As the coach rolled into Liege I was astounded at just how hilly this town was and was reminded of all those people who had recently remarked to me that Belgium was flat. It may well be if you drive from Calais to Holland, but go south and it is anything but!
As you will, no doubt be aware, there are five one day races in cycling that are classed as the ‘Monuments’, and, in terms of one day racing, are equivalents in status to the three Grand Tours’ status in stage racing. But, certainly in the UK, some of the five seem to be more widely appreciated than others. Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) has its cobbled climbs, Paris-Roubaix (The Hell of The North) has iconic, rough, pavé to contend with and an iconic vélodrome finish, whilst Milan – San Remo is the exotic sprinters’ race and the longest of the five. But what of the other two?
The Giro di Lombardia (Tour of Lombardy) is at the end of the season and, consequently, appears to lack intrigue with regard to riders’ form, some riders will see the season as over and there isn’t that early season excitement that the spring classics have. Furthermore, as the route varies from year to year, it has fewer iconic fixed features.
But what about Liege-Bastogne-Liege? I knew it was long and had a lot of climbing. I knew that Bernard Hinault lost the feeling in his fingers riding through freezing temperatures on the way to victory in 1980 (apparently never fully recovering feeling!), and I had heard of La Redoute, one of its climbs.
I had booked a weekend with Sports Tours International, with whom I had done the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix previously. They are great value, and after riding the sportive version on the Saturday, they bus you around the pro race on the Sunday. We got to see the start, two climbs and the finish.
So, bike re-assembled Friday night, and an early start on Saturday morning. To my amazement this was not a timed event, other than on certain climbs and after looking for a timing mat to ride over for a few minutes finally set off.
The sportive route is actually longer than the pro-race but the extra bit is flat, thankfully! We were soon pedalling up a long hill that would be regarded as a monster in the Surrey Hills or Chilterns… ‘They don’t even count this as a climb’ observed the Australian chap on my left. Indeed, there was only one classified climb in the 105km to Bastogne, despite about 2,200m of climbing. But soon past Bastogne and at 123km came the ‘Money Shot’ climb of the day, the Cote de Saint-Roch at Houffalize. The road, effectively, does a 180 degree turn and one finds oneself staring up what appears to be a vertical ramp between some houses. ‘Oh, well, let’s hit it’ I decided and tonked up to the bend at the top only to discover that it was far from the top and I sank into a softer gear and slogged up the rest of the 1km climb with an average 11.2% gradient.
The next three climbs were all, relatively, unknowns because the route had been altered for 2017 due to some major works on the course. They were designed to replace the three missing ascents in severity, and from what I have subsequently read they probably did. The main missing climb was Stockeu, I have no idea how difficult it is, but they replaced it with a beast, Cote de la Ferme Liberté. Apparently 1.2km and an average gradient of 12.1%, but with a lull in the middle I was looking at over 20% on my Garmin for much of it. As I neared the top there were mountain bikers everywhere…’how did they get up here?’ I wondered. As I got to the top, the answer became apparent, there was a chair lift!
Of the classified climbs, eight of them are in the last 98 km, so it is back loaded. Officially the route has 5,200m of ascent, but recorded around 4,500. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent why this is such a great race.
I hit a stretch of road with motor homes either side, in anticipation of the pro race and it felt great. After a little further climbing I passed the stone with the immortal words ‘La Redoute’, signalling that I was about to engage one of cycling’s famous climbs. To be honest I thought Cote de la Ferne Liberté was harder, but don’t underestimate La Redoute and it comes near to the end of the race, so is crucial. Once over, I felt that I was homeward bound and when entering Liege and passing Standard de Liege’s football stadium I was prematurely beaming with delight at achieving my goal. But, and this is a big but, there were two more climbs actually in the city and although only Cote de Saint-Nicolas is classified, it was far from over.
It seems natural to write about the climbing, and summits conquered but what was really awesome about this ride was the wonderful fast descents. Any time lost climbing was more than made up on good descents, and they were really pleasurable: fast, long and on decent road surfaces. I’d recommend this ride based on the descents alone!
Watching the pro riders sign on the next morning, and the start of the race was atmospheric. Seeing some of the riders’ faces as they looked up Cote de Saint-Roche the next day reminded me of my shock at the same spot the day before. The beer tent and atmosphere at La Redoute was amazing and we watched at the final bend as Valverde beat Dan Martin. A magical weekend in a very pretty part of Belgium, one of the cycling capitals of the world: cycling heaven.
I arrived in Liege knowing little, I left feeling that, perhaps, this is now my favourite Monument. I think I now understand it: it is a climbers race; a long route; it is gruelling and attritional; it has great scenery; it has demanding tests at the back end; it is the oldest of the Monuments (hence its nickname ‘La Doyenne’); it is a race for connoisseurs; in short it is special in many ways. It may not have a Koppenberg or a Trouée d’Arenburg, but it is a race that demands a lot of its participants.