The fourth pick of the season and it’s getting difficult to pick because to chose one means to leave others out. So here’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a difficult choice but a few extra factors swung it.
They’ve changed the finish of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and it’s helped to improve the race, but only just. It’s still a relatively formulaic race with an early break going, the pace picks up on the return from Bastogne and the succession of climbs sees teams send their lieutenants up the road to soften things up ahead of the inevitable showdown on the Roche-aux-Faucons climb where the distance, intensity and steep slope force a selection. This year it was all different.
Still an early breakaway of 11 riders took six minutes on the trip down to Bastogne. As the road became hillier breakaway on the return, they were down to seven riders and with three minutes once the Wanne-Stockeu-Haute Levée trilogy down.
One big lowlight was the crash on the approach to the Col de Rosier. A wave, a touch of wheels and the peloton was felled at 70km/h with riders flying into the ditch and woodland. As the TV surveyed the damage Julian Alaphilippe and his rainbow jersey couldn’t be seen at first. He was in a ditch, stuck between a rock and a pine tree as Romain Bardet made his way down to help. There was a lull in the racing, a truce.
As things resumed the Bahrain team was active, their rider Dylan Teuns having won Flèche Wallonne. Mikel Landa launched five attacks. None of them was vintage Landa, the bicycling Zorro who slices the peloton to ribbons with his rapier attacks, these were Landa as a meat tenderiser so soften the legs of others.
Onto La Redoute and a tribute to local hero Philippe Gilbert, racing over the PHIL PHIL PHIL for one last time. The breakaway had split to pieces with only Bruno Armirail left from the breakaway over the top. Many of the Ardennes climbs are irregular, get to the top and immediate descent awaiting. La Redoute is a typical example, the climb proper ends with a left turn and the road levels out but the work isn’t quite done as it kicks up again. And this was just where Remco Evenepoel attacked.
He launched with such power that the riders on his wheel just seemed powerless to follow him when this was their one vital job and they all knew it. Quick-Step had lost their co-leader so any Evenepoel move was going to be all-in, Alaphilippe was not sitting tight to launch later on. This was the obvious place for him to attack too, to build up a lead ahead of the Roche-aux-Faucons climb while others hesitate; rather than suffer the darting attacks of the climbers.
Movistar and Bahrain had riders to spare for the chase but they began to waive, as hard as they tried they couldn’t get back time on Evenepoel. They needed to bring the gap back to 20 seconds at the foot of the Roche-aux-Faucons climb so that any jack-in-box attack could spring across the gap. But 35s was too much, arguably only Primož Roglič, Tadej Pogačar and Julian Alaphilippe could close a gap that wide but the first wasn’t racing, the second didn’t start and the third wouldn’t because he’s a team mate even if was still in the race.
Over to the false flat with its horrid concrete section that feels slow no matter what, and Dylan Teuns and Aleksander Vlasov made powerful attacks and after a flurry of moves they were within 16 seconds of Evenepoel. But that was the problem, no closer. They had a wall to scale but had brought a ladder a step too short.
Why the highlight?
A difficult pick, this was a great day’s racing but what made it stand out? It’s subjective but it was a close race, this wasn’t Evenepoel riding away and sucking the suspense out of the finish. Seeing a race that had become formulaic being rescripted must have left La Doyenne smiling.
It felt like more people warmed to Evenepoel during the Vuelta, his personality is coming across and while he makes it look easy on the bike, he’s able to explain events better after the race. But all this was on display on the local TV coverage in Liège. “Ever since he’s started racing he told me about Liège, Liège, Liège” his girlfriend (now wife) said to RTBF and Evenepoel’s post-race interview was sincere and heartfelt, this was a dream come true rather tha a new line on the palmarès. This was all pre-Vuelta and only question left was whether he could handle three weeks and the high mountains: we got the resounding answer in September.
Alas Alaphilippe’s crash cost him much of the season, if he’d resume racing at the French championships he was still chasing his shadow (and being goaded by his team manager). Yet both these riders signal Quickstep’s shift away from the cobbled classics, they still have a formidable team but increasingly their ambitions are turning to grand tours and it’ll be interesting to watch this cultural shift.
Quinten Hermans making the podium was a result few would have predicted but it said plenty about Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert’s season, they started 2022 as relegation candidates only to finish the year as Belgium’s best team, at least on the UCI rankings.