Liège-Bastogne-Liège Preview

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The oldest one day race of the year. Liège-Bastogne-Liège might be in Belgium but it has over 4,000 vertical metres of climbing, comparable to an Alpine stage of the Tour de France. Steep climbs and twisting descents make this a supreme physical contest where there’s rarely a surprise win.

The Route
The format sounds simple: start in Liège, ride down to Bastogne and then back to Liège. But that would be too easy. It is only 98km to Liège and instead the return leg is longer and includes a succession of steep climbs.

The early part of the race is not flat but lacks the climbing of final return from Bastogne. An early breakaway will go and riders head to Bastogne where the feedzone is located. There’s even a roundabout permanently decorated in honour of the race that the race will use to turn back towards the north.

Things get serious after 160km with the Côte de Wanne, which is 2.7km long with a gradient of 7.3% and acts as a warm-up for the Côte de Stockeu, only 1km long but over 12% in gradient. From here onwards there’s a climb roughly every 10km all the way to the finish.

As the diagrams show riders can’t count on the average gradient. These are not Alpine climbs engineered to reach a pass but instead follow steep river valleys and ridges and the gradient is forever changing. It’s hard work on the legs and gear choice is crucial to getting the balance right between momentum, power and the body’s limits.

“a lot of riders mistakenly think you should attack on the hardest part, but in reality you hurt people on the slightly flatter section that comes after this”

That’s former winner Moreno Argentin talking about La Redoute, one of the most important climbs whose name means “the redoubtable”. The climbs are exposed, simply getting to the top is hard work but having the energy to accelerate the moment the road levels out is often what determines the winner. The final three climbs before the finish, as depicted below, often chose the winner.

In addition to these recognised climbs there are also the hidden climbs.

The finish
This isn’t actually in Liège but down the road in Ans. Or actually up the road given there is a climb to the finish line. This is very different to the previous climbs of the day being regular in gradient and wide, a suburban road rather than a rural lane. Riders climb together, often watching each other before the road flattens and turns left with 250 metres to go and the sprint for the line begins.

King of the Mountains” competition
All the climbs have points. The first rider over gets four points and €250, two points for the second rider and one point for the third rider. These are added up and the winner gets an award and a cash prize of €2,000. Last year’s winner was Thomas de Gendt who scooped points in an early breakaway that lasted long enough to collect points.

Tactics
It’s all about endurance and stamina. Anyone in the early breakaway is likely to fade in the late part of the race. I suspect a few teams will want to send riders up the road, if anything to remind us they exist. Rabobank, Sky and Radioshack are big squads but haven’t had the classics season they wanted for example.

Teamwork is needed to drop the leader into the right place for the climbs. Here a train of riders can be deployed but the longer the race goes on the more helpful having a “lieutenant” becomes, a rider able to stay with their team leader whilst other contenders flounder on the steep ramps. This opens up the chance of the “one-two” with team mates taking turn to attack; or having a team mate able to chase down rival moves.

Normally the final selection comes with attacks on the climbs where the ability to accelerate has to be matched by the determination to drive the pace once the gradient eases. The final sprint is often a formality, there is often little tactical sophistication, it is just a test of who still has some power left.

Contenders
Races like the Amstel Gold and the Flèche Wallonne have given us many clues. These steep climbs are very selective and either a rider has it or they don’t, luck is less of an issue.

The full startlist is now available to download as a PDF.

Joaquim Rodriguez is my pick given he was a level above the best in the Flèche Wallonne: when he attacked nobody followed. He has been on the podium before too.

But he won’t have it easy, the race is more subtle than the Flèche. This is Philippe Gilbert’s home race. Last year he enjoyed the perfect day with giant crowds appearing to roar him on as he was carried to the finish by the Schleck brothers almost as if in a Sedan chair. Now his black period could be ending and even at 90% he is able to match the others. He will just have to race more intelligently than last year. The Schleck brothers are looking stronger and this is traditionally where they look strong; this time Frank seems the better bet.

Jelle Vanendert is another pick but is he a winner, or just one of those guys you see in photos always next to another more celebrated rider? Damiano Cunego is another. He’s perpetually disappointed for years, an early season win raises hopes but has rarely been followed through. This time though he seems in better shape and can finish fast too although he might be too tired from the Giro dell Trentino. Fellow Italian Enrico Gasparotto must be feeling confident but might find there’s just a touch too much climbing. I’ve been tipping Spaniards Samuel Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde and this is the last chance in the classics, they’ve not quite had the power on the climbs, Sanchez comes with Igor Anton too.

Finally there are more candidates. If Roman Kreuziger rides he’s one to watch as he’s impressed me in the Giro dell Trentino, although fell apart on the last stage. Thomas Voeckler is in form and looks incredibly lean and whisper it, he’s been targeting this race. Hopefully we can see more of Sky with Rigoberto Uran and Lars Peter Nordhaug. Maybe Dan Martin can surprise too?

Weather
Cool and overcast with the chance of rain the afternoon. A top temperature of 14C (57F) and winds from the southwest at 25km/h. This means a decent breeze to blow the riders back from Bastogne which will then turn to a crosswind to blow the race apart in the final 40km.

TV

Australia SBS
Denmark DKTV2
France France 3
Italy RAI
Japan J Sports
Luxembourg RTL
Netherlands NOS
Norway TV2 Zebra
Spain Teledeporte
Switzerland RSI/RTS
Africa Supersport
Asia Eurosport Asia
Europe Eurosport
Middle East Dubai Sport

For those in the US there will be highlights on NBC Sports.

And it’s live on the internet as always see cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv.

History
The race was first run in 1892 for the predictable purpose of boosting newspaper sales, a marketing ploy behind so many other bike races today. It has since acquired the name of La Doyenne, the old lady because of its longevity.

Eddy Merckx – who else? – holds the record with five wins. Next is Italian Moreno Argentin and if Belgians hold the majority of wins the area is has an Italian influence after it sucked in many migrant workers in for the mines and steel mills of the nineteenth century. The industry has long since gone but the Italian influence in this area of Belgium lives on.

The diversity of winners is interesting. We see classics specialist and grand tour champions on the list, it’s the kind of race where different riders can clash.

Last year’s race was held in warm weather but in 1980 snow saw Bernard Hinault stay warm thanks to a giant solo breakaway, legend has it that he lost the use of  several fingers for good but in reality he “only” endured numbness for weeks after the race.

InTheGC April 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I know you love a good mistake spot, so here it is ”The early part of the race is not flat but lacks the climbing of the earlier part of the race” I assume you mean latter part of the race has more climbs!

Fantastic preview once again, god only know’s where you find the time! Looking forward to the finish, but as Fleche the previous 180km are to be a little dull unless a good strong break escapes on the return leg back to Liege, I can’t see it though. I doubted your pick of J-Rod for Fleche aswell, which shows how much I know – turned out to be very very strong, however i’m still going to back Gilbert for this, its his home race, his last chance, and his form is picking up…

The Inner Ring April 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Thanks, error fixed. We’ll see with Gilbert, I think you need more punch to get away and if he’s looking strong, I’m not sure he’s got enough to launch big attacks. But we’ll see and it’s his last chance for the spring classics.

Graeme April 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Wonderfully informative – as per usual. Really looking forward to this but will be sad to see the end of the (Spring ) Classics.

Hate to be a pedant, but did you mean: “The early part of the race is not flat but lacks the climbing of the earlier part of the race” ?

Ankush April 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Thanks Inrng for the preview. I might go with Valverde for this one but then I picked Vanendert for Fleche

Bundle April 20, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Impressive presentation. This year the race looks more unpredictable than ever, and that’s saying a lot. Voeckler has been my favourite since Brabançonne, but I’m also curious to see what Henao and Sánchez (who I believe has been obliged to ride when he initially didn’t intend to) are up to. It would be good, of course, to see Philippe do what he does best.
One thing: if I’m not mistaken, the translation of “doyen” into English is “dean”, in the sense of “the oldest member of a category”. And L-B-L is indeed the oldest cycling race alive.

The Inner Ring April 20, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Doyenne is the feminine version of “doyen”. Apparent “dean” comes from the latin for leader of 10, so a leader but not necessarily by age. We’re getting away from cycling but I learned something.

Roadie61 April 21, 2012 at 4:52 am

@Bundle: Unpredictable, yes! Voeckler always impresses me, and he’s got young Pierre Rolland (France’s next great rider) riding too. I’ve been a fan of Henao since he blew many riders away in the uphill Prologue/ITT at high altitude, plus his climbing prowess in Utah and Colorado last year. His friend, fellow Colombian and SKY teammate, Rigoberto Uran is also riding LBL, plus Nordhaug — should be an awesome trio!

Gilbert has a strong chance to win, I believe, with really strong team support and a strong GV Avermaet. I’m also really curious to see how Tejay Van Garderen and Bookwalter perform in this race. Gilbert has the ability to both accelerate and drive the pace once the climbing finishes. With strong finishes at Amstel and FW, I think he’s at least close to 90%. Plus he’s defending!

Looking through the rosters, I came up with duos and trios of riders who I think are strong for this race with decent chances to podium (I won’t re-list the riders I discussed above):

– Rodriguez and Freire (Katusha)
– Vanendert and JVdBroeck (Lotto)
– Wegmann and Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda)
– Albasini and Gerrans (GreenEdge)
– Sanchez + two strong domestiques (Euskaltel)
– Poels, Westra and Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) — I keep rooting for Hoogerland

Dark horse pick: Frank Schleck, because Jens Voigt will drive the pace for his climber, and we’ll see if Horner has decent endurance to support Schleck.

Shouldn’t try to pick all three steps, but what the hell:

Gilbert, Rodriguez, Voeckler

Bundle April 22, 2012 at 9:46 am

Yes, many team duos and trios look dangerous, including Kiserlovski and Gasparotto (Astana), Cunego, Scarponi and Ulissi (Lampre) or Urán and Henao (Sky), or even Dani Moreno’s role in pacing Purito. But looking at the startlist, Rabobank looks impressive, and they haven’t really achieved much this year. They really have to try today.

Jaas April 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm

“For those in the US there will be highlights on NBC Sports”

its a smattering of annoying cycling thats used to break up a nice solid collection of commercials

The Inner Ring April 20, 2012 at 8:27 pm

I’ve heard about this. It’s better than nothing but don’t be scared of foreign language coverage. You’ll soon pick out the names and that’s the main thing.

Duluth Baptist Clydesdale April 20, 2012 at 9:34 pm

NBC Sports coverage isn’t perfect, but it *is* coverage. If all the best cycling fans watch foreign video feeds out of spite there won’t be any coverage anymore. And NBC Sports does put some effort into it. Further, those commercials are stacked early in large part to allow them to show the crucial parts of the race uninterrupted–the entire climb of Alpe D’Huez, for example.

Be careful. If cycling fans rebel because their coverage isn’t “perfect,” the most likely consequence is not that they’ll be left to watch foreign feeds in peace; the most likely consequence is that NBC Universal’s lawyers will start going after the foreign feeds and you won’t have anything anymore.

Jeremy Casey April 21, 2012 at 4:13 am

The difference is that they obviously haven’t figured out live coverage of a one day race. Their timing during the Tour of Flanders was remarkably bad. If they can’t find a sponsor to replace some of the commercial breaks, then they are better off just showing it on tape delay.

It works during the Tour de France because there are so few important breakaways that don’t happen on a predictable mountain climb. But with cobbles, crashes, and short hills causing the drama in the spring classics, their predetermined commercials often come at inopportune times.

I agree that some coverage is better than no coverage. And I appreciate HD television over pixelated foreign language feeds. But you have to consider how to best deliver the product. And they haven’t found a solution (both their economics and viewing pleasure) for live coverage of the classics yet.

Roadie61 April 21, 2012 at 10:49 am

@Jeremy Casey: Very well said and I agree…NBC needs to consult with Euro TV stations to learn how best to time commercials, etc. Back when LeMond was riding in the 80s and 90s, CBS offered good coverage, at least of the TDF (even if we had to listen to John Tesh background music). Commercial breaks were far fewer and Phil and Paul were decent to listen to. American TV is frustrating (I don’t subscribe to cable any longer — too many commercials on all networks), but coverage is better than no coverage and nothing like HD TV.

Now I watch the pixelated Euro feeds in various languages (sporza and EuroSport), but hey, at least I’m getting the race with fewer commercial interruptions; the language doesn’t matter if you know the names of the riders. It’s akin to what a dog hears, “blah, blah, blah, blah, Fido;”
in this case it’s “blah, blah, blah, blah Boonen, blah, blah, Boom, Ballan, Flecha…Turgot (!)…
Tommeke (!)” Heck, I’m starting to pick up some Dutch and Flemish and French, it’s rather fun.

Remember: the big cycling races were born in Europe while the ink was still drying on our Constitution (ha ha); cycling is to Europeans as baseball is to us Yanks, though not for me. If LeMond hadn’t come along and won the TDF in 1986, ’89 and ’90, we may not have any coverage…oh, and what’s his name, the Texan.

Tim April 21, 2012 at 4:27 am

Is it Halloween already? You’re scary.

But, wow, there’s an issue here. Choice A: watch Eurosport coverage with Harmon and Kelly of just about every race NBC Sports will cover. Choice B: pay out the . . . hmm . . for cable every month. Easy choice. What does NBC Sports do . . .. nevermind. I’ve said too much. I hope that . . . . No, stop now.

Jono April 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Nice preview. One of the best races of the year but last year was not a good one until the end, too many riders watching each other.

semicompact April 20, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Hey inrng, i wonder if you get tired of all the complimentary feedback? Tough sh*t: sterling work as usual.

I’d be amazed if Cunego was to do much at L-B-L, or indeed anybody who rode up “the Poisonous Sting” (Punta Veleno, Giro del Trentino, stage 3) at top speed as recently as yesterday. Gilbert to turn it on!

The Inner Ring April 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Cunego said the target was this race… but he was going so well in Trentino he wanted to win that in the end. We’ll see but if he’s got a chance, he’ll go for it. Vinokourov won in Trentino in 2010 I think.

Fdj April 20, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Lars petter nordhaug is the correct name:) great preview!

John D.Reah April 20, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Once again a splendid review. Must say that I love your site, it has become a part of my “browsing routine”. Interesting to see “Chouchou” targeting the Ardennes, hope he´ll do well! Btw any thought about Gerrans´ chances here?

The Inner Ring April 20, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Gerrans is a bit like a sniper with one bullet, if everything goes just right he can win… but he needs some outside factors to go his way. In with a chance, yes but not a big favourite.

Duluth Baptist Clydesdale April 20, 2012 at 11:35 pm

Outside factors like the strongest rider breaking away on the last descent but having so little time that he must go full-throttle to the finish, allowing Gerrans to get a tow to the line and win in a sprint?

Yeah, probably a stretch. When you consider the idea that Simon Gerrans, with two monuments would have basically as good of a spring as Tom Boonen and pretty much anyone else in history not named Eddy Merckx, I don’t think he’ll be on top of the podium on Sunday.

peter April 21, 2012 at 12:52 am

and all it needs is one bullet!

Beau April 21, 2012 at 12:13 am

I tend to agree with John. I think Gerrans has the legs for it. His biggest aim of the spring is the Ardennes. The climbs suit him to a tee and with a punchy sprint for the end I think he can easily do it.

LANCESTRONG April 20, 2012 at 10:00 pm

LANCE IS GOING TO COME BACK AND BEAT ALL THESE DOPERS UP ALL THESE CLIMBS

Brendon April 20, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Lance who?

LANCESTRONG April 21, 2012 at 2:57 am

ARM LANCESTRONG THE BEST CYCLIST EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ToTheBillyoh April 22, 2012 at 7:06 am

Sorry. The cyclist with the most TDF victories. Not the best cyclist ever – by a wide margin. Also his palmares will be forever tainted, sadly. Not an easily likeable chap but I always liked the cold and calculated way he defeated the Europeans at the TDF. Reminded me of Audi (and other Germans) towelling Peugeot at Le Mans.

Rohan April 22, 2012 at 12:14 pm

..and this blog has been mercifully troll free for so long.

barbara n. April 21, 2012 at 1:26 am

Andy Schleck. He has to.

Larry T. April 21, 2012 at 7:28 am

After the stuff the Schlecks supposedly said at their press conference they’re going to either be celebrating or handing out all kinds of lame excuses Sunday afternoon. I’d like to see Cunego do well but just want to see an exciting race with people trying to WIN vs trying not to lose.

Roadie61 April 21, 2012 at 10:55 am

Frank has the better chance. Andy can’t seem to find his form yet, better hurry, July is coming…

Gospina April 21, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Purito, Uran Gilbert

bikecellar April 22, 2012 at 11:01 am

Rodriguez Gilbert Voekler

bikecellar April 22, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Well, Iglinsky – Nibali – Gasparotto, none of us got it?! A great race, one has to feel it for Nibali, to come so close and lose. Next stop Romandie? I’m off to Nice on Tuesday mini holiday and recce for TDF Grand Depart 2013, hopefully leaving these northern european showers behind, I am fed up with having a soggy bottom :)

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