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Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2022: Route, riders and all you need to know

Will Strickson
22 Apr 2022

Key info about the 2022 Liège-Bastogne-Liège men's and women's races on Sunday 24th April: Route, riders, live TV guide

Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Sportive

Words: Henry Catchpole

The voice on the other end of the phone is friendly and helpful: ‘Which course would you like to do? The short, the middle or the long?’

I consider for a moment: ‘Oh, better do the long one. Won’t really be Liège-Bastogne-Liège otherwise, will it? More sort of Liège-somewhere else-Liège.’

‘Jolly good,’ says the voice, ‘I’ll put you down for the full 273km. See you in April.’

As the line goes silent I can’t help but think he just said ‘273km’. I get out my calculator. Multiply by 0.621 equals… a very long way in imperial too. It’s 170 miles when all is said and done.

I have a quick Google on the Sports Tours website, and then the sportive’s official website just to make absolutely sure there hasn’t been a mistake, and then sit down and contemplate the fact that I might have just casually bitten off more than I can chew. 

Slow start

Several weeks later I draw the curtains at 5.30am and look out of the hotel window. Liège is a mass of indistinct dark blue shapes in the inky dawn but I can dimly make out the slowly moving water peloton that is the river Meuse.

It’s raining. And it’s cold. The sort of Saturday morning to crawl back under the duvet. I force down two of the three pastries I bought from a Belgian petrol station the preceding afternoon and contemplate what lies ahead.

I wheel my bike through the hotel foyer, cleats gingerly clip-clopping on the smooth slippery floor. Although there are lots of other cyclists in the hotel, it’s remarkably quiet. The start times for the shorter distances are a little later and it seems most people have been sensible.

The weather is foul but not snowing as it was in 1980, when Hinault took a famous victory in the pro race and only 21 riders finished. As the cold air hits my few bits of exposed skin, turning them instantly as white and pimply as a plucked turkey, I set off into the dark streets, heading for the start line a couple of minutes away.

About a quarter of an hour later I cycle back past the hotel on the other side of the road. Turns out the start line is in the other direction. Still, always good to do a bit of a warm up before a long ride.

I don’t hang around for long at the start line. Everyone is leaving in dribs and drabs, but a group forms at a red traffic light a few hundred metres later.

I look around at the bunch of a dozen or so other riders and spot the Italians (mahogany tan, stylish in a slightly fluoro way), the Belgians (tough, Flanders Lion somewhere on their kit) and one chap who for some reason I just know is British. He looks not unlike Ian Stannard – a man for long miles in rough weather if ever there was one.

Then, after a bit of questioning, he reveals he’s an Ironman triathlete. That seals the deal – here is a man, Simon, who knows about pacing and endurance. He will definitely make it to the finish, so if I can stick with him I should too.

He has unknowingly just cursed himself with having me as his shadow for as much of the day as I can manage.

We wind out of Liège remarkably quickly but any thought that the hills are all in the return leg from Bastogne are quickly dismissed as the road tilts upwards.

The climbs aren’t steep and it’s easy to settle into a rhythm, but they do drag on, so the kilometres don’t tick by quite as quickly as I’d like.

The split for the shorter 156km route comes early – too early to consider ducking out from the original plan – and as I roll past the turning I’m committed to the full route. 

The big push

We’re heading due south to Bastogne and this outward leg of 112km is seemingly entirely into a headwind, which makes it important to take shelter while I can.

Neither Simon nor I want to be wheelsuckers, so we do our time with our noses in the wind, but we’re glad to settle back into the draft when we’ve done our share.

A couple of times I find myself momentarily latching onto faster riders, but I rein myself in as I feel my heart rate rising and drift back to Simon, who is proving very good company.

For starters we admire the countryside that we’re passing through, because despite the weather the Ardennes region is undeniably beautiful.

Although the outward hills take a while to conquer, the benefit is that the descents are equally long. We’re soon passing the Bastogne Barracks, a museum run by the Belgian army.

The town played a crucial part in the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War, the 101st Airborne division becoming encircled by the counter-attacking Germans.

Besieged in the town over the Christmas of 1944, they were asked to surrender by the Germans, to which Brigadier General McAuliffe simply and famously responded: ‘NUTS!’.

They were eventually relieved by General Patton’s Third Army on Boxing Day.

Today when we reach the Bastogne feed station the streets look like they’re still running with blood, but thankfully it turns out to be a minor leak from the big vat of raspberry energy drink.

In some ways Bastogne does feel like the halfway point of the ride that the name would suggest. In terms of distance it’s not, but it’s as far south as we’ll go today and we’ve been riding into a stiff headwind so both mentally and physically it feels good to leave the town behind.

After a few minutes we turn off onto a much smaller road, which winds through a beautiful pastoral landscape. Simon and I sit up a bit, ease the shoulders and settle back into the plan.

Not long afterwards we’re into the first of the climbs that define the Liège-Bastogne-Liège route. I’ve seen so many pictures of the Côte de Saint-Roch that it’s a strange experience seeing it for real.

In all the images, the space between the houses is crammed with the brightly coloured backs of professionals bobbing up and down on the insanely steep gradient.

Today it’s a touch more drab and the cyclists are ascending in a more ragged fashion. Because I’ve only ever seen the first bit of the climb, I take a gamble that it’s only short and attack it hard.

After a few hundred metres I realise I’ve made a mistake, because although the terraced houses have petered out and the gradient has eased from the high teens, there still seems to be some way to go.

I push on until the summit because there’s nothing else to do, but my quads are screaming by the time I top out under a large aerial mast.

I release myself from the pedals and enjoy a brief slump onto the top tube. Simon is a disappointingly short distance behind me and we set off again as the cold wind whips across the open fields.

Glancing at the sticker showing me the distances to all the climbs I’m pleased to see that I’ve got just over 40km to let my legs settle down and flush the lactic clear.

Digging in

All too soon the Cote de Wanne is on us, and although it’s 2.2km long the gradient isn’t so severe. Unfortunately just 8km later is the Stockeu and that really is a beast. Even worse, it’s the first of four officially timed climbs, which is like a red rag to a bull. From the moment I round the sharp right turn onto the narrow road I decide to give it everything.

The gradient reaches 21% and there’s no hiding from that sort of slope. I grind past quite a lot of people in the next six minutes, but it’s not pretty, and the website later records that I bag a reasonable 116th place out of 1,474.

If the climb up is mentally tough, the descent isn’t much better. It’s narrow, bumpy and wet and the idea of travelling down it in a race with a jostling peloton is quite terrifying. 

The next surprise to hit us is a section of cobbles. It’s a shock to the system, but thankfully it only lasts for a short distance as we leave Stavelot, and it’s not long before we’re at the foot of the day’s longest climb, the Col du Rosier.

At 4.5km it takes a while to tackle, but it’s not actually difficult, averaging only 5.7%. However, by the time we join the N633 on the other side, Simon and I have both started doing calculations, because he’s got a flight to catch and I have got a similar appointment with a Eurostar. We decide that with the 200km barrier broken it’s time to put some effort in.

It’s about 10 minutes later when I look back and realise Simon isn’t on my wheel. I consider stopping but my legs feel good and I even go straight past a big group without stopping to enjoy the tow.

Then it’s time to set about the route’s most famous climb: La Redoute. It’s already lined with caravans as people bag their spot for the professional race the next day.

Small camping chairs are set out and a few warm-up beers are being consumed, so riders get the odd cheer of much needed encouragement.

Initially the 1.6km climb doesn’t seem too fearsome, but it’s the second half where things start to hurt. With the gradient peaking at 20%, my upper body struggling almost as much as my legs as I lever myself up the climb, I wonder if 200km was too early to let myself off the leash.

Onwards to glory

I force down a final waffle in Sprimont and push on for Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons safe in the knowledge that the Redoute is behind me. Unfortunately the Roche-aux-Faucons is even worse.

It is the same length as La Redoute, but with a flat section (cruelly too short for any meaningful recovery) in the middle.

It’s near the top of this pig of a climb that I find myself cycling alongside a chap on a Trek Madone. He is tanned, but slightly weathered and has a tough, climber’s physique.

At a guess I would say he was late forties. I haven’t chatted to anyone since the split with Simon but we fall into conversation (if you can call it that – I haven’t got a lot of spare breath). He lives in Paris. This is the first year he’s done the full route. He is the CEO of ASO. Hang on a minute…

Yes, that ASO. Of all the people I could have struck up a conversation with I have picked Yann Le Moenner, the man who is in charge of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, along with other races such as Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a Espana. Oh yes, and the Tour de France.

Needless to say he’s an interesting fellow to talk to as the scenery around us gradually turns from beautifully rural to strikingly industrial.

Then he punctures in the outskirts of Liège. I provide tyre levers and a pump, and notice that pumping up a tyre after 250km of riding is an effort. Then there’s a cheer from down the street. It’s Simon, and he has a gas canister. Hoorah. Onwards together to Ans.

Fans will be familiar with the final drag up to the left-hand corner before the finish line of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It’s easy enough that even I can tackle it in the big ring, so I feel vaguely pro.

There’s an empty grandstand on an otherwise very prosaic and very wide street where tomorrow there will be a throng to greet Alejandro Valverde when he takes victory in the pro race.

But this finish line is not the end of the ride for us because the sportive adds another 9km back to the start. Mercifully it’s downhill, but spitefully there is some pavé to shake the final shreds of strength out of tired arms.

You could certainly get a flavour of La Doyenne by doing one of the shorter routes, but for the full understanding of why it’s a Monument, you need to do the full distance to feel the fatigue from those 20% gradients.

As we cross under the inflatable arch and hear the beeps on the timing mat signalling the end of the 273km, it feels like quite an achievement. We exchange email addresses, shake hands and then two of us head off for home, while the other sets about organising the world’s oldest bike race the following day.