Limburg.

This area is known as the ‘Dutch mountains’ or Heuvelland and is popular with Dutch holidaymakers from the much flatter parts.

The climb at Mesch sent us upwards on to the pleasant and pastoral Mergelland plateau and close to the highest point in the Netherlands. Valkenberg was the next destination and the groups of riders became smaller and spread farther apart as we paid respect to Gilbert’s world title by climbing the slightly underwhelming Cauberg and turning for ‘home’.

The Cauberg lacks character but Valkenberg is a characterful tourist town full of bars and street cafes.

The day had warmed up nicely for the welcome stretch along the Meuse river before the short cobbled section through the centre of the pretty, border village of Eijsden, which happens to be the childhood home of Gilbert’s Dutch wife.

The finale, back into the green hills and deep valleys of the Ardennes, is a route Gilbert probably knew well, and I doubt he struggled. Despite their being neither long nor high, the hills here had performed their gradual wearing-down process on our progress.

Missed it? Try this…

Many to choose from on the organiser’s event calendar: www.golazo.com/en/agenda.

This article was first published in the June 13 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!