Pitch: The Cotes of Liege-Bastogne-Liege

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

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    1. Author

      Tom: Yeah, I did feel rather guilty about that. Unfortunately, the vast majority of all Americans don’t think of height in meters and if my purpose really is to help the majority of RKP’s audience gain a greater appreciation of how tough the climbing is at L-B-L, then I ought to use a standard they are accustomed to. I hope you’ll forgive me.

  2. Souleur

    Good analogy, the fling vs the faithfully ever present wife:-)

    LBL is just that, been around since the very beginning, one of the first. A long hard spring classic that many forget after Flanders, Paris-Roubiax and Amstel Gold.

    and viola, the Giro is here!! Its the best time of year.

    And again, great pics by John Pierce.

  3. cthulhu

    I’m so lucky that many of these climbs are my training grounds. Just yesterday, I was in Theux again.
    For me La Doyennne is the most beautiful spring classic and La Redoute (the pic with Gilbert and Bert in the background) the sexiest climb around here. Also, having ridden most of the course, except the bits in Liège, you don’t want to ride there if it’s not closed for public traffic, the elevation is more like 4000+ m, so it is more than 12000 ft. Heck, the Amstel Gold Race itself has already around 3500 m which already over 10000 ft elevation.

  4. todd k

    Great write up Padraig. I think this race is underappreciated state side. It deserves its due as much as Roubaix and I think you give some incentive for others to consider its importance.

  5. Randomactsofcycling

    Thanks Padraig, this puts the race in a whole new light and explains why so many GC guys do so well here. Would it be correct to say it’s a race more about recovery than power? Power seems to be the underlying trait for Roubaix. Look for young Jack Bobridge to win this one some day. Phenomenal talent and attitude to match.

  6. Lachlan

    +1 on all that.

    LBL’s winners and top 5 year on year show just how hard the course is, and just what a classic classic it truly is!

  7. Trevor

    I’m late to the party, but excellent write-up. PR and LBL are the highlights of the year for me. And I agree, PR requires a certain kind of madness, but LBL is just a great race. We used to have a spring race here that was roughly half the size of LBL (climbing and distance). It was my favorite race.

    Has there ever been a winner of both (PR & LBL) in the same year? That, to me, would define the ultimate classics rider.

    1. Author

      All: Great comments.

      Trevor: Rik Van Looy did it in ’61, Merckx did it in ’73 and Kelly did it in ’84. I don’t think anyone else ever pulled it off.

      Gofullgas: The industrial-ness of the outskirts of Liege isn’t really great, that’s true. But nothing, no convicted doper winning it, will ever dull my affection for the challenge of that course.

  8. Gofullgas

    Funny this post. Last week, or before, the talk was about how L-B-L had become a suspicious race with the last 10 years of winners all being convicted/suspected dopers, a la Vinokourov. And here we are talking about it’s beauty!
    Personally, I don’t agree. While the climbs are great, I find the stretches in between and towards the end to be too industrial and gray.
    I don’t really want to bite on the race, so much as remark on the contents of the two posts, as well as the comment sections.

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