Every April, top cyclists from all over the world line up in southern Belgium for the toughest Classic in cycling: Liége-Bastogne-Liége.
Whilst nowadays it is part of the UCI World Tour competition, the Liége-Bastogne-Liége is one of Europe’s classic cycling races. In fact, it is the oldest of the five Monuments of cycling – a term given to the five oldest, hardest, and most prestigious one-day cycling events in the world.
Having first run in 1892, the race is nicknamed “La Doyenne” (“The Old Lady”) due to it being the oldest of the Monuments. Located in the hilly, French-speaking regions of southern Belgium, the Liége-Bastogne-Liége race runs – unsurprisingly – from Liége to Bastogne, and back again.
Set against a backdrop of the picturesque green hills of the Ardennes, the race is infamous for its savage physical demands: La Doyenne combines steep, punchy climbs with a huge total distance of 250-260 km. Its reputation within the peloton as the toughest of the Monuments is well-earned.
In this article, we’ll be covering:
- The Origins of La Doyenne
- Liége-Bastogne-Liége Postwar: Race Evolution and Notable Victories
- The Liège–Bastogne–Liège Femmes
- The Liège–Bastogne–Liège Route
- 3 Iconic Climbs of Liège–Bastogne–Liège
- The Punishing Weather Conditions of La Doyenne
Ready for the lowdown on La Doyenne?
Let’s dive in!
The Origins of La Doyenne
The race was first held in 1892 as an amateur cycling race, of which only 17 participants out of 33 finished.
For the first two years, the race began and ended in the town of Spa – now best known for its legendary racing track – and in both years it was won by local Liége resident Léon Houa.
The first professional race took place in 1894 (nine years before the inaugural Tour de France) marking the first time the race began in Liége. It was once again won by Houa.
After a 14-year hiatus, the race returned in 1908 and continued to run until the outbreak of WWI in 1914, before returning for the interwar years. During this period, the race grew in popularity and riders from other parts of Belgium and beyond began to enter the race.
Alphonse Schepers from the Flanders region of Belgium became the first man to equal Léon Houa’s triple-win record during this period.
Liége-Bastogne-Liége Postwar: race evolution and notable victories
The race was again paused during WWII, but resumed straight afterwards in 1945. Post-WWII, the race further grew in popularity with top riders from all over Europe entering.
In 1951, the race became included in Challenge Desgrange-Colombo, a competition that combined all of the top European cycling races at the time. As the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo evolved into the Super Prestige, the Liége-Bastogne-Liége continued to be a part of it, remaining so until the Super Prestige eventually evolved into the UCI World Tour.
In the late ’50s, the Belgian cyclist Fred De Bruyne became the third man to win the race three times.
Later, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Belgium cyclist Eddy Merckx dominated the race, earning 5 victories and 7 podium finishes, helping to cement his place as one of the most successful cyclists of all time. His record of five wins is yet to be matched by any other rider.
Moreno Argentin, the famous Italian cyclist who specialised in one-day “Classic” races, managed to win the race four times in the ’80s.
The location of the finish line was switched to the suburb of Ans in 1990, alongside a reorganisation of the race course to include five new climbs. This coincided with the original founders of the race, the Belgian Pesant Club Liégeois, partnering with the organisers of the Tour de France, resulting in a more professionally-organised race.
In the 21st century, Spanish maverick Alejandro Valverde has dominated La Doyenne, winning on four occasions to finish one short of Merckx’s record.
In 2017, the Liège–Bastogne–Liège Femmes was introduced as part of the UCI Women’s World Tour.
The race commences in Bastogne and finishes in Liége, following the same return route as the men’s race, including all of the toughest climbs.
The women’s race has been dominated by the Dutch, winning five out of six editions so far.
The 2021 race was won by another Dutch cyclist, Demi Vollering, meaning that the 2020 win by British rider Lizzie Deignan signifies the only occasion on which the Femmes race has been won by another nationality.
Similarly to the men’s race, the finish line was changed from Ans to Liége in 2019, resulting in the exclusion of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas climb.
The Liège–Bastogne–Liège Route
Framed against a backdrop of beautiful red brick buildings and centuries-old Belgian architecture, the riders set off in the city of Liége before heading south.
The race continues to head almost directly southwards through the rolling green hills of the Ardennes for 95 km until the town of Bastogne, close to the border with Luxembourg.
The return leg heads further eastwards, passing over many difficult climbs before finally finishing back in Liége.
In total, the race tends to include around 12 big climbs each year, nearly all of which tend to be situated in the second half of the race. In this way, riders must maintain their speed for a very long distance, whilst also having to ascend an increasing number of hills as fatigue sets in.
The route tends to undergo some slight changes each year, with different climbs being included or taken away.
From 1908 to 1991, the race started and finished in central Liége. However, from 1992 to 2018 the finish line moved to the Liége suburb of Ans, resulting in the inclusion of the epic urban Côte de Saint-Nicolas climb in the final few kilometres.
3 Iconic Climbs of Liège–Bastogne–Liège
This final steep section often resulted in epic battles between riders who would preserve their energy in order to give it their all in powerful sprints at the last minute.
However, in 2019, the finish was changed back to Liege, resulting in the removal of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas. The Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons climb became the final ascent instead.
#1. Côte de la Redoute
The Côte de la Redoute is perhaps the most famous of all the climbs.
The incline is 2 km long with an average gradient of 8.9%, with some sections up to a brutal 20%. It lies around 40 km from the finish line, which made it a prime location for riders to attempt a decisive solo attack.
In recent years, however, taking the lead at the Côte de la Redoute has diminished in significance due to route alterations and tactical shifts, with many riders now preferring to attack for the lead even later in the race.
#2. Côte de Saint-Nicolas
Though now excluded from the race, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas climb was an epic finishing ascent for nearly 30 years.
Located only 6 km from the finish line, this steep 1.4 km ascent with an average gradient of 7.6% stood out from the other climbs due to it being located in the industrial suburbs of Liége, as opposed to the rolling hills of the Ardennes.
The Côte de Saint-Nicolas was often referred to as “The Italian Hill” due to being in a neighbourhood with a large number of Italian and Sicilian immigrants, resulting in many Italian flags on the buildings – particularly on race day.
#3. Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons and Côte des Forges
Since the removal of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas in 2019, these are now the final two climbs in the race, the result being that they are host to some of the event’s most intense moments.
In these sections, despite being at the point where competitors are likely to be most fatigued, many riders will give a last burst of energy in order to attack on the uphill and give everything they’ve got to drop their opponents.
The Challenging Weather Conditions of Liège–Bastogne–Liège
Due to the race being held in April each year in the temperate spring climate of Belgium, it isn’t uncommon for riders to find themselves up against heavy rainfall, and on four occasions even snow.
The race of 1980 – dubbed the “Neige-Bastogne-Neige” (“Snow-Bastogne-Snow”) – stands out as a particularly brutal year. Heavy snow and near-freezing conditions befell the riders for much of the race. Out of 174 entrants, only 21 actually finished.
The winner, Bernard Hinault, explained how due to frostbite (and the non-weather resistant woollen gloves of the time) it took three weeks before he could properly move the fingers on his hands again, resulting in some permanent damage. Despite this, he still praises the race and looks back on the event with pride.