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Hills the Shape of Time
Liège-Bastogne-Liège – the Climber’s Classic
Words by Tom Southam | Illustration by Rohan Daniel Eason
On the morning of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as our team bus passed through the unforgiving grey industrial outskirts into the city centre, our team manager, Claudio Corti, rose from his seat behind the driver and faced his riders.
As if he had rehearsed the moment many times before, he looked around at the faces of his charges as if we were about to storm the beaches of Normandy. Occasionally flicking his gaze toward the tall townhouses that rose up alongside us as we entered the heart of the city, he began to speak.
“Ragazzi [boys], this is a special day. When I was a rider, each year when I rode this race, as we rolled out of the city I would take a look around me at these buildings, at this city. And I would think to myself… ‘Questo e la Liegi’.”
It was an Italian sense of occasion he was keen to impress upon us: “This is Liège.” Words designed to stir us into action. And yet, under gunmetal grey skies in the April of 2006, far from enjoying the experience I was dwelling on a moment, 48 hours before, when I had seen with my own eyes the hills of La Doyenne for the first time.
After a good showing at Fleche-Wallonne the previous Wednesday, I had been quite happy with my form. I was confident and strong, coming in to what I knew was the most important race of my life; I couldn’t wait to get started. On that Friday before the race though, when we went to do our reconnaissance of the final 100km of the route, everything changed.
There are many things that can make a bike race hard: wind, cobblestones, small roads and bad weather; but there is nothing in my mind that presents more of a physical challenge for a bike rider than a road that goes uphill. The fact of the matter is, riding up a slope is always going to be difficult, no matter your height, weight, or how much you claim to like climbing. And as every climber knows, they, too, hurt like hell every time the road goes up – they just take less time over their suffering than others.
I didn’t like climbs but they didn’t usually bother me either. What I saw that Friday, however, shook me to my core: the final 100km of Liège-Bastogne-Liège were simply the hardest 100 kilometres I could ever imagine having to cycle – let alone having to do so after 170 long, hard kilometres.
I’d heard mutterings before, from the likes of Pascal Richard (winner of the 1996 edition), that Liège that was the hardest Classic of all. But I hadn’t understood or believed it until then. My assumption, I suppose along with many other people’s, was that the rutted farm tracks of northern France, or the cobbled muurs of Flanders made for the hardest racing. But when I saw those cold, dark ancient hills I understood why Liège was so hard.
Normally, when the road turns uphill, the battle against gravity is pure and simple. A race will stretch out over the length of a climb and that will be that: you survive or you don’t. In Liège, the hills are viciously sharp and yet so short that they require an act of balancing, of leverage, between weight, strength and the unrelenting gradient.
The riders who wanted to succeed here, I realised, would have to use their own strength and physicality as leverage; to plough into the fierce slopes and hang on, while the tension between their weight, their strength and the gradient ahead of them works out which is going to give out first. They would then have to do it all over again, until they could do it no more.
Paris-Roubaix and Flanders have their obvious hardships; the batterings, the crashes and the misfortune all show up well on TV. But for all that, luck and an ability to hold on to your bike while it behaves like a pneumatic drill both play a key role in those races; in the Ardennes there is no place to hide. In Liège it is man against man, and man against hill.
On the Friday before I rode the race in 2006, as we reconnoitred the route, this was what I saw: I saw hills that were the shape of time; hills that weaved through the dark forests and carried on their rutted shoulders so many stories of so many battles. And yet there was no foxhole, no shelter. I felt stranded, surrounded by those hills in each of which I saw an enemy. My heart sank into my slightly too small Italian cycling shoes.
When we arrived in Liège on race day and signed on in front of the cathedral, instead of a sense of occasion all I could think of were those hills, out there waiting, one after another after another.
There was no doubt in my mind as I looked at the skies and wondered what kit to wear, that this would be the hardest of hard days. It would make no difference if the rain fell, or which way and how hard the wind blew, those things seemed ephemeral; the climbs of Liège- Bastogne-Liège were as permanent and unchanging as anything I could imagine.
As the time to the start ticked down and our bus driver Gianni busied himself with making each of the riders their final espresso – a job he took as seriously as driving the bus itself – I thought about previous winners of the race. No chance victors, no flukes, just a list of the strongest riders of their time. Proof that the hardest races aren’t the ones that flirt with lady luck but instead the ones that reward only the greats.
In time, there was simply no more waiting to be done. I made my way from the bus through the crowds and to the start; full of the kinds of nerves that leave you feeling bloated and tired and you wish you could have left in the chemical toilet. The flag was dropped and 200 riders set out. From here, to there, and back.
My fate, I knew, was sealed, just like everyone bar a very select few immortals who would somehow survive to the finish in the front, there was a climb out there waiting for me.
I didn’t know its name yet, but I knew it was there; waiting to halt me in my tracks and drag me back down to the ground, while the rest of the group raced on. I could see the camber of the road and the gradient of each and every climb on the route. I saw them all and they seemed endless, and to a rider like me they were. If one didn’t get me, then I was sure another would: the Cote du Wanne, the Cote du Rosier, Haute Levee, La Redoute. Hills that had been there long before me, and hills that would be there long after I had struggled over them.
It was only then, as we crossed the River Meuse and started to leave the city, that I gave in to my fate and lady luck finally smiled on me. Buried deep under layers that I would later carry back to the team car, I am sure each one of us did indeed realise what Corti had been saying was true. This was a special day because this was La Liegi, the hardest and most beautiful of all the Classics.
With special thanks to Jem Southam.