La Doyenne -the oldest of the classics.
A race that signals the end of classics season and the lead into the grand tours, a last chance for the ‘Fondisti‘ to show their grit and get a place in Monuments history.
It’s course takes a direct line from Liege in the north to Bastogne in the south (chosen by the race officials for the ease of access to the train station once the riders had passed) from it’s turning point it then almost doubles its return journey, winding through narrow lanes to seek out the short sharp climbs that make this a race of attrition. A breakaway is unlikely to survive as the peloton charges on, shedding those that have had a hard classics season.
It’s the turning point between the classics and the grand tours, it has also been the turning point in many careers.
Up until 2000 Paolo Bettini was known as a valued domestique, working hard for his team captain at Mapei, Michele Bartoli. Bettini was a hard worker, keen to learn from the more seasoned rider and known for digging deep to lead his leader to victory.
In 1999 a misfortune on Bartoli’s part, a persistent knee injury, gave Bettini the chance to stretch his wings.
His first big opportunity – Liege Bastogne Liege– making a move in the 264km race is not easy, but Bettini picked his moment well, led out by Johan Museeuw he attacked on the tough climb of the Redoute, 35km from the finish and then again 29km from the finish at Sprimont, the lead of the race was narrowed down to 3 riders, Rebellin, Etxebarria and Bettini. Playing cat and mouse right to the finishing straight Bettini launched his (soon to be famous) vicious sprint and took the win.
It was his first major win, after 5 years as a pro and the turning point in his palmares, his next victory that year was a sprint stage of the Tour de France.
The following year Bettini’s success continued, beating Jan Ullrich in a final sprint at the Zuri Metzgete (now just an amateur race) and 2 stages of the Tour de Langkawi, but his progress was somewhat hindered by the return of Bartoli’s fitness and his role as team leader. The growing issue came to it’s head at the World Championship in Lisbon, Portugal that year when in the final straight Bartoli refused to lead out Bettini in the sprint, allowing Oscar Friere to take the victory and Bettini taking the silver, Bartoli finishing 11th.
The following year Bartoli left Mapei and Bettini was once again in a position to ride for himself, taking his second Liege – Bastogne – Liege with his team mate Stefano Garzelli in 2nd after a successful breakaway that shelled out their rivals and put over a minute into the peloton.
He also won a stage of Tirreno Adriatico. Bettini drew 2002 to a close with the World Championships where he put in a strong performance, chasing down attacks to help Italia team mate Mario Cipollini take the victory.
Bettini himself had managed to win the World Cup with the accumulation of points throughout the season, he would retain this title for a further two seasons.
His results are legendary – 2x world championships, Olympic gold, 3x world cups, 2x national championships, 2x Giro di Lombardia, Milan Sanremo, Tirreno Adriatico, 5 Vuelta stages, 2 Giro d’Italia stages and twice points champion, a Tour de France stage and of course the turning point – 2 wins at Liege Bastogne Liege.