The Moment Liège-Bastogne-Liège Was Won

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Les jeux sont faits, rien ne va plus” said the croupier at the top of the Roche-aux-Faucons climb. The wheels were spinning but which of the five riders in the winning move would land the jackpot in Liège?

A breakaway of seven riders in the sunshine, all the Belgian teams minus Deceuninck-Quickstep who had bigger gauffres to grill, plus Gazprom. Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert are the sole World Tour team without a win this year and things were not going to change in a 250km World Tour Monument so sending Lorenzo Rota and Loïc Vliegen up the road was the next best thing with TV coverage all afternoon for them in their local race.

The race warmed up early and the Ardennes triologie gave us three veteran attackers. First Luis Leon Sanchez on Côte de Wanne, then Philippe Gilbert on the Haute Levée before Greg Van Avermaet had a go, their average age over 36. A decade ago they might have waited for later but helped enliven the race early and while there was action on the front of the bunch, plenty were being ejected out of the back too.

Ineos stormed up the climb of La Redoute with Tao “Gogenhaert”, as both Flemish and francophone TV call him, sounding like an honorary Belgian for the day. This was a dangerous move with the team pulling a large group clear and top riders were trapped, notably Julian Alaphilippe. But as well as what was happening, the why this was happening was more interesting. For starters, were Ineos going to have numerical superiority from here on? Did Alaphilippe miss the move because of positioning, were the legs not great, or poker: was he correct to hang back? With hindsight he was ok but it might have involved an effort that Alejandro Valverde, Michael Woods and Tadej Pogačar didn’t have to make.

Over the climb to Forges and Carapaz launched just when everyone was trying to get their breath back. The others all seemed to hope someone else would chase. He’s hard to bring back, this is how he won the Giro stage to Courmayeur and with it, the maglia rosa and ultimately took the race overall and this time he had team mates behind to mark. But he was caught and then disqualified post-race after being caught sitting on the top tube. It’s been outlawed and for all the polemics on social media – imagine that – perhaps the lesson is just how quickly the peloton has adapted.

On the Roche-aux-Faucons climb Davide Formolo launched a move. To win? No, it was early but it stirred things up. First Carapaz was reeled in and went through the group like a prune. Then Michael Woods made his move moments later and only David Gaudu, Alaphilippe, Valverde and Formolo’s team mate Pogačar made it.

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Ineos were left chasing but the five strongest were clear. Roglič didn’t give up but his long pursuit looked like he was emptying the tank for good rather than trying to bridge. So we had five coming into Liège and you could construct a case for each of them to win:

  • Michael Woods would be the hardest case to make, he’d attacked a lot including a move in the streets of Liège which only signalled doubts and added to his fatigue
  • David Gaudu’s got a quick sprint, he’s won from a group before and if he’s still young he’s been racing since childhood
  • Alejandro Valverde’s won entire bunch sprints in his career and if the leg speed is fading, the racecraft should remain
  • Tadej Pogačar’s still so new that his sprinting isn’t obvious but he’s got the engine to be fresh for the finish and he won the Tour stage to Laruns by winning the sprint among five riders
  • Julian Alaphilippe’s punch needs no introduction and if you’d checked the bookmakers with five minutes to go he’d probably have the shortest odds.

Alejandro Valverde led out which was the surprise that he was in this position with a headwind, but easy to type, harder to ensure. Alaphilippe surged with Pogačar on his wheel and the Slovenian had that bit extra to pass with 50 metres to go, throw his bike and win by a wheel. He’s got the knack of overtaking at the right time and in the moment it’s landed him a major win and looking ahead he’s got a sprint that will worry Jumbo-Visma in July. But let’s not jump ahead, to often pro cycling extrapolates when, if only for an evening, we should interpolate and enjoy the moment. It was a clean, satisfying sprint too, no need for the commissaires to intervene, nor to fish out the photofinish rules. David Gaudu made it for third, joining the World Champion and the Tour de France winner on the podium… average age 24.

The Verdict
Perhaps the best classic this spring? There’s no right or wrong answer here. It was certainly one of the better editions of La Doyenne of late and the finish back in Liège looks like good idea but the risk is the riders learn the finish as this year’s edition only reinforces the importance of the Roche-aux-Faucons climb as all moves launched before stirred up the race but failed, a lesson Astana and Ineos generously demonstrated.

That’s it for the classics… for now as the postponed Paris-Roubaix awaits. It might feel a bit forlorn in October but comes on the back of the Worlds in Belgium so all the Flandriens have plenty to aim for.

Now the racing changes as Europe turns green in the spring and the snow melts to reveal the mountain passes. Ineos might have been the strongest team in the race but right now they don’t have the best riders in the world and this is making races more open. We’ll see next week how Geraint Thomas is doing in the Tour de Romandie with its two time trials and a big ski station summit finish, he’ll face Wilco Keldermann, Lennard Kämna, Steven Kruijswijk, Miguel Angel Lopez and Chris Froome… and then the Giro starts in a dozen days.

44 thoughts on “The Moment Liège-Bastogne-Liège Was Won”

  1. “. . . went through the group like a prune.” Brilliant, as were both races.
    In Maine it would be “faster than green corn goes through the new maid.”

  2. I think Woods demonstrated yet again that he was most likely the strongest but his race craft is still lacking in key moments. For the life of me I will never understand sitting on Valverde’s wheel and not Alaphilippe’s. Once they hit the false flat above the Faucons he consistently made the hardest pulls to ensure they stayed away. Pre-race with media interviews with Canadian cycling press he was saying that he felt confident in his sprint, but that needless attack in Liege demonstrated otherwise. I sense he will be left to rue his decision making for the 2nd time this week, as he’s arguably been the strongest rider in the bunch the last 5 days other than Alaphilippe. I’d love to see his power data and climbing speed from the Fleche earlier in the week, I suspect he was fastest in the final 250m but he just ran out of road to make up for his poor positioning.

    All that said, we got a very worthy winner today, Pog chose the right wheel to sit on for the sprint!

    • My impression from LBL 2021 and Worlds 2018 is Woods is one of the top in the world for short, steep climbs, but not quite at the same level for relatively flat sprints from small groups. Flèche seems to suit him better than current LBL if he can get his positioning right, because the hard climb is the finish in the former.

      • He’s talked a lot about the Olympics – and more, he’s visited the course – but this was of interest because the race has some very steep climbs but finishes on a flat motor racing circuit so to win or just collect a medal then sprinting is required and if yesterday’s finish was replayed over and over I think it’d always be hard for him. Still top-5 and his attack defined the race.

        • I can’t help but think what Woods’ career would look like if he had taken up cycling at an earlier age. IMO he’s missing the racecraft that’s earned from years of experience. So while always doomed to be an also-ran at Monuments, he’s going to be a valuable support rider for Froome this season.

  3. Ineos are not winning the classics but they are certainly shaking things up. Yates looked great in March but lots of kms since and hence declining form. They have numerous good riders but not many great – at least not for the classics, or not in the absence of Pidcock.

    A strong ride by Knox in support of Alaphilippe. Maybe, riding for himself he could have made the top ten. Then that’s not the DQS way, and thier results prove the wisdom of thier strategy.

  4. Watched the end of the ladies race and was struck by how Demi Vollering just veered across the road to win her sprint. If Borghini had been closer she would’ve been cut up (there were no over head shots to really determine this). The old rule of deviating from one’s racing line seemed to be just ignored in smaller groups.

    • Not true.
      Eurosport/GCN coverage showed repeats of the helicopter view of the finishing sprint. Vollering had a half bike length gap in front of Borghini when she moved left and did not impede Borghini’s sprint in any way.
      If you want to apply a strict interpretation of the “not deviating from one’s racing line” rule then Van Der Breggan should be declared the winner as she lead out the sprint and the following riders had to deviate from her wheel to get around.

      • Agreed about Vollering’s sprint, though it’s an easy impression to have unless one watches multiple views. In many sprint finishes when watching from the standard view I get the impression that one or more riders deviated, only to see the overhead shot and realize it was the long camera lens causing flattening of the depth of field – i.e., an optic illusion. Ironically, when there is a meaningful deviation that causes an issue, it seems like this is rarely clear or obvious in that standard view as the riders ride towards the camera, but is much more clear from above.

        About a strict interpretation nullifying sprinters from coming around a leadout rider (and I know you weren’t really serious), I believe the rule stipulates that one must not deviate from their chosen lane once they’ve started their sprint (which seems to imply after they’ve come out from the leadout rider), and from what I’ve seen of the penalty section of the UCI rules, the deviation from the chosen lane must endanger other riders. I think the issue of endangerment is the key – we see massive deviations all the time, sometimes as a rider moves to a more open space, which has the effect of minimizing danger. Also, if no deviation at all were allowed, teams with multiple fast men could get out in front and set up a screen, much like the peloton does when they want to minimize the number of breakaway riders early in a race.

        • For me the ladies race was soured by the significant 10 mins or so of motor pace that Anna Van De Breggen had on the ride back into Liege and wasn’t it a headwind too?

          Otherwise a cracking good event.

    • It’s the women’s race, not the ladies’ race. It’s minor and non deliberate sexism, but still sexism. And if you want to know how ridiculous it sounds in 2021, call the men’s race the gentlemen’s race.

  5. I’m waffling when I say you IRNG are the real deal.
    Thanks for the coverage and analysis as always

    BTW, nice to hear Chris Horner on the color commentary for the race in the US.

  6. Many thanks for the usual excellent precis. After a busy 3 days I settled down with 45km to go and dozed off with Carapaz attacking and Ineos all over the race. Woke up having just missed the sprint with no Ineos to be seen wondering what had gone on but knowing Inrng would set me right.

    Sometimes it’s fun to have a nap and find everything’s changed in 20 minutes and have to fill in the gaps!

    • You can’t beat falling asleep with sport on TV, especially if you’ve been on a long ride in the morning. Nothing is more relaxing. There was one year at the Tour with quite a lot of flat stages in the early days and it felt like Kittel won every day. Every day I’d fall asleep with about 20km to go and wake up with Kittel getting interviewed after the finish. Good times.

      • It must be a universal thing, a short nap during a race on a lazy Sunday afternoon, happened to me plenty. In Dutch we call it “koersdutje” and the trick is to time it with the less spectacular part of a race.

      • Hans up those who ride and who *haven’t* fallen asleep in the same manner! The mystery to me is why I invariably wake up – not by the commentators’ more excited voices during the final 1-2 km or the sprint or immediately after the finish, but *always* when the winner is interviewed…
        PS After missing a few memorable finishes, I learned to record the final even when I was watching it live : D

        • Oh yes – I have strong memories of taking a whole day off work to watch Fleche, going for a ride in the morning and then dropping off on the sofa until I came around to watch Rebellin’s winner’s interview. Then again, it was early in my race watching career (my first Eurosport subscription) so I hadn’t yet learnt that that is probably the best way to watch that race…

  7. A very enjoyable race and certainly the best edition of Liege that I’ve seen for a good many year. Maybe the weather helped in that regard too. Wallonia looked very nice in the sunshine rather than the usual slate grey skies. In the finale I was expecting Alaphilippe to win but just had a nagging feeling that he wouldn’t. Has anyone every made riding a bicycle uphill look easier than Pogacar does?!

    • I find your comments interesting in a week where it seemed plenty were whining (whinging?) that somehow the Ardennes classics had become snoozers and needed…well….something to spice them up. Now most are echoing your comments about how great L-B-L and the others were. WTF?
      On a similar note I’m waiting for all those who lauded the European Super League football idea as something pro cycling should emulate to comment now that it has crashed and burned.
      JV was quoted somewhere as admitting the USA’s NFL was his example of how pro cycling’s “broken business model” should be fixed. Wonder what he’ll say next, especially as a couple of greedy NFL plutocrats were involved in the fiasco?

      • I think you misrepresent Vaughter’s comments. Here’s the key quote: “The sport is run by ASO and, to a lesser degree, the UCI. Neither one of them really see value in either financial fairness or in elimination of promotion or relegation.” He was coming at the issue from the point of someone trying to get more financial investment into cycling teams, which is difficult in a climate where relegation is possible and there are bidding wars for top talent that only a handful of teams can engage in. He was not championing greedy plutocrats. He was saying the structure of the NFL encourages big money interests to invest substantially in the football, while the structure of professional cycling makes such investments much more iffy.

        • “Vaughters pointed to the NFL, which has been the most popular sports league in the United States for years, as a shining example of the success of a different model.” was the bit I was thinking about. I enjoy asking folks who throw the NFL out as an example just how much of the program they’d be OK with. Like a draft system? Salary cap? Free agency? Or just the mega-profits and taxpayer funded stadiums?
          I’ve never studied for MBA but IMHO it seems one of the big rules is “privatize the profits and socialize the risks” which I really, really detest as a business philosophy. When JV started his team I thought he really cared about the future of the sport – now it seems he cares only for the future of the BUSINESS 🙁

          • You directly suggested that Vaughters’ ideas were nonsense because they are in some way tied to “greedy plutocrats” (good thing there have never been any of those guys in cycling, amirite!?). Then you quote the writer of the Cyclingtips article (NFL is a “shining example”) and ask what parts of the NFL such a person (as Vaughters) would be OK with. I’m going to guess you chose to stop reading that article at that point, because Vaughers explicitly answers what he finds attractive about the NFL:

            “What you have in the NFL is an environment where teams are neither promoted nor relegated,” he said. “Of course you have teams win and lose, you have teams that go to the Super Bowl and don’t, teams that win in the playoffs and teams that don’t. But nobody is kicked out of the league.

            “What does that create? That creates investment value and consistent audience. If your team, as an NFL fan, got kicked out of the NFL and had to go play Triple A football or the Canadian Football League or something, you would lose interest. And if there was no salary cap, and so it was only the wealthiest teams that were consistently staying in the first division, or whatever we’re going to call it in the NFL, then only in those major markets that could afford a high payroll would you ever have winning teams.”

            In case that was too obtuse for you, he used the NFL as an example of (1) no relegation and (2) a salary cap. Elsewhere he admired the NFL’s overall structure for putting an emphasis on teams being able to have both financial and existential continuity, in contrast professional cycling.

            I’m don’t see what “privatize the profits and socialize the risks” has to do with anything Vaughters said, though as a general philosophy it seems much more aligned with the current cycling model than the NFL. Races are run on public roads, and local communities are often called upon to pay and or provide other forms of support. Many countries invest taxpayer money in their national cycling teams, and the development of many of those riders ends up supporting private business interests (like the ASO) who didn’t have to spend a dime to support that development. There are almost no profits to speak of from the races themselves, and the few races that are profitable pretty much keep it for themselves.

          • Vaughters isn’t interested in the good of cycling, he’s interested in the good of his bank account. There is seemingly an unbridgeable divide between the US and Europe about what being the owner/president/whatever of a sports team means. In the US, as with anything else, it’s about making money. People get involved in a ‘franchise’ (probably my least favourite word) and want a return on their investment. In Europe it’s mainly to bask in reflected glory, either as a sponsor of a successful team or as a successful businessman who has bought into their local club/team to fluff up their ego. Think of old school football chairmen who were usually local businessmen who got to get all dressed up for the FA cup final, or the Belgian sponsors of Quick Step who get to feel important during Flanders week compared to the hardcore venture capitalists who are involved in US sports.

          • KevinK – I read the whole thing and never suggested JV’s ideas were nonsense, just that I detest them and think they are bad for pro cycling no matter how great they might be for the NFL’s owners, etc. European football fans seem to agree, no?
            As I wrote, I used to like JV when it seemed he was more interested in sport than business but (perhaps since he got the MBA?) these days I really dislike him and the rest of the Velon cabal, who fantasize and scheme to get their hands on all the loot ASO supposedly has and doesn’t want to share with them along with the fantasy of owning a “franchise” World Tour team that somehow would be worth millions if they could just get the UCI out of the way and take over – IMHO same as the now-dead(?) European Super League’s plutocrats/oligarchs tried to pull off.

  8. I wouldn’t have bet a dime on Pogacar as they wound up for the sprint. And worse, I was ready to give INEOS (gasp!) props for the textbook way they launched Carapaz (in a one-day classic, WTF?) who looked like he might stay away to win. Wrong and wrong!
    I wondered if a DQ was coming but once he was caught forgot all about it. Will that be THE example that puts an end to the silly super tuck for good?

    • I noticed the Carapaz “super tuck” at the time – it was probably only about five seconds at most, and a bit half-hearted at that: off the nose of the saddle, but it didn’t look like right down on the top tube. Anyway, on a Monday morning it is yesterday’s chip paper, but had he held on to win … Oh my!

  9. The Carapaz DQ was baffling. He was in the “outlawed position” for less than five seconds, and gained little or no advantage from it. More than that though, I’m not convinced he actually broke the rule as it is written.

    The rule says in the “standard position” the only allowed points of support are “the feet on the pedals, the hands on the handlebars and the seat on the saddle.” For the few seconds he “tucked” Carapaz was still just about on the nose of his saddle, and certainly wasn’t using the top tube to support his weight. He basically just stood up on the pedals, with his rear end off the saddle, to adopt a more aero position. Riding out of the saddle is permitted (obviously), and he didn’t use a forbidden point of support, so I’m not sure how exactly he contradicted the rules.

    On a related note, having disqualification as the initial sanction for this also seems draconian in the extreme. They’ve already softened the “littering” rule to a fine for a first offence, and yesterday we saw Demi Vollering fined (rather than DQ’d) for throwing away her bidon in the finale of the women’s race. Surely can’t be long until the “super-tuck” rule is similarly softened.

    • I have similar thoughts and questions. When I first saw the rule about the supertuck being outlawed, I wondered if it would just lead to riders doing what Carapaz did, sliding just forward of the saddle and hovering above the top tube. Unless there is evidence that he did go down on the TT, it seems a bit much. It also made me wonder what would happen if someone had a droopy-nosed saddle, like a Selle SMP, that allowed one to technically stay “on” the saddle while be forward and lower than is possible with the sitz bones in the usual place on the saddle. I’m still waiting for someone to use a dropper post.

      The UCI really dodged a bullet by softening the littering rule before Sunday. Imagine the outrage if Vollering had been DQ’d after such a quality win (her first). It would have been ugly (or embarrassing if they retroactively changed the rule, which seems the more likely outcome). What would the UCI have done if Carapaz had stayed away in the men’s race?

      • I can’t say I get particularly worked up about this rule. When I think, though, of the debate as to whether or not Carapaz was on the top tube, etc., I think of my students at university who always want to finesse cheating. One kid handed in an essay with several pages that were plagiarized verbatim and when I spoke to her about it she said something like: “I put it in quotation marks so it was a citation.” Yuh, right. That kid was clearly on the top tube. This is why I’m quitting teaching.

        I was more wondering why he wasn’t DQ’d straight away; as it was he was allowed to impact the race for quite a while after his “violation”. I imagine some teams, if they have TV, were wondering if they had to bother chasing, etc.

      • They need to do a better job designating the “trash zones” so the next time someone tosses a bottle as they close-in on the finish, they can be DQ’d with no doubts as to how/where/when the violation occurred, even if they win the race. Perhaps the earpieces could be used? “GREEN ZONE in 1 kilometer!” or something similar could be announced via race-control? If they’re going to allow earpieces this might be a good use for them.
        A post-race fine levied on the winner is like those levied on Super Mario for the wacky clothing he and his teams sported back-in-the-day, a small price to pay for publicity or a race win.
        OTOH the “super tuck” can (and should IMHO) be called out and penalized anytime/anywhere if they really want to rid the sport of it.

      • He doesn’t have to be sitting on the top tube for it to be a violation. In the footage I saw, he appeared to be gripping the top tube between his thighs, which would also be an illegal contact point.

        • Indeed, but the rule (UCI reg 13.0.008) refers to “points of support”, not just points of contact. As it’s written you could actually argue that the rule actually bans riding out of the saddle entirely (“The rider shall normally assume a sitting position on the bicycle”), but we were told what what made the “super-tuck” illegal was sitting on the top tube rather than the saddle. Carapaz didn’t support his weight on the top tube, so I don’t see how he actually broke the rule.

          There’s no doubt that he was doing a “super-tuck” of sorts, but the disqualification appears to be based more on the spirit of the rule rather than what’s actually written in the rulebook. We’ve seen the UCI tie itself in knots in similar circumstances before (drafting cars in the convoy, for example), and based on the last few weeks it looks like this could be yet another rule where the “line” is pretty fuzzy, and the standard of enforcement varies widely.

    • We saw him on TV for a few seconds but he could have used it again when the producer was filming the peloton etc. But the rules don’t allow for a period of time either.

      Still think the story here is just how well everyone has adapted, a lot of habits learned for years have been altered overnight and only a few reflex mistakes so far.

  10. Good race. Glad Pog won but my inner bas***d wanted Valverde to win just to have a chuckle at all the grumpy tweets there would’ve been.

  11. As much as I enjoyed Ineos trying something from afar, I wonder if they could have just put a bit more faith in their riders? As a world class climber with a decent sprint, Carapaz seemed to have all the attributes to simply follow wheels and back his sprint in the finish, but was reduced to a speculative long distance attack. I guess they hoped Kwiatkowski would be able to follow Alaphilippe.

    As with every year, very much enjoyed the unpredictability of the sprint finishes in the spring classics – Stuyven’s mini-breakaway, Asgreen beating MVDP, Pidcock beating Trentin and WVA (and then *nearly* again at Amstel), Pogacar here.

    • Wasn’t one speculation that Carapaz’s attack was strategic somehow to set up another rider? I thought one of the commentators on my feed suggested as much. But then it fell apart. Maybe they forgot Pidcock was not in the race?

      I agree about the sprints. Really entertaining in their surprises.

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