A solo win for Bob Jungels, another team win for Quick Step. He took flight just over the top of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons and nobody else could or would go with him.
The early break went and was gradually slimmed down until local rider Jérôme Baugnies was the lone leader, a nice sight given the last time he went to Liège with a number pinned to his back it was by helicopter after he crashed out of the GP de Wallonie last last year, sustaining serious back injuries.
UAE-Emirates worked hard but it looked puzzling rather than impressive, neither Rui Costa or Dan Martin showed signs in the last month that they’d blow the doors off the race and even if they harboured stealthy plans why do so much so soon? With hindsight Dan Martin was their best rider in 18th, he punctured late in he race while at least in contention for the podium and Quick Step will be grateful.
Otherwise little else looked to be happennig. It’s one of those races where it pays to listen to the host broadcaster because they have a motorbike at the back of the bunch and this is where a lot of the action is. If nobody was attacking then one by one riders were being dropped and others were in trouble. But even the Côte de la Redoute, such a hard climb, looked to be ridden at a level tempo as Quick Step’s Enric Mas set the pace all the way up.
Nothing happened then everything happened. They climbed the Côte des Roche aux Faucons and in went a large group where most of the leaders were being shepherded into place by their domestiques, out came only a few of the favourites at the top. Philippe Gilbert tried a move but this wasn’t the Gilbert of old who’d bathe his rivals in lactic acid. But it was wiser, it allowed others like Sergio Henao to bridge across and then Bob Jungels had a go but was brought back. They went over the top of the climb, or notionally because the “summit” for the mountains prize isn’t the end of the climbing, the road dips and then rises up with a long false flat and here Jungels took off solo. Once again the entire lead group missed the Quick Step move leaving a powerful rouleur to go solo and by now most the leaders had run out of helpers to chase. It was up to the leaders to act but it was another case of zugzwang, if anyone tried to move they’d probably pay cash for their efforts: ask Valverde who did try a solo chase but got shut down and then vanished from the race. Lotto-Soudal had the numbers but only in terms of the bodycount, not the watts. Wellens chased but as good as he is, he’s no match for the power of Jungels and the gap wasn’t closing. All along Julian Alaphilippe was playing the perfect gendarme, marking every move. He could have sat tight citing his new status but he was energetically covering the moves.
Onto the Côte de Saint Nicholas in the suburbs of Liège and Jelle Vanendert put in a big attack and took over 20 seconds out of Jungels. You wondered if this was a GPS or moto error but manual timing confirmed it and Jungels was now in sight for the chasers, a target to aim for. Jungels only had one task and his low, powerful style was a contrast to Vanendert’s more upright, almost geriatric position.
Romain Bardet showed his savoir flair to attack late and was joined by Michael Woods and the pair passed Vanendert. Neither was going to win the sprint so a pre-emptive move got them on the podium just ahead of Julian Alaphilippe who showed what could have been, with Alejandro Valverde in thirteenth place.
The race burst into life with 20km to go and a share of the TV audience were probably roused from their siesta by the raised voices of the commentators as at last something happened to awaken viewers. Only Jungels quickly pulled out a substantial lead which took the edge off the suspense and if Vanenedert soared like Icarus on the Saint Nicholas he soon lost his feathers on subsequent descent. Goodbye to Ans but if the finish were on the Boulevard de la Sauvenière in Liège as planned for next year then Jungels probably would have won too and perhaps with a bigger lead but the idea is the new finish will force some to go on the attack earlier to eliminate any rivals in case of a sprint along the banks of the Meuse.
Quick Step win again, their 27th win this season and it’s a big win for Jungels, still just 25 and a rising talent who won the lively Bergamo stage of the Giro last year and continues to progress but towards what, more monuments or being a contender in a grand tour? He won under his own steam today, attacking when nobody else could follow and quickly building up a good lead but was bolstered by team worknotably from Alaphilippe in the final. Meanwhile a lot of riders had a discreet time of things, some made the first group but barely showed on TV while others didn’t, the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Michał Kwiatkowski coming in over three minutes behind but this is two cite just two pre-race picks, many more joined them.