From time to time, we at RCUK get the opportunity to test a bike overseas – on truly demanding cycling territory. And there are few better, or tougher, places than Belgium’s Ardennes Forest, home of the final Spring Classic, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The sub-kilo frame (995g), manufactured in Asia using 30- and 24-ton high modulus carbon fibre, features an oversized, round downtube for increased stiffness and ‘flex’ seat stays for improved rider comfort.
Our Excalibur, in sharp black and white Vacansoleil team colours, was built-up primarily with SRAM Rival front and rear mechs, Force GXP crankset and Ridley own-brand 4ZA brakes.
The Ardennes is no walk in the park. In fact, the region makes for damn tough riding – undulating roads winding through steep-sided valleys, puncutated by gear-grinding climbs. The route for the test ride was set to include four of Liège-Bastogne-Liège’s 11 ascents – Cote de Wanne, Cote de Stockeu, Cote de la Haut-Levee and Col de Rosier.
The Stockeu, in particular, is an unforgiving climb. Having scaled the Cote de Wanne, there are only a few kilometres to recover – a feature that makes Liege-Bastogne-Liege a gruelling end-of-season Classic. The end of the descent is marked by a 90 degree right turn on to the Stockeu’s ‘Wall’, where the gradient is immediately relentless. It’s only a short climb – 1.1km, with a teasing sign at the bottom, telling you as much – but one that immediately pushes you into the red.
The summit is marked by a statue celebrating Eddy Merckx’s 525 victories as a professional, including five Liege-Bastogne-Liege triumphs, and perfect opportunity for a photoshoot, Ridley’s proudly Belgian bike – the Vacansoleil paint job features the country’s flag on the top tube, alongside the words: We are Belgium – next to the nation’s hero.
The Excalibur excels on all of the day’s climbs, its super-stiff and light frame providing a superb base to accelerate on the Col de Rosier’s relaxed gradient or just a means to turn the pedals on the Stockeu.
And descending was a treat, too. The Ardennes’ steep-sided valleys make for tricky, technical descents, but the Excalibur’s stable front-end and responsive handling inspired confidence whether through narrow switchbacks or fast, sweeping bends. It’s a bike which encourages you to push yourself and, as is often the case, it will be rider that falters before machine.