“I’ve just been training in Boulder, Colorado. Doing my usual thing.” Lachlan Morton’s “usual thing”…
Liége-Bastogne-Liége is the oldest, and perhaps the most demanding, of the classics. In Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium that hosts the race, it’s referred to as La Doyenne. The Old Lady.
Liége has been won and lost 106 times, but has always retained her grandeur, though the world around her has collapsed more than once. When Liége was first raced in 1892, Wallonia was Europe’s industrial capital, and its people enjoyed unprecedented wealth. A number of those factories they built then are moldering, and more than a few tumbledown mansions top the hills that rise towards the forested heart of the Ardennes.
French-speaking Belgium was hit hard by the World Wars. In 1914, Liége was the site of the first World War’s first great battle, and some of the worst early fighting took place in the surrounding hills. People tried to resume their lives after the war. Business returned. Liége-Bastogne-Liége was held again in 1919. Twenty-one years later, the Germans stormed through the woods again on their way to take Paris. For four years, the people of Wallonia lived under occupation, until the Allies liberated the region in late 1944. The German counterattack—the Ardennes Offensive—killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people, before it was finally defeated.
That August, just a few months after VE Day, the people of Wallonia lined their roads to watch their beloved Liége-Bastogne-Liége once again. Those hopeful days were the start of hard years. The factories that had once been the pride of European manufacturing were weary and war-damaged. Ever since, the region has fought hard to regain the advantages it once enjoyed.
The region’s people and old stone towns have a distinct warmth, and the landscapes are magnificent — dense forests clinging to the folds of hillsides. Above the jumbles of shops and concrete-block flats, grand buildings and statues still stand—monuments to a prosperous era.
Liége-Bastogne-Liége is such a monument. The oldest and once most grand, now in the long shadows cast by the cobbled classics — Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, namely — to the north. But look closely, and what a monument Liége is.
Just shy of 260 kilometers, it is one of the longest races on the professional cycling calendar, and its course usually features 4,500 formidable meters of climbing. In scale, the Ardennes hills are not very imposing. The highest point in Liége-Bastogne-Liége, the summit of the Côte de Mont-le-Soie, is just 587 meters above sea level. But countless roads wind up and down the steep, wooded sides of the valleys that rivers have cut into the rock.
Past lumberyards and old mines, through forests and meadows and small stone villages, those climbs and descents come one after the other in the race, especially during its final third. After reaching the top of the Côte de Mont-le-Soie at the 161-kilometre mark, the riders face a barrage of short, steep climbs for the next 80 kilometres: the Côte de Wanne, Côte de Stockeu, Côte de la Haute Levée, Col du Rosier, Col du Masquiard, Côte de la Redoute, Côte de Forges, and Côte de la Roche aux Facons.
Since the race now finishes with a flat run into the center of Liége instead of an uphill sprint, every one of those climbs could be decisive. The best climbers no longer have a reason to wait to attack. And the hilltops are often exposed to the wind, so the race could split at any point.
The finale will be a test of the riders’ tactical nous, raw uphill ability, and guts. Two hundred plus kilometres into Liége-Bastogne-Liége, with several thousand metres of climbing in their legs, they won’t have a watt of effort to waste. Going with the wrong move could put them out of contention. But, at a certain point, they will have to pick a time and go and commit to their decision.
La Doyenne rewards those who endure and can rely on their instincts. It’s a slow burn, and runs through towns a bit forgotten but still welcoming, still beautiful. Once one watches this race closely and looks in, much like spending a little time in some old stone villages folded tucked in the forested hills, it’s hard to forget.