This Spring Classics season we selected 7 locations along the routes of the legendary one day races to define their significance in cycling history.
The Missing Panther
When the riders of Liege-Bastogne-Liege descend into the village of Houffalize, with 150km to go, they may not notice that an old friend is missing. At the foot of the Cote de Saint-Roch, where the peloton turns sharp left and begins to climb, a German Panther tank has sat beside the road for many years. On its concrete plinth, the Panther was a silent commemoration of the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two. This year, however, visitors to Houffalize will not see the tank – it was removed for renovation last May and will return in the summer of 2019.
Just as the Flanders classics are deeply associated with World War One, Liege-Bastogne-Liege will always be associated with the Battle of the Bulge. Fought in freezing temperatures, with the Ardennes’ forested hills deep in snow, the battle was the last German offensive of the war.
Allied forces were advancing through Belgium and when Hitler thought he detected an over-confidence in the Allies, he send 13 infantry divisions on the attack. Though the Germans were successful in taking the U.S. forces by surprise, by Christmas 1944 the counter-offensive had begun. A few kilometres to the south of Houffalize, Bastogne was central to the ultimate American success – the Germans laid siege to the town, defended by the 101st Airborne Division. The Americans held their position, called in reinforcements and halted the German advance. Both sides sustained heavy casualties.
The Houffalize Panther was part of the 116th Panzer Division that helped to take Houffalize, a town of strategic importance, that December. The U.S. Army there was forced to retreat, then bombarded German forces with shells until they were able to re-take the town the following January. One such shell blasted the tank, and its crew, into the River Ourthe. The crew died, and the tank languished in the river for many years, until the Belgian authorities pulled it out.
Cycling is a sport with a deep relationship with the landscape, and with history. The Houffalize Panther may only be a footnote, but its symbolic power is undiminished.
More episodes of Spring Classic scenes:
1. MILAN-SANREMO – Turning Point
2. GHENT-WEVELGEM – Zebras at the seaside
3. RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN – The Monument
4. PARIS ROUBAIX – Escape from Hell
5. FLECHE WALLONNE – Coal and Pasta
6. AMSTEL GOLD – The Leg-softener