Liège ’17: Valverde – The Duke of La Doyenne!
Race Report: Alejandro Valverde took an emotional victory at the end of a Liège-Bastogne-Liège which swung backwards and forwards before settling on the most likely outcome; a Valverde win in an uphill sprint. The other men on form: Daniel Martin, Michal Kwiatkowski, Michael Matthews and Jon Izaguirre could only watch.
The day began with an emotional minute’s silence for Michele Scarponi who died earlier in the weekend. Alejandro Valverde promised he would donate his prize money to the wife and two kids of Scarponi and he kept his promise in fantastic fashion.
A ten man break went clear and they quickly built up a lead of over ten minutes as the peloton were content to let them fly. The lead was slowly eroded but at various points it looked as though the leaders might spring a surprise and stay clear to take the victory. It wasn’t to be but that wasn’t for lack of effort by the sensational Anthony Perez and Stephane Rossetto of Cofidis who were the last men standing inside the final 10km. Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) was the next man to go clear but he was a little to early to the party and he was brought back by Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Drapac) who was the leader well inside the final 1km. However, his lead was immediately ended as Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) went away and looked to have secured victory. Unfortunately for the Irishman, Valverde exists and the Spaniard just gritted his teeth, caught the leader, and passed him with seeming ease to take a marvelous victory to finish off the Ardennes Classics. Michael Kwiatkowski (Sky) put in a late surge to grab the final podium place and another reward for his early season form.
It’s that time of the season, where we’re closer to the high heat and constant bike based action of summer than the dark days and cycling wasteland of the winter. Yes, Liege-Bastogne-Liege isn’t immune from grim weather, just ask Wout Poels last year, but as the plentiful trees alongside the route will attest, this is a springtime race.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege does at it says on the tin, the riders take off from Liege and ride for just shy of 100km before they reach Bastogne and the real racing starts. The return journey is much more circuitous with the final 90km taking in virtually every climb they can find to whittle down the front group. The key climbs to look out for are the Cote de la Redoute (2km at 8.9%) which comes with 36km left to ride and is often a springboard for attacks, the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons (1.3km at 11%) comes 19km prior to the finish and will be a brutal late blow for many riders. The final two ascents are the Cote de Saint Nicolas (1.2km at 8.6%), 6.5km from the finish and the long drag up to the finish in Ans.
After the terrible news from Saturday that Astana rider Michele Scarponi had died during a training ride at his home, there was a sombre atmosphere in Liege. The Italian was honored by a minutes silence which left his team mate, Jakob Fuglsang in tears.
When the racing did get going, there was an immediate attack from Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal). The Belgian was very quickly brought back and it was second time lucky as an eight man group went clear; Tiago Machado (Katusha-Alpecin), Anthony Perez & Stephane Rossetto (Cofidis), Mekseb Debesay (Dimension Data), Bart De Clerq (Lotto Soudal), Nick Van der Lijke (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), Fabian Grellier (Direct Energie) and Aaron Gate (Aqua Blue Sport). Belgian rider Olivier Pardini (WB Veranclassic) set off in pursuit and despite a 60km lone pursuit, in which he got within touching distance of the break, he couldn’t close the gap and fell away back into the teeth of the peloton.
The break had quickly established a large gap and had pushed their lead out to ten minutes after an hour of racing. The first half of LBL is a relatively sedate affair and the race passed by without any further incident until the riders entered the final 100km to ride.
The climb of the Cote de Pont was the first of a trio of new climbs which had been added into the race. It was attacked by the break and it was a bridge too far for the Eritrean Debsay, who fell off the back. Back in the peloton and a narrowing of the road had caught out Axel Domont (AG2R-La Mondiale) who crashed off the side and, despite not being seriously hurt, the race had been run for the Frenchman.
Back in the peloton, Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott) and Mikael Cherel (AG2R-La Mondiale) took flight. However, the teams of Sky and Quick-Step Floors had kept hold of the other end of the string and after using a chunk of energy they were reeled back in at the foot of the Cote de la Ferme Libert (1.2km at 12.1%).
Into the Fire
The wall like new climb was a perfect opportunity to launch a long range attack, but the peloton were prepared to take it easy and whittle away at the break’s lead. As the riders headed towards the longest rider of the race, Col du Rosier (4.4km at 5.9%), the teams of Movistar and Quick-Step Floors began to up the pace. This increased the nerves in the peloton and Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo) was the first to fall foul of this as he hit a barrier and flipped over the bars. He luckily landed on grass and was soon up and running and back into the peloton.
Movistar were a constant presence on the front of the peloton, but with 53km left to ride and a gap of 6.32, they were behind the oft quoted, and oft wrong, one minute in 10km equation for bringing back a race. With 50km left to ride, there was just four climbs, excluding the finishing drag, left to conquer. In the peloton, there were still hordes of riders being held on the bridle by their director sportifs.
On the Col du Maquisard (2.5km at 5%), with 47km to ride, Tiago Machado sought to inject some drama into a race which was listing towards the finale. He hit the front of the break and almost immediately sent Aaron Gate out the backdoor. The Aqua Blue Sport rider is better known as a track rider and had done brilliantly to hang around in the lead group, but he was beginning to suffer.
Machado’s attacking intent had infected the main peloton as well and Pierre-Roger Latour (AG2R-La Mondiale) attacked and drew five riders along with him; Nathan Haas & Omar Fraile (Dimension Data), Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Hansgrohe), Carlos Betancur (Movistar), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC), and, Gianluca Brambilla (Quick-Step Floors). Betancur wasn’t willing to do any work but the rest of the group were committed and they were beginning to edge away from the peloton.
The break hit the La Redoute and Gate, who had clawed his way back into the lead group, was once again sent out the back as Machado and Perez cranked up the pace.
Omar Fraille led the chasing group onto the La Redoute as they continued to edge away from the peloton. De Marchi was assisting in the pace setting but behind, Sebastian Henao (Sky) attacked and drew the peloton back up and the two chasing groups joined back together.
The chasing peloton was no larger than 60 riders after the fireworks on the La Redoute. However, breakaway rider Anthony Perez continued to plough on alone with a 25 second lead, as he raced towards the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons. His once healthy lead was swiftly being eroded, but he still had two minutes to play with as he hit the penultimate climb.
The Cofidis rider had no wins, had never finished a Classic and had never started a Grand Tour, but he was leading La Doyenne into the crucial part of the race. He was about to be joined by team mate Rossetto but their gap had collapsed to under a minute as first Sergio Henao (Sky) and then Roman Kreuziger (Orica-Scott) turned up the pace. Kreuziger was a man possessed and he hit the front once again as the peloton crested the summit. Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R-La Mondiale) was the next rider from the French team to ignite the race and his hard work was beginning to draw a group clear.
Perez had thrown his all into the trying to stay away but his reserves had run dry and he was sent packing with 16km to go. Team mate Rossetto was still digging in, albeit with a slender advantage, and he led the race inside the final 15km.
The work of Kreuziger and Vuillermoz had paid off and they were now members of an eight man group which also included; Davide Villela & Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Sam Oomen (Sunweb), Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe), and, Damiano Caruso (BMC). Team Sky and Quick Step-Floors had missed the break and they were clawing the eight leaders back.
Despite everything Rossetto was still, somehow, keeping a lead despite the desperate attempts of the chasers. Finally though, the lone break was no more as Tim Wellens time trialled past and hauled his way ten seconds clear of the Movistar led peloton. Incredibly, Rossetto was stuck to the Belgian’s wheel as they continued to pad their break. The Frenchman was in no position to work but he was winning more and more fans as each meter passed under wheel.
With 7km left to ride, the duo hit the Cote de Saint-Nicolas and it was Quick-Step who were taking up the pace making behind. Wellen’s relentless pace spelled the end for Rossetto as he fell through the trap door and out the back of the peloton. The Belgian swiftly joined him as Davide Villela went to the front again. Sergio Henao was the next to go and he was joined by Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) as they gradually made their way to the summit of the final categorized climb. It was all together at the summit of the race but Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Drapac) took a flyer during the briefest of lulls.
The Italian was just eight seconds ahead as Movistar and Orica-Scott threw manpower into the chase. It was a solo leader into the final 2km as the climb began to bite. Dimension Data had no clear leader for the race and Omar Fraile took advantage of this to launch his own attack as the climb began. He made initial ground but quickly began to fade away. Formolo was still going under the red flag as Kreuziger did all the hard work to bring him back.
Kreuziger fell off and Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) hit the front in pursuit of the Italian. The Irishman was the leader with 500m left to ride but Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was bringing him back. It was a race between the two of them and Martin was leading out the sprint. It was too easy though for the Spaniard, Martin had perfectly led him out and as the Irishman tired, the Movistar rider swept by to take a race win which never really looked in doubt. Michael Kwiatkowski (Sky) finished strongly and could have been a challenger if the course was a few hundred meters longer, but he had to settle for a third place. One of the biggest surprises of the race was the ride of Michael Matthews (Sunweb) who hung around and took a fantastic fourth place on the day.
In truth though, this was always going to be Valverde’s to lose and despite some big attacks during the day, the Spaniard kept his nerve and does what he does best – won an uphill sprint.
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar in 6:24:27
2. Daniel Martin (Irl) Quick-Step Floors
3. Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Sky at 0:03
4. Michael Matthews (Aus) Sunweb
5. Jon Izaguirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida
6. Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R-La Mondiale
7. Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica-Scott
8. Adam Yates (GB) Orica-Scott at 0:07
9. Michael Woods (Can) Cannondale-Drapac
10. Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe
11. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC
12. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R-La Mondiale
13. Sergio Henao (Col) Sky
14. Rui Costa (Por) UAE Team Emirates at 0:10
15. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana
16. Fabio Felline (Ita) Trek-Segafredo at 0:14
17. Rudy Molard (Fra) FDJ
18. Julien Simon (Fra) Cofidis
19. Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Lotto Soudal
20. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe
21. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Cannondale-Drapac
22. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Sunweb
23. Davide Formolo (Ita) Cannondale-Drapac
24. Dylan Teuns (Bel) BMC at 0:24
25. Omar Fraile (Spa) Dimension Data at 0:28.