By John Wilcockson
Everyone knows that a potential Tour de France winner has to make climbing strength his No. 1 priority. An inability to ride fast uphill is a serious handicap. And there’s plenty of climbing ahead in this Tour — starting with Tuesday in the Ardennes of southern Belgium.
This is the hilly region where the infamous Liège-Bastogne-Liège World Cup classic takes place every April. It’s a race that showcases strong climbers. Five-time Tour de France winners Eddy Merckx of Belgium, and Jacques Anqutil and Bernard Hinault of France, all won the Liège classic.
Among the event’s most famous climbs is the wall-like Mont Theux, where Anquetil broke clear to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1966. The nearby Côte des Forges — once the final hill before the finish in Liège — has a memorial at its summit to one of Belgium’s most revered racing cyclists, Stan Ockers, who won the race in 1955.
Both of these hills will be climbed Tuesday, in the final 35 kilometers of the Tour’s 198.5-kilometer stage 3 from Antwerp to Seraing. And you can be sure that they will help determine who wins the stage, and perhaps the Tour itself.The last time the Tour de France came this way was in 1995, when the seventh stage finished in Liège. It proved a highly significant one, because the defending champion Miguel Indurain of Spain attacked on Mont Theux, and only one rider managed to stay with him: Belgium’s Johan Bryuneel. Indurain powered the two-man breakaway almost single-handedly, and gained nearly a minute on the field, while Bruyneel sprinted past to win the stage and the yellow jersey. The next day, a time trial to Seraing saw Indurain take over the overall lead that he would keep until Paris two weeks later.
Today, Bruyneel is Lance Armstrong’s team director and you can be sure that he will have told his rider exactly what happened on Mont Theux six years ago. Armstrong, too, knows these climbs very well. Before his cancer, the Texan twice finished second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège (1994 and ’96), and he won the nearby Flèche Wallonne classic in 1996. Don’t be surprised to see Armstrong near the front when the race enters the Ardennes 50km from Tuesday’s stage end.
After the Mont Theux and Forges climbs, this stage 3 tackles the 3.6km-long Côte de Sart-Tilman, which summits just 8km from the finish. Almost six of those final eight kilometers are downhill, on a fast, twisting road. But the final 2.2km is all uphill, with one section at a 10-percent grade.
It should provide a spectacular finish — a finish that would have put a smile on the face of those three Tour winners of the past: Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault. Could it be Armstrong’s turn on Tuesday to show that his climbing form is right on target?