You can be cynical about the Ardennes Classics, which produce either predictable results by a guy who people don’t trust, or which produce spectacular results... by a guy who people don’t trust. But you can’t be too down on the occasion of our last full day of skinny Belgian roads. You see, there’s something special about those skinny Belgian roads. Something very, very special...
Cow shit. Also pig and sheep shit.
It’s all over the roads. Belgium is pretty farmy, especially Flanders but to some degree which I haven’t studied in person yet down in Liège province too. Assuming they’re the same sort of farms, they generally consist of some crops and a mix of sheep, cows and pigs, plus those weird miniature horses are everywhere. I can’t tell if that’s an act of voyeurism or mercy. In any event, farms pile up a lot of shit. Everyone knows this, because they can smell it everywhere and see the trucks carrying it hither and yon. Ostensibly the reason to put shit in a truck is to take it somewhere for it to do some good.
Did You Know! That the shit doesn’t get delivered anywhere? Maybe in winter when it’s time to condition the fields, but they are planted now, and there’s no place for the shit to go. So it gets loaded in a truck, then the driver secretly loosens the back gate, and then just drives around the small farm roads of Flanders, hitting every bump in the road, until the truck is empty. Then the rains and winds spread it in a more organic way. Also the car tires carry it around for even wider distribution. And a little bit gets imported to the UK, US, Sweden, France, and so forth on 25- or 28-mm Gatorskins.
I do have some questions about the shit in Liège — do they hold it back some until after the race? I was pretty sure that Vlaamse Wielerweek occasioned a regional order to not dump so much shit everywhere until the day after De Ronde, as the tourists were leaving. In our case, we had just shown up, and got full faceloads of strong spring aromas as we did our lovely riding. That’s not a complaint, mind you, just a fact.
Anyway, what’s even more important is the fact that on those dry dusty days, or the wet muddy ones, the cyclists of Belgium are covered in this special brew, and inhaling it too, and it’s something people in the region grow up with. This, I believe, explains the strength of the Flandrien and his foreign companions who relocate there. Everyone knows but hates to admit that ingesting shit is essential to maintaining a healthy digestive system. Everyone — and I mean everyone — in Seattle takes dirt pills in the morning to allow their gut to keep up with the endless array of culinary innovations we are forced to digest. [Not so much in places like the Snohomish Valley where you can inhale shit particles every bit as beneficial as their Flemish counterparts.] This is the key to good health, and good health is the backbone of every cycling career.
Did you know! This is the first year of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège race for women? If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two monuments with a women’s race, both of the Belgian ones. The two Italian monuments and the French one haven’t caught on yet to the presence of another gender, one which can actually race bikes, but the future is unwritten. [Milano-Sanremo tried briefly a decade ago.] Anyway, the women’s L-B-L is 135km and is really just B-L, starting in Bastogne and covering four of the most important climbs in the closing stages of the race:
- Cote de la Vecquee (6.7km at 6%)
- Cote de la Redoute (2km att 9%)
- Cote de la Roche aux Faucons (1.3km at 11%)
- Cote de St Nicholas (1.2km at 8.6%)
These climbs happen at roughly 15km intervals until the last one, 5km from the line, but of course it’s L-B-L, or B-L, and the roads go up and down, left and right, all day long. So Sunday is an historic day for cycling, and should be a reminder that as much as the men can make these great races into cagey, boring stare-fests, the women can take a good course and explode it. Startlists aren’t much to look at yet, but the early entries include Marianne Vos, Annemiek Van Vleuten, Elisa Longo Borghini and others. Probably everyone will be there. Maybe even television?
Anyway, back to the hombres...
After yesterday’s predictable snore of a race, there’s one question on everyone’s mind: can someone make L-B-L awesome? The answer, of course, is... wait a second...
Did you know! That someone can make L-B-L awesome? Of course you did, because it’s a beautiful course, a series of challenges, and a long day in the saddle, which means tactical execution can and will rule the day. If it were easy to win, Alejandro Valverde would probably take it year after year like he does at La Fleche Wound, and we’d all go off to the pub muttering in disgust. But he doesn’t; in fact, though he’s the leading active rider with three wins, the race hasn’t seen a lot of repeat winners, and in the last eight years we have eight different champions.
How predictable is it, as monuments go? I’d put it in the middle of the pack. On one end is Milano-Sanremo, with Merckx having won a full seven times, Costante Girardegno six, and in the modern era Erik Zabel with four and Oscar Freire with three. Yes, even though a million different things can happen there, chances are they won’t and you’ll have a sprint.
On the opposite end is the Tour of Flanders, whose record-setting victory totals only go up to three, held by six riders, none of whom are named Merckx. Here’s the list in order:
Most Unpredictable Monument Winner:
- Ronde van Vlaanderen
- Giro di Lombardia
I’ll accept some debate about the order of the first two and the last two, both of which you could flip, but this is a post about L-B-L and I posit to you that it lies squarely in the middle. Merckx won it five times, on a course that isn’t radically different from the present, which suggests that it’s controllable by the right sort of rider, except when Merckx is the record-holder, it doesn’t necessarily say much about how the race affects normal humans, and only Valverde has three wins among riders since the 1970s. So really, it’s not very controllable at all.
Did you know! That the L-B-L course is the second-most consistent course of the Monuments? Here’s yet another ranking, under yet another “did you know” device, on the off-off chance you aren’t tired of my gimmicks yet.
Best-preserved Monument parcours:
- Giro di Lombardia
- Ronde van Vlaanderen
L-B-L and Roubaix are flippable, as are the last two. MSR is the hands-down winner, if only because if you’re planning to ride from Milano to Sanremo, you don’t have a lot of roads to choose from. Sure, they’ve monkeyed around with some extra climbs, but the basic format is entirely consistent.
The last two have been remade any number of times into completely different races, and my beloved Ronde wins the prize for least recognizable, perhaps due to recency bias, but also due to the fact that among all the Monuments it’s the only one whose purpose actually calls for course alterations. It’s a tour of Flanders, and even when the finish was the same, the first three hours changed every year. Lombardia has settled into its own basic format for the last few decades, although the specifics have bounced around a lot. Take your pick.
But this is still a post about L-B-L, and my basic point is, it has been a race from Liège to Bastogne and back since anyone can remember. And by anyone, I mean anyone who was alive and old enough to form memories in 1908, when it abandoned the early Spa-Bastogne-Spa course for the present(ish) one. That’s practically nobody, since it’s now 2017, and I’m betting that the handful of people who have hit their 115th birthday or so are either not Belgian cycling fans or don’t remember all that much. Now of course it should be Liège-Bastogne-Ans, but there’s not a huge difference from Ans to Liège — about 3km, if you’re counting. For a sport that celebrates something called “Paris-Roubaix” even though the race doesn’t come within 75km of Paris, I think we can overlook L-B-L’s marginally suburban finish.
More to the point, though, L-B-L’s essential character hasn’t been subject to much change at all. While not confined to a single strip of land like MSR, the organizers have done little more than reshuffle the lineup of climbs, while otherwise retaining the character of the event. Well, except that the move to Ans added the Cote de St. Nicolas very close to the finish in 1992, and took a more wide-open flat run-in and transformed it to a climber’s finale. I guess that’s a pretty big change from the days of Merckx. MSR, by comparison, added the Poggio in 1962 — also a big change, except we still usually get a sprint. So MSR wins the top prize for consistency.
Is L-B-L more traditional than Paris-Roubaix? I’ll say yes. Maybe in 100 years when the Hell of the North has continued to be the race we know it to be now, and L-B-L has monkeyed around more, we will switch those places. But Paris-Roubaix underwent constant change and wasn’t even destined to be the ultimate warrior’s cobble-fest it became until the 1960s. Paris-Roubaix might now claim the title of strongest identity, but if you want to talk historical consistency, it’s behind L-B-L.
Strongest Identity for a Monument:
- Ronde van Vlaanderen
- Il Lombardia
OK, I’m done now.