THE GREATEST CYCLIST EVER TALKS ABOUT HIS FIVE LIÈGE WINS, WHAT MAKES THE RACE SPECIAL AND MODERN CYCLING’S LACK OF IMPROVISATION
Words: Andy McGrath
“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.