This is a reprint of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.
After the cobbled classics of the north, the classics move to hillier south of Belgium. The Ardennes Classics are hillier and offer a different set of challenges than the cobbled classics. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is one of the five monuments and the last of the Ardennes Classics. It is called “La Doyenne”, which means “the oldest,” and it is, as it started in 1892. This predates Paris-Roubaix by 4 years (Paris-Roubaix is still the oldest of the cobbled Classics). Even though LBL’s history is not nearly as storied or interesting as Paris-Roubaix, it is considered the Ardennes Classics version of the Tour of Flanders- which is to say, the most famous, and biggest, of the Ardennes Classics.
The Ardennes Classics include Flèche Wallonne and at one time LBL and Flèche Wallonne were run on successive days and known as the Le Weekend Ardennais. Only six riders have achieved the Ardennes double by winning both of these races in the same year. Like many races of its era, LBL was conceived and organized to publicize to publicize L’Expresse newspaper in 1862. Because it was a French newspaper, it was run through the southern, French-speaking part of Belgium.
It was first run as an amateur race, from Spa to Bastogne and back. After racing for 11 hours, Leon Houa won the first edition, 22 minutes in front of the second place finisher. Out of 33 racers who started the race , only 17 riders finished, and after Houa crossed the finish line, riders were still arriving 5 hours later. Not only did Houa win the 1893 thirty minutes ahead of the second place finisher, he also won the first race when it became professional in 1894.
Despite becoming a professional race in 1894, that was the last edition until 1908. It was again suspended during WWI and WWII, however, there was an edition run in 1943 and 1945.
It is often seen as the toughest of the classics, with many long, steep, climbs. The fact that the three hardest climbs occur in the last 35km is a nice sting in the tail. The 2011 edition is 257.5km long.
Who Will Win?
LBL has been won 57 times by Belgians, 12 times by Italians, and 6 times by the Swiss. The lone American winner was Tyler Hamilton in 2003. Eddy Merckx is the only rider who’s won it 5 times.
Typically this race favors puncheurs, strong cyclists who are capable of short, explosive attacks on short steep climbs. As Philippe Gilbert fits this description, all eyes look to him to match Davide Rebellin’s hat trick of wins from 2004, where he won Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and LBL. Other cyclists on the top of many lists are Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervelo), Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana, and a previous two time winner), and Igor Anton and Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi).