Julio Greff / Cycling

Race Report: The Ardennes Monster 2023

The second edition of the Ardennes Monster is in a lot of ways a race much like its previous installment. It starts in Namur, it is about 1.000km long, and hits the steepest and most gruesome climbs it can find. I took part last year, so I had a good idea on what to expect, and several goals on how to do better this time.

This second time is also a bit different, in some ways. It goes through more countries, going into France, Luxemburg, and Germany, and adds an extra 20km in length and 1.000m of elevation, for anybody that dared to think the race was too easy.

The Plan

Having scratched not even halfway through the Race Across Belgium earlier in the year, I really put all I had into training, working up to doing several weeks of more than 25 hours of training each, aiming to start the race in the best shape I’ve ever been.

Having experienced the race before, I knew I could ride on no sleep all the way to CP3, hopefully taking some 38 hours to do so. Sleep and recharge electronics, and ride to Namur in hopes of arriving before lunch. It sounded possible if a little bit unreasonable, but that’s what makes the best plans!

As always I prioritized time on the bike over anything else, so I carried all of the food I expected to need, and enough water carrying capacity to see me from one checkpoint to the next. All of the weight would certainly hurt on the climbs, but while they’re pretty steep, they’re also pretty short, so I took the trade-off.

I also opted for arriving in Namur the day before the race to do the bike check, instead of doing it the day of, like last year. This gave me extra time to sleep instead of being on the road, which should have me start the race with some more banked sleep.

The Bike

As usual, I’m riding my 3T Strada, but with a slightly different setup this time around.

First of all, to avoid having to ration water like last year, I added a Fidlock mount to my Tailfin, and a 800ml water bottle. While it does look fragile, I ran with this setup sucessfully already for the Race across Belgium.

I also replaced the stock aerobars that came with the handlebars with the super fancy (and expensive!) Aerocoach Ascalon. Besides looking like incredibly serious aerodynamic weaponry, the arm rests offer a lot more support than my previous aerobars, which means I can be more confident in cross winds, as everything feels much more comfortable and stable.

Bag-wise, I replaced the Apidura top tube bag with the recently released one from Tailfin. It is all around a better piece of equipment in my opinion, with a better closure system that has yet to fail me, and the V-mount straps make the bag much more stable and close to impossible to move by mistake.

While the leg power hopefully also had a small upgrade compared to last year, I still decided to go for a slightly easier gear ratio, just in case. I kept the 10-44T cassette, but replaced the 44T chainring with a 42T one by Garbaruk. You will also notice it’s the aero version, to squeeze the last bit of aero performance while climbing 20% gradients at less than 10km/h.

My trusty 3T Strada, now even more aero

And last but most certainly not least, the wheels. I swapped the already deep 54mm ones for the Hunt 8387 Aerodynamicist wheelset, at 83mm deep in front and 87mm in the rear. It looks absolutely ridiculous for such a hilly race, but I think it looks cool and I wanted to test them out before entering other races. I also finally switched to tubeless, with the Continental GP5000 S TR 28mm.

Citadelle de Namur to Le Coffee Ride: The Death Sentence

Just like last year, we had an 8 PM start, and a neutralized section for the first few kilometers into the race. Different from last year, though, this time we had motorcycles to clear up traffic all the way until the Mur de Huy, which felt very pro.

Let's ride bikes!

Picture by @2shadowland_be

I tried to stay close to the front from the start, for no other reason than to appear in the pictures. If last year was anything to go by, I’d probably be in the dust of the more enthusiastic riders by the end of the first climb anyway, when the neutralized section ends and the metaphorical gloves are off.

Much to my surprise, when the race really started I saw myself flying past the few riders in front of me, and nobody zipping by like last time. It felt like I had probably made a mistake somewhere, but this very early lead actually stuck for much longer than it should have. Mind you, it was never the plan to be in front at the very start, and I did indeed got caught by several people not too long afterwards, but it felt amazing to just put my head down and power through for a while, not having to worry about traffic because of the motorcycles.

Establishing a very early, very short lived lead on the first climb

Not long after I started being overtaken by other riders, during a fast and bumpy descent, I managed to lose the water bottle attached to my Tailfin. Luckily it wasn’t deeper into the race so I could ration water accordingly. That goes to show that the real test of the equipment can only happen during the race itself, but here’s a lesson learned on more secure attachments.

I really wanted to get to the Mur de Huy before sundown, just to make sure that I was in fact keeping a good pace compared to last year. Not only did I manage it, but I also beat my best time up the climb, showing that all the training was paying off, at least so far. That was going to be the case for every single major climb in this first segment, PRs for all of them.

Mur de Huy, much earlier than last year!

The rest of the night went without much excitement. A few riders were staying on my wheel a bit longer than the spirit of the race would call for, and while I dropped some, others were riding too strong for me to overstretch myself, so I backed down and let them go and do the work themselves.

At sunrise, after riding all night non-stop, I was surprised when I checked the leaderboard and saw myself in third place. I guess some riders must have gone off-track for supplies or rest, since I don’t remember passing many people. 4th place was pretty close behind me, though, and a quick stop at the top of Ferme Libert to take a spare water bottle from my Tailfin was enough for him to pass me. Fortunately, chasing him on the descent is where the deep wheels really shined, and I didn’t have to work really hard to overtake him, and keep 3rd place all the way to the checkpoint at Le Coffee Ride.

Le Coffee Ride to Panache: The Lucifer Section

I was greeted by Olivier, the organizer, asking if I was happy with how much faster I was compared to last year (hell yes!), and by Jeroen, the owner of Le Coffee Ride, saying that he remembered me from last year. There must be something either my face or my bike that makes us memorable 😅

The plan was to keep the stop as fast as possible, given that the first few riders behind me were quite close. So close that Le Coffee Ride basically filled up in the time it took me to go to the toilet. I had a quick bite, two bottles of cola, and managed to buy a water bottle to replace the one I lost. I chatted a bit with the other riders, commenting on how tough the coming climbs are going to be, and soon I was off, still in 3rd.

Leaving CP1 still in 3rd place, ready to take on a gruesome sequence of climbs

From the start, the climbing was gruesome. Without as much as a warm up, we tackled the Thier de Coo topping out at 16% gradient, where I was passed and the only comment the rider had was “Steep!”, while both of us slowly ground our way through. A few kilometers later, the Stockeu has a max gradient of 19%, where I almost fell sideways last year, but this time I had an easier going, and somehow almost 5 minutes faster. I was feeling good and in absolutely no way prepared for the turn things were about to take.

Eddie Merckx's monument at the top of the Stockeu

The next climb was Côte des Hézalles, and until writing this I didn’t realize nor remember how much steeper it was compared to the previous two. The first section until the first turn is already pretty steep at 16%, and it made me stop at the corner to catch my breath already. The rest has a twenty-four percent maximum. That took all the energy I had left, and what remained was suffering.

From there on, I was dragging myself. I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t sleepy, I was eating and drinking, but the legs just stopped putting out the power. It took a bit, but I was eventually caught by the rider behind me, and we chatted for a bit before he continued on. I jokingly asked if he had seen the 30 watts or so that I had lost, because I really needed them back.

There was a small part of the route that went through Germany, but I remember nothing other than seeing signs in German, and a very exposed descent, the only place where the deep wheels felt sketchy in the wind. From there I slowly made my way to Luxemburg, where the quality of the roads was significantly better, and somehow not a soul driving on them for the whole parcours. The landscapes were beautiful, with a rolling terrain that would definitely be very pleasant to ride in had I not been so destroyed. I wish to go back one day and experience it again, without as much of the suffering.

I kept on dragging myself through the country, and somewhere close to the border back to Belgium I decided to find a place to lie down and rest for a bit, since the strength just wasn’t coming back. I laid down contemplating the path that had led me here, and decided to ride until CP2, then make decisions on what to do next. It just was not going to be fun to continue for another 500km at this pace, but I was really hoping that some sleep would set me straight again.

Fight me, but the bus stations in Belgium are much more comfortable than roadside benches in Luxemburg

Not being able to push more than 130 watts at this point, I focused on just staying on the bike and slowly making my way to CP2. There were two opportunities to stop there, as after you reach it for the first time, there’s a loop that goes up the Col de Haussire and routes back to the checkpoint. I decided to stop to eat and take a nap for an hour or two, before tackling the Col de Haussire, and then make a decision on whether to continue when I got back to the checkpoint.

What a difference that nap made! Haussire, alledgedly the hardest climb in Belgium, ended up being some very enjoyable riding. Most of the power came back to me, so I was back in the race! I did lose quite some time on the last few kilometers before the checkpoint, as there were celebrations for Belgium’s National Day, and the road was super busy, but the mood had gotten much better.

The checkpoint was quite busy with other riders sleeping, so by the time I left again shortly before midnight, I was somehow back in 5th place, feeling great, and ready to ride all night to make up for the lost time.

Panache to Wancennes: The Elmpt’s Deep

Unfortunately the plans met the reality of a body that was still really tired. While the legs were still feeling good, I started to get extremely sleepy during the night, despite having slept earlier. I ended up taking several short naps whenever I found a well sheltered bus stop. I heard a bike going downhill during one of those naps, but fortunately that was the only other person riding through the night, all the rest seemed to have hunkered down for an extended rest, as far as I could see from the tracker.

Morning came, and the tracker said I was in 4th place. While I was in fact passed as I napped, two other riders that were in front of me ended up scratching. The night had been a blur, but I was feeling better with the daylight, and at around 5 AM I finally found my rhythm and I went back to a good pace. 2nd and 3rd place appeared to be riding close to each other not too far ahead, so I had hopes that I’d be able to bridge the gap at least somewhat.

Quick stop to fix a dangling cable in Bohan, just before entering France

And then once more my expectations didn’t match reality. I expected the parcours between CP2 and CP3 to be gentle rolling hills, like the previous year, so I thought I’d be able to bring the average speed a bit higher without much suffering. But then I got to France. The climbs were very different, all of a sudden. While Belgium was all about short and steep, and Luxemburg was just small rolling hills, the French climbs were long. Sure, you might think that an 8km long climb is nothing in the grand scheme of things, but coming from the Netherlands that’s long. And they were back to back to back. All of my optimism was crushed to bits, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Belgium again, and get to CP3.

The gap between me and the riders in front kept on widening and, more worryingly, the gap between me and 5th place was getting narrower. I didn’t have much left in the tank, and just wanted to get to the checkpoint and have some food and sleep, so I kept to the strategy of just staying on the bike, as slow and painful as that might be.

I arrived at Wancennes shortly before 8 PM, safely in 5th place for now. I took my time to get changed, eat as much as I could stomach from whatever I had in my Tailin, and lay down to have a few more hours of sleep before tackling the last parcours.

Wancennes to Citadelle de Namur: The Mosan Cauldron

I was woken up by another rider arriving at the checkpoint (not his fault, I’m an extremely light sleeper). I had another 15 minutes or so until my alarm actually rang, which would hardly qualify as quality sleep, and having somebody just pass me would definitely not let me fall asleep at all, so I decided to get up and ride on.

We exchanged a few words and wished each other good luck while I got dressed for the cold and packed all my gear. His stop was pretty quick, and he left a few minutes before me. I started on a pretty good pace, not just because the chase was now on, but also because the night appeared to be getting much colder than I had prepared for. I hadn’t expected temperatures to be lower than 10 degrees, but less than an hour into the ride it had already dropped to less than 8. The really long descents in complete darkness definitely did not help things, but stopping sounded like an even worse proposition, so I decided to stick to the plan and carry on all night.

Once in Fumay, I saw the rider that had passed me stopped on a side road. I had assumed he had stopped to search for water, which was a bit puzzling since we had just left CP3. But now I was in 4th place again, so I did my best to keep my pace to not get caught again.

After Fumay the route goes back into France, riding through the woods, mostly on bike paths on a gentle downhill. The monotony was only broken by a loud grunt coming from the side of the road, headed straight towards my rear wheel. With the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of what’s about to hit me, and it looked to me like a badger, a really angry badger, definitely large enough to knock me down. I only had time to scream in panic, and fortunately that was enough to startle the badger enough for it to miss me, and I got to keep the rubber side down.

For the rest of the night, I remained cold, but now I was yelling at any suggestion of movement in the bushes for it to stay away from me. I arrived in Dinant at sunrise, pretty beaten at this point, with the hardest climb of the race basically staring down at me, so I sat down on a bench to question my life decisions and try to gather some strength.

And then the walking started. I approached the Montagne de la Croix more wisely this time, taking it easy in the beginning and saving my legs for when things get really steep, instead of attacking it from the word go like last year. I was doing okay until the gradient went past 20%, where the legs simply gave out completely. Looking at the data after the race, I wasn’t even putting out a lot of power, averaging just above 200W with a heart rate well within Zone 2, but it felt like I was doing an all out sprint at the time. I guess extreme fatigue does funny things to the body and the mind.

Having lost some time, the focus was on keeping up the speed. What I did not count on was some really bad pavement on the top of a hill just after Dinant. I was going pretty fast and was not able to react properly to a series of potholes, and hit at least two of them at full speed. The impact was so hard that my handlebars just tilted forwards a fair bit. I am very glad I was again able to react fast and pull on the brakes, even though the levers were now in an unfamiliar position, and managed to stop without a crash. Not a broken spoke, bent wheel, or puncture either, which can only attest to the great quality of modern gear.

The result of running into potholes at full speed, and somehow not hitting the deck

I survived another incident, now I just had to fix my bike. I had the allen keys, but no torque wrench, so that was already a bit nerve racking, but no big deal. Things did turn into a little bit of a bigger deal when I managed to lose the allen key bit from my multitool in the grass where I had stopped. After franticly searching for a tiny piece of metal, brief thoughts of having to scratch because of an eminently fixable mechanical due to my own stupidity, and some checking on the race tracker to see how far behind the next rider was, I decided that the most rational course of action was to keep searching until the next rider came along and I could beg for help. I calmed down enough, got down on my hands and knees, and so very fortunately was able to locate the bit. I grimaced with every turn of the allen key, hoping that the handlebars won’t break, but I got the issue sorted, back on the bike, and the race was back on!

More really tough climbing awaited, with several climbs really close to one another, but if the Monster hadn’t gotten me yet, now wasn’t the time to give up. It was time for some more walking, unfortunately. La Gayolle, which I actually managed to ride last year, also broke me, and much later Le Stampiat was also too much. The easier gear ratio actually made things worse: my easiest gear made me spin out too fast, and the next gear down was too hard, whereas with the ratio I had last year things would’ve been perfect this time around. Always something to learn! On the bright side, I made relatively short work of the Côte des Sept Meuses, and gave all that I had left to make it to the top of the Triple Mur de Monty.

And the Côte des Sept Meuses is done!

Going up the Triple Mur de Monty, and after almost 1.000km with only a little bit of power left, it has never hurt so bad

Picture by @2shadowland_be

From then on until the finish everything was a long slog. I was completely done both physically and mentally. The only priority was to keep on moving no matter what, as I had only a very small advantage over 5th place. Every small climb was a torture, especially the ones over bad pavement.

"He's late! Is he ever going to arrive?"

I finally arrive at the bottom of the Citadelle, successfully keeping my distance over 5th place even after having basically crawled for the past two hours, as they must have been as destroyed as I was. I arrive at the finish line to meet my wife and my dog waiting for me, together with the race organization. Although so many goals weren’t met, at least I finished again, and faster than last year 😃

65 hours and 4 minutes. 4th place

Final Thoughts

This edition was somehow harder than the last. The sections in Luxembourg and France were much more brutal than I was expecting, and that surprise probably had something to do with how hard it felt in the end. It is also nice to see the organization and the event evolving, it’s a very welcoming atmosphere, and it has been as much fun as last year.

As for my performance, I don’t think I could’ve done any better with the experience I had. The fitness was definitely there, I just wasn’t able to get it all out after having hit a wall in Hézalles. It’s also unfortunate that I still don’t know what caused it and how to avoid it in the future.

Would I put myself through this again? Well, if you had asked me at the finish line, definitely not. But apparently we forget the lows and only remember the highs, so if it fits the calendar for 2024, who knows? 😉