Liège-Bastogne-Liège Preview

Friday, 25 April 2014

The ultimate one day race? This certainly one of the toughest athletic contests of the year where form and fitness trump brute force and a touch of luck. The 100th edition includes a nod to the past with some classic climbs back on the route.

But there’s plenty to look forward to. Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde are the prime picks to win but there’s a big field that includes grand tour winners and classics specialists alike. Here’s a preview with the route, climbs, contenders, TV info, weather and more.


The Route
262.9km officially but with a suspiciously long neutral zone to mean even more. The route twists and turns on the return leg to include as many climbs as possible. The turn at the specially-decorated roundabout which commemorates the race is at 98km and nearby there’s a special sprint with €5,000 on offer, a sure-fire way to motivate the early breakaway riders.

Km 70.0 – Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne – 2.8 km, 6.2%
Km 123.0 – Côte de Saint-Roch – 1 km, 11.1%
Km 167.0 – Côte de Wanne – 2.8 km, 7.2%
Km 173.5 – Côte de Stockeu – 1 km, 12.4%
Km 179.0 – Côte de la Haute-Levée – 3.6 km, 5.6%
Km 201.0 – Côte de la Vecquée – 3.1 km, 6.4%
Km 218.5 – Côte de La Redoute – 2 km, 8.9%
Km 231.5 – Côte des Forges – 1.9 km, 5.9%
Km 243.5 – Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons – 1.5 km, 9.3%
Km 257.5 – Côte de Saint-Nicolas – 1.2 km, 8.6%

Things get serious after the Côte de Wanne with the fight for position becoming ever-more vital. The Côte de Stockeu is next, short but 12% to pass the Eddy Merckx statue.

La Redoute is the big strategic rendez-vous, a very awkward road to ride with a gradient that keeps changing and the Walloon version of the Koppenberg or Kapelmuur, it’s already painted with PHIL, PHIL, PHIL in tribute to local hero Gilbert.

Next, the Côte des Forges is back on the route, used in times past as the launchpad to many a famous win. Another returning climb is the Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons, although it’s not a classic climb only appearing in 2008 but it was dropped last year. Finally there’s the suburban Côte de Saint-Nicolas as the penultimate climb before the finish.

All these climbs are the obvious strategic points but they’re almost the easy part in that they represent defined points. There are dangers everywhere, the descents and narrow roads can catch a rider out and experience counts for plenty.

“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”
Four time winner Moreno Argentin on La Redoute

Many of these climbs are followed by an open section across a plateau or worse. a false flat. It’s here that moves often go clear. In short the climbs matter but the rest of the course is very technical.

The Finish: after many scenic climbs with woodland the race rushes towards Belgium’s grim rust belt. Deceptively the finish isn’t in Liège but five kilometres away in Ans, an unremarkable suburb. There is a long climb to the finish line and it’s 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.

The Contenders


Alejandro Valverde is the prime pick. He’s been consistent all week long in the Ardennes and this is a course that suits him perfectly, he’s got everything including a decent sprint to finish off the race; he’s won the race twice before too. He’s even got Jesús on side – team mate Jesús Herrada was very strong in the Flèche Wallonne.

Philippe Gilbert got blocked on the Mur de Huy which part-explains his relatively bad result. But he’s in form and on home soil, the race passes through Remouchamps where he grew up. BMC are working well as a team and Samuel Sanchez will prove a valuable lieutenant. He’s dangerous in a sprint, remember he’s beaten Tom Boonen to win Paris-Tours. If he’s in a group he’ll lick his lips at the idea of beating the others.

Michał Kwiatkowski is the next pick. Still 23 but a podium place in the Flèche Wallonne shows he’s got what it takes and arguably he timed his effort wrong, something he can mend in the coming years. Sunday’s race is something else being much longer but he was in the mix for the Amstel so the distance is not a problem.

Garmin-Sharp’s Dan Martin is next. The defending champion was DNF in last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race with talk of allergies but a late surge helped him take second place in the Flèche Wallonne. I can’t make up my mind if he’s erratic or consistent, he seems to win on big days but many a plan doesn’t come together too. Note there’s speed in his lanky frame and a clinical brain, perfect in case he reaches the finishing straight with others. Team mate Tom Jelte Slagter was great on Wednesday but this is a very different race and he’s untested over the distance – 21st in the Amstel. Ramunas Navardauskas is also worth watching.

Belkin’s Bauke Mollema‘s coming into form just at the right time. He was another who surged too early on the Mur de Huy but he’s a climber more suited to the longer and repeated efforts on the road to Liège and a podium place is easily within reach and he’s got a team in his unique service.

Simon Gerrans has been targeting this race. A podium in the Amstel Gold was almost mission accomplished but can he go further with a win here? The answer is yes but he’ll need a lot of skill and luck given the depth of the field.

Katusha were very visible in the Flèche Wallonne but got nothing. Joaquim Rodriguez has crashed in the Amstel and Flèche and seems a diminished force but this steadier race could still suit him while Dani Moreno is in shape but also down on his luck. Often overlooked but Alexandr Kolobnev is often a threat in this race, remember he finished second to peloton loan-broker Vinokourov in 2010.

Thomas Voeckler? As we saw last Sunday when he was on the few riders willing and able to attack. A mystery as ever, he does have what it takes to win a big classic but hasn’t come close yet; meanwhile Pierre Rolland has good legs but as ever the tactical brain is a concern while Yukiya Arashiro is climbing very well in support. Lotto-Belisol’s Jelle Vanendert is climbing very well and could be a threat but he’s the kind of rider many others would like to arrive with because he doesn’t sprint fast.

The Pretenders
Chris Froome is in action but he rode this race last year too and didn’t get too far. We’ll see if those Centre Pompidou legs have what it takes to do better and with Richie Porte there’s a useful 1-2 tactical game to play. We should see Sky ride better because they have leader for the day.

Fränk Schleck is Trek Factory Racing’s best bet, he’s had some bad luck in recent races but seems in genuine form, unlike Andy who almost seems caught in existential angst as he looks back at who he was and what’s happening now. New signing Julián Arredondo is suited to the climbs but needs more experience.

Astana have a big attachment to this race given team boss Vinokourov won three times and Max Iglinskiy won in 2012… overhauling Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali should be their big attraction but he’s been quiet in the races so far. But this race suits him. If not Jacob Fuglsang was prominent but his problem is that he’s often visible during a race but the Dane goes on the wane before the finish. Enrico Gasparotto is a regular contender too and good for a late charge.

Saxo-Tinkoff’s Roman Kreuziger is an outsider, he’s beeen improving in form. Lampre-Merida pair Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi have come up short in the Ardennes so far and they’ll need to strike out from afar, they could be outshone by team mates Damiano Cunego and Przemysław Niemiec but I do think this is a race where Costa especially can shine. Argos-Shimano’s best bet is Simon Geschke, the German is the son of a track rider but has long-distance DNA and could and should crack the top-10, he’s backed by Tom Dumoulin who enjoyed La Redoute during the Eneco Tour, plus they have “apprentice” in Warren Barguil.

Romain Bardet was on the attack a lot in this race last year before finishing 13th, a lucky number in France. Liège is a stated goal and his Ag2r La Mondiale team admitted a mistake in backing Carlos Betancur for the Mur de Huy. The Colombian’s still riding into form so the team will be all behind him. Finally Mathias Frank of IAM Cycling. 15th on the Mur de Huy but he had a late puncture which meant a redline chase to get back before he started the final climb. With this kind of form he should be in the mix.

Alejandro Valverde
Philippe Gilbert
Michał Kwiatkowski
Dan Martin, Bauke Mollema, Joaquim Rodriguez
Kolobnev, Moreno, Gerrans, Voeckler, Nibali, Bardet

Weather: cool and overcast with the chance of rain. Temperatures are not expected to get beyond 12°C.

TV: Belgian TV begin their build-up at 12.10pm with live video expected at 13.45pm. It’s on Eurosport and other channels too from 2.00pm. As ever cyclingfans and steephill have the schedules and streams. The finish is forecast for 4.45pm.

History: it’s a race for the climbers today but when it started in 1892 it was almost flat, or at least over rolling roads. More and more climbs have been added to help thin the field. Of course it’s Eddy Merckx who holds the record with five wins. Italy’s Moreno Argentin has four and, if he wins on Sunday, Valverde can join Léon Houa (1892, 93, 94), Alfons Schepers (1929, 31, 35) and Fred De Bruyne (1956, 58, 59).

The ultimate one day race? Back to the claim made at the top. The Tour of Flanders is the greatest classic with its route, tradition and crowds. Paris-Roubaix the toughest with its cobbles and legend. But for a pure athletic challenge Liège-Bastogne-Liège wins. It’s got 4,700 vertical metres, enough climbing to rival a mountain stage of the Giro or Tour but instead of long and steady mountain passes, the route after Bastogne offers a series of sharp climbs, technical descents and a route that needs to be committed to memory. If you’re still in doubt, this is the oldest of all the classics.

Evan April 25, 2014 at 4:39 pm

A bit harsh to put the defending champion that far down the favorites list after he proved he’s on form this week. Always fun to root for the under dog, especially when the favorite is a villain like Valverde.

The Inner Ring April 25, 2014 at 6:07 pm

He’s still the fourth pick. DNF in the Amstel means he lacks some racing in the legs for the final half hour.

For what it’s worth when riders share an equal “chainring” rating I put them in order of tipping. Not that forecasting is every so precise but now you know.

adam April 26, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Martin’s not an underdog and Valverde’s not a villain. In fact you could say that Martin wouldn’t have won last year without the herculean effort of Hesjedal – who is by the way one of my favorite riders – who like Valverde has a non-virgin past.

BC April 25, 2014 at 6:53 pm

Liege, by my way of reckoning comes after Flanders and Roubaix, but I guess it’s a personal opinion.

260 kilometres does indeed make this a tough race, with several demanding climbs close together in the final 60 kilometres. Hope the race develops over time, and Ans is not the only focal point.

The Inner Ring April 25, 2014 at 7:03 pm

If I had to pick one classic to watch it would be De Ronde but I don’t. LBL is the ultimate physical test but of course maybe not always the best race or the same meaning.

Birillo April 25, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Inrng, do you know the TV ratings of L-B-L compared to the cobbled classics and M-SR? I can’t help feeling it’s slipped down the rankings.

The Inner Ring April 25, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Media agency Repucom score the races and last year LBL was after Flanders and Roubaix but ahead of the Amstel Gold Race and Milan-Sanremo for coverage. But like all stats it’s more complicated than a single score. By other measures used by Repucom it has a larger audience when measured in absolute terms.

Mats April 25, 2014 at 7:30 pm

I’d love to see Belkin colors in the front in Ans. It’s a good, solid team always performing really well and they deserve a big win IMO. Nibali should be in good shape as Giro start waits after a couple of weeks but he hasn’t been running on all cylinders lately. Garmin has also been a bit of a mystery this year. Dan M. looks like he’s in good form and ready to win but he needs a really strong and united team to support him like they did last year. I’m not rooting for Katusha as long as there are rows and rows of Katyushas pointing towards free and independent people of Ukraine.

Coldugalibier April 25, 2014 at 8:19 pm

What’s with the panda following Dan Martin? I seem to remember he appeared on telly last year with the panda or something along those lines. Is the panda a personal fan / totem /charm / emblem for the Irish wunderkind? And if not, why not? It would be kinda cool, no?
I wish him (and the panda) well for Sunday. A great winner of a great race.

The Inner Ring April 25, 2014 at 8:47 pm

I don’t know what the panda was doing, you can see two guys with a black and white flag. But the panda image stuck for Martin and the team and even was the genesis of a sponsorship deal with the World Wildlife Fund where the team offers space on their kit to the Fund:
http://wwf.panda.org/?213871/Team-Garmin-Sharp-partner-with-WWF

Chris April 25, 2014 at 10:30 pm

It has to be Gilbert for me.

A great win last Sunday, when he looked back to his very best, was followed at Fleche Wallone by what I’m hoping was just a piece of bad positioning on the last climb of the Mur de Huy. His quote after Wednesday’s race made the point that he passed several riders on the way up the Mur but started the climb too far back.

He’s currently available to back at around 6/1 for LBL – if he had been on the podium at Fleche (which he easily could have been, given better positioning) then he would surely be vying for outright favouritism with Valverde.

Coldugalibier April 25, 2014 at 10:31 pm

WTF! Sorry WWF. I just checked the link and am amazed partnerships can be forged in such a seemingly random (or perhaps he was a target?) way. What about The Jumping Devil during the Tour – how many Faustian pacts have been forged, I wonder…?!!

Steppings April 25, 2014 at 11:13 pm

My heart says Arashiro, my head says Gilbert. But then I didn’t rate Dan Martin’s chances at all before Fleche what with knee injury(?), allergies and it seemed lack of racing miles, but there he popped up and could possibly have won it had his positioning/timing been different. So what do I know! Interesting that during commentary Dan Lloyd didn’t rate Martin’s chances either.

Larry T. April 26, 2014 at 1:38 am

Excellent preview, as usual. The “ultimate one-day race” is the last remaining on my list of the 5 monuments to see live, in-person, but I hope to fix that next year. Being an unabashed Italo-phile put both MSR and Lombardia ahead of La Doyenne while Paris-Roubaix and The Ronde are, …well Paris-Roubaix and The Ronde, so L-B-L’s at the bottom. Sunday morning will find me clicking on various pirate feeds to watch though – for sure! Vai Nibali!

mm1 April 26, 2014 at 3:44 am

Lots to recommend this race for an Italophile, not just past winners and Nibali’s near miss (but, have any Italians shown form yet this season?) Look for an abundance of Tricolore in Ans, post war lots of Italians settled around Leige attracted by work in the mines and steel works.

Kelly's Bidon April 26, 2014 at 7:44 am

Nibali, ‘The Shark’ is one of my favourite riders. His attitude, unlike his current team, is beyond reproach. For sure he’ll have a dig – remember how he lit up the finale of the Milan Sanremo – but he’ll be building steadily for July, so my head says ‘no’! Gilbert is another personal top rider and far more likely to get his timing right. Fingers crossed stuff…Really, anyone but Valverde! Not that I’m blaming you for tipping him, most excellent INRNG, he is the stand-out pick.
As an aside, did you see the Ritchie Porte blog? Two things revealed: firstly he and Froome-dog had to move hotels during their recent Mount Tiede training trip – another team had booked out the entire place, apparently – seems the pro-ranks and its dog are now following the Sky plan; and secondly a one-liner ‘Froomey’s ready to fly…’

Bundle April 26, 2014 at 11:32 am

Nibali and Valverde need a very hard race, sort of a repeat of the Worlds. Kreuziger is my bet.
By the way, Sir Wiggo looks as good as this time last year. Drop 10lb this week, go to Belfast, where your team badly needs you, and do the Giro this time without pressure!

Kelly's Bidon April 26, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Yes Bundle, agreed, another crack at the giro would be good to see. However 21st Century Fox are now large sponsor’s of the Sky package. The Tour of California, with a team led by a star name. was more or less a nailed-on condition of the sponsorship deal…

Gary Cowlam April 26, 2014 at 11:34 am

Why is everyone so anti-Valverde for this race? Seeing a rider of his quality clearly at the peak of his form is a joy to watch. He’s got one of the best tactical brains in the peleton and this route suites him perfectly.

Kelly's Bidon April 26, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Gary, it’s not just this race. The boy was guilty of blood-doping, served a two year ban, but unlike David Millar and others who owned-up, came clean, and tried again, Valverde has flatly refused to apologise. He even had the cheek to originally protest his innocence, blaming the Italian test organisers who first matched his blood to that of doped blood packets seized during the Operation Puerto affair…That’s why!

Whiff April 27, 2014 at 12:05 am

Maybe I’m being harsh but, aside from the drugs stuff, he also comes across as the sort of cold, calculating, self-interested, even joyless rider that it’s hard for fans to warm to.

Netserk April 26, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Two points:

I think you are underrating Nibali. Sure he’s not among the absolute top contenders, but he will for sure attack and risk everything for the win. I know he hasn’t had the best of seasons so far, but I’m quite sure he’ll lead the race at some point.

As great as Vino is, he has ‘only’ won the race two times (2005 & 2010), not three ;-)

Noel April 26, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Kelly
Did you see Cameron Wurf’s blog about life on Mount Tiede? It seems half the pro peleton spend most of their time up there these days…

Kelly's Bidon April 26, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Nope, Noel, have not. As in – you’ve emphasised my (intended) point re: slagging off-of Sky’s training regime – now copied by all – k? Cameron W., Aussie, I’ve always admired tutti t’Aussie’s approach and grit…and don’t get me started on Mr. Porte…What a Pro…What a superb example of guts, skill, and composure. I really hope I live long enough to see him win a major (yeah a Paris-Nice is nice – but my hero won shit loads of them) tour. Thanks, Noel, happy days and get(the bloody)miles in.

KB April 26, 2014 at 10:13 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this (first on the blog; I hadn’t seen the pics until now) epic adventure tale: http://cyclingtips.com.au/2014/02/cam-and-richies-excellent-adventure/

Kelly's Bidon April 27, 2014 at 7:28 am

Ta for that KB – 403k! bloody awesome…bonus being I’ve now got CW’s blog-tag, so double-ta!

KB April 26, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Thanks for the preview, as always! Holland Sport had a special on LBL, along the same lines as the Roubaix and MSR ‘road trip’ documentaries: an interview w/ Bernard Hinault about “that” wintry edition, the Gilbert family, and others. It was good, though I thought the previous entries in the series were better (reflective of the popularity rankings expressed above?). Again, those of us in the Low Countries are spoiled for coverage (I pity the expats who don’t bother to learn the language and get stuck w/ Eurosport!).

Chrisman April 26, 2014 at 9:08 pm

If another rider/team is not prepared to make serious attacks before the final, it’s hard to see anyone challenging Gilbert or Valverde. I get the impression that if it’s all set up for a final blast, Martin won’t quite have the acceleration. But if it’s been aggro all the way then Gilbert will be less effective in the final and Martin will out-strength him.

Would not surprise me if the final sprint is Martin-Valverde heads up. And in all honesty, there is probably no one better at a flat sprint after a bastard of a mountain stage than Valverde – he regularly beats Contador and Rodriguez on the final small flat bits of stages. But then again, Martin beat Rodriguez too. Can Martin outsprint Valverde after 260km? God I hope so.

FW showed enough to suggest that Martin still had something in his legs and in a longer run-in he could probably have rode back on to Valverde’s wheel. Martin has those power-chops, the GT legs that Gilbert simply doesn’t. Gilbert will probably be out of it by this point. Mollema and Kwiatkowski are nailed on for top 10s but they won’t contest the final. If J-Rod takes it seriously he could ride away from them all…he’ll have to because he knows for sure he can’t beat Valverde heads-up on the flat. I hope it’s an aggressive race. I hope people take chances rather than riding near the front and waiting for Gilbert to accelerate and then totally fail to be able to even attempt to follow him (apart from Valverde).

Anonymous April 27, 2014 at 3:00 am

+1

othersteve April 26, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Chrisman, good overview.

Inring you as always are most informative.

ArgyllFlyer April 27, 2014 at 8:45 am

Really can’t see Gilbert doing it today.

Anonymous April 27, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Froome a non starter due to chest infection.

The Inner Ring April 27, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Betancur too with a sore throat.

ANTHONY KOTOUN April 27, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Going through the English euro sport feeds and I don’t have any volume. Anyone got any advise?

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