“It’s a bit different to the others,” Eddy Merckx says. “It’s one of my favourite Classics, alongside Milan-Sanremo.”
Liège-Bastogne-Liege was initially one of the hardest nuts for Merckx to crack in his racing career: he had to wait till 1969 for his first title. But once he got going, Merckx racked up a record five wins over the next six years.
“At the Tour of Flanders, you have the bergs, the pavé, the wind, but there are more hills in this one. It’s not that it’s made for the climbers, but all the same, you need to know how to climb better. A sprinter is never going to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”
What makes it so particular? “The climbs are longer and the race is a bit irregular. Luck is less important in Liège-Bastogne-Liège than Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders.”
Merckx remembers the 1969 edition best, when he escaped with Faema team-mate Victor Van Schil (above) and they put over eight minutes into the bunch in a scintillating display. “I was at the front with a few team-mates, we surged on the Côte de Stockeu and then we stayed away,” he says.
After the race, he said that he never really suffered during the effort; L’Equipe called it Merckxissimo. Incidentally, the hill where he attacked is his favourite in the race and the location of a monument to the great cyclist himself.
Four of Merckx’s five victories came on the race’s track finish at the Stade Rocourt on the Liège outskirts. “Finishing there was an advantage for me. But in 1967, we didn’t finish directly there because of bad weather. It was between me and Walter Godefroot, he passed me late on and won.” Merckx raced in short-sleeve jerseys with Peugeot as they were unprepared for rainy conditions: the day before, it had been sweltering.
“I was a bit disappointed [to lose],” he says. “It was not easy to race on the track because the surface could be bad. In 1965, it rained there and a lot fell coming into the finish.” Having just turned professional, Merckx was watching from the stands that day: he’d abandoned the Flèche Wallonne and “La Doyenne” was deemed too difficult for him.
Over the next decade, Merckx won the Walloon Monument in various different manners – in tandem with Van Schil, solo by almost three minutes, outsprinting compatriot Georges Pintens after an ill-judged long break slowed him down, and in a sprint of 13 in 1971, his narrowest win: “On the entrance to the last corner, I sprinted and on the first finish line, it was me who won, on the next line, it was Frans Verbeeck. He thought he’d won and so did I. I won it without knowing, without celebrating. I thought I’d been beaten but the line had changed place and the photo finish had been two or three metres beforehand.”
“I’d like this finish now, with the Saint-Nicolas, then the climb to Ans,” Merckx adds. Does he go to Liège to watch the race these days? “No. With all the selfies and autographs, it’s not possible. You see it better on the TV.”
Merckx was talking last September at the Cycle Show in conjunction with Mulmar, Faema and their E71 machine, renewing a relationship that started fifty years ago. “I raced with them between 1968 and 1970, and they asked me to come here for the promotion of coffee machines,” he said. “I like coffee, but not 25 a day like the Italians!”
Talk moves on to Chris Froome and his distinct possibility of matching Merckx’s record in the sport’s biggest race. “Why not a fifth Tour de France? Life goes on, I’ve got no problem if he wins five; even if it was seven, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t change my life.”
“I like Sagan the most,” Merckx adds of the modern generation. “As for Froome in the stage races, I find that he waits a lot, he doesn’t attack, he just waits until the last kilometres to go for it. Riders don’t attack before the last col now, it’s different. More calculated.
“There’s no improvisation, these directeur sportifs … it’s not my thing.”
Liège-Bastogne-Liège has changed a lot since his day, it still yields strong and deserving champions. “The race is still tough,” Merckx says. “It’s always a good rider who wins, never a clown.”