What's Cool In Road Cycling

LIEGE Preview: This Is Gonna Hurt

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.

 

I first used that intro for Liege-Bastogne-Liege a few years ago – and she’s even older, now. In Flemish it’s ‘Luik–Bastenaken–Luik,’ but whichever language you chose, this race was first held as a professional event in 1894; and that’s a long, long time ago.

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The race distance is 261.5 kilometres not as long as Milan-Sanremo but more or less on a par with Flanders and Roubaix. But the Liege-Bastogne-Liege parcours are tougher than any of those three races; with 11 categorized climbs to be scaled along the way – not short, sharp ‘power ramps’ but serious leg breakers.

They are:

Km 70 – Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne – 2.8 km climb to 6.2 %
Km 116 – Côte de Saint-Roch – 1.0 km climb to 11 %
Km 160 – Côte de Wanne – 2.7 km climb to 7.3 %
Km 166 – Côte de Stockeu (Stèle Eddy Merckx) – 1.0 km climb to 12.2 %
Km 172 – Côte de la Haute-Levée – 3.6 km climb to 5.7 %
Km 185 – Col du Rosier – 4.4 km climb to 5.9 %
Km 197 – Côte du Maquisard – 2.5 km climb to 5 %
Km 208 – Mont-Theux – 2.7 km climb to 5.9 %
Km 223 – Côte de La Redoute – 2.0 km climb to 8.8 %
Km 244 – Côte de Colonster – 2.4 km climb to 6 %
Km 256 – Côte de Saint-Nicolas – 1.2 km climb to 8.6 %

It’s hard for a tall man to win here, unless he’s a bean pole like Andy Schleck who won here in 2009 – and there’ll be no repeat of that result in 2013. Or his name is Eddy Merckx – ‘recordman’ on five wins.

Winners tend towards small, wiry and/or tough individuals – with the last 10 being Hamilton, Rebellin, Vinokourov, Valverde, Di Luca, Valverde, A. Schleck, Vinokourov, Gilbert and Iginskiy.

And yes, I do note the common thread among the winners from earlier in the decade, thank you. But I’ll come back to potential winners shortly.

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The race starts in the historic but decidedly down at heel city of Liege – the heavy industries which once made it rich now mostly only remain as rusting hoppers, towers and chimneys. The route heads south with only one climb on the haul down to Bastogne – the Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne.

Bastogne was the scene of desperate fighting in 1944 when German forces besieged the city in their last counter-attack of the war as they tried to reach the Allies main point of supply – the docks at Antwerp. With seven major routes converging in Bastogne, its capture was central to their success.

But the American defenders held out and ‘The Battle of the Bulge,’ as the campaign became known, was the last time the Germans would be able to do anything but fight a dogged rearguard action.

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The trek back north is the killer, tough categorized climbs follow one another with grim regularity. But as well as the categorized leg breakers it has to be said that there’s little flat or straight road among the wooded hills and valleys.

The ninth climb of the day – the famous La Redoute – used to be where the favourites would plot their coup; but no longer, it’s too far out and there’s too little to choose between the favourites for an escape here to be decisive one.

The selection is much more likely to occur on the grim grind to the finish that is the Côte de Saint-Nicolas.

The race details don’t do it justice in saying that it’s 1.2 K in length; the fact is that virtually all of the last five kilometres – bar one ‘dip’ – claws doggedly upwards past grey steel workers’ terraced housing to the finish line outside a retail park in suburb of Ans.

For me it’s an inglorious place for the finale of a monument – but ASO must have their reasons.

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Clues for a winner should come from Wednesday’s Fleche-Wallonne; but the fact is that of the top ten at the top of the Muur van Hoei – as they say in Vlaams – only two of the 2012 top ten repeated the feat in Liege.

They were Vincenzo Nibali (Astana & Italy) and Bauke Mollema (Blanco & The Netherlands) and both men have to be considered favourites, again. Mollema was ninth in Huy whilst Nibali jousted for the podium in the Giro del Trentino at the time of going to press.

Nibali was second in LBL last season and this year leads an Astana team which incorporates the whole podium from 2012 with winner Max Iglinskiy (Kazakhstan) and third placed Enrico Gasparotto (Italy) – one of them looks like the winner to me.

Gasparotto hopefully recovered from his training run-in with a truck, shortly before the Amstel.

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Another Eastern team must harbour strong hopes of victory, too – Katusha. The team with the same name as a Soviet rocket launcher have heavy ordnance in the shape of Fleche winner Dani Moreno (Spain) and the man you can never rule out when it’s step and tough – Catalonia’s Joaquim Rodriguez who was sixth in Huy.

Sticking with the Iberian Peninsula, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde has won twice here and is in excellent form; witness seventh in the Fleche.

His team is well drilled and motivated, a podium we think for the Spaniard.

And Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel) must merit a mention with five top ten placings to his name in this race.

A squadra which always merits mention is Team Sky – and I never thought I’d say that about a British team, a few years ago – with Fleche runner-up Sergio Henao  of Columbia (wearing the Pais Vasco leader’s jersey below) improving as each race goes by, the Olympic road race medallist is a strong possibility for a double Ardennes podium.

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Chris Froome (GB) and Ritchie Porte (Australia) will be there to give all the support a team leader could want.

Sticking with the ‘Anglo’ theme Garmin’s Dan Martin (Ireland) who narrowly missed the podium in the Fleche and was fifth in LBL last season – the top three beckons.

The US team’s other card is 2012 Giro winner, Ryder Hesjedal (Canada) who Astana and Katusha have to keep a close eye on.

A highly honourable struggle in Paris-Roubaix apart, it’s not been a great Classic campaign for QuickStep – but Polish former world junior time trial champion, Michal Kwiatkowski was fifth on Wednesday and is very near to the top of his form.

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Anyone who was hot last week will be hot this week… And Saxo’s Amstel win by Kreuziger proved he’s smokin’.

 

Saxo-Tinkoff should be in the mix for Denmark; Roman Kreuziger (Czech) was brilliant in the Amstel and Spain’s Alberto Contador has to be a danger in any long race with lots of hills – albeit his real goal isn’t until July in the mountains of France.

And can Phil Gilbert (BMC & Belgium) give that rainbow jersey an airing on the top step of one of the most prestigious podiums in the world?

Maybe… but for me it’s more likely to be an Astana from Martin and Valverde.

And to see if I can brag about getting it right -or have to take flak from the Pez Meister, tune in to PEZ on Sunday afternoon to find out.

 

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