Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Climber's Delight

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Tony Martin leads on the Côte de La Redoute in 2010. Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport

La Doyenne - the oldest of the classics. This is a race that holds a special place in my heart. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is perhaps the most climber-friendly classic of them all. Lombardia? It has climbs a plenty, but it finishes with a twisty, serpentine descent into either Como or, recently, Lecco. Not a finish that is kind to all climbers. Liège, on the other hand? It has an uphill finish and winds its way across some of the most scenic climbs the Ardennes region has to offer.

As Chris wrote, this is a race steeped in history and is one of the most memorable races on the calendar. But what makes it so? The route is perhaps the most brutal of the five monuments, but the numerous hills along the route give a more distinctive flair than a mere battle of attrition. The exposed plateaus make team support crucial, while the finale is devoid of all but the strongest riders. The mix of team and individual strength makes the racing full of intrigue, situations on the road changing almost constantly in the final hundred kilometers.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège has climbs - loads of them. Eleven are categorized, but there are far more rises than that. Most of the categorized climbs come on the return leg of the race as the course meanders the long way back from Bastogne towards Liège. The climbs are similar - usually between 1.5 and 3 kilometers long with maximum gradients over 10%, but each has its own unique character, especially the final three.

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The final three climbs are where the racing hits a crescendo, but this does not mean you should only turn on the television for the final 40 km of the race. As with Milan-San Remo, where each usually anonymous rise builds on those that precede it, each phase of Liège-Bastogne-Liège contains clues to the overall winner. While the favorites may stay hidden for all of the early action - as they rightly should - the stretch from 100 km to go until 40 km to go is worth watching for its own special reasons.

The Opening Act

  • 70 km - Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne - 2.8 km at 6.2%
  • 116.5 km - Côte de Saint-Roch - 1.0 km at 11%
  • 166.0 km - Côte de Wanne - 2.7 km at 7.3%

The first set of climbs, beginning 70 km into the race and coming with increasing frequency as the race progresses to the 210 km mark, serve to weed out the wheat from the chaf. Erosion from behind as the teams of the major players chase down the inevitable early breakaway. The early break is a crucial part of the race - if a major team misses placing a rider in it, they will be down two or three riders in the final 100 km when having multiple options on the table is of crucial importance.

Setting the Stage

  • 166.5 km - Côte de Stockeu - 1.0 km at 12.2%
  • 172.0 km - Côte de la Haute-Levé - 3.6 km at 5.7%
  • 185.0 km - Col du Rosier - 4.4 km at 5.9%
  • 198.0 km - Côte du Masquisard - 2.5 km at 5%
  • 208.0 km - Mont-Theux - 2.7 km at 5.9%

With 100 km to race, the mood changes in the peleton. The Côte de Stockeu is an unofficial beginning for the finale. The early break is on its last legs - literally and figuratively. Squares, not circles, are being pedaled. For every time the break hits a climb, it must work even harder to stave off the chasing break. From the Stockeu to the Theux, the chasing goes on in earnest. Lieutenants may be sent up the road to provoke other teams into chasing. Conserving energy and wasting that of other teams is at the forefront of every director sportif here. Yes, this is always the case, but in Liège it is even more important.

The Final Act

  • 223.0 km - Côte de La Redoute - 2.0 km at 8.8%
  • 238.0 km - Côte de La Roche aux Faucons - 1.5 km at 9.3%
  • 252.0 km - Côte de Saint-Nicholas - 1.2 km at 8.6%

Now, the race enters its final act with the Côte de La Redoute. As with other climbs in the region, this is a narrow road which climbs straight over one of the many ridges in the region rather than zig-zagging up at a saner gradient. And, as with many of the climbs in this race, the average gradient greatly underestimates the difficulty of the climb. For the climb statistics? They include the easy sections at the bottoms and tops of the climbs, even though the middle part of the climb is by far the most ferocious and where gaps are made.

La Redoute, it is fierce. Its middle section tilts ever more skyward until the gradient hits 22%. When the climb finally eases off, riders are stuck on a plateau, an upwardly sloping false flat that saps energy even further and provides the perfect springboard for attacks. For, if possible, it is always better to attack over the top of such an explosive climb than in the middle.

This plateau is where teams begin playing their last cards. Look for valuable, top-level domestiques to go on the attack here. These riders - who are too threatening to give free reign in at the front of the race - are tasked merely with wearing down chasing teams. There are still 35 hard kilometers to race, so the fewer teammates a favorite has, the more isolated they will be on the valley roads between the final climbs.

La Redoute is still too far from the finish for the big players to make their moves unless they can pry loose a moderately sized group, as Phillippe Gilbert learned in his earlier years. Before? La Redoute was his favoured launchpad for attacks, though he always got caught by the pack before the finish. Why? The following 10 kilometers are perfect for teams which still have riders left to reel back attacking riders. The ever-present wind in the Ardennes region is felt especially on the exposed roads here. This is what teams have been trying so desperately to save their support riders for.

After La Redoute, the race hurtles towards the Côte de La Roche aux Faucons, a relatively new addition to the race. The addition of La Roche aux Faucons made the finale of the race even more difficult and is where Andy Schleck made his winning move in 2009. In 2010, Alexander Vinokurov and Alexandr Kolobnev attacked on the descent following Faucons to establish their winning breakaway. And last year? Frank Schleck attacked on the Roche aux Faucons and was quickly joined by brother Andy and Phillippe Gilbert. Are you seeing a pattern? This is the crux point of the race, where the most serious of attacks are likely to be formed.

Finally, the race hits a traditional decisive point - the Côte de Saint-Nicholas, which kicks skywards in the outskirts of Liège. This is the last chance for climbers with little sprint to ditch their companions, especially with the summit little over five kilometers from the finish. This is a place to weed out the final break, as the Schlecks did to dislodge Greg Van Avermaet last year.

If a group still exists inside the final kilometer, you will be treated to witness a tactical sprint on the steady climb into Ans, the Liège suburb where the race now finishes. Not a classified climb, the finishing kilometer rises consistently until a wide left hand bend with 200 m to go, where the road begins to even out. You may see an early attack on the slopes with 500 m to go, or you may see a tacitcal sprint opening up in the final 200 m. Either way, the finish promises intrigue and a worthy winner.

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