Race Preview: The professional season’s oldest Classic rolls out of Liège on Sunday for the journey to Bastogne and back, to take in eleven categorised and many lower climbs for more than 4,000 meters of ascending. Ed Hood sets the stage for yet another very open Spring Classic.
More climbs than you can shake a stick at!
Luik – Bastanaken – Luik they call it up in Flanders; Liège – Bastogne – Liège down in French speaking Wallonia – ‘La Doyenne’ is her Sunday name, afforded to the most senior and respected lady in the Monuments Salon.
Two of the most classy riders you will ever see. World champion Moreno Argentin and Stephen Roche. Roche and Claude Criquielion lost Liège in 1987 in a similar way to Alaphilippe and Fuglsang in last Sunday’s Amstel. The pair were messing about for the sprint, allowing Argentin to shoot up to them and past for the win
Milan – San Remo is longer; Flanders has the ultimate bergs/cobbles combo; Paris – Roubaix is crazier and maxes-out on cobbles and Lombardy is more beautiful, but Liege is the oldest – first run as an amateur race in 1892 – and arguably, the toughest.
Hinault winning one of the hardest editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1980
The route does as it says on the tin; south out of Liege (main town of the province which bears that name) to Bastogne (rather confusingly situated in the Belgian province of Luxembourg) and back again – AND, deep joy, it no longer finishes at a disappointing and drab retail park in the Liege suburb of Ans – instead it’s on the Boulevard d’Avroy in the centre of Liège. The Ans finish made for a cagey conclusion with everyone well aware that the race was all down to the last couple of kilometres – with 15K of flat from the last climb to the line we can surely hope for late attacks and a different kind of finale?
The parcours have changed over the years; there are no early categorised climbs; the first major joust with gravity comes 75K in at the Côte de Saint-Roch in Houffalize – one kilometre at 11.2%. The second is the Cote de Sant Roch with over 120 kilometres on the Garmins, with the final nine categorised climbs coming within 100K of the finish at 256K – that’s one around every 11 kilometres.
This has the effect of making the tail end of the race profile look like an advert for high quality timber hand saws; the last 15 of the 256 kilometres of lumps and bumps which make up the 104th edition of the last classic of the Spring season are the only ones that are ‘flat.’
There are 11 classified climbs in all but little of the parcours is flat; and these are not ‘power’ climbs, they’re bona fide killers – take the legendary La Redoute. La Redoute used to be where the winner would make his move, 2.4K long and with a grade that varies constantly to thwart you finding a rhythm.
The climb of La Redoute
But in these days of riders peaking for just one or two races each in a season and the difference in the top rider’s condition minimal, it’s no longer decisive albeit it’s still a great place to watch the race with huge crowds, giant screen TV, bars and barbecues. And we’re sure to see favourites shelled here.
The final ascent is the nasty Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons with just 15 of the 256K to go. With more names ‘popping.’ All told there’s more than 4,000 metres of climbing in the race – as much as a Grand Tour mountain stage.
‘Back in the day’ L-B-L used to run back to back with the Flèche Wallonne, the two races were known as the ‘Weekend Ardennais.’ Only the best riders of their respective generations have won both races in the same season; Ferdi Kubler (Switzerland) twice 1951 & 1952, Stan Ockers (Belgium) 1955, Eddy Merckx (Belgium) 1972, Moreno Argentin (Italy) 1991, Davide Rebellin (Italy) 2004, Philippe Gilbert 2011 and Alejandro Valverde thrice 2006, 2015 and 2017.
Merckx in Liège’77
Unsurprisingly, ‘Big Ted’ – as we named Baron Merckx back then; is the ‘record man’ on five wins with the classy Italian, Moreno Argentin on four. But so is Alejandro Valverde who’s record in the race is exemplary with four wins, two second places and a third, making him the second most successful rider in history in this event. Merckx also holds the record for top 10 finishes, a feat he achieved on 10 occasions.
Valverde sprinting for the win in 2015
The fact that five of the ‘doubles’ were completed in the last few years says much about the changes in pro cycling. Merckx would charge through the early season from Milan – San Remo (which he won seven times) to the Amstel – which closed the Classics season back then and which the Belgian won twice – without missing a beat.
Philippe Gilbert in Liège’11
In this millennium, such a thing would be out of the question as riders specialise in cobbled, sprinters’ or Ardennes Classics – but very good to see the likes of Gilbert and now GVA ‘crossing over’ and riding all of the big early races.
A story about climbs on the roads of Liège-Bastogne-Liège
And without further ado, here’s what we think for Sunday we got it right with Mathieu on Sunday past, just a shame he’s not here – but he has time well on his side.
Roman Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale and France): Third here in 2018 at Ans, he’s had solid results all season and was top 10 in the Amstel; the flat run-in may be less favourable to his skinny frame but he’s an attacking rider and everyone will be on their knees by the time the 10K to go banner appears.
Roman Bardet – First French winner since Bernard Hinault in 1980?
Deceuninck – Quick-Step (most of Europe): Julian Alaphilippe (France) may have blown it in the Amstel so he’ll be smarting for revenge – and that pesky VdP will only be watching on TV; Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) has won before and if it’s a tough day it would be foolish to ignore him. Bob Jungels (Luxembourg) won last year and has been strong all year thus far. Enric Mas (Spain) has been in the frame all year from the Algarve through Catalunya and the Basque country and this parcours was made for him. We think it’ll be the window and floors boys day.
The Deceuninck Liège Four – Alaphilippe, Gilbert, Mas and Jungels
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana and Denmark): At least he clung on to a podium place in Limburg, last weekend. He was 10th here last year but is a year stronger and wiser – he’ll be in the group of ‘Bigs’ at the end for sure.
A win for Fuglsang would be nice
Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky and Poland): Despite podiums in Paris-Nice and the Primavera it’s perhaps not been the spring the Polish Champion wanted but he looked very strong in the Amstel and the new finish will suit him.
Kwiatkowski has the form
Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates and Ireland): He’s won here before and been third as well; but again a man who the new finish may not suit – the form is good though with a very strong showing in the Basque Country.
The 2013 winner – Dan Martin
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida and Italy): He’s had no stand out result this year – top 10 at Sanremo is his best – but the man is class and with the Giro looming will need a morale boosting performance. But just maybe he’ll be in service of team mate Ion Izagirre who’s hardly put a foot wrong this year, most recently in winning the Tour of the Basque Country?
Vincenzo Nibali – There has been quite a few Italian wins in Liège
Alessandro Valverde (Movistar and Spain): As mentioned above the man’s record in this race is second only to Merckx – enough said. It’s not been a ‘special’ spring for him but it has been hugely consistent with top 10 in two Monuments, The Primavera and Ronde, neither of which could you call his speciality – but this one you certainly can.
The World champion has been quiet so far – Liège is his race
Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal and Belgium): A good spring for the man from Sint Truidin with wins in Majorca and Andalucía and podiums in the Omloop and Brabantse Pijl. And the team is good behind him with the likes of Benoot and Vanendert.
Tim Wellens had a bad day in the Amstel Gold Race
Michael Woods (EF Education First and Canada): A very consistent spring – seventh Down Under, third in the Sun Tour, sixth in Catalunya – for the man who really ‘broke through’ here, last year with second place behind Jungels – a Vuelta stage win and Worlds silver came after to endorse his abilities. But perhaps one of the man the new finish won’t suit.
Can Michael Woods carry on the EF Education First good form?
Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott and GB): A man who could spoil the Deceuninck boys frites and champers, albeit the Ans finish would more to his taste. He’s been consistent and winning from Valenciana right through to the Basque Country – even if he doesn’t win here we reckon he’ll win the Giro. . .
Adam Yates, he’s the one on the left, no right…
And please remember that when we go to press, often the start sheet isn’t finally framed.
2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège highlights
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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 1,700 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 www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.