Liege-Bastogne-Liege is one of pro-cycling’s five monuments; the jewels in the crown of one day ‘classics’ racing.
Known as La Doyenne (the old lady) it takes place in Spring each year in the Ardennes region of Belgium.
In recent years the race has finished with a frantic sprint between a small group of contenders, and barely a whisker to separate the top three. In modern times this is perfectly normal. Par for the course.
In 1980 Bernard Hinault crossed the line nine minutes twenty-four seconds ahead of Dutchman, and two-time winner, Hennie Kuiper.
Think about that
He attacked with 80 kilometres to go at one of the toughest races of the year and built a winning margin of 9:24.
How on earth did he manage that?
What does that represent in metres on the road?
Well, first of all, lets put Hinault’s win in context; the 1980 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege was no ordinary race.
Of 171 starters in that years edition just 21 made it to the finish. Even for a race known for being a tussle with the elements, the conditions in 1980 edition were spectacularly bad.
Snow was falling on the start line and barely abated, and the riders who chose to battle on pedalled grimly through piles of snow and slush.
The rest, you suspect, were beaten before they even turned a pedal.
By the 70th kilometre (of what was a 244km race) some 110 riders – nearly two-thirds of the field – had abandoned.
Legend has it that Hinault himself had resolved to abandon at the Vielsalm feed station, deciding that were it still snowing by that point he would climb off.
Apparently the snow briefly relented.
I am now legally obliged to make mention of his “fierce Breton pride”; at the feed station he still had a team-mate on the road, and Hinault’s sense of what was right and proper would dictate that he should be the last of his team to retire.
So he continued.
A small group had built a lead of over two minutes but Hinault and his companions reeled them in, and with 80 kilometres to go he pushed on. As he puts it “I went to the front and started to go because that way I could get some heat into my legs.”
As he barrelled onward towards the prospect of warmth he was, essentially, in a survival situation. He claims he “didn’t look at anything. I saw nothing. I only thought of myself.”
Considering the appalling conditions lets conservatively estimate an average speed of 30 km/hr. On that basis we can assume that Hinault was a good 5 kilometres ahead by the finish.
As Moreno Argentin, the Italian who won the race four times between 1985 and 1991 puts it, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race “where it’s very unlikely that a breakaway can go clear and decide the race before the final 100 kilometres.”
He describes it as a “race of elimination.”
So rather than share the workload and try to stay warm – huddled into a group of other riders perhaps – Hinualt did what you don’t do at this race: attack from a long way out, in the worst conditions imaginable.
And make it stick, of course, to the tune of nine minutes and more.
As he crossed the winning line he saluted the riders he knew would be wrapped up in the warmth of the hotel 200 metres from the finish. Was there ever a more definitive statement of the physical and mental dominance of the man known as ‘The Badger?’
Eleventh placed finisher and one-day specialist Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle has said the cold and exhaustion were so great that he has no memory of even crossing the line. The last finisher – in 21st position – was almost twenty-five minutes down.
Hinault himself suffered frostbite in two of his fingers, injuries which caused lasting damage to this day.
Not only do races like the 1980 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege make for great stories, they are the days that create legends and cement reputations. This crushing victory rubber-stamped his status as ‘Le Patron’ – the boss and father figure of the peloton.
So next time you return from a ride and describe it as “epic”, remember what the benchmark is.
You may want to reconsider your choice of words.