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Liege-Bastogne-Liege: One Wicked Old Lady

Unlike some other races (Milan-San Remo comes to mind), this Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege doesn't suffer from an overload of cute nicknames. There is but one: La Doyenne, the "oldest lady," and though the feminine character of a 262-km race featuring some 20-odd thigh-melting climbs is nonobvious, the race's pedigree and prestige is beyond question. Dating back to 1892 puts it a few years ahead of Paris-Roubaix, and it ranks as the only Monument from the Ardennes. It's also the grand prize of the Classics season for the climbers and Grand Tour contenders, so if the Tour is your cup of tea, then this is your one-day race.

[Some quick background: the Ardennes Classics literally include only La Fleche Wallonne and Liege, though Amstel Gold is nearby and the prior weekend, so they get lumped together... and set apart from the Cobbled Classics of Flanders, Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem. Yet another sub-classification is that of the five Monuments of Cycling" -- as in the five most prestigious one-day races, namely Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege, and the Giro di Lombardia. It's an age thing: the youngest is Flanders, started in 1913. To Cycling, age=prestige.]

[Aside...] We in the States are a bit short on ancient cycling historical details, such as who formed La Doyenne and how, so I've invented my own narrative, where a local club from Liege decides in 1892 to race to Bastogne. They go via the logical route, which turns out to be a relatively harmless 95 km, and as a result, some sneaky sprinter hiding in the pack all day comes around in Bastogne for the win. Dissatisfied, the organizers decide that now they're going to race back to Liege (accommodations suck and there's nothing to do in Bastogne anyway), and this time they're going a slightly different, longer, and hillier way. When it's done, all agree that the strongest rider won... and a Classic is born.[/Aside]

What passes for actual history can be found inWikipedia, and Pez and Professor Wilcockson are undoubtedly in a mad race as we speak to fill in many more of the blanks. I'll post links as available.

Meanwhile, as often happens, the handicappers are looking to see which of the biggest names are looking fit right now. On the eve of the Giro d'Italia (training calendar-wise at least), Giro stars like Ivan Basso and Danilo DiLuca get bandied about, along with the protagonists of the last week at Amstel and Fleche, like Valverde, Schleck, Bettini, and so forth. Now, history is hardly an iron-clad guide, but here are a few historical stats to keep in mind:

  • Number of years (since 1950) the L-B-L winner also won the Giro: 4; number excluding Merckx: 2 (Berzin, 1994; Hinault, 1980)
  • Number of years (since 1950) the L-B-L winner also won the Tour: 4; number without Merckx: 0.
  • Number of years the Fleche Wallonne winner won L-B-L: 5 Kubler twice (1951, 1952), Ockers (1955), Merckx (1972), Argentin (1991) and Rebellin (2004).
  • Number of years the Amstel winner won L-B-L: 1 (Rebellin, 2004).
  • Number of years run: 102; number of Spanish winners: 0.

The point of all this, excluding the last, is that it takes an awful lot to win this race and a grand tour in the same year, and at least as much to run the table over Amstel-Fleche-Liege week. Why? Because this race is really goddamn hard, and because everyone wants to win, and presumably the guy who isn't worried about his Tour form might be willing to lay a bit more on the line. This is a subject for a separate post, but winning a Classic comes at a steep physical price, one very few riders can plunk down repeatedly. What Rebellin did two years ago winning all three Ardennes races in a week is un-freaking-believable... but then, the tidal wave of young talent hadn't hit the shores of the sport just yet.

For details on the course, go to the race website and especially to the course profile. The closing climbs are often decisive, namely the Cote de Saint-Nicholas (1km, 11%, 8km from the finish), the Cote de Sart-Tilman roughly 15km out, and the finishing climb at Ans (just outside Liege). Hopefully someone will post more detailed info on the climbs, they are numerous and will make for real drama Sunday.

As usual, it's all live on Cycling.tv -- see the click-thru button we put up in the right sidebar. More details on favorites and predictions on specific climbs in further posts. Stay tuned!!

Oh, and we WILL be live all Sunday morning.