La Doyene: Cote de Saint Roch

The Cote de Saint Roch is the third of the hills (at the 128 km mark) tackled by the peloton during the yearly running of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Believe it or not, 128 km is only the mid-point of the race, and as such the cote plays little, if any, role in determining the outcome of the race. Never-the-less the climb of Saint Roch may be the most visually dramatic of the route. If a resident were to look out from a third story window she would see a flood racing below, being forced uphill by the sheer force of pressure. 

The man for whom this particular cote is named is Saint Roch. According to Christian belief Saint Roch was born of a miraculous birth at Montpellier, France. At age twenty years he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. Italy was in the debilitating throes of an epidemic of plague at the time, and Roch ministered to the sick in various hospitals along his path of travel. Long story, short, he eventually falls ill, is run out of town, survives with the assistance of a friendly local landowner, as well as some divine intervention, and returns to France. Upon his return to his homeland, he is arrested and thrown into prison. There he remained until his death after five years, in 1327. Today, the name of Saint Roch is invoked against plague and other diseases, and knee problems. Funny coincidence - that last might actually come in handy for those who have to climb the Cote de Saint Roch on a daily basis.

The flow of the peloton, like the flow of a river, ran swiftly up to the Saint Roch climb, but here the current breaks, its momentum smashed against the protruding rock. The Cote de Saint Roch is the shortest of the famous hills of la Doyene, at only 0.8 kilometers long, yet at 12% it also possesses the race's steepest gradient. What makes the Cote de Saint Roch special is the atmosphere that envelops the climb come race day. The lane slots between precipitous walls rising to heights of two to three stories, with barely enough space between them for two cars to pass one another side by side. Filling the verges of the lane are the ranked file of spectators, shouting, waving flags, straining to catch glimpses of the passing racers. The competitors are left with what little space remains, jostling shoulder to shoulder, wheel to wheel, unable to fall over for the compression pressing in from the sides. Good thing too; one stumble, one falter and fall might likely block the road, and forward progress, to everyone behind.

All photos of the Cote are the same - beside the flow of a river, they bring to mind an artery slowing being blocked, the flow of life force becoming ever more constricted. The riders bunch at the base of the climb, slow, squeeze through the throng. Bursting clear at the summit must be a relief. I don't believe it is a place for the claustrophobic. For anyone else, however, it is without doubt one of the most iconic landscapes of the cycling world.

The 2014 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, or La Doyene, will be the 100th edition of the race, first run in 1892. This is the third in an occasional series of posts on the history of the race that will run at the CLR Effect leading up to the race on
April 27.