“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.
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.
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.