Saturday 21 April 2012

La Doyenne 2012

Intro - Climbs and Parcours - points of interest and sights - Weather - Favourites - Coverage

The parcours - click to enlarge
(for a zoombable .pdf, click here)
It's that time of year again. The Flanders Classics, Milan-San Remo and the lunacy that is Paris-Roubaix are all over, as is the first of the Ardennes Classics La Flèche Wallonne; which means it's time for La Doyenne, the oldest of the Monuments, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. First held 120 years ago, La Doyenne was like many races from the latter half of the 19th Century and the first of the 20th originally organised with a view of promoting newspaper sales, in this case L'Expresse - the fact that it was published in French is the reason that the race remained within the French-speaking Walloon region rather than venturing into Flanders, where the cycling-mad natives speak various dialects of Dutch.

Some also call it the toughest Classic, tougher even than Paris-Roubaix. Moreno Argentin, who won four times, said, "Riders who win at Liège are what we call fondisti - men with a superior level of stamina. [The climb of] La Redoute is like the Mur de Huy in that it has to be tackled at pace, from the front of the peloton. The gradient is about 14 or 15 per cent, and it comes after 220 or 230 kilometers, so you don't have to be a genius to work out how tough it is. Liège is a race of trial by elimination, where it's very unlikely that a breakaway can go clear and decide the race before the final 100km. You need to be strong and at the same time clever and calculating - in this sense it's a complete test of a cyclist's ability."

The Parcours
The race follows its usual format this year with a relatively straight-forward 98km route south to Bastogne that has little in the way of challenging climbs, then a tough 159.5km with ten hard climbs on the way back to Liège. Riders start out from the Place Saint-Lambert in Liège before riding out into the Province of Luxembourg (not to be confused with the Grand Duchy, which it borders), the least-populated part of Belgium; reaching first climb the Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne after 70km before arriving at the little village Ortho (which has a very interesting medieval church, incidentally). The parcours between La-Roche-en-Ardenne and over the hill to Ortho is around 9km with an average gradient of 5.2% but the steepest part, just before 72km into the race, reaches 17% and it hits 12.5% another half a kilometre up the road.
Climbs with official gradients (gradients in the text refer to absolute maximums, measured on the inside of bends, and are taken from  

Km 70.0 - Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne - 2.8 km climb to 6.2 %
Km 116.5 - Côte de Saint-Roch - 1.0 km climb to 11 %
Km 160.0 - Côte de Wanne - 2.7 km climb to 7.3 %
Km 166.5 - Côte de Stockeu (Stèle Eddy Merckx) - 1.0 km climb to 12.2 %
Km 172.0 - Côte de la Haute-Levée - 3.6 km climb to 5.7 %
Km 185.0 - Col du Rosier - 4.4 km climb to 5.9 %
Km 198.0 - Côte du Maquisard - 2.5 km climb to 5 %
Km 208.0 - Mont-Theux - 2.7 km climb to 5.9 %
Km 223.0 - Côte de La Redoute - 2.0 km climb to 8.8 %
Km 238.0 - Côte de La Roche aux Faucons - 1.5 km climb to 9.3 %
Km 252.0 - Côte de Saint-Nicolas - 1.2 km climb to 8.6 %
With the first hill completed, it's only 27km to the turning point at 97km. The feed station is at 98km, then the riders head north on the much hillier return journey. They arrive at the Côte de Saint-Roch after 116.5km, a notoriously harsh climb with an average gradient of 11% and a maximum of 20%, then continue for 43.5km to the Côte de Wanne at 160km, average 7.5% and maximum 13% and into Wanne.

6km after the village is the Côte de Stockeu, sometimes known as the Jewel of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It's 2.3km in length with an average gradient of 9.9% and a maximum, halfway along, of 21%. Just past the steepest section stands a monument to Eddy Merckx, a likeness of the rider emerging from a rough-hewn lump of granite that also bears a plaque outlining his 525 professional victories - hence the Col's other name, Stèle Eddy Merckx. A cyclist formed from granite no doubt has artistic significance but, as great as he was, even Merckx experienced difficulties on Stockeau; which means there's no shame for those who abandon here.

Côte de la Haute-Levée lies 5.5km ahead, a comparatively easy climb with its average 5.6%; however, the steepest part is still hard-going at 12%. There's a welcome and much flatter 15km section - including the second feed stage at 175km - between it and the Col du Rosier (approached from the south) is by the standards of the Ardennes Classics an easy climb with an average gradient of 3.9% and a maximum 10%. Having passed Spa - hometown of Hercule Poirot and one of Europe's most beautiful cities - the race reaches the Côte du Maquisard at 198km, slightly steeper than the last climb with an average of 5.1% but an equal maximum.

Mont-Theux is 10km further on, average 5.3% and maximum 11%, then at 223km the legendary Côte de La Redoute with its average gradient of 9.7% and maximum 22%. The Côte de La Roche aux Faucons is 15km ahead at 238km - near enough to the finish and steep enough (average 9.9%, maximum 16%) to sometimes prove decisive to the race's outcome - if a strong climber can get a lead here, then keep it over the final climb and through the last 5km, he may take victory. There remain 14km to the Côte de Saint-Nicolas with a steep average of 7.6% and maximum of 13%, followed by the last 5km to Ans - the final 1.5km climbs 79m, which by my reckoning creates an average gradient of 5.5% with the steepest part rising to 13%.

Places of Interest
Montagne de Bueren, Liège
Liège, a city of almost 200,000 inhabitants, once the industrial and now the economic centre of Wallonia, traces its history back to at least 558CE and has much to see, despite having been the destination of 1,500 V1 and V2 missiles after the Allies took the city from Germany at the end of the Second World War (a time during which the people of Liège showed the humanity and bravery, often at great personal risk, by refusing to let the Nazis round up and ship off the city's Jewish population - most of whom would survive the war hidden away in monasteries). The city's most important buildings are St. Paul's Cathedral, dating from the 10th Century but a cathedral only since the early 19th C.; the vast Palace of the Prince Bishops, dating from the 16th C. and the Montagne de Bueren - an outdoor flight of 400 stone steps (maximum gradient 44.2% - who's up for a go at climbing those on their bike, then?). 1.5km away, near Embourg, is a 19th C. fort, one of several surrounding the city, but it's not open to the public and there's little to see.

La Roche-en-Ardenne
Sougné-Remouchamps (called Sougné-Remonchamps on the course guide) at 20km is famous for its caves, which are open to the public who can join tours completed partially by boat along the subterranean River Rubicon. Harzé (27.5km) has a castle which is much younger than it looks, dating from the 16th C but resembling an 11th or 12th C. structure. Manhay (46.5km) has a preserved Panzer tank positioned on a plinth, a memorial to the 1944/5 Battle of the Bulge which saw black American serviceman placed into active combat positions for the first time. La Roche-en-Ardenne (66km) had a 12th C. castle that now lies in ruins, largely as a result of the 19th C. locals who stripped it of masonry to build their homes.

Bastogne (98km), a city of 14,000 people, is also famous for its role in the Battle of the Bulge. It was here that the Nazis, led by crack SS troops, briefly gained the upper hand over the Americans and, for three weeks, surrounded General McAuliffe's troops. The Nazis sent a negotiator to ask him to surrender, but the General replied "Nuts!" and ordered his men to keep fighting. There are several monuments to their eventual victory in the city, including a preserved Sherman tank on a plinth. There's another Panzer tank commemorating the meeting of Generals Patton and Montgomery during the Battle of the Bulge at Houffalize (114.5km), a town considered the centre of Belgian mountain biking - a round of the World Cup was hosted here in 2010.

Tavigny (121km) has a grand chateau with two turrets (your esteemed author, then aged 11, camped in the grounds of the chateau during a family holiday, fell in love with an American woman aged at least 45 and befriended a white goat). Another castle, the Château des Comtes de Salm, once lay a short distance north of Salmchâteau (146.5km) but only the gatehouse and a few ruins exist today - this one too has a goat connection, as legend claims that treasure buried in the grounds is protected by a golden goat. Excavations have indeed turned up numerous gold coins, but it appears the goat prefers to remain a legend. In Stavelot (165.5km) is an unusual Benedictine monastery, founded in 1951, where the monks make a living not by brewing and cheese-making as tends to be the way in Belgium but from the manufacture of latex emulsion paint. The area, including Francorchamps (175.5km), is world famous for the Spa-Francorchamps motor racing circuit which has been in use since 1921 - incredibly fast and, before changes were made, notoriously dangerous, many drivers called it the most beautiful track in the world.

Spa (192km), also known as the Water City, is the place that gave its name to all other places in the world that have water with supposedly health-promoting effects. The water here has been famous since Roman times and wealthy people from across Europe would come here to bathe in it, claiming various medicinal benefits. In the 18th C. the first casino opened up to give them something to do at night as well (aristocrats get up to all sorts of no good if you don't keep them amused, after all) and the rich began building chateaux, rapidly making the city very prosperous indeed. I have swum in the waters at Spa, which a guide said would relieve and possibly even cure my arthritis. It did not.

Franchimont Castle
11.5km from Spa lies Theux, site of Franchimont Castle. Of great military importance since the 11th C., the castle lost strategic value in the 17th C. when improvements in artillery brought it within range of guns on the other hills nearby and it was put into use as a prison until the Napoleonic era when it was sold to a wealthy business man who used it as a quarry, turning it quickly into a ruin. Though unfortunate, this destruction may well have been of aesthetic benefit; and it's a beautiful sight today. Boncelles (241.5km) has another of those 19th C. forts protecting Liège, part of the same network as the one at Embourg. Mostly subterranean, its grey aeration tower gives away its presence and acts as a landmark. Seraing (242km) became a manufacturing centre during the Industrial Revolution, home to factories and mills established by Lancashire-born John Cockerill - the same man who produced the cast iron (not bronze from captured French cannon, as locals will try to tell you) lion atop the Butte du Lion as seen in the Brabantse Pijl two weeks ago. Though not so well-known in Britain, Cockerill is famous throughout Wallonia as the Father of Belgian Industry (and unlike most entrepreneurs of his day, he wasn't a greedy, exploitative fatcat either - by all accounts, he took an active interest in the well-being of those who worked in his factories and by the standards of the times treated them very well). Finally, having passed through the centre of Liège, the riders arrive at the finish line at Ans (257.5km), a contiguous suburb of the city and home to the medieval Château de Waroux which was at the centre of the Guerre des Awans et des Waroux in the 13th C., a private feudal war between enemy noble families that left 30,000 people dead (hence the point above about keeping the aristocracy amused).

La Doyenne has seen some atrocious weather during its long history, most notably in 1980 when heavy snow fell along the entire parcours and commentators renamed it neige-Bastogne-neige ("snow-Bastogne-snow", which they probably thought extremely witty). It won't snow this year (probably; you never can tell in the Ardennes) but it's not going to be what anyone would call a nice day either. Temperatures at Liège as the riders set out won't be much above 6 or 7C and a 19kph south-westerly will take the edge off that, making it feel more like 1 or 2. There's a very high chance it'll be raining, too. It should be warmer when they get back, around 11C, but it'll still be raining. Bastogne is set to be at least a degree or two colder and rain look equally probable here.

Samuel Sanchez
The Brothers Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) said on Friday that they intended to win, but their form thus far this season suggests they're going to have a hard job making it happen - however, let's not forget that both of them can climb like angels and if they do suddenly start performing well they could both do well. Frank in the top ten? Perhaps. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) also climbs like an angel and he can ride like a demon on the flat sections too - he won't like the weather, being from warmer climes, but rivals will have to work hard to keep him at bay. Unless the unforeseen happens, his team mate Oscar Freire will as always be lurking around at the front of the pack when the finish line draws within site and he's shown time and time again that if an opportunity arises, he'll grab it. Philippe Gilbert (BMC), last year's winner, enters the race as many people's favourite and he's started showing a return to form recently after a slightly lacklustre start to the season, so this may prove to be his day. Finally, my choice: Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) - the Tour of the Basque Country is, oddly, not as far removed from this race in terms of similarity as it is geographically: the hills are bigger, but along the way there are a lot of tough little ramps. This was especially the case on the final stage which on paper looked flat, but in reality turned out to be a series of nasty surfaces and cruel little climbs. Upon it, Sammy was in his element and performed far beyond expectations, slaughtering the opposition and gaining a decisive victory. He's also one of the very few climbers able to descend every bit as quickly, which while this is a race that does not tend to give rise to successful breakaways might still give him the advantage he needs to at least remain well-placed for the final uphill sprint. (Start list here)

British Eurosport are covering the race live between 14:00 and 16:00BST. Online feeds of varying legality will be up from around 13:00BST (14:00 local time/CEST) and as ever, Sports-Livez is a good place to look for them. The official race ticker will be available at the official race website; Eurosport, Sporza and Cycling News all have their own in English. Twitterers seem to have decided on #LBL as the hashtag of choice.

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