The Frenchman, 26, is still searching for that elusive win in La Doyenne, the venerable old lady of cycling’s Monuments.
As the dust settles and the cycling world pauses for breath following the conclusion of the cobbled classics at Paris-Roubaix, we caught up with the 2016 Tour de France runner-up to find out about his passion for all things Liège.
Rouleur: Liège-Bastogne-Liège isn’t really as well loved, or as celebrated, as the cobbled classics like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But you’re that rare someone who does love it, aren’t you?
Romain Bardet: Yes I am, and I think it’s a real shame, actually, that there has been this communication breakdown, a failure by the organisers or the media, to get that passion across. I don’t know why Liège is now less emotive for most people than Paris-Roubaix.
It’s something completely different too, just like Roubaix is different. There’s no competition between them; Liège is a course for us climbers, it’s our classic. The history is just as strong with Liège as it is for Roubaix, it too is over 100-years-old and it has known plenty of famous winners.
Do you think its reputation has been sullied by some of the less illustrious winners, particularly in recent years? Riders like Alexandre Vinokourov, Danilo Di Luca, Tyler Hamilton, Davide Rebellin… who have all been banned for doping offences.
I don’t know. I mean, that’s true about those riders. But if you look a little further back: Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault have both won Liège.
There’s all that mythology around Merckx in 1971 and Hinault who won the 1980 edition through the snow and lost feeling in his fingers. All that is as mythical as Roubaix. And I regret that it doesn’t have the same reputation.
You always know that absolutely anything is possible at Liège
The current finish line in Ans is terrible, mind you. Gritty and industrial, but not in a romantic, velodrome kind of way…
Yeah it’s really not very pretty! The finish has changed a few times as well, and there’s not so much history there in that current place. It is pretty anonymous, it’s this industrial area and an hour after the race there’s no-one there. It’s not like Roubaix with all the history around the velodrome.
With you, are we talking about the same sort of passion for Liège as that which you have for the Tour de France?
No it’s totally different. You always know that absolutely anything is possible at Liège. At a week-long stage race you know, on the eve of the race, say, who will be good for a top ten. There are 12 or 13 riders who you know are going to be up there.
In Liège it’s so much harder to name the winner, or even the riders who will make the top five or top ten. It suits riders with different aptitudes, and the riders who are in good form aren’t always the riders in with a shout of winning.
What is your mentality – your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions – on the eve of the race?
You know that it’s a one-shot. In a stage race you’re always thinking about the longer term, about the rest of the race, but Liège is unique. It’s all about that one day.
Can you remember the first Liège you experienced?
That’s a good question. I remember Michele Bartoli won… that would have been 199…7? Yeah, I watched it at home, on TV, with my Dad. 1997. With Laurent Jalabert.
I remember that very well, they attacked on the Côte de la Redoute. I was six-years-old. I don’t recall many details but the ambience and atmosphere on the Redoute: the steep, narrow road and the riders dancing up, gripping the bars. La Redoute is pretty special.
When was the first time you rode it yourself?
I did it as an amateur actually, and I got good results then [Bardet was second in U23 Liège in 2011 and 12th in 2010]. I have hardly missed it since 2010, and I’ve done it every year since 2013.
And was the experience as good as you expected?
Yeah of course; in the espoirs there are fewer people there than for the pros, but all the same it’s special.
Grand Tours these days are increasingly ridden to the numbers, with a very scientific, calculating approach. Can you treat Liège in the same way?
Liège is like the past. You race much more on instinct, you need to be much less predictable in order to win. You have to be more… you never watch your power meter. Not at all. Never. That would be totally counterproductive.
In that sense it’s not at all the same as stage races. And it’s refreshing, to be able to race in that way. That’s how you can tell a really good racer: someone who can race without numbers.