First Hint of Spring
Thanks to various officials of the Amaury Sport Organization, the Pesant Club Liegèois and the Walloon, or French-speaking, southern region of Belgium, I have been invited to the presentation of the 105th edition of the Liège-Bastogne-Liége classic. La Doyenne, the oldest race of all and my favourite classic!
My sincere thanks again to these officials, or more likely their algorithms, for still thinking of me so many years after I hung up my press badge and became just a printout from the Liège-Bastogne-Liège data base. Alas, I cannot attend the presentation or the race itself late in April since I am housebound by age and ailments. (I don’t quite have Huey Smith’s rockin’ pneumonia but maybe his boogie-woogie flu plus my very own mock arthritis.)
So no more early morning starts along the Meuse River or long transits of the Ardennes spruce forests, no more vigils atop the Stockeu and La Redoute climbs, finis the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, gone the race turnaround at Patton tank USA 380152 in Bastogne, a memorial to the World War II siege there.
More memories: Claude Criquielion, the king of the Walloons but never of Wallonia, as he failed time after time (four) to seal an LBL victory in the final metres; Moreno Argentin, the Italian flash, each time he overhauled Criquielion at the line (three); Bernard Hinault winning in such freezing rain that some of his fingers remained locked days afterward.
On and on: the butcher shop an hour after the Bastogne reverse where I always bought a chunk of tangy Ardennes ham to take home to Paris; a walking tour of Liège in the footsteps of the writer Georges Simenon, a native son, in an annual tribute to his statue, sitting on a bench and wearing a fedora; the heyday of the downtown restaurant Duc d’Anjou with its many ways of cooking mussels (white wine, shallots and garlic recommended); the nearby legal red-light district, where the women sat topless behind the windows. Twist and shout!
Ramshackle Liège is now commonly described as “post-industrial,” meaning the jobs have fled, the good times are long gone. They were indeed good times. Once and for centuries Liège was the heart of Belgium’s vast production of iron and then steel.
In his novel “Orient Express,” Graham Greene described how “The great blast furnaces of Liège rose along the line like ancient castles burning in a border raid.” That was a century ago. Today’s scene is from a dystopian novel by Cormac McCarthy: everywhere rust, everywhere ruins. Nearly the last two of its former dozens of Liège steel mills were closed by AncelorMittal in 2011. World demand is down; Asian production is up.
Liège has few lures left except for its race to and from Bastogne. For some of us, that perhaps is enough — the race invitation heralds spring, no small attraction.
As expected, this has been a miserable winter. Why expected? Because every winter in the Paris region, where I’ve lived for 50 years, has been miserable. The sky turns pewter late in November and lasts that colour till April with barely a dab of sunlight.
A general strike over pension rights and everything else (this being sullen France) has continued for weeks. The cable TV provider has replaced English-language movies with homegrown police procedurals (this being insecure France protecting its culture with mandatory quotas) and given no explanation (this being, simply, France).
There has been no snow either to brighten the streets or trees. In the Paris Bowl, trapped warmth turns what could be snow into rain. The plane tree across from my window shows not a bud yet where once the sweet birds sang. Of forsythia, not a hint of yellow.
I’m confident that spring will come. It always does. The invitation to Liège-Bastogne-Liège arrived. As Freddy Sykes says in “The Wild Bunch,” “It ain’t what it used to be, but it’ll do.”
Cover Photo: Cor Vos