Liège-Bastogne-Liège is over. The last race of the Ardennes classic season is a week old, winner Vinokourov has moved on to training for Dauphine or Tour de Suisse, the street sweepers and the Ardennes wind has swept the confetti of useless riches spewed about by the marketing caravan from the gutters and sidewalks on the finishing hill in Ans, I have traveled on to Paris and started further research on the Lanterne Rouge book, and of the gritty little blue collar Liege? part of me wonders if the people of Liege ever knew La Doyenne raced through their city.
Granted this was my first - Pro race on the Continent - and you always have high expectations for your first. You want it to be special, you need it to be special, damn it, it should be special. The first smells different, the first looks different, the first has a nervousness and uncertainty of outcome, and, regardless of how many or how few will weave together your future, this one will always be your first.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, is affectionately called La Doyenne ("the oldest"). It is one of the five 'Monuments' of the European professional road cycling calendar. Cyclist's started pedaling out of Liege southeast through the countryside to Bastonne and back through the Ardennes hills for a decade before Henri Desgrange cooked up the Grand Boucle, and over half a century before bullets blasted and tanks violently shattered the tranquility of these country hills and villes. I was hoping to find some highlights of those earlier races, some glimmer of the glory claimed here by such icons as Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Van Looy, Hinault, but not even petite peu, nothing!
Despite La Doyenne being the grand old race something is missing. In Liege and the finishing suburb of Ans there was less a feeling of "wow, look what we have, let's celebrate!" and more a feeling, a very tired feeling, of... yawn... "oh, this again, wake me when it's over." On top of that it was doping disgraced, ex-retired, look-who-is-back-again, Alexander Vinokourov taking it with a perfectly timed attack on the steepest pitch 500 meters from the finish.
As beautiful a piece of strategic cycling as it was, it was not how I wanted My La Doyenne to finish. I wanted a Schleck or Gilbert (like everyone in the crowd based on the chanting over the couple hours prior to seeing Vini grinding up the final hill) - or my personal good guy Jens Voigt, heck, the rainbow jersey was right there, since Cadel Evans has learned to smile I was fine with him celebrating My La Doyenne - but not Vini, anybody else, please, I beg the cycling gods.
My first did have a few wonderful characters - would it have been a Euro Pro event without a crazy Belgian wrapped in a flag emblazoned with a golden lion singing "allez allez" at the top of his lungs? (This one even employed a mini-megaphone blaring a recorded "allez, allez, allez ahhhhhhllez") Or the peleton of 60 plussers, in matching club kits, grinding up the two kilometer Rue Walthere Jamar in their triples, then re-hydrating on pints of Leffe for the next two hours. And there were the Skoda girls passing out hats, and more hats, hats to babies, hats to old men, hats to young women, hats for each hand. And then come the 'clappers', those phallus-looking inflatable tubes that enjoy a half-life of about ten minutes off non-stop clapping, only to be jettisoned to join the rest of the curbside rubbish. Above it all loomed the jumbotron screen. Strategically positioned over the final corner 200 meters to the finish; we could see it all while immersed in the experience.
With four hours to go the race suddenly appeared on the screen. There was a break. Out on the road the Motocam cut to tight shots of Andy and brother Frank (Schleck), Gilbert was there too, a roar came up from the gathering crowd, Mr Allez Allez unleashed his mini-megaphone, things were looking good. This was awesome - sitting in the sun in Ans, basking in the color and excitement of my first Pro race, washing down a baguette au fromage with a pint of CTS - what a great replacement for the 5AM wake up to watch online back in Portland.
As we drank and ate something was off, not with the food, with the jumbotron, it was reporting 59km to the finish - about two hours... but wait... it should still be.... I looked at Todd (the numbers guy) and he said, "that can't be". Exactly I thought. But there it was, the race. Back to the beer and the break-away. Still it nagged at me, something felt wrong.
Out in the street things were moving a little to pedestrian to be only two hours away - police just milling about, barrier builders struggling with corporate logo banners, Skoda girls still unloading dozens of silly Gilligan looking hats, and the crowd was still, well pretty small.
WAIT A SECOND! Schleck's got the wrong jersey on! About that time Todd was getting the lowdown from the 60 plus guys drinking themselves into race shape. Errrrgh! What idiots! We're watch last years race!!! Come to find out that too is a tradition in these ASO events, you entertain the finish line crowds with last year's race until this years edition comes on live. What idiots! Blame it on the Leffe and the incessant "allez allez allez" blaring in our ears.
Finally our race was on, live, and again the Motocam focused on Schlecks and Gilbert much to the crowd of 'homers' and Mr Allez. They were and hour and a half out and by now the local crowd was swelling, barrier spots were filling up and the police had shut down traffic from the Rue Walthere Jamar. You could feel it, at last the race was palpable. My first was finally real.
The Andy and Frank Schleck fan club squished themselves against the barriers to insure no one crowded them out. They had down enough pints and smelly sausages to earn their place. The club was completely comprised of cute young girls clad in T-shirts with the brothers Schleck boldly staring from the backs like mug shots at a local police line up.
At last the race arrived, the initial wave anyway. The first of the team vehicles tore up the Rue Walthere Jamar like they were the ones competing for the 2010 La Doyenne. (Considering most are driven by ex-pro-cyclists perhaps there is some secret competition the rest of us aren't privy to?) I had never seen little cars scurry in such frantic fashion. Then came police motorcycles, blue lights flashing, followed by a caravan of ASO officials and then just below the 1K flamme rouge the headlights of the red lead car, a glance at the jumbotron confirmed it, the race was here.
What the jumbotron also confirmed was the Schlecks and Gilbert were not here, yet, and you could feel the crowd collectively deflate like one of those clappers that had clapped once too many. The Rue Walthere Jamar is a long exagerated straight drag, mostly at 6ish%, with a pitch around 500 meters to go at maybe 8-9%, that's where Vini attacked, and so did the crowd - "dopage, dopage, dopage" you could hear rising disgustedly from behind the barriers - this was not who they wanted to see first up the hill.
The next two waves were real battles as riders like Cadel Evans, Gilbert, Chris Horner, the Schlecks, Voeckler and Contador vied for placings in the top ten - the gritted teeth, pained faces, hunched backs and laboring breaths told the story - these guys were killing themselves after 260 kms.
It was the next half hour that made my first La Doyenne real - riders straggled in to the finish, many in tattered groups, some chatting, a few smiling, domestiques that had done there work, others just getting to the finish line, off their rides and collapsing into the team buses. These last few were candidates, potential heroes, the focus of my Lanterne Rouge story come July. None of these faces I really recognized - in these final few meters they all had a similar sameness about them, a mask of exhaustion.
Finally the voiture balai, the broomwagon, crept slowly up the hill - La Doyenne was over.
After wards a Flemish fan told me this was his third La Doyenne and, "they [Liegers] are all like sleeping", he said with a mock yawn, "up in the north it's a party, you must come, everybody comes", he was referring to the cobbled classics of Paris-Roubaix and Flanders. La Doyenne will forever be my first, but never my last - I'm looking for the party.