What sets Liège-Bastogne-Liège apart from the Cobbled Classics? Simple: La Doyenne is made for the mountain specialists
The Cobbled Classics have their secteurs pavé and their bergs. Paris-Roubaix has its gruelling cobbles and combative racing. However, the oldest classic of them all is set apart by the amount of climbing the riders must conquer if they are to have any hope of victory when they finally return to Liège.
Three-time Vuelta a Espana winner and former Hour Record holder Tony Rominger once added up all the changes in altitude in Liège and reckoned the total came to something like a solid Alpine stage of the Tour.
So, starting at the turn in Bastogne and counting down to the finish at Liège, here’s our climb-by-climb guide to the hills of the last Spring Classic, 261 kilometres long and barely a metre of flat on it.
10. Cote de St Roche
Length: 800 metres
Average gradient: 12 per cent
The first hill on the way back to Liège from Bastogne, the third on the day’s menu – and where the racing starts to get really serious. At the foot of a long sweeping descent into the town of Houffalize, a sharp righthander from a central roundabout leads up a short, well-surfaced and largely straight climb.
The catch is the gradient – viciously steep throughout and after such a fast previous descent, sure to split the bunch.
9. Cote de Wanne
Length: 2.7 kilometres
Average: 7 per cent
After 40 km of undulating roads, the first of a trio of hills (the Stockeu and Haut Levee follow immediately afterwards) and where the first big splits tend to go. Narrow, badly surfaced and running through a farm at one point, this one drags on and on.
There’s a bit of a descent half way up, then the second half is much worse, with a real kick at the top. Some witty person has written Alpe d’Huez at the summit, and whilst it’s not that bad, after 170 kilometres it’ll do some damage for sure.
The descent is probably the most dangerous of the entire course – fast and narrow.
8. Cote de Stockeu
Length: 1.1 kilometres
Average: 10.5 per cent
Rightly famous as a killer climb, a bit like the Koppenberg in Flanders, it’s a long way from the finish, but it always creates havoc. Why? Because it’s viciously steep, has an appalling road surface that rises out of the town of Stavelot and into the woods and is so narrow at some points there’s barely room for three riders abreast.
At the top there’s a monument to Eddy Merckx in the form of a sculpture but we don’t think he’ll like it: it makes him look like Cro-Magnon man riding a bike. Believe us – if the hill hasn’t finished you off, the sculpture will put you off cycling for the rest of your life in any case.
7. Cote de la Haute Levee
Length: 3.4 kilometres
Average: 6 per cent
If you thought there weren’t any cobbles in L-B-L, you thought wrong. This climb starts with about 500 metres of wheel-rattling pave through the centre of a town, with lots of bars and outside terraces if you fancy a drink whilst the race roars past.
Then the climb continues as a smooth tarmac rise with a huge concrete barrier in the middle. After a bad hairpin it eases up just before a roundabout, then there’s a false flat that follows which drags on forever.
6. Cote du Rosier
Length: 5.4 kilometres
Average: 5.9 per cent
This climb should be more famous than it is. Just like almost every hill in L-B-L, it starts with a right-hander, then winds its way upwards with almost no breaks. Reasonable road surface, but lots of sharp bends, mud and sudden sharp kicks upwards.
A really tough climb. A few years back, a farm dog tried to rip off the wing mirror from Cycling Weekly‘s hire car on this climb. This time round, no dog, but it’s still a tough climb.
5. Cote de la Vecquee
Length: 3.1 kilometres
Average: 5.9 per cent
This is where Vinokourov and Voigt attacked in L-B-L 2005, and stayed away to the finish. Well-surfaced, few corners and steady rather than brutally steep, not a memorable climb at all, though it does drag on for ages.
4. La Redoute
Length: 2.1 kilometres
Average: 8.4 per cent
The most emblematic climb of the whole of L-B-L, and when it finishes in the city centre, the one which almost always decided the race. Traditionally it’s where the big favourites know they have to be at the front and getting in the moves – and we’re not surprised. Starts off gently enough in the middle of a small town, underneath a motorway bridge then a right-hander is where it really begins to steepen.
Narrow and twisting, there are sudden major changes of gradient which make it really strength-sapping. The fans will be three or four deep on either side of the road here and there really is nowhere to hide. Lose the wheel of the guy in front on this climb and you’re gone. Probably forever.
3. Cote de Sprimont
Length: 1.4 kilometre
Average: 4.7 per cent
The easiest climb of the whole of L-B-L and in 2009 actually not classified as a climb at all, although the race goes over the same route as ever. Split in two with a short downhill mid-climb section, the first half is a steady rise through a posh residential area then after the descent it goes up a smooth A road to the summit. It’s a doddle in comparison with the Redoute, but could see some attacks go.
2. Cote de la Roche Aux Falcons
Length: 1.5 kilometre
Average: 9.9 per cent
The new addition to L-B-L in 2008, replacing the Cote de Sart Tilmont and Cycling Weekly will be very surprised if it doesn’t split the race wide, wide open.
This one is a monster. It starts by going over a level crossing (remember the barrier incident at Paris-Roubaix a couple of weeks back? It could happen again…) and then kicks upwards with constant changes of gradient and corners galore. Narrow, twisting, there’s even a huge road drain running right across the middle (yes, the middle) of the road at one point. The surface isn’t as bad as La Redoute, but it’s getting there.
As if that weren’t enough, after the official summit, there’s another kilometre of a winding unclassified climb, not as difficult, following straight after a kilometre of fast descending and a short flat section. Then it’s onto a long, long descent into one of the grimiest suburbs of grimy Liège.
1. Cote de St Nicolas
Length: 1 kilometre
Average: 11.1 per cent
Where the race always – but always – splits apart and the final attacks come thick and fast.
Running through a grimy suburb of Liège, this is basically a succession of steep corners with nothing between. Known as little Italy because of the number of immigrants from that country who live on the street, it leads almost directly via some cobbled streets and a fast descent onto the final 1.5 kilometre drag up to the finish in Ans.
Not the toughest of the Liège climbs in itself, but so steep it can leave you winded. After 250 kilometres of racing, very hard to handle – except for a very few top names.