Liège-Bastogne-Liège is called “La Doyenne,” the Old Lady of the classics because it is the oldest. But is it the best? Any race that dates back 130 years is something extraordinary.
Dating back to 1892, the race traces narrow roads through the wooded hills of the Ardennes to the city of Bastogne, a province that still celebrates the liberation of General Patton in WWII, and does a U-turn back to Liège.
These days, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the fourth monument of the season, and closes out the spring classics campaign, and heralds the grand tour racing season to come.
Its list of winners is also memorable, from greats like Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, and Bernard Hinault, to Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič. A women’s edition added six years ago brings even more significance to the race’s long history.
Where does Liège rank in today’s modern peloton? Is it still the “great lady” of the peloton, or has it lost some of its luster?
In today’s Throwback Thursday, VeloNews editors James Startt and Andrew Hood reflect on the rich history of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the oldest classic, what makes the race so good?
Startt: Well, firstly from a sporting perspective, it is the length of the race and the length of the climbs. It is always a race of attrition. Once the riders hit Bastogne and turn around the pace really picks up. I’d say from the Stockeu climb onward, it is just brutal. The weather can often be brutal. When it is cold here in this part of southern Belgium it really gets in your bones.
And then for anyone with a historical sense, Bastogne is a town of real meaning. It’s funny but most of us following the race never make it as far as Bastogne, as we usually stop in to watch the race pass on the Côte de Saint Roche and then cut over towards the climbs on the return. But I went out there last year and it was really interesting. There is a U.S. Army tank parked roadside as you enter town, and several references to General Patton. This area has really been marked by history.
Hood: I used to cover “Ardennes Week” every year, and would camp out first in Maastricht for Amstel Gold Race, and then find some nice village in the hills south of Liège for the week. There’s some great riding (and moules) around Aywaille, a good spot to be based if you’re ever in the area for the race.
I’ve always liked Liège even though it’s not one of the most popular of cycling’s monuments. It’s understandable in part because the region, especially 10 or 20 years ago, was a lot grittier than it is today. The area is quite nicer than it was when there were abandoned coal mines and boarded-up factories among the post-war urban blight. That was part of the race’s charm, too, in that the course dug right into the guts of rural Belgium.
The new finish in downtown Liège seems to have opened up the race and gives it a bit more drama and unpredictability than the uphill finale at Ans. Let’s see. Liège deserves more credit than it sometimes receives.
Does any edition in particular stand out?
Hood: For some reason, the year Maxim Iglinskiy won in 2012 always stands out for me. He simply rode everyone off his wheel and soloed home to victory. Vincenzo Nibali was the big favorite that year, and despite finishing second to the Astana rider that year, he’s never won it.
There have been some quite notorious editions and winners of Liège over the years, with stories of races being bought, entire teams “riding on jet fuel,” and other shenanigans that we all hope are part of cycling’s past. The past few editions since the finish line was moved back to the downtown Liège have also been quite interesting. Let’s see if that trend continues.
Startt: Well for some reason the 1996 edition. I was just starting out and Lance Armstrong was just coming up the ranks. This was the race he most wanted to win in the early years and the race that suited him best. He won Flèche-Wallonne on Wednesday that year. I can still remember sitting around a makeshift table in a gymnasium afterward, in Huy, and Armstrong was complaining about the sport as he compared it to Formula 1.
But Flèche is always the appetizer to Liège and the race he really wanted to win was Liège. And I really wanted him to win it, too. It would have been huge for him and huge at that time for American cycling. He was right there in the final but led out the sprint a bit early, I think, and got passed by Pascal Richard. He was really out of sorts at the finish and I was really bummed for him as well, as I knew him well at the time, and was really plugging for him.
But other than that, it is more the race itself. Like many following the race, I always ride over Houffalize for a quick bite while we wait for the riders to attack that steep, narrow road up the Côte de Saint-Roche. The way the cyclists come together with the fans there is always wonderful. I love it too when they ride over the cobbled road in Stavelot. It is right after the Côte de Stockeu and before the Haute-Levée and you can see the tension mounting. And then of course there is the amazing Redoute climb. It is so steep and so daunting. But unfortunately, the riders don’t attack it as hard as in years past as the racing generally really explodes later on still.
How do you rank Liège-Bastogne-Liège among the great classics?
Startt: Well, I know I will get some pushback here, but I think it has lost some of its luster. It used to come right after Paris-Roubaix, right after all of the great cobbled classics, but now it is the very last classic in April and a lot of us are already thinking about the Giro d’Italia.
In addition, the northern classics have really grown. Flanders Classics has done a tremendous job developing and packaging those races into a series, with Paris-Roubaix serving as this giant conclusion. Back in the day, the same riders would then go to Liège but now it is really the stage racers that come here, and their reputation is not so closely linked to the one-day races. So even though it always attracts great riders — look no further than last year when Pogacar won — and it is a truly great race, I just cannot get as enthusiastic about it as some of the others.
Hood: I agree with James that the race has lost some of its luster, but that perception is only among the punters and fans on the sidelines. Inside the bunch, Liège remains one of the hardest, most difficult, and most prestigious races a rider can have on their respective palmarès.
Any race that is 130 years old is special. Its distance, climbing meters, bad weather, and history all add up to give the “Old Lady” a special place inside the bunch. Just ask anyone who’s won!