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Liege-Bastogne-Liege Approaches...
By Staff
Date: 4/24/2003
Liege-Bastogne-Liege Approaches...

Liege-Bastogne-Liege. A favorite Spring Classic to many. Why?

By Sheba

Courtesy Uncle Dave's Cycling Archive.
Click for larger image.
This eldest of ladies, 110 years old, tough herself to endure the countless calamities of men, she yet never spares her riders, even those who come back to prove themselves to her again and again. Kubler, De Bruyne, Merckx, Argentin, Bartoli, Bettini. The first three years she was won by Leon Houa, who then never graced her podium again. He surely remembered her to the end of his days, but does la doyenne have him even as a dim memory? There have been so one knows. Regardless, to this day she still captivates, still holds men in her sway.

Attracting riders from all nations, not just from Belgium but from sunny Spain, passionate Italy, the upstart United States, perhaps Pedro Delgado said it best, "Ever since my time with PDM, there were two races that were engraved in my memory and that I wanted to win one day. They were Fleche Wallone and specially Liege-Bastogne-Liege.” Though that was not to be, many others must feel the same. Hamilton raced for her and fell heavily, yet he comes back to try again. Armstrong, twice second and once sixth, also returns.

Her sheer beauty is hard to match – some trees still in winter dormancy, others raging with the spring; tall pines, bright green fields and hills. It will look like this. And this. Do you hear Moby’s Sunday in your mind as you watch the colors flashing by on these roads? Maybe not...the awe of scenery is often lost on hard men entranced.

But perhaps it is brutality mixed with beauty that so captures the imagination. It was once said the cols  "whose names resonate a forest echo (Stockeu, la Haute Levée, le Rosier, Vannes, la Redoute, les Forges...), so that in the heart of the battles these wooded vastnesses confer on the race an incomparable mystery."  Surely, it is where la doyenne sorts out her riders - the forested Cote de Stockeau, where, says Brochard, " it is an accordion and, at once above the Haute Levée, it is absolutely necessary to be in front, even if nothing happens. One always expects an event here!" 

The constant demand for endurance continues, on the Rose Tree as well as on the fir-forested and mythic Côte de la Redoute, where again, only those in good position at the narrow start will have the chance to fight it. Even if not the hardest climb in the race, the plaque on la Redoute is still true: "1892-1992. Ici, les plus grands champions cyclistes forgèrent leurs victoires dans Liège-Bastogne-Liège" -  “Here, the greatest cycling champions forge their victories in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”

Were it simply one or two of these, the race would be hard enough, but instead she lays out successive grueling challenges to the men in the ultimate test for her hand. One might even compare la doyenne to the mythological Argonaut Atalanta, who challenged her suitors to a race in order to win her. If they lost, she killed them. Surely there are many parallels...

But perhaps her appeal reaches even further– she lets riders and watchers alike travel along the many lanes of time. The Cote Saint-Roche, with its narrow and uphill windy streets, the riders packed together – if this were not enough, navigating also through the thick crowds in appreciative towns. Here in fascinating villages, steeped in thousands of quiet lives, the race even echos the challenges of everyday ancient life. Cobbles. Statues raised in testament to spring. Saint George, dragon coiling around his golden ankles, annointing Charles the Bold in his Golden Fleece. How many eyes have observed the passage of la doyenne?

Coming forward to the turn of the century, she was in her bloom and enjoying the grace of Liege in simpler times; forward further still to the German siege at Bastogne, she waited until the misery of countless thousands in the Ardennes, now marked by a star-shaped monument, was over. She is past and present all in one. (For those who fancy themselves knowledgeable about Liege, there is this little photo quiz.)

And what does she require of her riders? The course is a twisting web of agony, leaving along one route and returning along another, a chain of long, steep climbs called atrocities by some. Any small measure of prudence should warn riders away - "the wall,"  the "high levee" -  she requires sheer toughness, tenacity, good climbing skill, and most of all, love of her. To these men, the kilometers must seem an entire lifetime lived in less than a day. And though she has often let only one third of her men even reach the finish, it is for their own toison d'or that they suffer over and over again.

Tom Cochran sang, “Life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long” but truly, life is a cycle race. Perhaps the thrall of this race is that it is a journey of agony through the present which is at the same time the struggle of the past. In the end is it enough to say that this rider succeeded, or that one struggled? No. There is not a single man we could say she has treated well, though one man, Merckx, has been privileged enough to keep her company in her ripe age on the shady Côte de Wanneranval.

So why is Liege Bastogne Liege a favorite race? This we shall never really know, because how does one truly capture the essence of a race? But we can surmise. After all, though it has been said of other races, la doyenne is indeed la femme la plus mûre mais toujours beau, et mystérieux. And that tells us something.

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