By Ashley and Jered Gruber
After marching up the broken, decayed pavement of the Cote de Stockeu to its nastiest, most gravity stricken point, we set up shop and waited. We didn’t wait long – the caravan passed, the helicopter chopped, and suddenly, there they were. Well, it wasn’t too sudden, as there was not a lot of sudden anything as the break creaked up the nearly 20% section that haunts the middle part of the one kilometer brute.
Here comes the break! Once again, Thomas De Gendt was on the front, pummeling his breakmates into all sorts of pain and suffering and, in the end, submission.
What the climb lacks in kindness, it makes up for in pleasant views. Well, at least the second half. The first part of the climb is steep and the views are not terribly pleasing. Yes, in case you are wondering, it’s a jam-packed one thousand meters from the sign indicating the Stele Eddy Merckx, to the top, where the monument to the Cannibal stands.
With the break gone, the field wasn’t too long in arriving to the scene. A few seconds in front of the peloton was a duo in search of the break. Unfortunately, they went a climb too early. The move that would go from field to break wouldn’t depart the confines of the still decently sized peloton until the next climb – the awfully highway looking Haute-Levee.
With the break and middle group done with, there was nothing left but to enjoy the passage of the main field. They were not messing around. Leopard Trek were in full command of the front, with Maxime Monfort leading the way and one of the Schleck brothers barking orders to the Bastogne-native.
I couldn’t hear exactly what was said, but the tone was strained, the words quick, and there was definitely no please or thank you. There’s not much room for chatting and niceties on the Stockeu.
After the front few, no, scratch that, every one of the riders on the Stockeu looked like they were working hard. There were none of those I’m just pedaling around on an easy recovery ride looks to be seen. Damiano Cunego certainly didn’t look like he was having an easy go of it.
Ryder Hesjedal suffers alongside three-time World Champion, Oscar Freire, who would eventually finish a noteworthy fifteenth in Liege.
Big time Dutch talent, Wout Poels, was clearly in a bad way on the Stockeu. He doused his head with water, bowed his head, and did the best he could to make due with a bad day. He would eventually be a DNF.
This Quick-Step rider looked the worse of everyone we saw. He was perched as far back on his saddle as he could possibly get without falling off, heaving, struggling, battling his bike, the gradient, and the nothing that was in his legs.
With the passing of the final rider, well behind the broom wagon, we ran back down the climb to our car and set about finding our way to the day’s penultimate climb of the Cote de la Roche aux Facons. I would have preferred La Redoute, but apart from the atmosphere, nothing much seems to happen there anymore.
The Roche aux Facons, however, has become an extremely important battleground, and this year was no different. The break went clear on its (yet again) steep slopes, and we were there to enjoy the scene.
The first part of any final viewing point is just getting there. If you’re looking at some point deep in the finale, that can be a difficult task, but in this case, we didn’t have any issues. With that vital point checked off, we solved the next problem – where to watch the race when the riders passed. Whew.
All that was left was to wait for the race…and the helicopter(s).
The frenzy to be as close as possible to the action for the photographers on motorbikes was intense. There were at least four all jostling for some kind of view of the war playing out right behind them – Andy and Frдnk Schleck were on the attack – and Gilbert was with them.
Continuing the theme he started at the beginning of the day, Gilbert was tucked in quietly following the action. From what I can tell, Gilbert didn’t make a move until the final climb of the day, the Saint-Nicolas. He was attentive, strong, and smart…and by far the best rider on the day. He didn’t have to do a thing, once Leopard Trek and the Schlecks took control of the race in its latter stages. (Yes, I know that Gilbert is missing a head. Sorry.)
Ashley was waiting just a couple hundred meters up the road. She got the shot of the Andy, Frдnk, and Phil catching the final three surviving escapees: Enrico Gasparotto, Greg Van Avermaet, and Jerome Pineau. Once again, Gilbert is completely hidden. His avoidance of our cameras was impressive to say the least.
There they go – and there’s a small bit of Omega Pharma-Lotto jersey. We have a confirmed Gilbert sighting!
Behind, the chasing was intense. Astana’s Roman Kreuziger led the way and would eventually finish 4th.
Vincenzo Nibali later said he never went into the red on Sunday. Methinks it might have been advisable if he wanted to follow the winning move. Instead, he was satisfied with 8th place, a great day of training, and another step toward his goal of a Giro victory in May.
We caught the race over seventy kilometers after the Stockeu, but Oscar Freire and Ryder Hesjedal were still almost right next to each other. I guess they were partners in suffering on Sunday.
Alexandre Vinokourov followed a short time after the main group of favorites past. At first, I thought, ah, guess he just didn’t have it today. Then I noticed that he was going really, really fast – like as fast as the Schlecks were going a little while earlier. Unfortunately, Vino’s quest for a third LBL title ended with a broken spoke at the beginning of the climb. From watching his desperate chase, I think I can say with certainty that he would have been part of the leading trio had his spoke stayed intact.
After Vino, it was pretty much just a slow procession of broken souls trying to make it to the finish line.
This Liquigas rider got a monster pull out of the FDJ car. The formerly creeping team car was more than happy to give the ailing Liquigas man a quick, hard acceleration. For the first time this year, I saw the hands going out everywhere. Riders were grabbing on to anything that had a motor. It was hard not to feel bad for them. Then again, I felt worse for the riders that were in the same condition that weren’t getting motorized pulls.
Like this guy…
The fans joined in the fun as well.
The lady in the background made it very clear – it was time to get to the tv. There was a bike race that needed watching.
On that tiny little tv, housed inside a box, we watched Philippe Gilbert make history.
Thanks for reading!
Note: I apologize if some of these pictures might seem unnecessary, perhaps superfluous. This is, for lack of a better term, a travelogue of sorts. It’s an account of our day chasing Liege-Bastogne-Liege, so I’ve selected pictures that hopefully help illustrate the sights, sounds, smells of another incredible adventure on the road. If you’re looking for a race report, please check out Ed Hood’s excellent account HERE.
Want to see lots more pictures from our chase of Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Head to Flickr!
Questions? Comments? Email me! Want to enjoy the play by play here in Belgium? Try Twitter. If you’re looking for a bit more, there’s always the tried and true, JeredGruber.com