The final spring classic and the oldest, the race began in 1892 and these days marks the transition from one day classics to the hilly stage races thanks to a course that’s as hard as a day in the Alps with plenty of vertical gain from the ten marked climbs and many more that are unlabelled. Alejandro Valverde is the obvious pick for Sunday this time he’s got more challengers in a race that is harder to control.
The Route: 258km and almost 4,000m of vertical gain, comparable to a mountain stage in the Giro or Tour de France. It’s only 94km to Bastogne and the famous U-turn before the race heads into the hills for a series of climbs, some categorised and many not.
This year’s route is different with the traditional triptych of the Wanne, Stockeu and Haute-Levée climbs replaced by a new combo of the Côtes de Pont, Bellevaux and Ferme Libert, the last better known to locals as the Signal de Botrange. Will it make a difference? The new collection is not as hard but that’s relative, these are still selective and will start to soften up the race. Le Pont is over a kilometre at 10%, Bellevaux is more gentle at 6% on a wide road and La Ferme Libert is the toughest of the trio with a 12% gradient which sounds hard but it’s irregular and has some much steeper sections.
The route then picks up the familiar names again like La Redoute, the strategic rendez-vous, a very awkward road to ride with a gradient that keeps changing. It’s the Walloon version of the Koppenberg or Kapelmuur, painted with PHIL, PHIL, PHIL in tribute to local hero Philippe Gilbert who won’t be riding. The winning move is unlikely to go here but many will get dropped and the false flat after is hard work. 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 as 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. If anything the marked climbs are the obvious parts, 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 swoops into to Belgium’s rust belt and its decaying steel mills. Deceptively the finish isn’t in Liège but five kilometres away in Ans, an unremarkable suburb. Last year’s race included the cobbled Rue Naniot but this is off the route and it’s back to the classic finish on the Rue Walthère Jamar, it’s uphill on a wide road until 250m to go when they turn left onto the flat finishing straight.
Alejandro Valverde again? He’s the obvious pick but this race is less of a controlled scenario than Wednesday’s Flèche so he won’t have it so easy. Still he’s won it three times and shows no signs of slowing down yet. He’s in great shape, has a strong team and can still sprint fast out of a small group.
Dan Martin has won and lost in Liège, success in 2013 and crashing in sight of the finish line when leading in 2014. This experience will serve him and he’s in good form as we saw on the Mur de Huy where he seemed badly positioned at the start but sliced through the field to finish second. He’s quick in a sprint from a group too. Quick Step bring a strong team with the likes of Petr Vakoč, Dries Devenyns, Gianluca Brambilla and David de la Cruz (but no Bob Jungels who is preparing for the Giro) who could all win given certain circumstances but Martin is firmly the captain.
Michael Albasini‘s enjoyed a long career where he seems to bloom every season in late April for the Ardennes and then the Tour de Romandie. He almost won last year and packs a powerful sprint which he’ll rely on, he can cover the moves others make. Previous winner Simon Gerrans is probably road captain while Adam and Simon Yates bring more options for Orica-Scott with Simon perhaps the pick between the two given he’s not riding the Giro any more so doesn’t have to hold back before refocussing on the Tour de France although this reasoning is suggestive at best.
Michał Kwiatkowski didn’t have it for Wednesday Flèche Wallonne but for this blog at least he was always an outsider on such a finish. Come Liège and he’s a much better pick, the course suits him more and if he comes in with a small group then he’s wily for the sprint. Sergio Henao is in good form but Team Sky are likely to be all in for Kwiatkowski.
UAE-Emirates come with three options in Rui Costa, Diego Ulissi and Louis Meintjes. Costa is a strong rider who made the podium a year ago but is the archetypal diesel so a win outright is not easy, he’s often present in the finish of a hard race but doesn’t win often. Ulissi by contrast packs a fast sprint.
Greg Van Avermaet rides and if we associate him with the cobbled classics remember he won a stage of the Tour de France in the Massif Central and then the Olympics although Liège is probably going to be too much, the intensity of the repeated climbs too much and he was just off the pace in the Amstel. BMC team mate Dylan Teuns is worth watching, a very promising U23 who was winning mountain stages of the Tour de l’Avenir and Aosta all while making the podium in cobbled classics in the same season.
Romain Bardet loves this race and has been improving each year but how does he win? There’s no terrain to sneak away given the final is on familiar and wide roads. Still the form is good so a top-10 is probable. Domenico Pozzovivo was lively in the Tour of the Alps this week and has featured in this race before but how does he win?
Team Sunweb have Warren Barguil fresh from a top-10 on the Mur de Huy and Tom Dumoulin straight of Mount Teide. Barguil should be more at ease in the race while many who come off a volcano need a moment to get their racing legs but Dumoulin has shown he can attack in the Ardennes before, he’s much more than a time trial specialist.
Nathan Haas looked great in the Amstel Gold Race but once again he tended to show too much to his rivals in the finish. However he’s been sick this week so his chances in Liège depend on recovery and this means he loses a chainring in the ratings below.
Cannondale-Drapac’s Michael Woods is another who has fallen ill this week but could still recover. If not Rigoberto Uran is made for a race like this and showing good form in the Tour of the Basque Country.
Finally some more names. Bahrain-Merida’s Ion Izagirre could feature in the finish but is often a consistent stage racer more than a dynamic one day wonder. There’s no Gaudu for FDJ so hopes rest on Artur Vichot. Trek-Segafredo’s Fabio Felline was up there in the Amstel and sprints well. Tim Wellens is Lotto-Soudal’s best hope but his bold style can’t pay off every time.
|Michał Kwiatkowski, Dan Martin|
|Michael Albasini, Diego Ulissi, Warren Barguil, Rigoberto Uran|
|S Yates, Haas, Felline, Wellens, Bardet, Henao, Izagirre|
Weather: cold and cloudy with a top temperature of 9°C and the outside chance of a rain shower too. But unlike last year it won’t snow. There will be a light headwind from the North of 10-15km/h.
TV: local channel RTBF starts coverage at 2.10pm CET and the finish is forecast for 4.50pm. It should be on the channel you watch the Tour de France on and if not there’s Eurosport or cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv have links to schedules and streams.