Five moments in history: Liège-Bastogne-Liège

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

How can I win Liège-Bastogne-Liège? That’s the question many in the peloton will be asking themselves after today’s Flèche Wallonne.
There are many ways to win a race though, and La Doyenne is no exception. Here’s a look at a few of the notable ways riders have triumphed at the Monument.
Tandem time trial
It was 1969, Eddy Merckx’s second year at Faema, the year of his first Tour de France victory, the year of his infamous derny crash. He had already been World Champion, won two editions of Milano-Sanremo, as well as Paris-Roubaix and the 1968 Giro d’Italia. Liège was one of the few races that still eluded the then twenty-four-year-old.
Merckx first rode the race in 1966, finishing eighth as Jacques Anquetil rounded off his career with a fifty kilometre solo effort. The next year saw improvement but, already accustomed to winning, he described his second place to Walter Godefroot as a “terrible humiliation”.
Van Schil leads Merckx on the road to victory in 1969. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
The following season saw Merckx sit the race out before returning to finally add it to his palmarès. The Côte de Stockeu, 100km from the finish, provided the race’s decisive moment. Merckx and teammate Vic Van Schil, who led the peloton on the run-in to the climb, powered up its steep slopes, immediately creating a gap.
It would be the last time anybody saw the duo, with their lead reaching over eight minutes at the finish. The most comprehensive of Merckx’s victories at the race, he would go on to win four more editions, the most of any rider in history.

Snow day
Bernard Hinault may have already won the race in 1977, beating fellow late escapee André Dierickx with a surprise attack, but his second victory at the race is far more memorable.
It was cold and snowy in Liège on the morning of Sunday April 20, 1980. Conditions were so abject that riders had started to abandon the race as they reached the outskirts of the town, and only sixty of the 174 starters were still racing at Bastogne.
Hinault wanted to climb off at Bastogne too, but instead chose to carry on, coaxed by teammate Maurice Le Guilloux. The snow had stopped but it was still freezing cold as the remaining riders headed north, and it was these icy temperatures that prompted Hinault’s attack, with the Frenchman seeing it as his only option to keep warm.
Hinault’s frosty ride to Liège. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
Just as Merckx and Van Schil had done, Hinault chose the Côte de Stockeu as the place to make a move. Pursuing Belgian Rudy Pevenage, who was two minutes up the road, he made light work passing a chase group before reaching Pevenage in Stavelot. Still eighty kilometres from the end, Hinault found himself alone soon after.
Riding with frostbitten fingers, which still affect him today, ‘Le Blaireau’ finished alone, nine and a half minutes ahead of Hennie Kuiper. Only nineteen others made the finish. Not bad for a man just trying to warm himself up.

Picking your spot
At big races, the major contenders carry out reconnaissance missions, scouting the decisive stretches of road and looking for where potentially race-winning moves can be made. The late Frank Vandenbroucke took this to its logical extreme though.
It was 1999, the height of the Belgian’s powers. A new addition to Cofidis, his form during the Spring was remarkable, with his wins including the GP Marseillaise, Omloop Het Volk and a stage of Paris-Nice. April saw him follow them up with a second place at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and seventh at Paris-Roubaix.
All that, together with his sixth place at Liège a year earlier, saw that he was a big favourite for the race. However, the sheer audacity of what he did still shocks today. Before the race he gave a television interview, talking about how he would make the winning move of the race on the climb of La Redoute, 35km from the finish.
Vandenbroucke had earlier won Omloop Het Volk in a superb Spring. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The peloton was fifty-strong and Mapei’s Michele Bartoli, who had won the previous two editions, launched an attack on the hill. Seconds later, Vandenbroucke was right with him. Almost immediately he flew past the Italian and forged a path alone to the finish, where he rode across the line half a minute ahead of second-placed man Michael Boogerd of Rabobank, who he had passed along the way.
We all know now what was powering the man from Mouscron – he was banned in 2001 having confessed to using various drugs, including EPO and amphetamines. That’s not to say his feat has been diminished by such chemical enhancement, however, given that doping during the late 1990s and early-2000s was rife. Boogerd, for example, has also admitted to doping during that period.
Still only 24, that year would turn out to be the pinnacle of his career, before the scandals took over. Despite all the murky details though, Vandenbroucke’s win still stands as a legendary moment in the oldest race of them all.

Vino’s victories
It’s fair to say that the Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov is a controversial figure. A Tour contender and Vuelta winner, he left the 2007 Tour de France having tested positive for a homologous tranfusion. (Yes, he had somebody else’s blood in his system.) He was back in the sport two years later though, ready to compete again at the grand age of thirty-six.
Early highlights of his comeback in 2009 included a seventh place at the Giro di Lombardia and eighth at the World Championships TT. The following Spring would see the Astana man improve further. A win at the Giro del Trentino ahead of another bad boy of cycling, Riccardo Riccò, was his final outing before returning to Liège, a race he had won back in 2005.
That victory saw him outsprint CSC’s Jens Voigt after the two had escaped fifty kilometres from the finish. Five years later, he again found himself riding to the finish with a sole accomplice, this time Katusha’s Alexandr Kolobnev.
Vinokorouv allegedly paid off Kolobnev to win his second Liège-Bastogne-Liège. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
The Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, added to the race in 2008, was the location of their escape. Quickly building up a lead, they had an advantage of thirty seconds approaching the final hill, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas. It was a gap that only extended until Vino powered away from the Russian with a kilometre remaining to win by six seconds. So far so good, only there was a further twist in the tale.
An email exchange between the two riders was discovered by Italian police during their investigation into Dr Michele Ferrari. Swiss magazine L’Illustre published the leaks, with talk the day after the race of a €150,000 payment and the sharing of bank details.
Since then there hasn’t been much action, though last August Belgian authorities charged the pair with bribery. As of writing, the case hasn’t gone to court, though with Astana’s current troubles, Vinokourov perhaps has bigger things to worry about.

Martin almost repeats
More recently we come to 2013 and Dan Martin’s triumph. The man from Garmin-Sharp had quietly finished fifth the year before, and was one of the dark horses for victory. His plan was put into action on the Côte de Colonster, which replaced the Côte de la Roche aux Falcons due to roadworks.
Teammate Ryder Hesjedal jumped away from a small break group on the hill and led the race up until the Côte de Saint-Nicholas. There, the Canadian was caught by a select group including Martin, but continued to push onwards, leading the way to the final drag to the line in Ans.
With a kilometre remaining, Katusha’s flyweight climber Joaquim Rodríguez leapt away. It briefly looked as though all was lost for Garmin, but Martin fought back.
Martin, Rodríguez and their cuddly friend in 2013. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
Followed memorably by a man dressed as a panda (this later led to a jersey deal with the WWF), the Irishman kicked one last time approaching the final corner, securing the biggest win of his career to date.
A year later the final corner was memorable for all the wrong reasons. This time once again saw Martin chasing down a Katusha rider, reaching the wheel of Giampaolo Caruso before the bend. He had done everything right and possessed a mean sprint so victory number two looked certain.
Heartbreakingly, Martin slid on a spot of diesel in the road, crashing out of contention and eventually crossing the line in thirty-ninth place. He’ll be back this Sunday though, and he should be right in the midst of the action once again.
Pick up issue 53 of 1 to read Dan Martin’s perspective on the race and its famous climb, the Côte de la Redoute.

97 thoughts on “Five moments in history: Liège-Bastogne-Liège”

  1. Thanks for this! That edition with Dan Martin slipping out whilst trying to retain Liege was epic. Martin was clear and should’ve won it again!

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