The French-speaking Belgians call it La Doyenne (the Oldest) because their Lige-Bastogne-Lige classic was first held in 1892, four years before Paris-Roubaix, and more than a decade before the sports other three monuments, Il Lombardia (1905), Milan-San Remo (1907) and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (1913). Its longevity is a good reason to like the event, just as golf has Britains Open Championship (first held in 1860) and tennis has The Championships at Wimbledon (1877). But besides its 123 years of history, Lige-Bastogne-Lige is also the classic with the most diverse field and most challenging route.
The cities of Lige and Bastogne are on opposite sides of the Ardennes, a chain of high ridges that tops out on a bleak plateau at 2,277 feet (694 meters) above sea level and is dissected on all sides by steep-sided river valleys. Every year before the start, Liges historic Place St. Lambert is abuzz with speculation about the upcoming race as the stars of the sport sign in. Befitting its status and its challenging parcours, La Doyenne is the only monumental classic that besides the one-day specialists also attracts riders who perform well in three-week Grand Tours. Among this latter category on this years start line are Italys Vincenzo Nibali of Astana, Britains Chris Froome of Team Sky, Spains Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team and Canadas Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Sharp, along with the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank pairing of Spains Alberto Contador and the Czech Republics Roman Kreuziger.
From Lige, the current course heads south on a fairly direct route, taking in half a dozen climbs, only one of which is classified for the events King of the Hills award. The peloton is usually intact, save for the likely early breakaway group, when it reaches Bastogne after 98 kilometers. Here, the riders pass a World War II tank, a relic of the Battle of the Bulge, and grab their musettes at the first of the races two feed zones. After making the turn at Bastogne, the course heads northeast to start the much longer return leg (163.5 kilometers) that features a succession of 10 gnarly climbs that vary in length from one kilometer to 4.4 kilometers. The current finish is in the gritty suburb of Ans, in the hills to the west of Lige.
Theres a spring-like forecast for this Sundays 99th Lige-Bastogne-Lige, with part sunshine and a high of 54º F (12º C); but past editions have seen conditions as hot as midsummer and as cold as midwinter. Two of the more memorable editions were held in each of these extremes. In 1966, an early-May heat wave perfectly suited French legend Jacques Anquetil, and in blazing sunshine the five-time Tour de France winner attacked solo on a hill more than 50 kilometers from the finish, caught and passed a breakaway group on the Mont-Theux climb and arrived in Lige five minutes before the runners-up.
Fourteen years later, a late-spring storm, packing icy rain and wet snow, enveloped the Ardennes, and half the 174 starters quit before halfway. It looked like Bernard Hinault, the reigning Tour de France champion, would join them at the feed zone in Vielsalm, but his Renault teammate Maurice Le Guilloux stayed in the race, and persuaded his leader to continue with him. Handed a new bike, gloves and a thick-wool balaclava hat, Hinault went to the front of a small chase group, put on the pressure up the 12-percent Mur de Stockeu, caught the leaders, and then left them all behind on the long climb of the Haute-Leve. The Frenchman raced the remaining 80 kilometers alone to win by almost 10 minutes over Dutch strongman, Hennie Kuiper. Only 21 men finished that seven-hour ordeal. The thumb and index finger of Hinaults right hand were frostbitten and three decades later he still doesnt have feeling in those digits.
Another five-time Tour champion, Eddy Merckx, won a record five Lige victories. The toughest of these was the last one, in 1975, when the winning breakaway, headed by Merckx, took off on the Stockeu wall, some 90 kilometers from the finish, but the Belgian couldnt get rid of a group of 10 feisty opponents. The finish back then was on the streets of downtown Lige, where the Italian rider Wladimiro Panizza looked like winning with a strong solo attack. Future two-time Tour winner Bernard Thvenet chased and then dropped Panizza before Merckx made a desperate final-kilometer pursuit. He caught the Frenchman in the last 300 meters before sprinting clear for his record fifth win.
La Doyenne still finished on Liges Boulevard de la Sauvenire a decade later when the 1984 edition saw a host of Grand Tour riders, including Laurent Fignon, Joop Zoetemelk, Greg LeMond and local Belgian favorite Claude Criquielion, get into the winning break of nine. The hot favorite was Sean Kelly, then 27 years old but only just maturing as a classics rider. The Irishman took his first monument six months earlier in Italy, when he just out-sprinted LeMond to win the 1983 Tour of Lombardy. Then, in the spring of 84, he was second at both San Remo and Flanders before winning Paris-Roubaix.
Kelly was the rare cyclist who could excel on both cobblestones and climbs, but like Merckx in the 1975 Lige classic, he needed all his tactical nous to battle eight rivals that included three from the Renault-Elf team; Fignon, LeMond and Marc Madiot. On what is often the decisive climb, the Cte de La Redoute, Fignon went clear with Australian Phil Anderson, the lone representative from the powerful Panasonic-Raleigh team, leaving Kelly the responsibility of leading the chase.
Describing how he coped with the pressure as race favorite, Kelly told me, I was never nervous or anything like that. I always took it easy and I didn’t go mad right in the front, riding on my own. I just rode round the front, and Criquielion started riding right after the hill (La Redoute). He started to ride because he had interests if he got back; he could maybe try to get away on his own. Zoetemelk rode a bit also. So I just rode as much as Criquielion rode, and not any more. In the end, we just managed to get back to Fignon and Anderson, and I won the sprint.
It sounds simple but it was a hectic final sprint, and Kelly only just took it from Anderson, with LeMond in third place. Thats the only time that native English speakers have swept the podium of a major classic, and since that edition three decades ago the only two Anglo victories in Lige were a Kelly repeat in 1989 and a shocking solo win by Tyler Hamilton in 2003a performance that the American now admits he achieved when he (and most of the opposition) was blood doping.
Were 10 years away from that infamous edition and looking toward a new generation that says doping isnt cool. On the English-speaking front, the most likely contenders this weekend are Team Skys Froome and the Garmin-Sharp duo of Irishman Dan Martin, who placed fourth in Wednesdays Flche Wallonne, and Hesjedal, whos quickly finding his best form ahead of defending his Giro dItalia title in May. At last years Lige, Martin and Hesjedal were both in the 12-strong group that sprinted for third place, with the Irishman coming in fifth and the Canadian ninth.
The Garmin pair should again do well on a course that is similar to last years, except that the narrow and usually decisive Roche-aux-Faucons climb (averaging 10 percent for 1.5 kilometers) cannot be included because of roadwork. In its place is a less challenging hill, the Colonster, 17 kilometers from the finish, which climbs for 2.4 kilometers at a steady 6 percent grade on a wide, curving highway. Because of this change, the race is more likely to be decided on the earlier La Redoute (8.8 percent for 2 kilometers), with 38.5 kilometers to go, or the later St. Nicolas (11.1 percent for a kilometer), which summits 5.5 kilometers before the finish line.
Previous winners Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing and Alejandro Valverde of Movistar are eager to win again, while the on-form Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEdge would love to become the first Australian winner, three decades after Anderson came so close to beating Kelly. As for those Grand Tour riders, Nibali is likely to be the strongest contender on Sunday but, like Contador, Froome, Hesjedal, Kreuziger or Rodriguez, hell have to break clear on one of those closing climbs to avoid losing in a sprint to classics experts such as Gerrans, Gilbert, Martin or Valverde.
It should be another fascinating edition of Lige-Bastogne-Lige. Maybe not as memorable as those won by Tour champions Hinault, Merckx and Anquetil, but Im sure it will be one worthy of being added to La Doyennes century-long palmars.