Liège - Bastogne - Liège is the oldest of the classics, known affectionately as "La Doyenne," or "the oldest," by riders and fans. As is befitting its title, 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. Imagine taking the climbs of Amstel Gold and stretching them out - "body blows instead of headshots", as Edward Pickering has described them. The erosion of the pack from the back is much greater than in the races we have seen over the past week, but simplifying the race to attrition does not do it justice.
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. Here are the three distinctive segments of the race.
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%
- 160.0 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. An early breakaway is minutes up the road and the chase finally begins here, eroding the pack from behind. 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. If you're following the race this early, make note of who is and is not represented and who has to work. Trust me, it matters. For a climber's race, teammates are surprisingly important in Liège.
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. Back in his day, Eddy Merkx liked to use the Stockeu to soften up the legs of his opponents, even some 100 kilometers from the end of the race. Judging by the Cannibal's five victories in the race, it must have worked.
The early break is on its last legs - literally and figuratively - at this point. Riders pedal in squares, no longer fluid, even in the chase. From the Stockeu to the Theux, the chasing goes on in earnest. Lieutenants of favorites 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.
In 2009, Saxo Bank sent Chris Anker Sørenson up the road on this section of the race, the first in a number of attacks by the Danish team that wore down the opposition and exposed riders with weaker teams. Look for deep teams - such as Sky - to try the same this year.
The Final Act
- 223.0 km - Côte de La Redoute - 2.0 km at 8.8%
- 244.5 km - Côte de Colonster - 2.4 km at 6.0%
- 256.0 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. 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, a false flat that saps energy even further and provides the perfect springboard for attacks. 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. In 2009, Alexander Kolobnev attacked here in the final move to set up Andy Schleck for victory.
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 used to hurtle 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. In 2011? Frank Schleck attacked on the Roche aux Faucons and was quickly joined by brother Andy and Phillippe Gilbert. Last year, Vincenzo Nibali attacked on the descent to almost win last year. Are you seeing a pattern? This is the crux point of the race, where the most serious of attacks are likely to be formed.
However, this year the Roche aux Faucons is removed from the route for road work. In its place there is the Côte de Colonster, a longer but milder climb. The Colonster also comes closer to the finish than the Faucons, perhaps allowing a little more regrouping after la Redoute. The race is less likely to break up here too, which make the final climb all the more interesting...
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 in 2011. In 2012, Maxim Iglinsky jumped out of the chasing pack to bridge up to a solo Vincenzo Nibali here. With the Faucons taken out of the race, expect Saint-Nicholas to become even more important.
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. The finish is not a classified climb, but the finishing kilometer rises consistently at 5-6% 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.
Liège is an interesting race, one that brings one-day riders and grand tour stars into the same race with both having a chance for success. The climbs are punchy, favoring riders like Gilbert who have massive amounts of power over three to eight minutes, but also those riders who are light enough to compensate for lack of raw power. Vincenzo Nibali, more known for winning the Vuelta and coming in third at the Giro and Tour in years past, almost won last year. Andy Schleck has won here as well, though the chances for riders such as these are less this year with the substitution of the Colonster for the Faucons. How will stage racers such as Christopher Froome and Richie Porte fare? Expect them to animate, but in lieu of a sprint, I have a hard time seeing them being successful.
Instead, I would put my money on someone who can win a sprint out of a group of 3-8 riders, which is what I forsee the race ending with this year. You could do worse than to pick Alejandro Valverde, who has won here twice before by out-sprinting small groups. Of course, if Valverde makes the winning group, he will have Gilbert and likely Simon Gerrans to contend with as well. Could we see a repeat of the sprint for second place at Amstel Gold? My, wouldn't that be an exciting finish!