Tales from the peloton, April 24, 2008
It's been a hard spring in much of northern Europe. But nothing, surely, can be worse than the worst of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Just ask France's Bernard Hinault. He won by 10 minutes, but, as Les Woodland reports, he was almost the unhappiest man in the world, because the few who were still on the road behind him were unhappier still.
They call Liège-Bastogne-Liège La Doyenne ('the grand lady' in French) because it's the oldest of them all, founded in 1892 when bikes still sometimes had brakes that pressed down on the tread of their tyres. At times, it has also been the Doyen of Misery.
In 1919, such glacial rain fell on the 32 starters that the organisers felt obliged to halt the race halfway round just to let everyone warm up again. It took them two hours and, having started at 8AM; it wasn't until 5:30 that afternoon that the first rider got back to Liège. Only six got that far and there were barely more spectators.
"I decided the only thing to do was ride as hard as I could to keep myself warm." - Hinault explains how he rode to victory in the 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
In 1957, the weather changed overnight from ideal to snow. A third of the field didn't even get out of bed. The rest set off with rumours in their ears that the hills near Bastogne were covered with less than five centimetres of whiteness.
They weren't, but they soon were because snow dropped from the sky just before the turn. It fell from the sky so fast that within minutes there was nothing to see but a white road, white air. A Dutch rider called Gerard Keulers broke away and stayed away for 100 kilometres solely because he thought he'd stay warmer that way. Behind him, 50 riders climbed off. The giant Frenchman, Gérard Saint, stopped to pee on his hands to bring them back to life.
It was nearly dark when the race finished. Such had been the riders' enthusiasm to get it over with that some had jumped over a closed railway crossing. Among the group was the winner, Germain Derijcke. The judges could have disqualified him, but since he won by nearly three minutes, more than he had profited from his crime, they promoted the second man, Frans Schoubben, and to this day, they remain the only riders to have shared the doyen of classics.
When France's Louison Bobet came in frozen – in ninth-place – and entered his hotel, his team manager, Antonin Magne, said: "Gentlemen, rise! A great champion is entering the room."
And then, after some other cold races, came 1980. Snow began the moment the race had climbed out of Liège. The flakes turned to a blizzard and riders held their hands to their faces simply to see. Shortly after, some teams had barely a man left. As miserable as anyone, Bernard Hinault dropped back past Maurice Le Guilloux, his only team-mate left riding, and told him he was quitting. Le Guilloux shouted, "Carry on to Bastogne. There's a feeding station there. Pack it in then if you want to, but don't do it now."
Hinault nodded and they both dropped back to ask their manager, Cyrille Guimard, for dry gloves. Riders were dropping out at a man a minute for the first hour. "At this rate we won't have a race at all," someone said on the race radio. The snow turned to rain by the time Hinault reached Bastogne. Only 21 riders began the journey back to Liège. The last, Jostein Wilmann, was 27 minutes down.
"Cyrille Guimard told me to remove my racing cape because the real race was about to start," Hinault said later. "My cape was made of waxed fabric and I was very warm inside it, but I took it off as instructed. Until then, I hadn't really paid any attention to the race, but now my teeth were chattering and I had no protection. I decided the only thing to do was ride as hard as I could to keep myself warm."
He rode alone into the boulevard de la Sauvinière in Liège to the cheers of his team and the pitiful crowd, but with no feeling in his arms. It took three weeks to move the index and middle fingers of his right hand properly and they ached in cold weather for years. He couldn't get into his bath at the hotel until the water was almost cold; the contrast was too great.
Hinault detested Belgian classics and did all he could to avoid them. If he hadn't needed the training, and if he hadn't had fond memories of winning in 1977, he wouldn't have tried in 1980. He probably still wishes he hadn't.