Liège–Bastogne–Liège, the final Monument of the spring
The Monument Classics are five of cycling’s oldest and most prestigious one-day races – and this is the oldest of the lot! Known as La Doyenne, or “The Old Lady”, the first edition was contested way back in 1892.
This year marks the 102nd edition – a huge achievement for any race. Perhaps the most famous edition came in 1980, with a blizzard and freezing temperatures making it the ultimate race of attrition. Bernard Hinault famously won the event, one of just 21 riders to do so, and suffered frostbite in two fingers. With snow expected on race day this year, expect to hear a number of references to that infamous day.
Liege is the final flurry for the Classics, and the last chance for teams and riders to ensure it’s been a successful spring campaign. The end of La Doyenne draws a line under this part of the season, with attention then swiftly turning to the Grand Tours. At the finish there will be less than two weeks until the start of the Giro. Of course there remain a number of single-day challenges sprinkled throughout the cycling year, but the Spring Classics are a special set of races, and once they are over it’s a long wait until 2017.
Often certain images become synonymous with a race, and when it comes to LBL, the ascent of the Cote de Saint-Roch has become an iconic one. Climbed relatively early in the race, this ramp isn’t of key tactical importance, but with a tight, narrow street and abundance of flags, it makes for a striking backdrop. The crowd can come within inches of their heroes, making this scene all the more powerful.
While many Monuments feature an established and fairly rigid route, organisers the ASO have switched up the climbs in recent years. Some changes have been forced, while others have been implemented in a bid to freshen up the racing and provide a back-loaded barrage of climbs. 2016 sees the Cote de Stockeu removed and replaced by the cobbled Cote de la Rue Naniot. Early reports from course recons indicate this climb has the potential to really shake things up.
Flanders might be seen as the Belgian cycling heartland but there is a huge amount of interest and passion which emanates from the French speaking Wallonia region in the Ardennes. The scenery is often beautiful (the weather sometimes less so), but the hilly terrain means this is a completely different challenge to what has already played out in the Classics.
It might not be the climb that routinely decides the race but the Cote de La Redoute is still LBL’s most famous test. Averaging 9.5% in gradient, but topping out at a painful 22%, the climb can be seen as the beginning of the end. Lead groups can split here, thinning out the numbers in front of a packed crowd. Closer to the finish, the Cote de Saint-Nicolas might have a bigger impact on the eventual winner, but this stretch of road still holds a special place in the history of the Classics.
In modern day cycling it’s not that often you see Grand Tour winners duking it out for one-day glory. Vincenzo Nibali and Fleche Wallonne winner Alejandro Valverde are modern day active exceptions, but the Ardennes bring even more big names to the party. In addition, Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Joaquim Rodriguez, Robert Gesink and Ryder Hesjedal are among the three-week stage race men all set to line up at the start this year.
Key in every bike race – the finer tactical points of Liege are especially intriguing. With such long distances in play, riders need to conserve as much energy as possible during the day. And when that big attack comes, they need to make it count. But which of the many climbs do you attack on? Go too early and you risk going into the red. Hesitate for too long and you might find yourself swamped by rivals, or be forced to watch the winning attack disappear up the road. With no stage the next day to put it right every decision is magnified. Let’s also see how the new cobbled climb factors into the mix.
The race is often decided in a shootout on the final drag up to Ans. Although not considered one of the day’s ‘categorised’ climbs, the role it plays is undeniably key. The famous left-hand turn onto the home straight is iconic, and has even caught out a few in the past, with Dan Martin famously crashing out of a potentially winning position in 2014. Rumours he slid out on a pen were never confirmed. Even if you do hit the top of the climb first there’s still a 200-metre sprint to the line to negotiate. But the rewards at the line are huge!
With so many big names on the start line, any number of riders could add their name to the race’s honour roll. Cold temperatures and rain should make this even more of a mental battle, with a new finale throwing in another wildcard factor. Our best advice is to simply sit back and enjoy the race.