The oldest monument – Liège-Bastogne-Liège – brings down the curtain on the 2019 Spring Classic season, and what a season! Peter Easton looks back at the history of the ‘Old Lady’ and how she has weathered two World wars and taken her rightful place as the Queen of the Ardennes.
Historically, the Belgian Ardennes are regarded as one of the most significant and important military battlegrounds. Movies, documentaries, television series and books have all gone to great length to describe and analyze the crucial confrontation that has been memorialized as the Second World War’s Ardennes Counteroffensive, better known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The villages of Foy, Houffalize and of course Bastogne were obliterated, the forests surrounding these towns having exploded with artillery, the night sky illuminated like a Fourth of July fireworks celebration. Rebuilt to honor the lives sacrificed for world freedom, the scars of World War II are still sharply felt. General McAuliffe’s famous expression of “nuts”, when asked by the Germans to surrender, is still painted on concrete bunkers on the edge of Bastogne.
The great memorial at Mardasson was built by the Belgian people, declaring an infinite friendship and eternal gratitude to the United States for victory. And while eternal peace has hopefully laid a blanket across this swath of Belgium, there is still an eerie silence that is broken by the ghosts of soldiers and citizens. Fortunately, the land, the region and the country are not only regarded for its place military history. Any view into the Ardennes will likely bring up two things that are essential to Wallonia, and for that matter Belgian, life – beer and cycling. And while conversations will continue about the quality of beer produced and which of them is the best, when it comes to cycling, the conversation in this part of Belgium begins and ends with one race: Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
In the history of cycling, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the oldest of the major spring classics and has earned its reputation over the course of 127 years, 104 editions and countless route revisions. Though less celebrated than its Flemish and Northern France rivals the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the only major monument that passes the hours on race day Sunday waiting for the peloton to return to its starting locale, completing its grand loop, eager to assess the damage the Ardennes has extolled on its participants. Liège-Bastogne-Liège was first conceived in 1892 to help promote sales of the newspaper l’Expresse, and as the paper was written in French, it dictated keeping the race in the French speaking region of Belgium. This tactic predates the more widely regarded creation of the Tour de France by the newspaper l’Equipe, though this clearly was different as it was driven by the effort to promote a grand tour across a country rather than a single day classic. The characters, however, were all the same as inaugural Tour de France winner Maurice Garin finished fourth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1894, its third edition. After three years as an amateur event, the race was shut down for thirteen years, until 1908.
By 1908, bike racing was firmly entrenched throughout Europe, though it was experiencing varying degrees of success, both from an honorary sporting perspective and an attractive sporting event for fans. Paris-Roubaix first traced the cobbled tracks of northern France farmland in 1896 and by 1908 was in its 13th consecutive edition. Milan-Sanremo was introduced in 1907, and came on the heals of success that its partner, Il Giro di Lombardia, was experiencing leading into its fourth edition in 1908. Paris-Tours was also introduced in 1896, but by 1908 was only in its fifth edition. The oldest and longest running Classic at this point was Bordeaux-Paris, first run in 1891 and planning its 18th edition by 1908. In extolling the virtues of the Classics, their beauty resonates not only for so much of what they represent, but also what they don’t represent. There is no racing for a wardrobe or a different jersey, the only prize to be concerned with is the winner’s trophy. In obtaining this unique sculpture that is unaccompanied by an advertiser’s stuffed animal, there is no rehearsed victory salute. To win a Classic in itself is the spectacle, the unfolding of the drama, the unexpected, a jolt of arms thrust into the sky at the finish, the slumped shoulders and saddened face of the second place finisher just behind. And with this, the Classics winner wins with humility, and loses with dignity, for he may have been, or may find himself, in that second place. The feeling is frighteningly familiar. In the Classics, there is no grupetto, you are either in the race, or you’re not. And this is decided on how badly one wants victory.
Of the Five Monuments of Cycling – Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Il Giro di Lombardia the others – it is Liège-Bastogne-Liège that lacks the glamour. There is no medieval market square to celebrate the start, no historic stage to showcase the finale. There are no shadows cast from the marble spires of a Gothic cathedral, no grand lakeside boulevard for the sprint. It is, however, the only race that does not depend on its image to sell itself. It is the only one of the five that dispatches its riders, puts them on a course of systematic and methodical elimination, and patiently awaits their return. No untimely flats or unfortunate crashes caused by cobbles, no narrow lanes to negotiate. And if the first 100 kilometers is the introduction, it is the final 165 that activates the race, underscores the visual distinction between country and city, and highlights the enduring history between Liège and Bastogne. If the Tour of Flanders is in your heart and Paris-Roubaix is in your head, then Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a race that is clearly in your legs. And while winning its midweek partner La Flèche-Wallonne is surely a great achievement, it’s laying claim to the oldest classic of them all that will keep your name on everyone’s lips. While an intricate knowledge of the cobbles of Flanders and pavé of Northern France is a prerequisite for success, conquering Liège-Bastogne-Liège requires pure strength. Paris-Roubaix is unmatched in its uniqueness and the Tour of Flanders is, in so many aspects, the most beautiful. But as the oldest Classic, it is this race that demands the most when it comes to pure strength and battling attrition. No man has ever won Liège-Bastogne-Liège on luck.
Leaving Liège, the landscape, a wave of continuously verdant hills, appears on the horizon, and the beauty of the Ardenne Bleue is lit from the ground up, as blossoming flowers color the grass light blue, almost mirroring the sky. The indigenous architecture is accentuated with local stone, shimmering in the morning sunlight varying shades of blue. Villages swell with spectators, pausing to pay tribute – a moment of silence – at the local war memorial. Unlike its Flemish counterpart, the Tour of Flanders, this day is not a wild chase across the narrow back roads of an open countryside. This is a day that memorializes a dark past as much as it celebrates, at least for a day, the beauty of the present. It is a day of pride for Wallonia, this fourth Sunday in April, and they are proud to be the center of the cycling world.
Unbeknownst to the ominous legacy history would bestow on Bastogne, the city was selected as the turnaround for the race because in its infancy it was the furthest point south race officials could get to by train ahead of the riders in order to provide a control point before the race returned to Liège. Following the legacy of World War II, the significance of Bastogne holds a more dramatic image, forever linking the timelines of history that now span across three different centuries. 71 years on from its nightmare, the church bells from the reconstructed belfry in Bastogne ring proudly at 1:00 pm on race day as the peloton navigates the village. Numerous memorials surround the town, locking in to the horrors of the cold winter of 1944-45. But one of the most enduring aspects of the Spring Classics is how each race embraces its history, respectfully memorializing the past that comes to life for one day each year.
Outside of the village of Les Forges, a statue was erected to memorialize Stan Ockers, the 1955 World Champion and a Belgian professional who died after a track cycling accident in Antwerp at the age of 36. In addition to winning the rainbow jersey, Ockers was the second man to win Le Weekend Ardennais, when La Flèche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège were run on consecutive weekend days. The peloton annually pays homage to Mr. Ockers as the race rises through Les Forges at kilometer ten. The most recent memorial as part of the race was constructed in 2009 in Bastogne, and was not dedicated to the horrors of war, but constructed to honor the village as the turnaround point, and display their proud history as patron of this race, a gesture fittingly displayed with the dedication of Le Rond Point la Doyenne. In addition, the villages of Houffalize, Wanne, Stavelot, La Gleize and Stoumont each have their monument to the race in the form of a côte that fits into the Liège parcours, and each village has its monument to the soldiers and the battles of World War II that fit into the archives of modern history. One event is embraced once a year, the other a chilling reminder on a daily basis of sacrifice and human suffering.
The race’s climbs through the thick forests of the Ardennes Mountains orchestrate a sequence that is highly calculating, fearsome in its difficulty and arduous in the effort it takes to conquer them successfully. The ten climbs – Côte de La Roche-en Ardenne, Côte de Saint-Roch, Côte de Wanne, Côte de la Haute-Levée, Col du Rosier, Col du Maquisard, Côte de La Redoute, Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons, Côte de Saint-Nicolas. And new this year the Côte de la Rue Naniot – magnify the race’s true essence – an increasingly rapid elimination process that leaves the strongest, grittiest and most determined riders to duel it out through the streets of Liège in one magical effort of brilliance. Presenting the race’s main obstacles in succession is what defines a spring classic, and the mythical aura that surrounds these obstacles expands as the seasons pass, each year another rider adding to the allure of the côtes of the Ardennes, the bergs of Flanders, the cobbles of Roubaix.
Like the other Monuments, Liège-Bastogne-Liège has its icon that symbolizes all that the race represents, capturing the emotion of the spectators and igniting the competitive spirit that calls our names on Sunday mornings in April. Milan-Sanremo has manipulated its finale, its lack of faith that after 285 kilometers, the famed Poggio is enough to draw out a select group of competitors. The heart and soul of what defined the Tour of Flanders – the Muur van Geraardsbergen – has been removed, leaving the race a finishing circuit. The energy that rises above the abandoned mines in northern France’s Trouée d’Arenberg smells of Paris-Roubaix Sunday, and il Giro di Lombardia will forever be linked to the tolling bells of the Madonna di Ghisallo chapel. For Liège-Bastogne-Liège, this centerpiece is the Côte de la Redoute, a stifling sequence of steps that rises steeply alongside the A26/E25 highway and whose lifeline is close to being choked closed by the gauntlet of fans that swarm the hill. The climb is so definitive a part of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, police completely close off one lane of traffic on the highway exit for parking, Philippe Gilbert’s fan club has a massive tent assembled for their race day party, and “Philippe” is scrawled in paint over 300 times on the road. The irony of it all is the intensely beautiful backdrop this is played out against.
Approaching Liège, the smoke stacks that once heaved and belched plumes of smoke into the sky appear on the riverside. The circuitous chase up the monochromatic street of the Côte de St-Nicolas and through the worn maze of Liège is reminiscent of a high speed chase of cops and robbers with one, two maybe three men in close pursuit, negotiating the tight turns, dips and rises. If grey was not a color, it would be mournful and miserable. Thankfully the peloton rotates like a kaleidoscope, bringing a prism of color to an otherwise dreary neighborhood.
The innocuous finish in Ans, uphill from the Place Saint Lambert, is crammed onto a boulevard whose main tenant is a Carrefour super market squeezed next to exit 33 off the A3/E40 highway. Even if this race rejects any sense of glamour, the honor bestowed on its victor is a success that resonates beyond the podium. To the winner, the finish is as glamorous as any, and with a race filled with the grit necessary to win equal or greater than its monument partners, La Doyenne will simply continue to rely on its terrain to define the glory, those moments realized across a landscape that holds the memories of war, yet doesn’t fail to celebrate the beauty of cycling.
# The 2019 Liège-Bastogne-Liège PEZ Preview HERE. The PEZ Liège race report will be live soon after the finish and there will be video and rider quotes in EUROTRASH Monday. #