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Kiel Reijnen Journal: What was it like to race Liege?

At Liège-Bastogne-Liège, American Kiel Reijnen faced cold weather, rain, snow, and hail. And then his bike broke. He persevered to finish.

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Everyone talks about the 1980 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Heavy snow created near white-out conditions, only 21 finishers, and Bernard Hinault won the spectacle solo, never to regain feeling in two of his fingers. Epic, right? But this of course is a double-edged sword. Racing in conditions like this past Sunday or that of the 1980 edition is miserable, dangerous, and unpredictable. But days like that are truly memorable — for better or for worse.

On the drive to the start line this year, our bus was a mess. Clothing was strewn everywhere. If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought we were a gaggle of high school girls headed out on a first date. I must have tried on four different “outfits” before eventually settling on the best option: everything. As one of my teammates said, “When was the last time you thought to yourself, ‘Man my ankles are burning up, I just can’t push any harder’?”

Huddled together on the start line, like Navy Seals during hell week, the peloton was unrecognizable. We stood shivering, dressed head to toe in layer after layer of spandex and Gore-Tex. Balaclavas, wool hats and scuba gloves were standard. The medieval town of Liège providing a fitting backdrop as the dark grey clouds swirled overhead. Just before the start gun sounded, the rain began to fall, just spitting at first. It was enough to scare some riders to rush back to their team cars to don a second rain jacket.

The first few kilometers of a bike race are never comfortable as the break tries to establish itself. But I could feel myself panicking as the pace ratcheted up on the day’s first climb, attackers diving off the front of the field like kamikaze pilots. It wasn’t just the 450+ watts that had me hyperventilating. I felt like Chris Farley in “Tommy Boy,” singing “fat guy in a little coat.” My chest was so constricted from all the layers I was wearing that I couldn’t fill my lungs.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one. The field was all too happy to let the move ride away with much less resistance than is typical for a monument. My relief was short-lived however as the rain turned to snow. Even my ridiculous layers of clothing weren’t going to cut it. As the peloton slowed, I headed back to the car for a second pair of gloves and yet another rain jacket. My race numbers were now buried five layers deep, and as we rolled our way toward Bastogne in worsening weather, there was little chance they would see the light of day again.

An hour later, our luck began to change — the clouds broke and the roads dried. Although it was too late to get any feeling back into my feet for the remainder of the six and a half-hour race, I did begin to warm up, just in time for the sleet, hail, and eventually snow, to start on the next climb. The only benefit to cold weather is that the peloton becomes lethargic, and attacks are less frequent and half-hearted. The battle for position becomes less crucial in the early climbs. But Liège is a monument, and weather is not enough to stop riders from turning themselves inside-out for a chance to win, just enough to delay it an extra hour.

As we neared the approach to La Redoute, around 35km to go, the pace lifted and thoughts about the weather were pushed to the backs of our minds. Elbows came out and no one was holding anything back anymore. The narrow, ultra-steep slopes of La Redoute strung the peloton out. Arriving in the last third of the group means you are unlikely to ever see the front of the race again. I battled like a mad man as we crossed the bridge and started a series of sharp turns through town. As we hit the base of the climb I found myself in prime position. I would love to tell you that this is the moment when I dragged my team leader to the top of the climb to deliver him fresh for the finish, or even had a dig of my own, sparking a near race-winning move.

But I didn’t. Instead, I sheared off my rear derailleur. Don’t take this to be an excuse; mechanicals happen in cycling, it’s part of the deal. I will never know if I had the legs to mix it up in the finale, and I certainly won’t make the assumption that I did. With the field going full-gas, there was no chance of getting my spare bike in time to rejoin the action. So all I could do was pull over, take a casual sip from my water bottle, and spectate as the tail end of the bunch disintegrated on the steep slopes.

Once on my spare bike, I made a split-second decision. I had battled through the cold wintery conditions for nearly six hours — I wasn’t going to stop now. So I soldiered on alone in the snow, too tired and cold to question my sanity. As anticlimactic and disappointing as those final 30km were, I couldn’t help but find myself smiling a little as I crossed the finish line [151st out of 154 finishers -Ed.]. I was nowhere near the front, I didn’t play a decisive role in the race, or even put a dent in my competitor’s legs.

But I did compete in the 2016 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and it was EPIC. I am not going to debate the merits of weather protocols and race sustainability. I’ll save that for a different time. Instead I will just say this: I won’t forget that race for a long time, and it will be a hell of a story for my grandkids one day.