Liege, start point of the oldest cycling classic, has a reputation for being a city you either love or hate. It’s certainly got a lot to hate about it but it has points of interest as well – and the most spectacular railway station I’ve seen.
The Place Saint Lambert, where the race begins, is a large old square as attractive as most such squares in Europe and dominated by the Service Communication de la Province de Liege. Inside that building on the day before, thousands come to see, get autographs from and take photos of, their heroes at the teams presentation.
The square comes alive for the start and then everyone repairs to a cafe for sustenance before taking off for a spot along the road or home to watch the race on telly.
The route is a loop to the south and back again to the finish line in Ans, just down down the road from Liege, which the race skirts 5km from the finish. No passages are repeated but the paths almost touch just before the famous Cote de la Redoute (2km at up to 8.8%) on the way back north.
There are seven categorised climbs: the longest 4.4km and the steepest gradient about 12%. But there’s barely a flat piece of road for the whole 257.5 kilometres of the race and the mercifully widish road to the finish line at Ans is a long long gradual drag that looks easy on TV but really sorts out the legs. From about 1.6km out at 105 metres high, the road rises to 184 metres at the finish line. Nasty after a day’s racing.
In 2010, when I saw this race on the ground, Alexandre Vinokourov won after a 2 year suspension. The press conference was a treat mainly for witnessing one of the all-time great killer stares. The race was only mentioned as a means to ‘how can you win like that after a 2-year layoff?’ until a very grumpy Vino declared that he wanted to talk only about the race. We wrapped up fairly quickly after that.
As for this year – go Gerro!