Liege-Bastogne-Liege is one of cycling’s 5 monuments; the jewels in the crown of one day ‘classics’ racing. Known as La Doyenne (the oldest) it takes place in Spring each year in the Ardennes region of Belgium and runs, as the name suggests, from Liege to Bastogne and back.
In 2011 the race was won by Belgian superstar Philippe Gilbert during his astonishing run of form that year; his winning margin was a whisker – given the same time as both the Schleck brothers in second and third. In 2012 the Kazakh rider Maxim Iglinsky took the honours, breaking clear to win by 21 seconds from his nearest challenger. The following year, 2013, it was Irishman Dan Martin’s turn, bursting clear to raise his arms with a mere 3 seconds advantage.
In modern times, these winning margins are perfectly normal; par for the course. In 1980, legendary Breton Bernard Hinault crossed the line 9 minutes 24 seconds ahead of the second placed man, Dutchman Hennie Kuiper (a two time winner himself).
Think about that….Hinault attacked with 80km to go and managed to build 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 La Doyenne, a race known for being a tussle with the elements, the conditions in the 1980 edition were spectacularly bad; the snow was falling on the start line and barely abated, as the riders who chose to battle on pedalled grimly through piles of snow and slush.
By the 70th kilometre (of what is 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. His fierce Breton pride kicked in too; by 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 2 minutes but Hinualt and his companions on the road reeled them in, and with 80km 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’, perhaps understating the impact of his effort.
It’s unlikely that Hinualt was in any condition to consider the scale of what he was accomplishing; as he barrelled on towards the prospect of warmth he was locked in a survival situation. As he built his lead, Hinault says he ‘didn’t look at anything. I saw nothing. I only thought of myself.’
So, back to that winning margin. 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 km 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 descibes 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, breakaway from a long way out, in the worst conditions imaginable, and made it stick to the tune of 9 minutes 24 seconds.
As Hinault crossed the winning line he saluted the riders he knew would be wrapped up in the warmth of the hotel 200m from the finish; was there ever a more definitive statement of the sheer physical and mental dominance of the man known as ‘The Badger’?
The brutal conditions of the race took their toll. 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 25 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. In the years that followed, who could be in any doubt of the ferocious will of Bernard Hinault. This crushing victory rubber-stamped his status as ‘le patron’; the boss and father figure of the peloton, and the undisputed mental and physical benchmark of the sport.