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
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.