Liege is the capital of Wallonia in eastern Belgium. It was originally a Roman town, named Lugdunum by Julius Caesar, before becoming a major medieval city where three powers waged war over control: France and Flanders fought for the area in 1302-1382; Spain occupied it between 1555 and 1678; finally, Austrian Hapsburgs were pushed out after 1715.
Liege is a Belgian city. It has a population of about 250,000 people and is located in the province of Liège.
Bernard Hinault holds the record for most Tour de France wins with five.
The colossal snowflakes fell gently and quietly amid the woods, creating a beautiful Christmas scene.
Spectators in thick winter jackets stood by the roadside, watching team vehicles and motorcycles struggle up one of Liege-Bastogne-several Liege’s slopes, their tyres spinning in the snow as they chased after one guy on a bike.
Bernard Hinault, almost unrecognisable beneath a big red balaclava, slewed doggedly on, further into the lead, somehow remaining balanced on the two wheels beneath him. It was April 1980, and Bernard Hinault, almost unrecognisable beneath a big red balaclava, slewed doggedly on, further into the lead, somehow remaining balanced on the two wheels beneath him.
He was under such physical duress that he was going to permanently harm himself. He raced across the Ardennes, pushing his body to its limits, in pursuit of victory in the race known as ‘La Doyenne’ – the old woman.
The circumstances were so awful that some of cycling’s greatest riders got their numbers from the organizers and then never showed up.
After barely 70 kilometers of the 244-kilometer one-day race, 110 of the 174 competitors had checked into a hotel. The route was only completed by 21 people. Hinault was frostbitten.
For years, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, which celebrates its 130th birthday on Sunday, has been producing and breaking the hardest rivals.
Hinault was 25 years old at the time. He had already won the Tour de France twice and would go on to win it three more times, establishing himself as a sporting hero. His five wins on the Tour remain a joint record.
But this was a new task, a far cry from the summer’s scorching heat and sunflowers.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one of cycling’s five elite ‘Monument’ one-day events, is renowned for being the polar opposite of the Tour de France.
The peloton travels through deep, wet woodland, over short, abrupt climbs, and through challenging, part-cobbled parts in east and south Belgium before returning to Liege, where it all started.
“[The race] is already difficult, it’s long, and when I won, it was in really difficult circumstances, particularly the snow,” adds Hinault, who is now 67 years old.
“Yes, if the weather continued to be bad, I pondered resigning. We began experiencing problems. In Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it’s tough.”
Hinault’s description of one of his best victories is typically reserved. To say that the circumstances are difficult is an understatement. He didn’t have it all his own way in racing, either.
Rudy Pevenage was two minutes 15 seconds ahead of Hinault and a tiny pursuing group with 91 kilometers to go, nearing the 500m Stockeu climb.
Pevenage was one of the spring classics’ tough guys. He was a big-lead Belgian in circumstances that many locals thought only a Belgian could handle.
Even he, however, did not complete a race that properly distinguished the men from the tales. It would be termed ‘Neige-Bastogne-Neige.’
In 2012, riders took on the Cote de Saint Roche.
Hinault and a small group of additional chasers came up with Pevenage on the following hill, a 500m ascent of the Haute Levee. Hinault then launched his assault, his brilliant red mask and thick blue gloves dissipating into the horizon as he drove past everyone.
There was still 80 kilometers to go.
Hinault was out there for slightly over seven hours. He persevered alone for most of that period, despite the frigid weather. It was terrible, but he wouldn’t back down, putting more distance between himself and his opponents. Persistence in the quest of greatness, however, came at a cost.
“Frostbite causes you to lose feeling in your fingertips,” he explains. “When it’s chilly outside today, my hands become cold fast, and my fingers ache.”
Hinault crossed the finish line nine minutes and 24 seconds ahead of second-placed Hennie Kuiper, who famously recalls arriving at the race and asking where all the race officials and reporters were.
They were completely focused on Hinault, probably in amazement.
Some, like 11th-placed Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, have no recollection of crossing the finish line. Others, who had long since left, just remember Hinault saluting in the direction of the hotel where they were all gathered – as if they needed reminding who was in control on that particular day.
But, surely, even Hinault was taken aback by the chasm he created?
“Not really,” says the guy nicknamed as ‘The Badger’ for his combative demeanor, “because when I found myself alone, I raced.”
“I believe I had a passion to win since I was a child. I didn’t ask myself any more questions until I was in front.”
The Liege-Bastogne-Liege route is characterized by a tortuous series of short, abrupt hills.
Founded in 1892 on the same premise as the Tour de France – to promote the L’Express newspaper – Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race that never fails to put cyclists to the test. Hinault’s victory in 1980 is legendary. Eddy Merckx, though, has his own monument at the Stockeu climb.
Why him rather than Hinault? The Badger won it twice, while Merckx won it five times, the most of any rider. After all, he is the most decorated athlete in the sport. He’s also Belgian, rather than French.
Plus, on his most famous victory in 1971, Merckx, now 76, outpaced Hinault’s effort by 12 kilometers. With 92 kilometers to go in identical icy conditions, ‘The Cannibal’ broke away from his pursuers and still had the stamina to outsprint Georges Pintens over the line, despite the latter’s dramatic late comeback.
On Sunday, as the race celebrates its 130th anniversary, one rider has one last chance to beat Merckx.
Valverde celebrates his Liege-Bastogne-Liege win in 2015.
Alejandro Valverde, 41, was born one day after Hinault’s triumph in 1980. He’s won the event four times himself: in 2006, 2008, 2015, and 2017. Victory came the day after his close friend Michele Scarponi died in a training accident the previous year.
“It’s a great race,” the Spaniard comments.
“All of these races are lovely, but the year I won following Michele Scarponi was particularly memorable.”
“The first year I participated in 2005, I fell in love. It’s a really difficult and rigorous course. I like the atmosphere, and working on monuments is always a unique experience. It’s a perfect fit for my personality.
“I’d want to win for the fifth time. It is a major ambition of mine to do that.”
Liege-Bastogne-Liege will bid goodbye to another classic in Valverde after its 108th edition on Sunday. After the 2022 season, the 2018 world champion and 2009 Vuelta a Espana winner will retire.
However, the race’s fabric – its long list of surprising victors, its often bad weather, and its physical demands – will continue. Tyler Hamilton, a former American cyclist, characterized Liege-Bastogne-Liege as a “cruel, 257km painfest… that some believe to be the toughest single-day race on the calendar.”
It’s also a one-of-a-kind event, one that staunchly reflects Belgian cycling culture, with hundreds of spectators of all ages, some holding a strong Trappist beer in their hands.
“People were constantly along the side of the road, even in inclement weather,” Hinault adds.
“And that’s what’s so great about Belgium: everyone likes to cycle.”
That’s quite the praise coming from a Frenchman whose fingertips are still burning owing to The Old Lady.
The “liege lord” is a type of medieval nobleman who held land and was owed homage by vassals. The word comes from the Latin word “līgēns”, meaning “ally”.
Frequently Asked Questions
- liège city
- liège food
- liege waffle
- liege title
- liege pronunciation