Spring is here and a young man’s – and woman’s – fancy turns to the Classics: the peloton’s rude awakening at La Primavera, Milan-Sanremo; De Ronde, the ultimate Belgian hardman’s day out; the freakishly gruelling parcours of Paris-Roubaix.
And then the WorldTour entourage decamps eastward to Holland and the Ardennes. Within the space of a week, they tackle Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
As an armchair fan, by the time the leaders have grovelled up the final ascent to the finish line in the Liège suburb of Ans, it’s the end of a gruelling month of TV watching comparable to the dedication shown by the riders we have been cheering on from the comfort of our sitting rooms. Well, almost…
In this context, Liège suffers somewhat from spectator fatigue by the time it comes around. The oldest of the Classics, first held in 1892, struggles to capture the imagination in the same way that Flanders or Roubaix do. It has no iconic velodrome to host the race’s end. And few, if any, flag-wielding Flandrians make the short journey to neighbouring Wallonia. It may be the same country, but might as well be another continent for all the northern Belgians care.
Which is rather a shame, for what LBL lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in prestige. It’s a race that favours the kind of rider who can keep a cool head and muster a sprint at the end of over 250km of racing; the kind of rider seen in the finale of Sanremo, Lombardia, or the World Championships. Fabian Cancellara’s heroics on the cobbles of Roubaix may grab the headlines, but modern Liège winners are a subtler breed. No effort is wasted; every second in the wind counts.
Which nation has triumphed most? Belgium, naturally, accounting for 59 of the 100 editions (including two from Richard Depoorter, featured in issue 52). And which rider has the most victories? Eddy Merckx, not surprisingly, with the last of his five wins coming in 1975, the year La Redoute first featured.
As the 2014 winner Simon Gerrans points out later in this feature, the organisers have jiggled the course around in recent years. More climbs equals more exciting racing, seemed to be the thinking. But it has resulted in more conservative racing instead: Liège only truly ignites in the final few kilometres – signs of a cleaner peloton, some say. A UCI points system that rewards lowly placings too highly, say others. Or a combination of the two, perhaps.
So, to La Redoute, the gathering point for thousands of fans – most of them Philippe Gilbert’s – a place that Dan Martin “gets goose bumps thinking about”. It may no longer prove to be the launch pad for successful long-distance attacks, coming some 30km from the finish, but forms a part of the strength-sapping loop that descends south toward the Luxembourg border before returning from whence it came. The race might not be won there, but it can certainly be lost.
Gilbert, Martin and Gerrans have all won in Liège this decade. Here’s what La Redoute means to them.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team)
The Classics specialist grew up within a stone’s throw of La Redoute, winning LBL in 2011 on the way to taking all three Ardennes Classics in the space of one week.
When did you first ride LBL?
In 2003, in my first year as a pro, so it will be 13 times [this year].
Can you describe the emotion of riding La Doyenne as a neo pro?
It was a surprise because I had a problem with my achilles tendon. I had it in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and had to stop riding for ten days, and then start training again. At Gent-Wevelgem it hurt again, so I had another ten days off.
And then Madiot called me on the Wednesday, the day of the Flèche Wallonne. I was there watching the race and he called me and said: “Come join us tomorrow because you’re going to race Sunday.” To me, it was just a big surprise because, of course, I wasn’t ready: I didn’t have any training in the legs, but I was happy to be there at the start. I did 220km and then I stopped at the second feed zone, but it was a great experience. I was with the best in the peloton until the Côte du Rosier. I passed the Côte de Wanne and Haute-Levée with the best. I was happy. I got dropped there and stopped 10km later.
Did it cross your mind even then that you could one day win LBL?
I was thinking it might be easier to win one of the Flemish Classics, because I always felt better in those races, but it happened that I won Liège first.
What part does La Redoute play in the modern version of Liège?
With the new finale, you are more conservative on La Redoute. It is still a long way to the finish, with a lot of climbs like Saint-Nicolas. Since they changed the course, everyone is just waiting on La Redoute. Maybe you’re with 30 or 40 guys after. It’s still a long way, so you wait because you still need your team-mates and you just hope they get back [to the leading group] and work for you again. As a leader, you don’t want to drop your own team-mates, so you just go easy.
Have you witnessed any big attacks on the climb?
Some guys accelerate there, but it’s always conservative. I remember Richie Porte attacked there, but he did 300 metres and then blew, and his chance was gone. It’s very early to launch a real attack.
Perhaps it is better suited to a selective attack?
I try to be there in front in case someone’s good. If one of the leaders is not feeling good, maybe you just want to open the race up, because you know his race is over. Sometimes it’s like this: you know you’re not going to win, but you want to do a move to flick other riders. This can always happen. It’s far from the finish, but if ten or 15 guys go and they all work together, they’re hard to catch. You have to be there watching and saving energy.
What about the atmosphere? It’s your climb, isn’t it?
For me, it’s very special because it’s my town. Everyone is there, all the supporters, people I’ve known since I was a kid. It’s very special for me. I don’t really have time to look at people, but I can recognise some faces that I’ve known for more than 30 years. It’s a special feeling.
Do you approach La Redoute differently now to when you were young and inexperienced?
It’s short and very steep. You have to be really conservative with the gears. A lot of riders use too big a gear, and they damage their legs. You have to focus. With the noise and the atmosphere, sometimes it’s hard. You feel the public is pushing you and you forget all the details. But when you have experience, it’s not a problem.
Roche aux Faucons is the other key climb, yes? Your springboard in 2011 and Nibali’s the following year?
Yeah, but it’s not about tactics: it’s just the legs there. Everything is about power. You go if you can, not if you want.
What type of rider wins Liège? It is not one for Grand Tour riders, for example.
I think we train differently. Those riders train more intensely, maybe every day. Classics riders train differently, with longer rides. You’re just more resilient at the end of the day.
Where does Liège stand on your palmarès?
It’s one of the top three moments of my career, along with winning a stage of the Tour and the maillot jaune, and the World Championships.
And you took all three Ardennes Classics the year you won LBL.
I was in good shape. I actually won four races: there was Flèche Brabançonne too – it’s also important to mention this, I think. So I’d won four races in ten days. I was happy, but at the same time, at the start, if I was able to swap them just for Liège [I would have], but I won all four. One hundred per cent!
Dan Martin (Cannondale Pro Cycling Team)
The Irishman won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2013 and looked set to repeat the feat the following year before crashing on the final corner.
How many editions of Liège for you?
Seven, every year since I turned pro, plus I did the under-23 version as well.
When did you think it might be a race you could win?
I could tell it suited me right from the start. You either have the physical capacity to race those distances or you don’t. After La Redoute, there’s still a lot of guys there, but you hit the next climb and it halves the group, and the next climb it halves again. The distance and the nature of the course – climb after climb – is what makes it.
LBL seems to get overlooked compared to Paris-Roubaix and Flanders.
Roubaix obviously takes a greater toll on your body, but terrain-wise, I would say Liège is more difficult.
What is the key to winning it? Age, experience, teamwork?
Knowing the race is crucial. It took me a few years to learn. You can waste so much energy. You can’t be at the front for every climb. There are key points on the course – and La Redoute is one of them – where you have to be in the front, because that’s where the splits happen. It’s the same with Côte de Wanne. You get Wanne, Stockeu and Haute-Levée in quick succession. You can lose the race there. It takes a few years to know when are the easy points to move up and when you actually need to be at the front.
People can tell you that, but experience is invaluable.
But you were still young when you won in 2013.
I have got a photographic memory for courses and I think that helped me pick up the way the race goes, how to read it. That’s an advantage, but I just love the race and it suits me down to the ground. They are all factors. I seemed to learn pretty quickly. There’s not many guys who win Liège at the age of 26.
Do you rely on your team-mates to help move you up before the foot of La Redoute?
I do now, yes! It wasn’t always the case. I’m the one who knows the race and I tell them when and where I want to be. I’m lucky to have a very strong team for the Ardennes Classics.
Can you take anything in on Redoute or is it all a blur?
It’s been a strange race on La Redoute the last couple of years, 2013 especially. Normally there would be attacks there, but we kind of cruised up it. Once you’re at the front it’s actually very relaxed.
But the atmosphere is just mental, hard to describe. You get goose bumps thinking about it. Because Liège is one big lap, it is a difficult race to see on multiple occasions, so La Redoute has become the focal point, the place where most fans go. You don’t really get much atmosphere on the rest of the course.
It is the equivalent of when the Muur was in the Flanders course. Everyone heads for La Redoute. There isn’t anywhere else with the same atmosphere. It is so narrow, so although the spectators might be only two or three deep, it feels like more. You are nearly touching them. [Roche-aux] Faucons and St Nicolas are probably more critical, but you don’t get the same feeling.
Have you witnessed any winning moves go on La Redoute?
It’s hard to remember the first couple of years, because I wasn’t actually involved in the front part of the race, but since I have been involved, it is more of a wearing down process than the decisive point. It is too far from the finish.
The last two years, you have been in an identical position coming into that last corner. You could almost swap the film over and not tell the difference.
Apart from me falling off!
Did you get to the bottom of that crash?
There was diesel on the road, or some sort of oil. The organisers had tried to clear it up and there was chalk dust on the tarmac. I guess they missed a bit, but I didn’t…
A few inches either way and it would have been a very different story.
Exactly. Last year was a confidence thing. I knew I could get up that climb really quickly. I didn’t have such good legs as the year before – I struggled over Faucons, St Nicholas the same – so instead of making the race, I was hanging on. It was a case of trying something and going for broke. And it almost worked.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge)
The 35-year-old outsprinted Alejandro Valverde in 2014 to became the first Australian to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
How many times have you raced LBL?
Eight times, I think. I haven’t missed many over the years throughout my career, probably only through injury.
Have you ever reached La Redoute and it’s been the end of your race, or the springboard for an attack?
Well, funnily enough, my first couple of goes at Liège I didn’t even make it as far as La Redoute. The second feed zone is 15 or 20 kilometres before the climb. The Stockeu and the Haute-Levée combination used to really smash the field to pieces. That was pretty much where I got dropped in my first couple of years as a professional.
Was it job done for you, or would you have liked to go on?
I would have loved to finish the race, but when you are already out the back at the 160km mark of a 260km race, you are going to be over half an hour behind at the finish. So I climbed off at the second feed zone.
I had ridden La Redoute in the recon a couple of days before the race, so I knew what was coming up and knew how tough it was going to be.
Then the last few years, when I have been competitive at Liège, it is obviously a strategic place – a springboard for attacks – so it’s a point where you watch your rivals closely: who is looking good, who has got good condition, who has team-mates around.
It’s tough, particularly the last few hundred metres to the summit – really steep.
It seems to be the usual suspects gathering at that point in the race: Gilbert, Valverde, Martin, Rodriguez, yourself – a dirty dozen or so of gruelling one-day tough nuts.
Definitely, if you watch the last six or so editions of Liège, you will see the same familiar faces at that point in the race, year in year out. So that is definitely the first good point to get a good look at your rivals and see how they are moving.
And I guess what makes La Redoute such an iconic place is watching old clips of the race, seeing guys like [Frank] Vandenbroucke or [Michele] Bartoli really making their moves there. That leaves a firm imprint in your mind of how tough that climb is, because those guys really smashed the race to pieces there.
But I don’t think the finale was so hard then as it is now, so you have to keep some energy held back for the latter stages of the race. The Roche aux Faucons is hard as well, so you need to be fresh for that.
Has there been a time when a rider has really put the hammer down on La Redoute in the editions you rode?
There’s always someone who goes there, often a dangerous break. You have to be very attentive. If a combination of strong guys goes, you may not see them again.
When you won last year, there was no mention of your name until the last 200 metres, but then I was watching with Spanish commentary…
Well, I imagine it was all about Valverde and Rodriguez, being Spanish! They are consistent performers.
That year's race was so tough. They threw in a couple of extra climbs because it was the 100th edition. Everyone was dead on their bikes by the end of it. No one had enough left to put in a serious attack. A few guys tried, got a slight advantage, but faded pretty quickly, so it was a real race of attrition.
I had some great support from my team-mates, who placed me really well at the foot of each climb, so I could get up them without putting in a huge effort. So I still had some gas left for a sprint.
Is it age or experience that counts in a race like LBL?
It’s a combination. As you get older, you get more race-savvy. And probably your endurance builds up too, so you can handle the six hours-plus that you only get in the Classics.
In the latter part of your career, you lose that explosive power that you also need to win those races too. At the moment, I’m in the middle, so I hope I can hang to both for a while yet.
Any stand out moments? The crowds are amazing, yes?
When it comes to Redoute, you have got to speak to Philippe Gilbert. That’s his climb. That road for Gilbert is just phenomenal. He grew up there: all his family, adopted family, anyone who claims to know Philippe Gilbert, is standing on Redoute.
What really sets it apart is the fans and the atmosphere. The noise of the crowd as it narrows in is like nothing else in that race.
This article appeared in issue 53 of Rouleur Magazine.