Liege, in French-speaking Belgium, has the proud distinction of being the only city to have played host to all three of the Grand Tours. Fitting really, given the Belgian’s deep love and appreciation of the noble art of cycling.
In the post-war 1948 Tour de France, Liege hosted the finish of stage 19 and the start of the following day’s stage 20. The Metz into Liege stage was won by Gino Bartali, his seventh of this Tour, who went on to win the overall by a massive 26 minutes. Impressive given that on stage 13 he was in eighth place and nearly 20 minutes down on the leader. Bartali had taken part only at the specific behest of the Italian government in the hopes that his overall victory would quell civil unrest. It didn’t, but it did halt a national strike in Italy.
Liege made its second appearance as a staging town two years later in 1950. Stage two was won by Adolfo Leoni, better known as a Classics rider than a stage racer, who withdrew before the start of stage 12, along with all the other Italians, after French fans in the Pyrenees – sick with Italian domination of their beloved stage race – hurled sticks, stones and bottles at them. The withdrawal of the yellow jersey Fiorenzo Magni paved the way for the first of two consecutive Swiss wins – this edition belonged to Ferdi Kuebler.
Liege popped up again on stage two in the 50th anniversary Tour of 1953. It was won by Switzerland’s Fritz Schaer, who’d also taken stage one and went on to become the first ever winner of the points competition. The French were mollified as victory in that year’s Tour went to Louison Bobet, whom many felt should have won a Tour before then.
Three years later the Tour was back in Liege for the first stage, which was won by Andre Darrigade, the Tour’s star sprinter in the 1950s, who made a point of winning the first stage and, more importantly, the maillot jaune leader’s jersey – a feat he was to repeat an unequalled record-breaking five times. In all, he won 16 yellow jerseys and 22 stages. The overall was won by the relatively unknown and unfancied Roger Walkowiak. Critics panned his victory for its lack of panache.
In 1965 Liege hosted the finish of stage 1a in the morning, then the stage 1b team time-trial in the afternoon, and provided the start of the following day’s stage. Rik Van Looy, another noted Belgian Classics rider, won the first of these – only the Tour’s third start outside of France and its first in Germany. But the 1965 edition of the Tour was memorable for a couple of other reasons. In his rookie year, Italian Felice Gimondi, a last-minute replacement on the Salvarani team, captured the overall ahead of eternal runner-up Raymond Poulidor. Gimondi would go on to become only one of five riders, along with Alberto Contador, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, who have won all three Grand Tours. It was also the first time a start ramp was used in time trials.
There followed a bit of a lull until the 1980 Tour, when Liege was once again the finish town for a sprint stage from Metz. The winner was Dutchman Henk Lubberding, enjoying what was to be his most successful year as a professional. The following day’s stage from Liege to Lille was the longest of that year’s Tour. After Bernard Hinault did a disappearing act in the Pyrenees, on account of his injured knee, race leadership was assumed and retained by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk who shares with George Hincapie the record for the most Tour starts (16). George is set to break that record today and make it his own.
The Tour returned to Liege again in 1989 after starting in Luxembourg, where it hosted the start of stage four to Warquehal. The flat stage was won by Dutchman Jelle Nijdam, who later also won stage 14. This edition of the Tour is best remembered for the epic battle between Greg LeMond and the late Laurent Fignon, with the latter losing by the smallest margin ever, eight seconds, on the final day in Paris in an individual time trial.
In the 1995 Tour, the undulating stage seven from Charleroi to Liege was won by Johan Bruyneel in what was to be Miguel Indurain’s fifth consecutive and final victory in the Tour. Indeed, he’d beaten the great man himself on that very stage having sat on his wheel for most of it, an experience he likened to riding behind a motorbike. Sadly on stage 15 Italian Fabio Casartelli died after a fall on the Col de Portet d’Aspet.
In 2004, Liege finally got to host Le Grand Départ. It was my first Tour de France, Lance Armstrong’s sixth consecutive victory and, having overhauled Indurain, he was now firmly going down in history as the greatest Tour rider ever. The 6.1km prologue was won by Fabian Cancellara, then riding as Alessandro Petacchi’s lead-out man, in what was to be his break-out season. Here’s how he did it.
So who’s going to win this afternoon? Will it launch someone’s career as it did Cancellara’s back in 2004, will it be won by a sprinter intent on spending his day in the leader’s yellow jersey or will it be won by one of the GC contenders sending out a strong message to the rest? We’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, here’s a reminder of the route.