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Racing

Everybody wants
to win the Doyenne

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Democratic, meritocratic 
In 1998, the French magazine Vélo asked the top 100 cyclists in the world what their favourite classic was. More than a third of respondents had no doubt: the Liège-Bastogne-Liège was voted the most beloved race by riders. Although it is possible the taste of professionals has changed over the last twenty years, the reasons why the oldest classics route is still one of the favourites have not.

The Liège-Bastogne-Liège with a total elevation gain of around 4000 metres – mainly concentrated in the final quarter of the race – is considered by many the most demanding one-day event on the calendar. Despite the difficult altitude, it is one of the most democratic of the great racing classics in northern France. While the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix road epics are dominated by a small number of specialists, there are far more contenders to watch out for at the Liège start. Energetic runners, sturdy long-distance riders, fast climbers. Excluding sprinters, all other categories of cyclists can legitimately aspire to win at the finish line in Ans. 

Not only, the Liegi-Bastogne-Liegi also tends to be meritocratic. “It is the only race where you can be certain that the three finishing on the podium are the strongest of the day,” said Michele Bartoli once, winner of the 1997 and 1998 editions. “In other races, you can overcome defects in physical form with strategy, but not in the Liegi”. Chance, one of the aspects of cycling that spectators appreciate the most (the cyclists less so) plays a relatively small role during the annual route through Wallonia. This has not prevented Liege from producing some spectacular TV moments. 

Exceptional conditions
The first edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège was held in 1892 as a preliminary test, since such a spic event had never been held before: the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 845 km in total, would never have happened, but the miniature version (“just” 250 km, Bastogne was chosen as the half-way mark, since the organizers could reach it by train and make sure all competitors completed the first part of the route) would later enter the history of the sport on two-wheels. Not immediately, though. 

For a long time, Liège was a semi-classic, an important race but far from the level of the Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and the Giro di Lombardia. In particular, the Doyenne still lacked the cultural impact that another local event, the Tour of Flanders was able to generate: cycling was so deeply rooted in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium that it became a indispensable part of Flemish identity. The fortunes of the Walloon classic gradually changed, and the Liège became a professional bike race in 1930. It became a monument later on, with the Second World War marking a turning point in Doyenne’s history. 

In the late forties, the battered streets of Ardennes were populated with big names. Ferdi Kübler, the Swiss athlete able to counter the dominance of Coppi ad Bartali in the big Tours, was the first major champion to ennoble the Liège podium, winning in 1950 and 1951. Louison Bobet had to surrender to the far from hospitable microclimate of the Ardennes hills, where it rains twice as hard in the plains (and there is no shortage of rain on the Belgium plains), where there are 130 frosts and 30 snowfalls per year, in some cases lasting into late spring. 

In 1957, there were 10 centimeters of snow on the Côte de Rosiers, and some of the riders urinated on their hands to warm them. Bobet, finished fourth, a few years later said: “At school they teach you that Belgium is a flat and temperate country. I wanted to look my geography teacher in the face that day.” The victory was a tie between Frans Schoubben and Germain Derycke. The latter was the first to cross the finish line in Liège, but along the route, he crossed a closed level crossing, a maneuver permitted in France and Italy but not in Belgium. However, considering the conditions of the ride, the federation decided not to disqualify him, but to let him share the glossy with the runner-up: “Exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures.”

The Cannibal and Tasso 
In the seventies, the Doyenne, not unlike the other major races on the calendar, became a privileged stage for Eddy Merckx’s shows. If the Milan-Sanremo founded the myth of the Cannibal, the Liège-Bastogne-Liège consolidated it. After being beaten at the beginning by his rival Godefroot, Merckx won on the Ardennes five times from 1969 and 1975. His 1971 success is a memorable result in cycling history: sick, wearing two jerseys and woolen gloves, Merckx attacked at 90km from the end, was alone at less than 60, gained five minutes on the group, then lost all of them before Pintens caught up, but he finally managed to beat him on the final stretch. “I never suffered more than I did that day”, Eddy recalls. “It was the toughest race of my career, and for that perhaps one of the best.” 

A few years later Bernard Hinault, who had the same thirst for domination as Merckx, opted for Liège as his classic of choice. He only won once, in 1980, but it was enough to make him a legend. On the coldest day in the Doyenne’s history, Tasso gave his all at just 80km from the finish line. The second and third place finishers arrived nine minutes later, yet Hinault did not raise his arms in victory: it took him three weeks to recover sensitivity in his hands, and his fingers still suffer from the cold to this day. “That day I simply decided that running hard would be the only way to warm up”, Hinault said. 

New identity, unrivalled charm 
Over the last thirty years, Liège has attempted to build a new identity, attracting new stars and revamping the course. Italians dominated the rankings, with Moreno Argentin in the lead. Four wins, including that in 1987 when he emerged from the back of the pack and overtook Roche and Criquelion on the finish line, who kept analyzing each other. The Irish rider cried for the first time in his life. After Argentin, Bartoli, Bettini, Rebellin and Di Luca reached the same achievement.  

In 1998, the organizers introduced a new climb shortly before the finish line, in an attempt to revive a final that had become less selective over time: today the Côte de Saint Nicolas is the key stretch of the Doyenne. Although the difficulty of the Côte keeps the race closed almost right until the end and neutralizes the epic ascent of the Redoute, the prestige of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège has remained unchanged. The last 20 editions have been won by 15 different riders, none consecutively, not even Alejandro Valverde, who claimed victory at Ans four times, most recently in 2017, at the age of 37. Valverde is like the Doyenne, the classic that seduces everyone and rewards just one: it never grows old. 

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