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.
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.
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.
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.
|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.