La Doyene: Leon Houa, the First Champion

It is the oldest, and has thus been branded with that single, simple, familiar name - la Doyene. More widely known as Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Spring Classic race celebrates its centennial in 2014. Taking into account gaps due to wars and other unfortunate twists of history, one-hundred champions will have been crowned. The first of those champions, Belgian Leon Houa, was also the races first multi-champion, winning three consecutive years between 1892 and 1894. The first two years, the race was run as an amateur competition; in 1894 professionals took over.

Houa was born in 1867 and died in 1918. In addition to the singular claim to fame at L-B-L, Houa was both Belgian amateur (1893) and professional (1894) National Champion, as well winning at Maastricht in 1896. The first of Houa's la Doyene victories was by twenty-two minutes over second placed Leon Lhoest; the second win came with a thirty minute margin over Michael Borisowski, while the third win was a much closer seven minutes, over Louis Rasquinet.

I have no idea what the weather was like the day of that first race which, incidentally, started and ended in Spa, rather than Liege - was it wet, was it dry? Spring in that part of Europe, at that time of year, it could go either way. Think of the roads the riders raced along. The cobbles. During today's Spring Classics, the cobbled sections are considered amongst the more challenging ones. One hundred twenty years ago they were probably amongst the better sections; farm tracks and country roads, both with rough dirt surfaces, pitted and likely with some washboarding would have made up much of the route. Like today, if it rained the riders would have been covered in mud; if it were dry, a thick coating of dust would have disguised their true appearance.

The other notable feature of Liege Bastogne Liege are the cote, the short but oh-so-steep hills that burst from the Flemish countryside and mass toward the end of the route, a formidable barricade which must be overcome. The roads, the cotes, the distance, the early bicycles, maybe the weather all conspired to punish the riders at the end of a long day. Of the thirty-three men who started the 1892 race only seventeen made it to the finish. The last three of those men staggered home more than five hours after Houa, who took nearly eleven hours to ride the two-hundred fifty kilometer race.

Houa left bicycle racing in 1896 to focus on the new fad of motoring. He died as the result of a motor vehicle crash in 1918.