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It is that time of year again, the time when the great classics move from the cobbles of northern Belgium and France to the forests and climbs of the Ardennes. And while the Amstel Gold Race and the Flèche-Wallonne have captured the headlines in recent days, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, held this Sunday, remains the crown jewel.
The oldest of the cycling’s monuments, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a brutal race strung together by a steady repetition of challenging climbs. And fans here know that the first major rendezvous of the race is in the town of Houffalize, about 70 kilometers south of Liège.
By this point in the race, the start in downtown Liège has quickly faded into the past. When the riders turn and start climbing the impressive Saint Roch climb, the real racing begins. By this point, the morning’s breakaway will be well-established, and Saint Roch provides an early kicker as the peloton heads towards Bastogne, the symbolic halfway mark and turning point in the race.
It is not here where you will see grimacing faces powering up the climb. No, for that you must wait until later in the race when the attacks increase and the accumulating kilometers begin to take their toll.
And yet the Saint Roch climb is must-see for anyone who has made the journey here to watch the race, as it is a sort of communion between the fans and the cyclists. It is one of the great moments of the year, as the peloton turns right, out of Houffalize, and makes its way up the nearly 500-meter wall. The street is narrow, framed tightly by the aging brick homes, and the fans are packed on each side of the street, as they encourage the riders, while keeping an eye out for their favorites.
And for the race photographers, the Saint Roch climb is always a special moment as well. We always try to get to the climb early to best position ourselves for the classic view of the peloton and the fans compressed together from behind as the pack makes its way up the steep climb.
Needless to say, for the residents of Houffalize, the passage of Liège-Bastogne-Liège is one of the highlights of the year and the town is abuzz with excitement on this Sunday morning in April when the race comes through. One of my best memories, however, came back in 2015 when I negotiated with some local residents to shoot out of their window on the second floor. It is a familiar trick photographers use when searching for a different perspective, and the residents at Houffalize are sometimes most accomodating. But that year, when I found my spot on the windowsill, I soon realized that the real shot was the elderly couple next to me rather than the more classic shot of the pack. They could not have been happier to have a front-row seat and for that moment when the pack passed underneath. They were royalty.
Who knows what will await the pack this year, and just how many fans actually make it here or are allowed up the climb in this time of Covid? But, there will always be a lucky few, who live here — or know somebody that does — and can benefit from their window sill to have a front-row seat on one of cycling’s great annual sites.