PEZ Previews: Liege-Bastogne-Liege

La Doyenne – the last of the Spring Classics is on this Sunday and Ed Hood has had a good long look at the parcours and the starters to come up with his preview. LBL is generally an action packed race full of tough climbs which on their own are not too bad but when combined with the classic distance are brutal but the big question remains, who’s going to win?

La Doyenne – ‘a woman who is the eldest or senior member of a group.’

The group in question being the Classics; and in particular the five ‘Monuments,’ specifically Milan–Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris–Roubaix, the Tour of Lombardy and Liege–Bastogne–Liege, the oldest of them all. In Flemish that’s ‘Luik–Bastenaken–Luik,’ but whichever language you chose for this race which was first held as a professional event in 1894; it’s been around a long time.

Man hadn’t yet mastered powered flight, the Great War was two decades away and Leon Houa’s average speed for the 223 kilometres was 25.15 kph. There were two amateur editions even before that, in ’92 and ’93 – both of which Houa also won.

But she’s not a forgiving old girl; much more of a strict matriarch than benign grandma. Within her 257.5 kilometres lay 10 killing tough, grinding climbs – not your steep but short, big geared Flemish ‘ramps’ – and very little flat or straight in the way of parcours for the entire day.

Liege is a sprawling city of contrasts – the historic city centre in marked contrast to the rusting and abandoned steel mills on the fringes. The race wiggles south to ‘turn’ near Bastogne in the heart of the Ardennes area. Bastogne was at the heart of the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ which raged in late 1944 when the Germans launched their last great, but ultimately futile counter offensive of World War Two.

After Bastogne it heads north again to a dour finale at the top of the Cote De Saint-Nicolas in suburban Liege through endless grey housing to finish outside a retail park. That said, the terraced houses near the bottom of the final climb are still home to a large Italian contingent who originally travelled to Liege in the wake of World War Two to escape the poverty of Italy and work in the coal mines and steel mines of Wallonia – Italian riders still get a warm welcome and the tricolore flies proudly.

The critical climb in the race used to be the legendary Cote De La Redoute with 35 kilometres to go. But in recent years as the overall standard of racing has risen and the gaps between the top protagonists has narrowed, the race tends to be decided on the utterly horrible Saint Nicholas – an endless grind which keeps changing gradient and direction making sure only the strongest can win. A look at the ‘bible,’ Velo 2014 tells us that the race was won at 39.335 kph last year and as recently as 1997 was won at a pedestrian 36.649 – this is no ‘walk in the park.’

The legendary Redoute climb – or Philippe Gilbert shrine

Many of the all time greats have won this race – Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Sean Kelly among them. But the Classics specialists have left their mark – Fred Debruyne, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, Moreno Argentin and Paolo Bettini have all ‘done the business.’

‘Recordman’ – as you might expect – is Eddy Merckx with five wins between ’69 and ’75; but the dapper Venetian with the power to weight ratio that meant uphill sprints were a formality – Moreno Argentin, took four editions between ’85 and ’91. As with the Amstel Gold race the event had an ‘interesting’ run of winners between 2003 and 2008 in Tyler Hamilton, Davide Rebellin, Alexandre Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde and Danilo Di Luca.

The 2009 edition saw Andy Schleck flatter to deceive as he took his one and only Classic win; it looked like there would be many more to come – and he’s still only 28 years-old. Vino had us all raising our eyebrows in 2010; with Philippe Gilbert winning his fourth major race in a row after the Fleche Brabanconne, Amstel and Fleche Wallone in 2011.

It was the turn of Vino’s countryman Maxim Iglinskiy to triumph in 2012 and last year Irishman (out of Birmingham) Dan Martin out sprinted Joaquim Rodriguez and that damn panda to win – just a pity they’re a protected species or someone could have shot it.

In the Fleche preview we asked if Alejandro Valverde (Movistar & Spain) was simply having a day where all his biorhythms ‘bottomed out’ in the Amstel when he missed the podium? He ably demonstrated in the Fleche that the answer to that question was an emphatic, ‘yes’ as he made the rest look like they were riding in treacle over the last metres of the Mur de Huy.

Valverde about to unleash his deadly sprint on the Mur de Huy

We mused if Dan Martin’s (Garmin & Ireland) withdrawal from the Amstel was due to his knee problems, allergies or mind games? His Fleche second spot confirms that my knee is in worse nick than his and that the only thing he’s allergic to is journalists, ‘bigging him up’ and putting him under pressure.

Of the third podium finisher atop Huy, Michal Kwiatkowski (QuickStep & Poland) we enquired if he’s peaked too early this year – a stupid question, really. As English comedian John Cleese might say; ‘at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious’ these three men are all major favourites for Liege-Bastogne-Liege; especially with Martin’s topping of the podium last season, Valverde having won the race in 2006 and 2008 and Kwiatkowski’s upward trajectory.

‘Super Favourite’ Philippe Gilbert (BMC & Belgium) misjudged the Fleche finale; he made the mistake of thinking that because the peloton went into the climb behind what looked sprint trains in full flight, the pace would ease, there would be a lull and he could move up. There was no lull, just more speed and even Gilbert couldn’t move up fast enough given the infernal pace and the killing gradient. His efforts took him into the top 10, just – but anger and frustration are powerful motivators and Gilbert is still one of the ‘Heads’ for Sunday.

A disappointed Gilbert crossed the line in 10th on Wednesday

There were few Fleche surprises in the top ten; fourth was Bauke Mollema (Belkin & The Netherlands) he should be top ten in Liege but it’s hard to see him survive the final purge of the ‘Super Faves’ on Sunday.

In fifth spot was Tom Jelte Slagter (Garmin & The Netherlands), the Dutchman won the Tour Down Under in 2013 and took two stages in Paris-Nice this season but we wondered if he was robust enough for the rough and tumble of the Classics. However he was just outside the top 20 in the Amstel and with this ride in the Fleche has to be considered as a front runner on Sunday – he will have commitments to team mate Martin, however. But he gives the US team another strong card to play in Sunday’s race – the other teams can’t let Slagter slip away.

Amstel runner-up Jelle Vanendert (Lotto & Belgium) took sixth in the Fleche despite concerns about his knee – that sounds familiar – and we see him being in the mix in the final grim slog to the line on Sunday.

In seventh spot was a name which has been out of the limelight but has undoubted class as a former winner of the Tours of Austria, Britain and Catalonia, Michael Albasini (GreenEdge & Switzerland). However, whilst he’s been a runner-up in the Fleche in the past, Liege is a race he’s never got to grips with – so no hi-lite for his name.

Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff & Czech Republic) won the Amstel in 2013 and eighth spot in the Fleche underlines that his legs are still good. He’ll find it hard to win in a last kilometre shoot out with the ‘Supers’ so will have to slip away early in Liege – a feat which is becoming ever harder as the gaps in abilities of the riders become ever narrower.

Last year’s Fleche winner Dani Moreno (Katusha & Spain) came home ninth; the same position he claimed in the Fleche – but as with Albasini, he’s never really got to grips with the longer, tougher LBL parcours.

Gilbert we’ve already mentioned – who else is there?

Last year we had Carlos Betancur (AG2R & Columbia) in the mix but he’s currently not the same man who won Paris-Nice. Michele Scarponi (Astana & Italy) was top ten last year but he’s in Trentino; Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin & Canada) is another top tenner from 2013 but he hasn’t sparked at all this year and whilst the Ardennes Classics should suit World Champion Rui Costa’s (Lampre & Portugal) palate, they don’t really seem to be agreeing with him – but perhaps the longer and tougher LBL parcours will see him back in the top 10 as he was last season?

And we can’t forget Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha & Russia) second across the line last year but still feeling the effects of a nasty crash in the Amstel – it’s nigh on impossible to win a Monument at less than 100% though, especially this one.

Two names?

Alejandro Valverde and Philippe Gilbert.

Gilbert and Valverde in last year’s LBL. Gilbert would go on to finish 7th and Valverde 3rd.

You should all know what you need to watch a Monument by now – but I will help with beer selection. Liege is home to the Jupiler brewery – enough said.

Stay tuned to PEZ for the best in race reportage and fine roadside photography for this monster of a Classic which wimps need not sign on for.

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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