The oldest one day race of the year. Liège-Bastogne-Liège might be in Belgium but it has over 4,000 vertical metres of climbing, comparable to an Alpine stage of the Tour de France. Steep climbs and twisting descents make this a supreme physical contest where there’s rarely a surprise win.
The format sounds simple: start in Liège, ride down to Bastogne and then back to Liège. But that would be too easy. It is only 98km to Liège and instead the return leg is longer and includes a succession of steep climbs.
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.
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.
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.
“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. The final three climbs before the finish, as depicted below, often chose the winner.
In addition to these recognised climbs there are also the hidden climbs.
This isn’t actually in Liège but down the road in Ans. Or actually up the road given 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 points. The first rider over gets four points and €250, two points for the second rider and one point for the third rider. These are added up and the winner gets an award and a cash prize of €2,000. Last year’s winner was Thomas de Gendt who scooped points in an early breakaway that lasted long enough to collect points.
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. Rabobank, Sky and Radioshack are big squads but haven’t had the classics season they wanted for example.
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.
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. These steep climbs are very selective and either a rider has it or they don’t, luck is less of an issue.
Joaquim Rodriguez is my pick given he was a level above the best in the Flèche Wallonne: when he attacked nobody followed. He has been on the podium before too.
But he won’t have it easy, the race is more subtle than the Flèche. This is Philippe Gilbert’s home race. Last year he enjoyed the perfect day with giant crowds appearing to roar him on as he was carried to the finish by the Schleck brothers almost as if in a Sedan chair. Now his black period could be ending and even at 90% he is able to match the others. He will just have to race more intelligently than last year. The Schleck brothers are looking stronger and this is traditionally where they look strong; this time Frank seems the better bet.
Jelle Vanendert is another pick but is he a winner, or just one of those guys you see in photos always next to another more celebrated rider? Damiano Cunego is another. He’s perpetually disappointed for years, an early season win raises hopes but has rarely been followed through. This time though he seems in better shape and can finish fast too although he might be too tired from the Giro dell Trentino. Fellow Italian Enrico Gasparotto must be feeling confident but might find there’s just a touch too much climbing. I’ve been tipping Spaniards Samuel Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde and this is the last chance in the classics, they’ve not quite had the power on the climbs, Sanchez comes with Igor Anton too.
Finally there are more candidates. If Roman Kreuziger rides he’s one to watch as he’s impressed me in the Giro dell Trentino, although fell apart on the last stage. Thomas Voeckler is in form and looks incredibly lean and whisper it, he’s been targeting this race. Hopefully we can see more of Sky with Rigoberto Uran and Lars Peter Nordhaug. Maybe Dan Martin can surprise too?
Cool and overcast with the chance of rain the afternoon. A top temperature of 14C (57F) and winds from the southwest at 25km/h. This means a decent breeze to blow the riders back from Bastogne which will then turn to a crosswind to blow the race apart in the final 40km.
For those in the US there will be highlights on NBC Sports.
The race was first run in 1892 for the predictable purpose of boosting newspaper sales, a marketing ploy behind so many other bike races today. 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.
The diversity 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.
Last year’s race was held in warm 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 but in reality he “only” endured numbness for weeks after the race.