The oldest one day race of the year. Liège-Bastogne-Liège might be in Belgium but it has over 4,700 vertical metres of climbing, comparable to an Alpine stage of the Tour de France. But unlike the stage race, Sunday’s event has steep climbs and twisting descents that test tactics and nerves too. It’s a supreme physical contest where there’s rarely a surprise win.
Here’s a preview with the route, including details of the new Colonster climb, the riders (including the final start list), TV schedules, weather, what’s sweet and sour in Liège and a quick take on the race history, including the myth of Bernard Hinault’s frozen fingers.
The format sounds simple: start in Liège, ride down to Bastogne and then back to Liège. But that would be too easy as the towns are only 98km apart. Instead the return leg is longer and includes a succession of steep climbs over the 261.5km.
The early part of the race is not flat but lacks the climbing of final return from Bastogne. An early breakaway will go and riders head to Bastogne where the feedzone is located. There’s even a roundabout permanently decorated in honour of the race that the race will use to turn back towards the north.
- Km 70.0 – Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne – 2.8km at 6.2%
- Km 116.5 – Côte de Saint-Roch – 1.0km at 11%
- Km 160.0 – Côte de Wanne – 2.7km at 7.3%
- Km 166.5 – Côte de Stockeu (Stèle Eddy Merckx) – 1.0km at 12.2%
- Km 172.5 – Côte de la Haute-Levée – 3.6km at 5.7%
- Km 185.0 – Col du Rosier – 4.4km at 5.9%
- Km 197.5 – Côte du Maquisard – 2.5km at 5%
- Km 208.0 – Mont-Theux – 2.7km at 5.9%
- Km 223.0 – Côte de La Redoute – 2.0km at 8.8%
- Km 244.5 – Côte de Colonster – 2.4km at 6%
- Km 256.0 – Côte de Saint-Nicolas – 1.2km at 8.6%
Things get serious after 160km with the Côte de Wanne, which is 2.7km long with a gradient of 7.3% and acts as a warm-up for the Côte de Stockeu, only 1km long but over 12% in gradient. From here onwards there’s a climb roughly every 10km all the way to the finish. The Côte de La Redoute is the famous one, it climbs steeply before levelling out and then kicking up again and this year it’s been painted with “Phil” over and over again.
As the diagrams show riders can’t count on the average gradient. These are not Alpine climbs engineered to reach a pass but instead follow steep river valleys and ridges and the gradient is forever changing. It’s hard work on the legs and gear choice is crucial to getting the balance right between momentum, power and the body’s limits. Get a problem and there’s little chance to pick your way past riders, positioning is everything.
“a lot of riders mistakenly think you should attack on the hardest part, but in reality you hurt people on the slightly flatter section that comes after this”
That’s former winner Moreno Argentin talking about La Redoute, one of the most important climbs whose name means “the redoubtable”. The climbs are exposed, simply getting to the top is hard work but having the energy to accelerate the moment the road levels out is often what determines the winner. In addition to these recognised climbs there are also the hidden climbs, stretches of road that rise notably but are not counted by the race.
Route Changes: Côte de Colonster
There’s been a late route change. The hard, narrow and irregular Côte de la Roche aux Faucons has been dropped because of roadworks and other problems, forcing the race to make a reluctant detour via the Côte de Colonster instead.
The real name is the Boulevard du Rectorat and it passes part of the Liège university campus. As the image shows this is a wide open road that designed to allow allow traffic to speed along. 2.4km and regular at 6% it’s much easier than the Roche aux Faucons. Although by now the fatigue has accumulated and it could still be problematic.
Deceptively the finish isn’t Liège but 5km away in Ans. There is a climb to the finish line. This is very different to the previous climbs of the day being regular in gradient and wide, a suburban road rather than a rural lane. Riders climb together, often watching each other before the road flattens and turns left with 250 metres to go and the sprint for the line begins.
King of the Mountains competition
All the climbs have cash. The first rider gets €500.http://inrng.com/?p=14371
It’s all about endurance and stamina. Anyone in the early breakaway is likely to fade in the late part of the race. I suspect a few teams will want to send riders up the road, if anything to remind us they exist. Even if the arithmetic means each team can’t win several squads have disappointed this year and will want to try something.
Teamwork is needed to drop the leader into the right place for the climbs. Here a train of riders can be deployed but the longer the race goes on the more helpful having a “lieutenant” becomes, a rider able to stay with their team leader whilst other contenders flounder on the steep ramps. This opens up the chance of the “one-two” with team mates taking turn to attack; or having a team mate able to chase down rival moves. The narrow roads, twisting course and brevity of the climbs make it hard for the likes of Team Sky to control the pace.
Normally the final selection comes with attacks on the climbs where the ability to accelerate has to be matched by the determination to drive the pace once the gradient eases. The final sprint is often a formality, there is often little tactical sophistication, it is just a test of who still has some power left.
Races like the Amstel Gold and the Flèche Wallonne have given us many clues but the added distance and the long climbing mean this race is subtly different. 25 teams and 199 riders will start and you can download the full startlist as a PDF.
For me there are three prime picks. Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) is getting stronger and grew up on these roads. The exclusion of the Roche aux Faucons suits him as he’s got a punchy sprint more than climbing legs right now. Next is Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) who has been discreet in the Ardennes so far but present each time and now the long course suits him. He can also finish fast when needed and has won the race twice before. Next comes Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) who was second last year and in great shape from winning the Giro del Trentino, the win will be his problem as fatigue from Trentino could take the zip out his legs.
Next come a second tier of contenders. Chris Froome (Team Sky) is racing but nobody knows how he is going. Also the race requires experience and if he’s ridden the race three times his best place is 45th and if not him, then look to Sergio Henao. Another double act comes with Katusha with Joaquim Rodriguez and Dani Moreno with the latter clearly the strongest on the Mur de Huy, in fact he looked at ease. Simon Gerrans (Orica-Greenedge) was strong in the Amstel and one of the few daring to follow Gilbert whilst Roman Kreuziger is an obvious name to survey, more so as Saxo-Tinkoff team mate Alberto Contador seems to be tired.
Below the race opens up to many more names. How will Carlos Betancur far with the distance? Pierre Rolland has been targeting this race but based on his riding in Trentino he’ll miss. Garmin have Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal, Euskaltel with Anton and Sanchez. Astana’s Gasparotto is returning to form. Pierrick Fédrigo could be there. Rui Costa of Movistar could be there. Spring classics revelation Michał Kwiatkowski is riding, he can climb and a win might just make people spell is name properly with the “ł” on Michał.
Cool and cloudy with the sun poking through the clouds. Temperatures will be around freezing for the start of the race. During the day the thermometer will rise to 12°C (55°F) and a very gentle breeze from the north. The cold means eating plenty will count.
Live coverage should start at 2.15pm Euro time with the finish expected between 4.45pm and 5.15pm. It’s on Belgian TV and Eurosport is also live.
You can eat well in Liège. It has given its name to Sirop de Liège, a black paste similar to molasses that’s made from boiled down apples. There’s also the Gauffre de Liège or Liège waffle with its sugar crystals which come from the sugarbeet farms nearby.
But there’s a sour side too. Liège is about to see the announcement of the closure of a large steel plant as efforts to find a buyer have stalled. Unemployment is around 25%, four times the national average.
The race was first run in 1892 for the predictable purpose of boosting newspaper sales, a marketing ploy copied many other bike races. It has since acquired the name of La Doyenne, the old lady because of its longevity.
Eddy Merckx – who else? – holds the record with five wins. Next is Italian Moreno Argentin and if Belgians hold the majority of wins the area is has an Italian influence after it sucked in many migrant workers in for the mines and steel mills of the nineteenth century. The industry has long since gone but the Italian influence in this area of Belgium lives on. Talking of diversity, the list of winners is interesting. We see classics specialist and grand tour champions on the list, it’s the kind of race where different riders can clash.
This year’s classic season has been dominated by cold weather. But in 1980 snow saw Bernard Hinault stay warm thanks to a giant solo breakaway, legend has it that he lost the use of several fingers for good. Some say this is a myth but the clip above shows him saying he’s never recovered the feeling in them again.