This was back in 2009. La Vuelta was coming to town, and as always with Liège, the weather didn’t give a shit. The sky hung low. Visibility was bad. The rain kept coming down, and the peloton kept getting faster. So when the icy-cold, soaked and miserable circus finally arrived, all were eager to finish.
And then came the crash. It happened on a roundabout, where a rider in tenth position lost it on the tarmac, whereafter he took down two-thirds of the peloton. All violently piling up on top of each other because of an oversized curb which now worked as a brick wall. Triangles of laws of cycling meeting laws of physics came into play. Peloton. Speed. Distance. Rain. Road furniture.
In my years of cycling, I’ve developed a knack for being at the right place. Again I had timed it to perfection. I opened a beer. Because today I sat in my chair at home watching it on Eurosport. Coverage was excellent. Sound way up. I was truly in the middle of events. The saying goes that cycling must be experienced live, and anyone who has experienced cycling live will tell you that it’s true. But if you want to catch any of what’s actually going on during a race, you need a televison.
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As the commentators looked away and moaned, I also looked away and moaned and silently thanked Mother for never pushing me into trying to accomplish, well, anything, really.
My armchair. The dent under my ass. That takes years.
However. This mass destruction in Liège wasn’t what got my attention that afternoon back in 2009. No. It was the commentators. And their take on matters. Which was the take most people have on most matters. The matter here was, that although Liège might be one of cycling’s hotbeds, there is not any real idea in visiting this place. Said one commentator. He said, if you MUST go, this is not the wooorst place in Europe, and the other said, I knooow, but I’d never go there myself because it’s really ugly and…
The city is situated in the valley of the Meuse River, in the east of Belgium, not far from the borders of Netherlands and Germany. The city is part of the sillon industriel, the former industrial backbone of Wallonia, so what you see first, when you arrive – let’s say you arrive by car – are chimneys and cablemasts.
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At a glance they appear slightly tilted. You think the mind is playing you. It isn’t. It’s only when you get closer, you realise, that most indeed are slightly tilted. Chimneys on the verge of collapse. Cablemasts, halfway bent. From your car you also see antennas on the hills surrounding Liège. The numbers makes you puzzle. You wonder how hard it can be to get a signal in the middle of Europa?
But there they are. Antenna upon antenna. Along with church towers. And spires. Religion is big in Liège. Or it was once. That’s unclear. Some churches have more graffitti than New York City trains in the ’80s. Windows in churches might be broken. Doors might be kicked in. The impression is that people have their own way with religion here.
Of course, you’ll see the randomly placed skyrisers. A couple of bridges. Maybe everything is being built. Maybe it’s being demolished. Hard to say. Later, once you dive into the centre of town via concrete highway ramps, you are now led downwards, like a spiral, often times it seems under the Meuse, and so this is where your sense of direction gets completely lost. You think you are going east. But really you are going south. If someone is with you in the car, you say:
“Are we going east? This feels east.”
“You are asking me? Some people know. My father would know. Me, I’d say west.”
Even the GPS lady begins to sound annoyed. Actually her voice changes altogether when you arrive in Belgium. Notice how most ladies in a GPS will lose their patience quickly here. So once you get all the way to Liège, they are just not having it anymore. Remarks. Sarcasm. The story of a Flandrian suing a Wallonian GPS lady for racial comments at an intersection between Brussels and Namur. Ever heard of that?
Eventually you make it to the Meuse, and this is where the complete mess of architecture, periods and styles unfold. You have arrived. The city council make a strong point on the banks of the Meuse: we do not trust coordination. We want building sites and road works at all times. We put up cranes and go home. So you know. We dig holes and concentrate on not filling them again.
Welcome to Liége!
River barges going sideways. Taxis backing down one-way streets. A third of the city’s street lamps are out on any given evening. Signs are often wrong or hanging upside down. The digging of a tunnel underneath the city for a subway never to be used. All colours of the human race in shades of brown.
All in all, and especially in comparison to their neighbours, known for perfection regarding infrastructure, city planning and general order, it wouldn’t be all that embarrassing if they – Holland and Germany – would knock at the Parliament of Belgium and go: So listen. You need any help?
Liège is the only city that has hosted stages of all three cycling Grand Tours. It staged the start of the 1973 and 2006 Giro d’Italia, as well as the Grand Départ of the 2004 and 2012 Tours de France. In 2009, the Vuelta a España visited Liège, and it will host the finish of stage two of the 2017 Tour de France.
So you see. This place is not your standard cycling town. Which is why I sat all afternoon back in 2009 getting worked up, not up from my chair, but just, you know, a man getting worked up at those commentators for putting down everything and especially the city of Liège, although I’d say, it doesn’t actually matter who you speak with, the cycling community hates the city of Liège as much as its inhabitants. To put it mildly: people of the world seems to actively hate the city of Liège.
Those commentators, an ex-pro and an over-the-hill sports journalist, their heads filled with cranks and spokes, reeling off results on who beat who when, where and why, the juices of a life sipping bidons or warm beer for lunch running full tilt between their ears, they have one layer to speak from, ONE LAYER, they are hired as scouts, supposedly looking, searching and scratching the surface of this country, its history, this region, this city and a peloton containing 19 nationalities, yes, they are scratching for anything of interest to comment on, and they have all afternoon to do it, and still still still, they manage to get nothing, absolutely nothing, they are parked in front of six-feet windows but will never get out of their breast pockets, and so Liège is what they see, and it’s the only thing they see, they see a hole in the ground, and they observe the weather is rain, and a hole should be filled, and rain is bad, so now sun is automatically good, and this is the aesthetics and ideas on which they feed their thoughts, because what they can’t understand with their heads, their gut will destroy, and what their gut won’t pick up, their brains are programmed to throw rocks at, and this is what happens when one-dimensional, self-reinforced small talk wrestles morale and ethics and good taste and political correctness, but I’m not going to dig deep when a few examples can cut this, and I’ll use Liège and their own, their own goddamn tourist brochures, as the example:
Garbage is dirty.
A clean city is a beautiful city.
Castles should be restored.
Churches should be lit from the ground and up.
Green areas are healthy.
Public transportation is good.
Single moms have a hard time (might as well throw it in).
It takes guts to fall for Liège. Not even Liège will fall for Liège.
The city is archetypal in the ugliest, industrial way. However. You can lose yourself in ugly just as easily as in beauty. Intense feelings of displeasure can resolve in great appreciative feelings.
I’m talking about modern aesthetics and modernist art, I’m talking about cultural theories, which fundamentally rework conceptual understandings of what it means for a thing to be ugly.
In the history of aesthetics, beauty has been viewed as aesthetic value par excellence. Typically, people who can decide for themselves where they want to live find a place near the ocean or a lake. Or they live on a hill or mountainside overlooking that same ocean or lake. Water. View. It’s beautiful.
People who don’t get to decide where to live end up in a ghetto. The ghetto is ugly. And it’s dirty. That’s not beautiful. No. Beautiful is that which gives rise to the feeling of pleasure within us. Hence, aesthetic value of both nature and art works is measured in terms of the feeling of pleasure they bring us. Ugliness is something that stands in opposition and therefore is associated with aesthetic disvalue and worthlessness.
The tourist information in Liège states their town is ugly. They write it is authentic. Which is another word for ugly. So. Liège is authentic. Which means beautiful. Are you with me? You are not with me. Nevermind. The best thing about this is that I don’t have to share Liège with you. Like you share Paris with every person on earth. I am actually trying to communicate how grateful I am, that I get to have the city of Liège all to myself.
This article was originally published in Rouleur 17.4