We at Alpine Cols are best known for riding in the mountains, and especially the Alpine sportives such as the Haute Route, the Marmotte and the Etape du Tour. This year it was time to try something new, so we have ventured north to Belgium to the climbers Classic, the Doyenne of them all, Liège-Bastogne-Liège!
Never having ridden this before, we consulted far and wide amongst our friends and contacts to figure out the best strategy for this event, which is not to be taken lightly at 273km and 5000m+.
Here it is!
We have written this from the point of view of a male cyclist in his 50’s with 5-10 years of experience at riding sportives. Our rider is comfortable in a peloton at 35-40 km/h and climbs quite well, with an FTP/kg of around 3.8 W/kg. He is a confident descender. His objective is to finish within 11 hours (average speed 25 km/h). This is his first time at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. We assume our rider comes to the event well-prepared and well-rested, with an appropriate taper during the last 7 days.
If this description doesn’t apply to you, the strategy described below may need some changes!
We are assuming you know the route profile for the 273 km distance; if not there’s a detailed description below, as well as an analysis of the event demands.
The three most important elements in a successful ride at Liège-Bastogne-Liège are pacing, nutrition and managing the climbs. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The biggest risk is starting too fast. It is impossible to ride for 11 hours at an average pace higher than what might be called “steady endurance”.
Some of the time, however, there will be no choice. These moments include the steeper climbs and, perhaps, short efforts needed to stay with a good group. You must limit the time you spend at high intensity, and recognise that your average speed at Liège-Bastogne-Liège is necessarily slower than at a typical weekend sportive.
- If you have a power meter, set up your bike computer to read both 1s power and average power. Target mid-Zone 2 for average power. Be disciplined and don’t get carried away, especially during the first 150 km.
- Conserve energy wherever possible: pedal as smoothly as you can, changing gear as often as needed to keep a comfortably high cadence and a steady power output.
- Pick the right wheels to follow: ideally experienced, stable riders whom you can follow very closely.
- Minimise the time you spend taking the wind.
- Keep up the pace on downhill sections, pedalling in lower Zone 2.
You are going to burn around 6000 calories during the ride. It won’t be possible to replace all these so the first point is to make sure you begin with a full tank.
- Eat plenty of carbohydrate and drink plenty of water in the three days before the event
- Eat a normal meal (without too much fibre) on the evening before the event.
- Since the start is at 06:30, you will either have to wake up to eat a normal breakfast at 03:30 (and then go back to sleep) or else eat something very easily digested at 05:00/05:30.
- Take a gel on the start line.
- Consume 50-60g of carbs per hour during the race (check the packaging, but in general this means two gels or two energy bars). It is possible to push it to 90g per hour if the gel is formulated with both glucose and fructose (e.g, PowerGels).
- Plan to stop at the feed station in Bastogne (km 96), and at two if not all three of the remaining feed stations (km 133, 183 and 235). Assuming an average speed of 27 km/h until Bastogne and 24 km/h thereafter you can expect to be at Bastogne after 3-1/2 hours and at the subsequent feed stations after 5 hours, 7 hours and 9-1/4 hours.
Managing the Climbs
The distance on Liège-Bastogne-Liège makes it a hard enough ride; the climbs make it a killer. There is little flat; it is a never-ending series of climbs and descents. Few of them are long, many of them are steep, up to and including 18%. Unfortunately, the majority of the climbs are in the final 100 km, where they follow closely one after the other. Swallow your pride and fit a big cassette (11-32 is ideal).
- Whenever possible, speed up and spin fast as you approach the foot of the climb. Carry your speed as far as possible up the first part, progressively changing gear to keep a good cadence and a manageable level of power.
- Take care not to be blocked behind slower riders fanning out across the road in front of you.
- Use the full range of gears and don’t let your cadence fall below 55-60 rpm.
- Riding these climbs too hard is an excellent way to get cramps, especially if it is a hot day. At the first sign of twinges, back off and spin at a high cadence.
South to Bastogne (100km): mostly gentle climbing
The first 8 km through the town are flat, before the first climb (5 km at 4%). After a further 10km along the main road we turn off and descend to the valley floor at Remouchamps, followed by a 29km false flat climb (2%) along the N30 before turning onto a small road for an easy climb to the highest point at km 64 (640m). A 13km descent on minor roads brings us to the start of the first official climb, the Côte de Bonnerue (3km, some passages at 7-8%). Next up are short rolling hills on minor roads for 15km to Bastogne and a welcome stop at the feed station.
Return, part 1 (75 km): rolling hills
The first 17km out of Bastogne are straightforward, leading to the côte de St Roch. This climb is only 1.1 km but averages 11.5%, max 18%. We then ride rolling hills on minor roads until Grand-Halleux at km 157 and the start of the côte de Mont-le-Soie, 4 km, 6% average, max 9%. The way down from here is initially steep then gently descends for 14km or so until km 176.
Return, part 2 (100km): one hard climb after another
The climbs come thick and fast in the final 100km: the côte de Pont, the côte de Bellevaux, the côte de la Ferme Libert (1.1km, 14%, max 17%), the col du Rosier, the col du Maquisard and of course the famous côte de la Redoute (1.7km, 9.5%, max 17%). While the biggest crowds will be here, there are still two more climbs to make: the côte de la Roche aux Faucons, 14km further on (1.5 km, 9.5%, max 16%) and then finally after another 12 km the côte de Saint Nicolas (1.4km, 7.6%, max 13%). Once over this, there are only 14km of easy riding left to reach the finish.
Without any doubt, the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Challenge is one of the toughest events in the sportive calendar, and the full distance should not be undertaken without serious preparation.
The finish closes at 20:00, so if you start at 06:30 you will have to average 20.4 km/h (including stops), or 21.2 km/h if you exclude three 10 minute stops. This may not sound very much, but consider you need to maintain this average over 13 hours and some 5000m of climbing. The best riders will finish in less than 9 hours, at an average speed above 30 km/h, with most of the pack coming in between 10 and 11 hours.
To cycle this distance in a reasonable time it is essential to master the skill of riding in a bunch. You will gain (or lose) a huge amount of time thanks to this ability.
With around 5000m of climbing, Liège-Bastogne-Liège has more climbing than many of the mountain stages in the Tour de France. The difference is they are relatively short and sharp rather than long and steady.