Paris-Roubaix is the Angelina Jolie of bike racing. It stunning. It’s mythically proportioned. Everyone wants to win it.
And it’s batshitcrazy.
Liege-Bastogn-Liege is your spouse. It is gorgeous, smart, presentable to your family and sane enough to live with for the rest of your life.
At least, that’s my view of the races. I adore Paris-Roubaix. You don’t have to explain what makes Paris-Roubaix amazing, like you don’t have to explain why Brad Pitt left Jennifer Anniston; you just show a picture of Jolie. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race you have to get to know. Some folks may never get it, and that’s okay.
Paris-Roubaix is the fling. The weekend you’d like to have once a year, provided you were the sort of person who had flings.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is what makes daily life rich and worth living. Truly, it’s a tough race, tougher than most people really understand, even most devout cyclists.
For starters, L-B-L is modest. Fewer than half the climbs are noted by name. No official record of the race lists its total climbing, which I’ve estimated at more than 8000 feet. There are mountain stages of the Tour de France that don’t climb that much. Not bad for a country many people think of as flat. At 258km (160 miles), it isn’t the longest race going, not by a longshot, but it is a race that very fine climbers can have trouble finishing.
When I think of the sort of riding I like to do on a routine basis, the kind of riding I can do day after day, rides that feed the soul, it’s terrain like that found at L-B-L that I want. Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and the Tour of Lombardy, there isn’t a flat spot to be found in L-B-L. Each of the other three races has long stretches of flat punctuated by climbs. L-B-L features a profile that looks as if it were constructed from the climbs of the other three races.
Below are the notable climbs of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. You are probably familiar with the stats on their length and average gradient. What you may never have seen is their elevation gain. It helps to put the climbs in a fresh light.
Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne: 2.8 km climb, average grade of 4.9%; 449 feet
Cote de Saint Roch: 0.8 km climb, average grade of 12%; 314 ft.
Cote de Wanne: 2.7 km climb, average grade of 7%; 618 ft.
Cote de Stockeu: 1.1 km climb, average grade of 10.5%; 378 ft.
Col du Rosier: 6.4 km climb, average grade of 4%; 838 ft.
Col du Maquisard: 2.8 km climb, average grade of 4.5%; 412 ft.
Mont-Theux: 2.7 km climb, average grade of 5.2%; 460 ft.
Cote de la Redoute: 2.1 km climb, average grade of 8.4%; 577 ft.
Cote de la Roche aux Faucons: 1.5 km climb, average grade of 9.9%; 486 ft.
Cote de Saint-Nicholas: 1.0 km climb, average grade of 11.1%; 363 ft.
Elevation gain: 4895 ft.
As I previously mentioned, those 10 climbs are fewer than half the climbs your legs will note, though they do account for more than half the total altitude gain.
You’ll frequently hear riders say that Milan-San Remo is the easiest of the Monuments to finish, yet the hardest to win. You’ll also hear riders talk about how the pavé makes Paris-Roubaix the hardest race. What you don’t hear frequently, though it is said consistently, is that L-B-L is the most difficult race run over decent roads.
What I love about these John Pierce images is that as you look off in the background behind the riders, you see towns far below the riders.
These are no ordinary hills.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International