I have a confession to make. I respect Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but I don’t love it. Not like I love the armadillo backed roads of the cobbled classics. She’s a venerable old lady, the oldest of the five Monuments of cycling, dating all the way back to 1892 when Belgian Leon Houa won the first amateur edition. Houa dominated the next year, too before winning the first professional edition of the race in 1894. But it’s another Belgian, the incomparable Eddy Merckx, who is the record holder at La Doyenne, racking up five victories between 1969 and 1975.
The Old Lady is a tough old dame. She’s the hilliest of the Classics, featuring as much elevation as a hard day in the Alps. The endless grinding repetition of the climbs, the fast and narrow descents test the peloton like no other classic. The Stockeu: as vicious as the Koppenberg; de la Roche au Faucons: a sinuous brute that saps the legs with its continually changing gradient; Côte de St Nicholas: winding through the streets of Little Italy where the final attacks come thick and fast; La Redoute: the climb that is indivisible from the race, its own Alpe d’Huez . It’s the multiplicity of effort that saps the strength, whittling the peloton down to the bravest and the boldest.
But still it fails to capture my imagination. I miss the cut and thrust of the pavés, the endless jockeying for position, the bone juddering effort. But then I heard the weather forecast from Belgium and it seemed that LBL might not be quite so dull after all.
I know, I know. Rank hypocrisy. Races should be safe – but as fans we can’t help ourselves yearning for spectacle, that maybe we’ll see a Classics race that we’ll remember in twenty years time. So let’s rewind briefly to 1980 – when the Badger battled a snowstorm to win one of the greatest one day races ever.
Sean Kelly said it was the worst conditions he ever encountered in his career. Duclos-Lasalle said he couldn’t actually remember finishing. The twenty first – and last – rider across the line finished 25 minutes behind Hinault. Hennie Kuiper remembers the finish line being nearly empty when he battled across it for second place, nearly 10 minutes behind the Breton. It was a masterclass in guts, class and sheer stubborn bloody mindedness – Hinault wedding his legs to his will and smashing the race apart like a hammer with a peach. 80 kms alone in a blizzard. In wool. The Badger permanently lost the feeling in several fingers as a result.
Sometimes it snows in April. The 2016 race gave us every season in a day – from white outs to rain so torrential it bounced back off the tarmac to the clear stark skies of a northern spring. So not quite the climactic apocalypse of 1980 but the weather was the major actor in the piece, riders battling with the endless strip tease of jacket on/jacket off. A handful of plucky riders – Betancur and Feillu among them – went bare legged. But this race was one for the warriors.
Maybe the French were dreaming of their first winner since 1980. Cofidis’s Nicolas Edet instigated the break of the day and resisted almost to the last, his bright red strip a blaze of brightness in the gloom. The ingenious Jeremy Roy was there too – and would finish dead last. Nearly fifty riders abandoned, but on a day like that there was no shame in climbing in the team car for some hot tea and sympathy.
There was no Stockeu – how dare they leave out Eddy Merckx’s playground, where he routinely constructed the devastating attacks that won him a record 5 races. Instead there was a brand new climb, the Côte de la Rue Naniot. This is the kind of thing ASO have started to do very well in their races – finding clever little climbs to twist the knife. The rue Naniot is 600m of cobbled agony at the end of over 200km of grinding, attritional racing. French hope Julian Alaphilippe led the remnants of the sodden peloton onto that last difficulty but there was no hope of a decisive move. Deadened, heavy legs could barely grovel their way up the 10% gradient.
In a role reversal from previous Classics races this spring, the dark jerseys at the front of the pack weren’t Sky. Instead it was Movistar and then Etixx who rode their guts out over those last, decisive ten climbs. Whether it was pace or meteorology, the attacks never quite came – but neither did the decisive attack from Valverde or Martin. There’d be no 4th title, or record tying 7th podium for the Spaniard. And the weather was too brutal for pandas.
Carlos Betancur, that mystery man of cycling – looking lean and mean in Movistar navy – is Valverde’s new bff and did everything he could to sacrifice himself for his leader. But there was an ever present blue striped helmet bobbing near the front of the peloton and that was the rider who was about to make history.
It’s been a long way from the Metz Massacre of the 2012 Tour de France to the top step of the podium in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I’ve always rated Poels as a rider – he’s a hugely talented rangy climber who never really seemed to fit at Quickstep. He’s been a canny buy for Sir Dave’s team and they’ve shown the ability to handle him properly, allowing him free reign to try for results. It paid back in spades yesterday as he proved the strongest on that long, last drag up from the red kite to the finish line. In the end it wasn’t G, or Wiggo or even Froomedawg that gave Sky their first, unlikely, Monument victory but the 27 year old Dutchman. It was a victory that pleased not only the die hards but the Dutch, who hadn’t won the race since Adri Van Der Poel in 1988.
Whether it was fatigue or the horrible conditions, Sky chose not to tow the peloton for 200 kms then fade away at the pointy end. Instead they released Poels like a free floating radical to do what he could – and he delivered. If I was G I’d be watching my back. Was it the big Classics win Sky would have chosen? Probably not – like a certain American team before them, the yen to win the more glamorous cobbled Classics burns ever brighter. But they’ll take it, oh boy will they take it, as the whooping celebrations on the Death Star attest.
AG2R’s Romain Bardet – another rider who would dearly love to get his hands on the somewhat ugly winner’s trophy one day – summed it up best when he said “Today we honoured our sport.” And today our sport gave us a tantalising glimpse of what old school Ardennes racing looks like.
Overall: It’s easy to forget just what a major player weather conditions are and how we love to watch the peloton suffer. No it wasn’t the most attacking race in the world but after 200+km in those conditions it was only ever going to be last man standing. Love it or loathe it, that’s Ardennes racing for you
Best bit: Watching riders suffer – I know, I know, sadistic but true. And the new run in to the finish line which is shaping up nicely
Worst bit: It wasn’t the most attacking race – wouldn’t have made a great introduction to the joys of one day racing for the casual fan – unless their interest was Team Sky led in which case there were no worst bits, at all.
Ride of the day: Nicolas Edet for making the French dream
Fail of the day: UCI ban disc brakes in a knee jerk move just when disc brakes might have been really, really effective.
Scores on the doors: Pretty damned decent – still not as viscerally brilliant as this year’s cobbles, but a nice memory of what ‘proper’ racing looks like. And Sky won a Monument and it didn’t break the internet – who’s have thunk it?
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