Bike races are really just a bunch of guys in spandex, pedaling fancy bikes over various terrain, at the end of which the guy who can process oxygen most efficiently wins. Right?
OK, obviously not, but it's worth exploring a few of the intangibles which make racing great. Because you can find every single one of them in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. If there were no such thing as bike races on cobblestones, Liege-Bastogne-Liege would rocket straight to the top of my favorite day in cycling list. Its nickname, La Doyenne, translates to the dean, or the eldest, depending on what the gnomes have had to drink. Reading between the lines, you could easily take it to mean the monument of monuments.
No race matches the rock-solid tradition of La Doyenne. In 1892 a group of amateurs set off for Bastogne from Spa, about 10km west of the Cote de la Redoute. They took the easy way to Bastogne and the hard way back to Spa. Apparently they liked the idea well enough, because in 1894 the race turned professional, moved to Liege, and settled into what we more or less know today. The event was all of 250km -- unusual in an era of point-to-point races exceeding 400k. This weekend's edition? 257km.
The finish line has changed from downtown Liege to Ans in the outskirts of town, but I'm not seeing any info suggesting the route has undergone major overhauls in its time. Occasionally a climb is removed or swapped out. In recent years the run-in from the legendary Cote de la Redoute has changed from going via the Cote de Sprimont and Cote de Sart-Tilman to one that goes via the more decisive Cote de la Roche au Faucons. But the general orientation of Liege-Bastogne-Liege remains truer to its original than any of the Monuments. It is roughly what it has always been.
There's a brooding beauty to the race that makes Liege-Bastogne-Liege special to watch. Unlike the warm loveliness of an Italian or Spanish race, the shadowy forests and deep, dark valleys of the Ardennes, combined with the embattled nature of the region, lend a subtle hardness to the affair. Not the obvious bloodsport of Paris-Roubaix, LBL serves up only occasional reminders of the wars that have marked the region. The Cote de la Redoute is home to a redoubt (fort) which saw heavy action in the Battle of Sprimont between French Republican troops and Austria in 1794. The Meuse Valley saw massive battles in both World Wars. And yet nobody is calling LBL the Hell of anything. It's too pretty.
More than that, though, it's important. Belgium was as much of a cycling hotbed 110 years ago as it is now, and with the sport oriented around France (money, media, teams, etc.), a Wallonne classic of real character and challenge automatically occupied a special place in the calendar. The Flemish scene came 20 years later, and with the language gap it might have been on another planet from the French hub. But Wallonia was friendly territory, unique and thus far untapped. Host city Liege was the ideal place to stage it, being a famously independent and democratic city and thus a cultural hub. LBL functioned as a tour of the region, in the sense of linking places together and spotlighting it all for the press. It now shares the role with La Fleche Wallonne, as part of a two-stage regional tour, but one is the appetizer, the other the main course.
The hardness of the race assures that only the cream of the crop can win. The number and length of climbs is beyond any spring classic (combined; Amstel has the most climbs but they are typically shorter). The length of the race and the varying spring conditions wear riders down one by one. The exposed hilltops mean that just when you think you've ticked off another climb, you still have to bear down until the descent is fully underway, or a crosswind might send you out the back door.
The palmares bear this out. Eddy Merckx leads the all-time list with five wins. Coppi never won here but Ferdi Kubler did, as did Anquetil, Hinault, Kelly, Rooks, Bartoli. Moreno Argentin is second all-time with four wins. But the ultimate Liege-Bastogne-Liege legend, perhaps the greatest Classics legend of all, is the story of Hinault's 1980 Neige-Bastogne-Neige effort. The race where 21 riders finished after 170 started, where 110 guys dropped out in the first two hours. Snow was falling even before the flag dropped. Lucien Van Impe quit after 10km, just detoured back to the start. Riders began dropping out when they saw a warm bistro in which to take shelter. Hinault rode with the remains of the peloton, threatening to quit when the visibility was at its worst, but after 30km or so the snowfall let up and the only remaining challenges were white roads and cold weather. His directeur Cyrille Guimard goaded him into attacking on the Haute-Levee, 80km from Liege, and Hinault's frozen companions watched him go. Hennie Kuiper finished second, nine minutes down, by which time the finish line media frenzy had already gone home.
We won't have anything like that this year. We will have a civilized race, with maybe soggy conditions and some sun breaks, about normal for this time of year. We may or may not see any legends made. But the winner will be a deserving one. That is the only kind in this race.