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The Hills of Liege-Bastogne-Liege

The hills are alive with the sound of Euro-trance as a knackered old Volkswagen skirts round me above the town of Stavelot. I’m left in a plume of black smoke as the decibels fade into the distance and a car full of teenagers stare back at me through the windshield. I feel sick.

However, my ailment is not a consequence of those various sensual displeasures. For that I blame the Stockeu Wall. I’ve just topped the offending climb and my internal organs are wincing.

‘I don’t see what’s so wonderful about that climb,’ I complain to myself, ‘it’s a bastard.’

Ascending from river level, the Stockeu Wall is an uncompromising street, soaring straight up the hillside for 1.5km with scant regard for gradient or the cyclists who care to climb it. In places, it hits twenty percent.

‘Horrible piece of tarmac,’ I scorn, this time (I’m afraid to say) addressing the road. ‘No wonder Liege-Bastogne-Liege left you.’

At an intersection I turn right onto a road with a shallower gradient. This is the climb on which the race comes up nowadays. It starts at the bottom of the Wall but works it’s way along as well as up the slope. It’s still quite steep -and also has the odd cobble on it too- but it’s not graced with the legend that the Wall has mustered itself.

It was on the Stockeu Wall’s steepest segments that five times Liege winner Eddy Merckx used to like to attack. ‘The Cannibal’ instigated his race victories so often from the climb that they’ve built a tribute to the living legend at the top.

The statue makes Merckx looks like a novice. His shoulders are hunched, his head is thrown back and his knees protrude from the monument as if he were riding a horse. It’s not exactly realism.

Over the top I take time to recover. I sit up, sip from my bottle and gasp long breaths of the fresh countryside air as I wait for things to return to normal. It takes a good few minutes as the road still nags slightly uphill. My heart rate slowly drops and my animosity towards the asphalt healthily fades away. I try and re-find some rhythm. Perhaps I’ll remember to approach the next climb, the Cote de Wanneranval, with less cavalier attitude than I’d displayed at the foot of the Stockeu.

This I do successfully, pedalling up the steep ramp with the same kind of caution you’d expect of Greg Lemond around rifles. It’s straight up the hillside again but each time I feel my effort pick up, I simmer it down and take a look around to enjoy the view. It’s green and lush with trees and grass and stuff: Maybe the kind of place to make a car commercial. Towards the top, the road smoothly curves to tackle the steepest section of the hillside before tapering off into an avenue of regimental trees.

On average gradient measurements this is the steepest climb of the race. Its 10.4% tops both the Cote de Stockeu (the Wall’s current day replacement at 9.6%) and the leg bending Cote de la Redoute (a mere 7%). But statistics are misleading and the Wanneranval is steady all the way up.

It’s starts to rain in the hilltop village of Wanne. It’s the pelting, freezing cold rain that I annually hope for each Liege-Bastogne-Liege Sunday. Such a hard event deserves these conditions, but I’m not so pleased to experience them myself two days before the event. I was looking forward to the fast, curvaceous 6km descent back into Trois Pont as a treat. Instead I drop slowly, trembling, with alternate hands tucked up my jersey, just trying to keep them warm. In little time, the rain turns to hail.

* * *

Adverse weather conditions are not unknown to Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It may sometimes be bathed in glorious spring sunshine but on other occasions ‘La Doyenne’ has suffered Arctic snow storms- just ask Bernard Hinault when you next see him. ‘The Badger’ won this race by nine minutes in 1980 after following in the tyre tracks of the leading vehicles. Just 20 other riders bothered finishing that day.

There’s been many other instances of unspringlike grimness over Liege-Bastogne-Liege’s exceptionally long history (it started in 1892). But rain or shine, the race is always a tough one. And that’s because of the hills.

The area to the south of Liege is spoilt for choice with its selection of medium-length, brutally steep climbs that give the race its character. So overwhelming in number are they, that old favourites like the Stockeu Wall, the savagely hair-pinned Cote des Hezalles and the cruelly wide and straight Haute Levee have been discarded over the last fifteen years for a greater intensity of hills towards the very end of the race. In total there are eight classified climbs that fall in the final 100km.

There are also two climbs before this threshold. The first comes at just 82km on the outward leg to Bastogne. Featuring so early in the 259km event, the Cote de St Roch sees very little serious action and serves a greater function of providing the many race photographers with the archetypal Liege shot: The peloton climbing through the houses.

The 3km Cote de Wanne is the second climb of the race, coming at 153km. It’s not particularly tough but it does mark the start of the onslaught. I was going to undertake it after I’d descended from the Wanneranval, but with the cold rain reducing me to a shivering wreck and the night drawing in, I convinced myself to take a different climb: The one into my car.

* * *

From Trois Pont at the foot of the descent, the race follows valley roads northwestwards towards Liege. Every now and then the race turns offs, tackles another climb and descends back to the valley further up the road. Although marked as the flat bits on the race profile, the valley roads have a fair few up and downs of their own, all contributing to the general wearing process of this lengthy Classic.

Both the Cote du Rosier and the Cote de la Vecquee take off to the right, curving up at reasonable gradients through densely wooded pines and still-bare deciduous trees. The summits of both of these climbs touch the edge of the Haute Fagnes region, a boggy and spooky plateau of the highest land in Belgium and very little else.

I had taken these two ascents earlier in the day after munching my way through a chicken curry baguette on a riverside wall in Sougne-Remouchamps. It had come curry paste aplenty and a little lacking in chicken but from a delightful little patisserie that smacked of that shop in ‘Chocolat’.

A wide descent took me off the plain ontop of the Vecquee, back down into Sougne-Remouchamps and past the shop once more. A set of trivial cobbles carried me along the riverside before a maze of back streets -only navigable with the help of race arrows- threw me onto the most famous climb of the event: La Redoute.

At first the incline is as unspectacular as can be. A shallow sloping lane weaves across fields and under a busy link road. But this is just the section where in recent years the firm favourites have ordered their teams to the front and blasted up the lower slopes at the thick end of 25mph.

By the time the race veers left and hits the narrowest and steepest sections of the climb –two sustained kicks of 19%, on tarmac no wider than a suburban sidewalk, densely flanked with fans(!) - what remains of the bunch is just about ready to explode. If you’re going to be up there in Liege, being at the front is essential.

Coming after 223km, only the pros at the very head of affairs look professional on this climb. The rest of the field weave their way up with their occupational dignity cast aside for the moment. In 39x23, this was the method that I used.

Painfully the road drags on over the summit past an old war memorial and along tiny tracks that do no justice to the grandeur of the climb’s reputation. On any normal day of the year La Redoute is just a pointless back route between Sougne-Remouchamps and the modest Cote de Sprimont.

* * *

I like to think that it is for my athletic looks that the old man has mistaken me for a professional cyclist as I assemble my bike in a riverside parking lot in Tilff. The pros had been out all morning revising the climbs like pre-exam cramming.

‘No I’m not a pro,’ I admit with a flattered grin, ‘I’m just riding the race route.’

Having disappointed him once already, I fail to mention -as I lift my bike’s front wheel from the trunk of the car- that (with reason) mine is a reconnaissance mission spread across two days, with all the narrative sense of ‘Pulp Fiction’ and aided by the not unsubstantial power of diesel.

I ask him who he thinks might win the next day’s race. He hold’s his finger to his nose, hesitates to think, and then tapping it as if telling a secret, discloses that he fancies an Italian.

It seems a pretty safe bet as Italians have come to dominate Liege-Bastogne-Liege lately. Moreno Argentan won the event four times between 1985 and 1991, even completing a rare Ardennes double when he also took Fleche Wallone in 1991. More recently both Michele Bartoli and Palo Bettini have won it twice.

It was on the Cote du Sart-Tilman rising out of Tilff where Bartoli made the race his own for two years on the trot. In 1997 he undid ONCE numerical superiority in a three-man breakaway by counter attacking the one-two offensive of Alex Zuelle and Laurent Jalabert on the climb. In 1998 he attacked near the bottom to decimate the one-minute margin of lone leader Evgeni Berzin by the top. He passed the Russian like a train and duly went on alone to score a fine victory which he characteristically dedicated to himself. "I deserve it," he rightfully claimed.

If you do have the power (as did Bartoli), the Cote du Sart-Tilman is the kind of climb you can just steam up. It’s nearly four kilometres of a steady 6% gradient curving back on itself through woodland to the outskirts of Liege. It’s not difficult or outrageous but it comes on the back of a string of stingers 244km into the race. That’s the thing about Liege- it’s relentless.

There’s no gracious picnic stop at the top, just a busy interchange, industrial units and the option of throwing yourself back down the hill in one direction or another. I plump on a route that is clearly the wrong way and enjoy an unguided tour of the city’s university-hospital before tumbling down a wild switching descent into the Meuse river valley. Re-plotting my location I trawl through ugly industrial back roads to find the foot of the Cote de Saint Nicolas.

Since its first inclusion in 1998 this climb has proved instrumental in making the final sort out. At less than 1km length it is the shortest classified climb of the race yet a blistering attack is almost guaranteed on the steep slopes up through the housing estates.

Red, white and green flags hang from the windows of run down apartment blocks as I’m steered by the road neatly around the buildings. Drapes signal allegiances to Bettini, Garzelli, Di Luca and Bartoli. A camper covered in Tifosi stickers is balanced on bricks countering the gradient in a car park. There’s a strong Italian community round these parts and they’re well fired up for the race.

Over the top I follow race arrows across the mild cobbles of a quiet suburban shopping street. I dive downhill in the direction of Liege city centre through a complex of back streets whereupon hitting base the road immediately curves back up again. With the exception of Milan-San Remo, this is the most exciting run-in in World Cup cycling. Both Berzin (1994) and Mauro Gianetti (1995) took audacious lone wins by attacking in these streets.

I attack the slight, dead straight and unclassified climb up to Ans in the big ring. After less than 20km roller coaster riding I feel a weariness in my thighs. Racers in Liege-Bastogne-Liege will at this point be starting their 259th kilometre and feeling every inch.

At the top of the hill, I turn left and ride onto the finishing straight. There’s no velodrome, no grand avenue, not even a fancy building to finish in front of. Supermarkets, downtrodden pubs and international phone call centres line the street. There’s no pretension, and no need for it. The toughest one-day race on the calendar comes to an end in front of a gas station.

Liege, 2002 / London, 2003

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