The Hidden Climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Saturday, 26 April 2014


The hilliest of the one day classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is comparable to an Alpine stage of the Tour or Giro in terms of vertical gain, although it needs 260km to achieve this. Glance at the race profile for Sunday and you’ll see the 10 climbs on the route. These are the côtes répertoriées, or “catalogued climbs”.

Only the race has many climbs that aren’t catalogued. Here’s one that is crucial as it is climbed with less than 20km to go.

Côte de la Roche aux Faucons
Since it was included in 2008 the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (“Falcon Rock Ridge”) has become a strategic point in the race. With just 20km to go it is a make or break climb and in time past it’s been the place where Andy Schleck often put in a big attack. It’s tough, being 1.5km and over 9%. You start in Méry, climbing from Ourthe valley and go up to the the village of Hony where there’s a line to mark the top of the climb and the King of the Mountains cash prize (€500 per climb). But if you think you’re done with the Falcons, forget it.

Then follows a brief descent of 500 metres and then the road rears up again passing the limestone cliffs where the falcons nest, climbing up and up. In total it makes for a climb to the village of Gonhis, the top of the ridge, that is that is 1.6km long with a gradient of 5.5%. Only this climb isn’t mentioned.

Clearly you can’t “hide” a road, it’s not like Belgium is an unknown wilderness and the tarmac was laid wild. Instead the organisers want to list only the most identifiable steep ramps and consequently there’s a lot more to the race than the 10 designated climbs.

Labels ≠ Geography
The label of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons does not mark the top of the climb, it is merely a staging post on the road that climbs up and away from the river valley. As such the identifiable climb is tough but anyone getting over the top needs plenty in the tank to turn a big gear on the climb to Gonhis which is just as long, although not as steep.

This is just one example from tomorrow’s route but it’s typical of the race. The steep ramps may serve as a launch pad for the most energetic riders and the specialist climbers but it is often on the exposed roads afterwards where the weakness of a tired rider is cruelly exposed.

You can see the 2011 race in the Youtube clip below just as they start the climb. Andy Schleck goes clear with his brother and Philippe Gilbert on the first ramps of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons. But later (7m30s) watch as the road is rising to Gonhis and Enrico Gasparotto and Jérôme Pineau are dropped as Gilbert gives it some torque.

  • Note this blog’s a retread from 2012 but as ever there are more and more readers so most of you will have missed it then. Plus the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons is back on the route for 2014 meaning this climb is more relevant than ever.
Anonymous April 26, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Thanks for the insight. The trouble with watching a race like this on tv is that the camera tends to flatten out the roads a little so its hard to appreciate the “gentler” climbs and the false flats. Those same flats are like treacle for tired legs.

LM April 26, 2014 at 2:44 pm

If you watch the clip to the end, one of the next video options is Jens talking about strategy prior to the 2011 race. He’s being more serious than the standard YouTube Voigt fare. Worth a watch.

Duncan April 26, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Love it. I can sit with friends tomorrow and say “but of course the climb goes up and up, that’s not really the summit” as if I’ve ridden there

The Inner Ring April 27, 2014 at 12:08 am

If any thing you we can say “watch out for the attacks” as the riders crest this hill and then start the long, unmarked, section up.

lee kaliski April 27, 2014 at 9:41 am

Rode it yesterday in the Sportive and thought it was the hardest of the lot….Redoute and others might have some shorter steeper ramps or corners but this was really hard! …. go in to hard at the bottom (as I did! :-) ) and you´re hanging on for grim death by about 2/3rds the way up! Glad we had the weather we did yesterday and not what looks like rain today….don’t fancy some of the fast descents in the wet! :-o

copaking April 28, 2014 at 11:58 am

I was brutalised by this particular climb as well on Saturday. Toughest day in a saddle that I’ve had. The categorised climbs were notably tough, but as the article states, it is the countless number of other, unmarked ramps that made the day so tough and rewarding.

The Inner Ring April 28, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Glad to hear the climbs are still there. All races are reductive and it’s a good example of how we focus on what the race programme tells us as opposed to the actual geography.

Chrisman April 26, 2014 at 9:23 pm

I laughed out loud when I read ‘Andy Schleck putting in a big attack’. Just think of all the mishaps that could befall him if he tried something like that now. His handlebars would come off in his hands and he’d ride into a wall.

These hidden climbs should be referred to as ‘Ghost-Climbs’. Just think of the film Ghost-Dad and replace Bill Cosby with a hill.

The Inner Ring April 27, 2014 at 12:09 am

How times change, it wasn’t long ago that the Roche aux Faucons was “his” climb. Now we’ll see if it makes it to the foot of the climb.

SlapshotJC April 26, 2014 at 10:20 pm

Very clever insight into how the specific topography of a climb can have that much of an impact. I remember watching that race with one thought and that was how can two such talented riders as the Schleck boys be so tactically inept!!

hope tomorrow is a belter

Bundle April 27, 2014 at 4:18 am

Very interesting.

Dav1972 April 27, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Thought some of you guys would be interested in seeing this clip, OPQS recon of La Redoute (Carlos Verona puts in a nice turn of speed! 1:05)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOZC-rmEpJ0&feature=youtu.be

Carn Soaks April 28, 2014 at 5:53 am

Such a poignant piece!. Gerro’s comments read like an excerpt.
“Just after the Forges, I was starting to suffer a little bit,” admitted Gerrans. “There was a really difficult section with La Redoute and the Forges quite close together. I actually said to my teammates over the radio that I wasn’t feeling too good at the moment, but they stuck by me, and they gave me good confidence coming into the finale. They placed me perfectly for La Rouche-aux-Facouns and Saint-Nicolas to give me every opportunity.”

After that third rise, (the one hidden from the parcours) what would one expect from anything but the most accomplished climber OR strongest rouler. Everyone looked knackered!

sir_velo April 28, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Just coming back to this after the weekend. I hear they’re moving the finish next year? Shame as that looks like one of those hidden climbs – seems to go on forever and gives the real climbers one last go.

I wonder how the change will affect the race?

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