The last of the spring classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a race of transition. Part Belgian classic, part-mountain stage and a rare chance to see the grand tour specialists go all-in for one day over a tough course. There are ten marked climbs but countless more rises.
Alejandro Valverde is the obvious pick as he hopes to double-up his Flèche Wallonne win but too many teams need a result on Sunday and it’s worth taking a risk to get the last reward. Here’s the usual preview with the route, contenders, ratings, TV times and more.
The Route: 253km plus the 5km neutralised roll-out. It’s 107km to Bastogne with one categorised climb, the Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne, but plenty of rolling roads and extra climbing. Things get serious after the Côte de Wanne with 84km to go as the fight for position becoming ever-more vital and the climbs come thick and fast. The Côte de Stockeu is next, short but 12% and the Eddy Merckx statue at the top.
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 Philippe Gilbert.
The Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons is next, it’s not a classic climb only appearing in 2008 but very selective. 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 with signposted beginnings and endings. Yet there are dangers everywhere, the descents and narrow roads can catch a rider out. 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 how to ride 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. Take the Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons which looks small on the profile above but it drags on beaucoup and the climb after the “summit” is just one of the many hidden climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The Finish: after many scenic climbs with woodland the race returns to 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 Scenario: a gradual process of elimination will see riders ejected along the way. Things get serious in the final 50km but in recent years a sizeable group has arrived in the suburbs of Liège and the more riders, the harder it’s been for some to slip away given the chasing power available. This Sunday’s forecast for poor weather could mix things up a bit.
Flèche Wallonne winner Alejandro Valverde can win the race but he’s not got the zippy sprint he once had. He might have to strike out alone in order to win and that is going to be a big ask. As we’ve seen in recent years in this race and the Worlds he can get in the front group but he struggles to convert this into a win. This is one race where he’s struck before with wins in 2008 and 2006 although that was Valverde 1.0 rather than today’s post-Puerto rider. Movistar come with a strong team, Nairo Quintana probably isn’t up for much but Giovanni Visconti and José Herrada offer support.
Again a similar story for Joaquim Rodriguez, he can make the front group but can he outsprint the others? Fresh from a win in the Basque Country built on the time trial he could well try some probing attacks on the hills in the hope of shaking off faster finishers while drawing some fellow climbers with him. Team mates Giampaolo Caruso and Dani Moreno should survive late into the race and can try to sneak away knowing Rodriguez will be heavily marked.
Michał Kwiatkowski wasn’t as incisive as predicted on the Mur de Huy but could use his finishing kick again to win. The Amstel winner says he’s in great shape but struggling on the Mur, at least in relative terms as he was among the second row of riders. But he’ll be an obvious pick, he was on the podium last year. Julian Alaphilippe will be worth watching again, he can go the distance but there might be too much climbing again.
Vincenzo Nibali has been targeting this race. Apparently he’s still frustrated by the loss in 2012 to Maxim Iglinskiy. He’s been wasting energy in the Amstel and Flèche Wallonne but Sunday’s course suits this style, it’s harder to pull him back as the chasers will be reduced after 240km and all that climbing and he can count on extra support from the large Italian population in and around Liège. Talking of Italians if he does it he’ll be the first to win a Monument since Damiano Cunego way back in 2008. L-L Sanchez and Jacob Fuglsang bring extra options to the team but the team tends to follow the old Italian model with lieutenants in loyal service of a single leader.
Cannondale-Garmin must be scouring Belgium for panda suit rentals in order to recreate the days of old. Dan Martin crashed in the Flèche Wallonne and any injury can take it’s toll and at pixel time his presence in the race isn’t certain. But sometimes it can mean the pressure is off and so let’s not count him out. Tom-Jelte Slagter is backup too but an increasingly infrequent winner.
Another injured rider is Philippe Gilbert who will start as BMC Racing’s leader. This was only confirmed on Friday afternoon which leads to question of whether he’ll finish because he’s still in pain. He was only able to ride a bike on Friday for three hours and couldn’t push more than 500W when he knows he’ll need to pump out 1,200W to contend for the win. That’s some gap to close. Almost nobody knows the roads as well, he grew up next to La Redoute. Tejay van Garderen looked out of place in the Flèche Wallonne with his late attack but his abilities are better suited to Sunday’s race with the series of longer climbs although he’s rarely touted as a one day rider and seems more at ease on a 20km mountain pass or a 40km time trial rather than the awkwardly erratic roads of the Ardennes.
Lotto-Soudal pairing Tim Wellens and Tony Gallopin aren’t exactly first choice picks but a win is plausible. Wellens put in brave (read foolhardy) late attack in the Flèche Wallonne but it’s sign he’s going well. The distance is no problem, he was 15th in Milan-Sanremo and made the front group in the Amstel Gold Race. Gallopin was sixth in the Amstel Gold Race and sat out the Flèche Wallonne to be extra fresh. Jelle Vandendert bolsters the team even more.
Ag2r La Mondiale come with a very strong team. Domenico Pozzovivo wasn’t far from winning last year and is back in form having won the mountain stage in the Giro del Trentino. Romain Bardet has been close in Trentino too and has been targeting Sunday’s race for a long time, convinced by his 10th and 13th place that with some experience and maturity he can land a result. In addition there’s Rinaldo Nocentini who seems to be back in form plus the promising Alexis Vuillermoz, sixth on the Mur de Huy despite a late crash and a broken wheel which was rubbing the brake blocks although the ex-MTB rider is still learning his trade and this race never smiles on a novice. Add a leader Carlos Betancur too and the brown short brigade are promising.
Rui Costa is able to feature but seems to be more of a podium outsider than a winner. He might be famous for his Worlds win in 2013 but it’s an exception as one day race wins are very rare but he’s often close and finished fourth in the Amstel Gold Race. Another outsider is Pierre Rolland who’s been targeting this race and was visible at the front on the Mur de Huy. This race is much more suited to his efforts although a win still seems wild, he’s never won a one day race even below World Tour level.
Finally a few more names likely to feature. Sergio Henao seems Sky’s best bet after crashes have left others injured and Nicolas Roche doesn’t seem in peak form yet. IAM’s David Tanner has been looking sharp and with Mathias Frank looking to test his climbing legs. Tanner’s move with Orica-Greenedge’s Simon Clarke was solid last week, Clarke and Michael Albasini are the Australian team’s best bets as 2014 winner Simon Gerrans is still recovering with Simon Yates one to watch too, he’s got the finishing speed if he can arrive in a group. Roman Kreuziger has been top-20 of late and this race suits him more. Wilco Kelderman is finding some form again for Lotto-Jumbo. Bauke Mollema is Trek Factory racing’s leader and suited to the hilly course. The Ardennes races haven’t worked out for Giant-Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin but there’s one last chance to catch a break. Among the wildcards Cofidis have a better team than many think with Nicolas Edet, Rudy Molard, Yoann Bagot and Stéphane Rosetto all useful on this kind of course but lacking experience and the condition aquired from riding other races.
Weather: cool and cloudy at times with a chance of rain and a top temperature of 16°C. A southerly wind of 20km/h offers a tailwind for the return section.
|Michał Kwiatkowski, Joaquim Rodriguez|
|Vincenzo Nibali, Rui Costa|
|Tim Wellens, Dan Martin, Tony Gallopin|
|Gilbert, Pozzovivo, Albasini, Bardet, Moreno, Mollema, Henao, Caruso, Rolland|
TV: local coverage starts at 1.35pm Euro time and the finish is forecast for 4.50pm. It’s an ASO race so notionally available on the same channel you watch the Tour de France. If not there’s Eurosport… if not you’ll find streams via cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv.
History: it’s a race for the climbers these days 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. Eddy Merckx 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).