Alejandro Valverde sprints for the line ahead of Julian Alaphilippe and Joaquim Rodriguez. The Movistar rider won the sprint after controlling the final kilometre and outwitting Katusha’s numerical superiority.
The early breakaway took time to form, a flurry of attacks in the first half hour finally ended with a move that didn’t contain any threats. It still prompted Europcar to lead the chase, strange for the wildcard invitees to feel responsible for controlling events especially as they were doing it before the TV coverage started. Things hotted up on the the Côte de Wanne where Astana’s Andriy Grivko took off, launching the first of a series of moves by the Kazakh team. Were they celebrating their continued presence in the World Tour? Probably not and the hilly terrain suits a team that’s built for stage racing and Vincenzo Nibali had started 2015 with two targets circled in red: the Tour de France and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The sky blue jerseys were swarming on the Haut Levée and Tanel Kangert and Michele Scarponi got away with Esteban Chaves of Orica-Greenedge for company. The trio would stay away for some time with Kangert driving on the flat and he paid for his efforts on La Redoute.
Behind there was a giant stack which took out many as the peloton raced towards the Amblève valley at 70km/h. Dan Martin, cousin Nicolas Roche, Pierre Rolland, Yukiya Arashiro, Simon Gerrans, Frank Schleck, Mathias Frank were among the fallen. Vincenzo Nibali just avoided trouble while Julian Alaphilippe had a mechanical which meant he needed a wheel change and was forced to chase up La Redoute to rejoin the peloton. The bunch though weren’t in a hurry. Years ago La Redoute was a strategic spot and sometimes the winning move could go clear. Not today and the riders were spread horizontally across the road rather than taking turns to attack. A stiff breeze promised a strength-sapping headwind at the top.
On to the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons and the climb itself didn’t do much damage. The awkward uphill section after did as Roman Kreuziger went clear and to be joined by Katusha’s Giampaulo Caruso and then later Jacob Fuglsang got across. It marked the end of Astana’s tactical grip as Katusha started to shape the race. The bunch split in the pursuit behind with Giovanni Visconti chasing out of team duty and joined by Romain Bardet, Rui Costa, Alaphilippe and more but it all came back together thanks to a nervous Nibali leading the pursuit.
As the race toured Liège’s rustiest suburbs Zdeněk Štybar was working to bring back compatriot Kreuziger, Caruso and Fuglsang. On the Côte de Saint-Nicolas the trio were in sight and Valverde was repeating his tactic from the Flèche Wallonne of riding up the climb in order to control the pace. Nibali had other plans and perhaps channeling St Nicolas the patron saint of the wrongly-accused (for balance he’s the patron saint of pharmacists too), he attacked but the move wasn’t incisive. It was Alaphilippe who reeled in “The Shark”and The Frenchman, pleased by his catch, persisted in his effort and turned on the power over the climb, a generous effort he might now regret. But at least he was there because by now team mate Michał Kwiatkowski was being dropped.
Riding the cobbled descent into Ans the lead group had three Katusha riders in Dani Moreno, Caruso and Joaquim Rodriguez, Ag2r had two in Bardet and Bardet and Pozzovivo, Astana had Nibali and Fuglsang and Sky also had two in Sergio Henao and L-P Nordhaug. Only Katusha used their numerical superiority with Moreno jumping in the final kilometre. Louis Meintjes of MTN-Qhubeka chased but cracked and there was a brief poker moment as Valverde sat up and the others watched each other. But Moreno wasn’t storming ahead, he was standing on the pedals in the most upright style possible, as if he was on a stair machine and it didn’t help his aerodynamics. Valverde was the first to blink and jumped off in pursuit of Moreno and Rodriguez followed along with everyone else. It meant a sprint from the group and Valverde used his front position to lead and kept it going to the line. Alaphilippe shouldered Rui Costa out of the way to take second with Joaquim Rodriguez taking third.
The Verdict: a predictable win without too much suspense. Astana and Katusha tried to shape the race from far out and this promised plenty but every time they launched someone up the road it had the feeling of a diversion rather than the winning move. A lot of the action happened by the back door with riders being shelled out on the climbs. It was a hard race but not a spectacular one. Valverde’s win wasn’t just down to his final sprint, he took control of the race in the final kilometre, responding to Katusha’s tactical taunts but it was a discreet ride, not for him the bold attacks of Nibali or sometimes too visible Alaphilippe.
Valverde now has three wins to his name here and 2015 wasn’t that far off his 2006 win when he came off a win in the Flèche Wallonne and then sat tight while then team mate Joaquim Rodriguez led for much of the final hour before he won won the sprint from a group packed with fellow clients of Dr Fuentes.
Alaphilippe impressed again, finishing second with a theatrical thump of the handlebars and post-race frustration at finishing second when most neo-pros would be going wild about first place. He was annoyed after his second place in the Flèche Wallonne but his mood turned to joy as well after the race as it sunk in. You can’t get lucky on the Mur de Huy but being able to land a podium in Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a higher level result given the distance and hillier course. Still 22 who knows what sort of rider he’ll become? It’s too early to say if he’s just an Ardennes specialist or if he can flourish in a stage race too. As an amateur he won the summit finish stage of the 2013 Tour de l’Avenir with a solo finish well ahead of Matej Mohoric and Adam Yates although much of this was built on the descent and team tactics. Being French he’ll feel the media pull for the Tour de France, being on Etixx-Quick Step he’s being schooled in one day events.
As for Joaquim Rodriguez he did what he could but was never obvious for the sprint win. Katusha’s trio resemble body doubles, each are tiny climbers. They tried to shape the race but the finish didn’t suit.