Remco Evenepoel goes clear on La Redoute, Tom Pidcock gives chase and will manage to get onto his back wheel but he won’t last long. From here on Evenepoel’s biggest rivals were the rain and the cold but he stayed away to take a prestigious second consecutive win in Liège.
Normally the run down to Bastogne lets a breakaway form and that’s it. But Tadej Pogačar crashed, an incident with Mikkel Honoré which seemed to involve a pothole and a double puncture for the Dane, taking Pogačar with him although it all happened before the TV coverage started and none of the photo agencies seem to have any images either for now. Pogačar rode back to the peloton and it looked like it could be a Milan-Sanremo repeat where an early crash proved without incident. Alas he’d soon quit out of precaution, went to hospital and was later diagnosed with a fractured scaphoid that requires surgery. He was due to take a break, just not this kind.
Absent the UAE team, Soudal-Quickstep took over as the climbs approached. It signalled intent but also a linear race, to discourage attacks and shrink the peloton prior to an inevitable Evenepoel attack. Still Jan Tratnik, Magnus Sheffield and Valentin Madouas gave them the slip but the latter pair couldn’t or wouldn’t stay with Tratnik’s pace and the Jumbo-Visma rider built up a minute’s lead.
Tratnik’s not an explosive rider but is a tractor who can ride hard for hours and his presence up the road was a menace for Quickstep, they seemed to be burning through riders all while the Slovenian rider was opening up a gap. Yet this wasn’t the Wolfpack in all its ferocity: Mauro Schmid was ill but started, Julian Alaphilippe a late pick and so on. Besides their toil delivered a roll call of victims: Enric Mas, Mikel Landa, Alexey Lutsenko and plenty more were ejected, while the likes of David Gaudu and Neilson Powless were left dejected thanks to allergies and punctures.
If Tratnik was taking time on the breakaway and peloton alike he was still out solo while both groups in front and behind of him weren’t using so much energy and having shredded the breakaway soon had only Simone Velasco of Astana for company. Meanwhile Soudal-Quickstep also had the relative good fortune where if one of their riders was in trouble on a climb there were able to get back on the descent and do another pull which in turn spared the next rider. Some teams with more riders could have tried to turn the screw here so that the likes of Alaphilippe and Vervaeke were ejected for good but it was also something people could observe on TV but harder to spot in the group especially as the rain started to fall and concentration on the wheel in front become ever more important, especially on the frantic descent to Remouchamps and the start of the La Redoute climb.
Ilan van Wilder led at the start of the climb and set such a pace that it looked like the Strava KoM was bound to fall. As the gradient began to bite and Evenepoel stayed seated while everyone else was standing on the pedals. An uprising felt inevitable. Evenepoel’s winning move came in three parts: his first attack on La Redoute lasted two seconds as his rear wheel skidded on the white paint so he sat back down. He went again and opened up a gap but hadn’t quite made the break and Tom Pidcock got across to him on section across to the “new” climb to Cornémont. Pidcock shook his head to say he wouldn’t work. If the Briton was feeling fine was this the right move because he had team mates behind, or the wrong one as a sprint with Evenepoel might suit? An academic question as the third and final part of the attack came and Evenepoel shed Pidcock to go solo, leaving the Ineos rider to get caught by the valiant Trek-Segafredo tandem of Skjelmose and Ciccone.
Game over? Never say never but it’s Evenepoel’s modus operandi, to get a gap and turn on the power to stay away. It’s exactly how he won the previous year although then the move was a surprise, this time it was expected, and yet nobody could follow either. Once away he stayed strong on the climbs and the flat but took things safe downhill and in the bends, it seemed the only risk he was taking was wearing white shorts on a rainy day.
If Evenepoel had things sewn up, the race was far from done. A sizeable group formed behind as Ben Healy was making moves. Almost too many but he kept making them and must be the revelation of the spring. He got clear on the Roche-aux-Faucons climb with Santiago Buitrago and towards the top a resurgent Pidcock bridged across. As good as Healy is, he’s said out loud he can’t sprint and finished two seconds behind Pidcock and Buitrago… who somehow ended up on the wrong side of Evenepoel for the podium ceremony.
A race sans Tadej Pogačar means we wonder if he could have been a factor in the finale, presumably, probably even if he’d been looking more tired of late but to speculate further is to waffle about Liège. Pogačar’s absence didn’t unlock the race of course, it left Remco Evenepoel without competition. Pogačar or not, the plan was always to attack on La Redoute as Van Wilder told Belgian TV afterwards. Inevitable yet also impossible for his rivals, nobody could follow when he launched and the only rider who could get across to him soon after was ejected minutes later. So we got Liège but no more baston as Evenepoel’s biggest enemies then became the wet roads and the cold in case he ran out of energy. He didn’t and for once Patrick Lefevere had something to smile about, his spring season saved again.
As the final spring classic with the obvious name winning it’s the how and why that keeps it interesting. Until recently Liège felt as tiring for spectators as the riders because the contenders tried to save energy for a late move, only here things happened with 30km to go and that’s been late compared to many other races. The exception this season was Sanremo which supplied a thrill for the final 6km. There’s always next year for Pogačar to spring on the Cipressa.
Now all roads lead to Rome as the Giro d’Italia awaits Evenepoel. Clearly his training has gone right and his team mates seem boosted by their leader. He’ll take even more confidence into the race but the start is still two weeks away and the finish is in five weeks. Which raises a nagging, background alarm bell because we’re already expecting a duel in May with another Slovenian in Primoz Roglič rather than, say, six riders in search of a maglia rosa. It only takes one crash or suchlike from these two and in place of an afternoon, the suspense for three weeks could vanish. Plus there’s a shadow over Tour de France as Tadej Pogačar begins his tilt at the race from rehab rather than rest.
All photos via ASO/Maxime Delobel