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-Bastogne-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 105 editions. 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 in the last decade. Here’s what La Redoute means to them.
Dan Martin – Winner in 2013
I could tell Liège 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.
Paris-Roubaix obviously takes a greater toll on your body, but terrain-wise, I would say Liège is more difficult.
Philippe Gilbert – Winner in 2011
I first rode Liège 2003, in my first year as a 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 Marc 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.
Simon Gerrans – Winner in 2014
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.
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.
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.
I seemed to learn pretty quickly. There’s not many guys who win Liège at the age of 26.
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.
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.
The atmosphere [on La Redoute] 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 the Muur 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.
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.
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.
[La Redoute] is 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.
This is an edited extract of an article originally published in Rouleur 53. Read it in full, for free, via the Rouleur app.