Liège-Bastogne-Liège Preview

Saturday, 21 April 2018

A duel between Alejandro Valverde and Julian Alaphilippe? The two have been rivals in the Ardennes ever since the 2015 edition and now Alaphilippe has to cope with the pressure and expectation. Meanwhile there’s a long list of contenders and pretenders, ranging from guest appearances by the likes of Vincenzo Nibali to those looking to salvage something from their spring like Michał Kwiatkowski

The Route

258.5km and almost 4,000m of vertical gain, comparable to a mountain stage in the Giro or Tour de France. There are a few tweaks to this year’s route but the final 60km are essentially the same as 2017. It’s only 90km 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 again avoids the traditional triptych of the Wanne, Stockeu and Haute-Levée climbs favouring the Côtes de Pont, Bellevaux and Ferme Libert, the last better known to locals as the Signal de Botrange. The “new” climbs are not as hard but that’s relative, these are still selective and will 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, once 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 – freshly painted – in tribute to local hero Philippe Gilbert. 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: a case of one more for the road as this is probably the last time the race uses the drab finish in Ans, local politics and sporting preferences mean a return to Liège is likely (the story behind all of this is a tale of high and low politics and probably the first and last time a story of Belgian municipal politics is of interest but if you’re inclined, see the article by Pierre Carrey in Liberation or run it through a translation engine). It’s the long straight climb of the Rue Walthère Jamar, 1.2km at 5-6% before the road turns left and levels out with 240m to go.

The Contenders: for all the talk of Alejandro Valverde being defeated last in the Flèche Wallonne he still finished second, a result almost anyone else would crave and a sign of consistency that makes him hard to look past. He now returns to a longer race that arguably suits him even more as neither he nor his team have to control everything to set up “bunch” sprint, he can just stay in the front group as riders are shelled out and then try to play his cards in the finish. Easier said than done but he’s made it look facile before with four wins to his name and can join Eddy Merckx as the most prolific rider in the race if he wins for a fifth time.

Julian Alaphilippe is in form and perfect for this race too, he was second in 2015 and is backed by a strong Quick Step team who will be expected to take charge of the race. He’s backed by Bob Jungels and Philippe Gilbert who both seem to be riding in service of their French team mate while Max Schachmann and Enric Mas bring more options but how will these two fare deep into the race?

This is the last chance for Team Sky to salvage something from their 2018 spring classics campaign and Michał Kwiatkowski is an outsider, a status that suits him well giving him freedom to operate. He’s perfect for the course and has a good sprint for the finish but is the form there? He’s was off the pace in the Amstel and active in the Flèche Wallonne in support of Sergio Henao and the roles should be reversed. Geraint Thomas drops in for another one day race and he’s shown the versatility for this while 2016 winner Wout Poels is still on his way back from injury.

Team Sunweb bring an interesting combo of Tom Dumoulin and Michael Matthews. Dumoulin’s form is unknown so watch to see how he’s faring ahead of the Giro but he’s handy in a one day race. Meanwhile Michael Matthews was fifth this week on the Mur de Huy and finished fourth in Liège last year but his reputation precedes him: nobody can afford to take the final left turn to the finish with him near them.

Jelle Vanendert and Tim Wellens lead Lotto-Soudal and apparently there was an exchange of views to put it diplomatically between the two after the finish line in Huy regarding the tactics in the finish. Wellens should go for the all-or-nothing attack with Tiesj Benoot as extra support.

Dylan Teuns leads BMC Racing who will mark the passing of team founder Andy Rihs, the Swiss billionaire who built a team with his own cash the way you or I might spend credits in a fantasy cycling game just as he bought a winery rather than a case of wine. Teuns is in good form and suited to this race but it’s hard to see how he can beat the others, his best bet is an attack on the final climb up to Ans, a risky move given if it’s shut down then the legs are cooked before the sprint to the line.

Can Astana play the team card again? They were almost the cycling equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters in the Tour of the Alps and last week’s work by Jacob Fuglsang set up Michael Valgren for the win, a plausible repeat scenario.

Bahrain-Merida aren’t normally a team yet able to take on the likes of Sky and Astana but they’ll find their niche in a race like this. Vincenzo Nibali wants revenge for 2012 when he was overhauled by Maxim Iglinskiy and to round out his already decorated palmarès. But how, perhaps a late attack on the Saint-Nicholas in front of all the Italian descendants who moved to the region? Enrico Gasparotto and the Izagirre brothers bring more options, as does Domenico Pozzovivo who has flown in after a strong ride in the Tour of the Alps.

Mitchelton-Scott bring another team stacked with prospects, to see their eight riders is to wonder who will be carrying the waterbottles. Jack Haig is looking strong, Rob Power is still in apprenticeship but this just his kind of course and Romain Kreuziger brings experience and is their most likely podium candidate. Michael Albasini has had results in this race before but so far this spring has looked off the pace.

Among the others, Rui Costa (UAE Emirates) looks the steady pick ahead of Dan Martin who was off the pace in the Flèche but worked hard rather than shut it down to plan for Liège while Diego Ulissi is a long shot. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) made the top-10 in the Flèche which sounds reasonable but it was impressive given he was tangled up in a crash on the final lap and rode hard to get back and into position. Above all he loves this race, returning every year. Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) is coming into form and as we saw in the Tour de France he’s very hard to bring back if he gets 20 seconds. A year ago Rigo Uran was supposed to be changing focus from grand tours to one day races and he could feature along with EF Drapac team mate Michael Woods. FDJ’s Rudy Molard is probably their best bet while the team once signed so many promising riders they didn’t have room for Guillaume Martin so he went to Wanty-Groupe Gobert where a win would be unexpected but a top-10 is possible and that’s rare for a wildcard invitee. Direct Energie’s Lilian Calmejane is outside pick, off most people’s radar he’s been tearing up Coupe de France races notably Paris-Camembert. Warren Barguil‘s still chasing form and the French media are chasing him.

Alejandro Valverde, Julian Alaphilippe
Michał Kwiatkowski, Vincenzo Nibali, Michael Valgren
Tim Wellens, Michael Matthews, Romain Bardet, Rui Costa
Gasparotto, Calmejane, Kreuziger, Izagirre², Mollema, Vanendert, Thomas, Benoot

Weather: warm and sunny with a top temperature of 25°C. A 20km/h wind from the SW means a tail/crosswind for the return to Liège and it could gust to 35km/h making it tactically important.

TV: coverage starts at 2.00pm CEST and the finish is forecast for 4.55pm. It’s an ASO race so look for it on the same channel you watched Paris-Roubaix or the Tour de France and local coverage is by RTBF.

Women’s Race: it starts in Bastogne at 10.35am and finishes at 2.30pm CEST and shares the same final 40km as the men’s race. If you can share a preview add it to the comments below and I’ll link to it here.

Ecky Thump April 21, 2018 at 10:58 am

After reading the linked article, I think it would be wise to elevate Nibali and Gilbert up to 5 x chainrings Mnsr Inner Ring, or your Dura Ace brake shoes may get a little oily, tu sais ce que je veux dire?

The Inner Ring April 21, 2018 at 12:04 pm

It’s a strange story, like a Belgian version of The Wire only real of course.

Paddy Dunne April 21, 2018 at 11:31 am

Be cool to see Nibbles bookend the Monuments with victory tomorrow. Big fan of dirty ‘ol towns like Liège. Lilian Calmejean to go long. Loving the Izagirre squared notation (?)

Larry G April 21, 2018 at 11:42 am

hopefully his Nibs dreaming a dream (of victory) by the old canal

ClassicsKing April 21, 2018 at 5:17 pm

Bookending the monuments would be a Lombardia win though….

Vitus April 21, 2018 at 11:35 am

I don’t know why, but the first photo is stretching over the whole width of the page, over the right column with Recent Posts.
In 3 different browsers. On purpose?

The Inner Ring April 21, 2018 at 12:04 pm

Fixed, it was just sized wrong.

Larz April 21, 2018 at 11:44 am

Think Valgren is placed too high. Long classics campaign for him already and course probably too selective. for him.

I’d probably move him out and add Fuglsang with a chainring or two.

MJJ April 21, 2018 at 3:43 pm

I believe Valgren has said he would repay Fuglsang for Amstel at LBL.

STS April 21, 2018 at 11:52 am

I can’t wait for the course final to change its lay-out. Finishes on top of a climb (Amstel when the finish was on the Cauberg , Flèche, and LBL ever since the finish moved to Ans) almost guarantee the same scenario with the same circle of specialists able to win that race. And that has become even more true in the last decade because WT-teams bring only very good riders to the start line nowadays who are able to feature very long in the race. Reducing the squad size to seven riders seems to have lessened that effect a little but it hasn’t changed the way those races are planned.
Flèche is of course the worst of those races because of the very selective nature of the “mur”. And that sort of run according to the script kind of racing doesn’t rectify the status of being one of the most important races of the season IMHO. It’s of course still bloody hard to win it, but if as a spectator you’re almost guaranteed to not miss much of one of the most important races when turning up the telly only for the last 30 minutes that’s just not what it takes to make cycling more popular. And it certainly doesn’t inspire alternative, more opportunistic ways to race that race (also called tactics).
That said I hope for Team Astana with their impressive collective strength and lack of any super star rider and inspired interpretation of road racing to lighten it up and reap the reward once again. But when was the last time someone featured in LBL who had raced in the Tour of the Alps (Trentino) two days before? Seems to be nearly impossible nowadays when even the heavy favorites for classic races do their last long training (!) rides on Wednesday before Sunday’s races.

gabriele April 21, 2018 at 3:23 pm

Vino 2010?
It’s uncommon, but it seldom happens mainly due to other factors, rather than because of a physical limit: that is, the way better preparation offered by País Vasco but even more so the fact that a rider who could be competitive at Liège feels he might have got cards to play also in the rest of the Ardennes, instead of building up for the Giro through a climbers’ race.
Pozzovivo featured prominently at the Trentino both in 2014 and in 2017, later going on to show up strongly enough at the Liège. He was good at the Liège 2015, too, although in that case he hadn’t gone full gas at the Trentino (still a top ten).
Kangert was strong in 2016 after a good Trentino.
The late Scarponi used to tune up in Trentino, albeit pushing hard only in a stage at most, before going deep at Liège with fine top-tens.
Cunego had won Trentino before going on to perform well at Liège in 2006-7, with a couple of top-tens, including a podium, his best results ever there, or at least as good as 2009 when, with a different approach, he top-tenned throughout the three Ardennes’ races.

STS April 21, 2018 at 4:23 pm

Thanks gabriele!
I should have been more precise. What I meant was, someone racing in the Tour of the Alps in order to win or place high on the GC (not riding it for training purposes) and then riding in LBL with a realistic chance to win it. That seems to be not possible anymore or at least highly unlikely when even someone like Sagan says after Amstel that he still felt P-R from a week before in his legs. The not so good old days with regards to very effective methods of recovery (à la Landis @TdF 2006 for example) seem to be over at least for now.
Of course I would absolutely love to see lo squalo win it tomorrow but LBL somehow seems to have become the most unsuitable race for this. 10 years ago when Schleck won it the distribution of strength in the field was a different one IMHO.
But we’ll see, I’ll actually be glad if tomorrow’s race proves me wrong.

gabriele April 21, 2018 at 5:12 pm

Besides Vino, also Pozzovivo (the final placing doesn’t tell everything: he had a serious shot to the victory with daring late attacks, although he’s a slow sprinter) and Cunego still apply, they were racing Trentino to win.
As I said, it’s above all about the sample being too small: I think that – besides the riders I’ve already named – since Vino’s victory, only Niemiec in 2014 and Fuglsang in 2016 went to Liège after podiuming in Trentino. And they were obviously on domestic duties.
Hard to get any pattern from that.
What’s sure is that it can be done, and it can be effective, too – because it happened, and in 2000-2010 just as in 2010-2020.

Personally, I wouldn’t agree about recovery and doping, either.
It now looks like that on the cobbles people are able to achieve way longer stints of form than in the years 2000s. Think GVA last year, for example. Or Valgren this same season. In Boonen’s era it was common knowledge that you’d better *not* perform too well at Het Volk if you wanted to last until Roubaix, let alone Amstel (how uncommon that double is?). Same was usually said about Sanremo – and look what Dege did just three years ago. Same goes for Gilbert and his successful – quite rare, too – Flanders-Amstel double.

Finally, I don’t think Nibali will make it, either. It’s too bad for him and his tactics to be marked as “one of the favourites”. If he goes from relatively far, lots of strong teams can send behind him a gregario who can go 110% in order to follow Nibali (while Nibali should keep his attack at a lower power rate if he wants to make the finish line), then just following wheels. He’d need his team to smash the race into pieces well before the finale, to break the other teams in smaller units, or to find another brave & slowsprinting captain to go with him. And on such short climbs, it would be very difficult for him to ride away from Valverde and Alaphilippe: he’d need that nobody believes in his move, which is now complicated. His only option would be impressive time picking, even superior to his per se notable usual standard.

However, it must also be said that he himself nearly made it in 2012, which was 6 years ago, not ten…

But, yeah, I got what you mean: currently, we’ve been having 5 editions in a row ending in a sprint of sort, while the ratio had been 1/5 in the previous 5 years.
I’d even go as far as to say that the Movisky strong political liaison which started precisely around that time (2013), and at first also included the later kicked-out Katusha, played a decisive role in tilting the nature of the race (if we go further back, the typical distribution over a given 5 years period was more or less 1 long-range attack, 2 middle-range ones, 2 “sprints”).

(PS However, Andy Schleck’s case was a curious one, similar to Landis in a sense, that is, the chasing peloton for some reason still went *extremely* slowly, at amateur pace, for a very long time, when the attackers already appeared very dangerous while at the same time being more or less at reach)

beastarm April 21, 2018 at 11:56 am

Inrng, it seems you have missed one of the perennial contenders. Surely, Dan Martin deserves a mention somewhere.

The Inner Ring April 21, 2018 at 12:07 pm

DNF in the Amstel, 61st in the Flèche Wallonne and it’s going to be warm and dry which, if he still has the allergy concerns, won’t help him either. We’ll see. His win in 2013 inspired a lot of younger riders in the peloton that they could be competitive in races like this rather than having to wait until they were 30+ or a client/ex client of Dr Ferrari.

Watts April 21, 2018 at 12:35 pm

+1. Where did the diplomatic INRNG go? Well thank you for your honesty.

The Inner Ring April 22, 2018 at 8:48 am

It’s a topic covered in a separate blog post if people want a bit more detail, http://inrng.com/2013/12/martin-lbl-inspiration/

gabriele April 22, 2018 at 12:42 pm

What’s utterly funny is that the piece defends the (definitely false) commonplace myth of French riders calling themselves out of the doping arms race in the years 2000s, while at the same time being about D. Martin “who speaks French”: one of the reasons because of which the Irishman speaks French is that he was raised in a French juvenile team… where he could experience how plagued by doping the environment was! Even if he always kept himself away from that, barring the supposedly once-in-a-lifetime Tramadol tablet (and perhaps some other things which aren’t seen as “doping”).

It’s also interesting that looking at the screenshot of past winners, also Iglinsky has now been suspended. Did clean cycling suddenly start in 2013? Finally! Or is that someway more related to a (welcome) shift in the political management of doping itself? Who knows, maybe the two things go by the hand, especially if you take the first in a relative – yet very appreciated – sense.

J Evans April 22, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Interesting reading all those old comments. Interesting too that the same view tends to prevail even now: riders are castigated when caught (fair enough), but any who weren’t caught are considered clean – whatever the (circumstantial) evidence against them (A. Schleck).
The same also occurs when riders are caught, but let off – Impey, Rogers – sometimes for highly spurious reasons and also occurs in the minds of many when riders are caught and punished, but excuses are made – Yates. Whatever happens with Froome, the same pattern will follow: other than those who are so biased they’ll back him no matter what (and the inverse also exist), the majority will base their opinion on whether or not he’s found guilty. As we’ve seen with previous cases, that’s not a logical or accurate way of viewing the situation.

Gareth April 21, 2018 at 4:52 pm

Yeah, I’m a massive Dan Martin fan (he’s from the local area) but just can’t see him featuring this year. I wonder if it is after effects of riding a tour de France with a broken back?

The GCW / Strictly Amateur April 21, 2018 at 10:52 pm

Also a fan of Dan Martin, also don’t believe He’ll have much chance but still would rather see Him the victor than anyone else.

Hope to see He back up to speed later in season.

Larry T April 21, 2018 at 4:14 pm

Dunno about rating the newly added Liberte climb Rode (sort of) it yesterday and thought it tougher than Le Redoute Vai Nibal
i

STS April 21, 2018 at 4:26 pm

What a great shot of Nibali during his attack on the Poggio, by the way. Thanks for choosing this one.

Richard S April 21, 2018 at 5:25 pm

I’ve got a ‘feeling’ a group of good but not first choice riders will slink off the front somewhere in the final kilometres while the chosen ones look at each other as DS’s send them so their main man won’t have to chase. I’m thinking the likes of Gilbert, Poels, Gasparotto, Benoot, Dumoulin et al…. so in that case its nailed on for a slow motion sprint between Valverde, Alaphilippe and Kwiatkowski.

The GCW / Strictly Amateur April 21, 2018 at 10:53 pm

Lot of top riders lining up.

Foley April 21, 2018 at 11:29 pm

Lining up are 4 named Romain…but Kreuziger is not one of them. I do like his chances though.

Gautier April 21, 2018 at 11:54 pm

The women race starts in Bastogne, and not in Huy 🙂

The Inner Ring April 22, 2018 at 8:46 am

Fixed that, thanks.

Fred April 22, 2018 at 9:18 am

Head says Valverde, heart says Nibali. Dan Martin, not this year, sadly.

hahostolze April 22, 2018 at 9:27 am

Why did they take out the Cote de Rue Naniot after an excellent first appearance in 2016? Never got that.

RonDe April 22, 2018 at 9:57 am

I’d like Nibali to win since I doubt he’ll win the Tour. But if anyone finishes in front of Valverde I’d be surprised.

Tommy B April 22, 2018 at 10:32 am
J Evans April 22, 2018 at 11:27 am

Hopefully, Nibali once again enlivens the race and it doesn’t end up as a procession until the final climb – so glad this route is changing.
He’s certainly had a huge impact on racing this spring – the Ronde and Fleche as well as M-SR.

Anonymous April 22, 2018 at 1:28 pm

Ranting on about how riders who aren’t caught shouldn’t be seen as clean and then bigging up Nibali. Irony, much?

J Evans April 22, 2018 at 1:46 pm

My view on doping has always been ‘Anyone could be at it and we don’t know’. Nibali fits in that camp, no more or less so than most others.
People gripe more about Nibali because he’s Italian and rode for Astana, but that is fallacious reasoning – there is considerably more to be suspicious about when it comes to A. Schleck and Froome. They also tend to cite his last Giro victory after his ‘comeback’. But Chaves got sick and Kruijswijk broke his ribs.
And he has enlivened this spring, which is all I said about him. So, tell me more about irony, Alanis.

Anonymous April 23, 2018 at 12:15 am

RonDe, clearly.

gabriele April 22, 2018 at 3:45 pm

The bunch working “hard”… to grant a mass finish. UAE, Movistar, Sunweb. Poor.

PS They might as well have showed some footage more of the women race, kms ago.

gabriele April 22, 2018 at 4:53 pm

Boring until the last 20 kms, but those were really fine!

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