Liege-Bastogne-Liege, also known as ‘La Doyenne’, is entering is 102nd edition, is rightly regarded as a monument of the cycling season. The climbs are longer and steeper than what has tested the riders to date in the Ardennes. With climbs like La Redoute, two kilometres at 8.9 per cent, only the top climbers can realistically expect win the race.
At 253km in length, the winner will also be one that can last over the tough course and still have the legs to win at the finish. It will be a similar type of rider that will take the gold medal in Rio on what promises to be a very hard course.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege will be the closest comparative challenge to the road race in Rio, so those that plan to do well there will be testing their mettle on the steep hills of Belgium tomorrow night.
The course follows what has become a familiar format in recent editions, with the easier outward leg to Bastogne followed by the hillier route back to the town of Ans, just on the outskirts of Liege. The climb of La Redoute, La Roche aux Faucons, Cote de Saint Nicolas and the new addition of the Cote de la Rue Naniot, will be the final four climbs of the day and where the decisive action will occur.
Also likely to be crucial is the weather, with cold conditions, rain and a moderate headwind forecast for race day. Early predictions of snow seem to have fallen through, but freezing rain is arguably worse for rider comfort, and it will make the race even more selective than normal.
A predicted headwind on the run back into Liege will slow the race and discourage attackers, so it will come down to how the teams play the tactics on the day.
Valverde will be a marked man
A lot of riders will fancy their chances in this edition of Liege, but there is one man on every rider’s radar. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) looked superb in winning Fleche Wallonne earlier this week, and whilst they are very different races, he will be the one that everyone knows that they have to beat.
A three-time former winner here, Valverde will back himself in a sprint and he can counter attack if moves break up the race before the finale.
Valverde prepared for the classics this season with less racing than normal as he aims for the overall victory in the Giro d’Italia, but he appears to be in as good form as ever. It’s very much up to his opponents to create a situation in which they can defeat the veteran Spanish rider and the strong Movistar team that will back him at the race.
The QuickStep 1-2
Leading that charge will be the Etixx-QuickStep pair of Julien Alaphillipe and Daniel Martin, who took up the challenge to Valverde on the slopes of the Mur de Huy with some good tactics, which ultimately failed to pay off.
With Martin going from further out, Alaphillipe was tasked with following Valverde and trying to outsprint him. It will likely be the same scenario on Sunday, albeit on a larger scale, as the attacks can come from much further out. If Valverde is isolated and forced to work, having Alaphillipe sitting on his wheel will be a big hindrance to his chances.
Isolating Valverde won’t be easy, which is where riders like Petr Vakoc will come in as he has the power to drive the pace on the climbs and eliminate large portions of the field and would be a team leader for most squads on his current form. With their multiple cards, it will be interesting to see what tactics Etixx-QuickStep adopt in trying to unseat Valverde.
Gerrans for GreenEDGE
It’s not just the Fleche winner that teams will have to get rid of, as a resurgent Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) looks to be close to some of his best form since he won the race in 2014. That day saw a very controlled race in the finale, with the Australian team ensuring that Gerrans made it to the final climb into the finish without having to bridge any gaps himself.
That is unlikely to be the case this time, with the addition of the Cote de la Rue Naniot in a final three kilometres likely to force the action if the race hasn’t already fallen to pieces. That will mean that Gerrans will likely be thrown upon his own resources earlier.
Rodriguez hopes to turn tables for Katusha
It’s a very different approach to the race for Katusha this season, with their star, Joaquim Rodriguez, looking like he might finally be beyond his best and the other key classics riders Giampaolo Caruso (doping conviction) and Daniel Moreno (Movistar) not available to assist the ageing Spaniard.
Rodriguez wasn’t able to keep up with his rival Valverde on the steep slopes of the Mur de Huy, and he doesn’t look the same rider that has been one of the best here in the past. He will be out to prove the doubters wrong, and it would be a great performance if he could turn the tables here.
The best of the rest
Riders like Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff), Jakob Fulgsang, Diego Rosa, Vincenzo Nibali (all Astana), and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) will all know that they will have to shed the favourites with a bold move if they are to win the race.
Nibali should relish the wet and cold conditions, as some of his best rides have come when the weather is atrocious. His form in Trentino looked poor, but he has been second here in the past so he shouldn’t be discounted.
There are a number of other Grand Tour contenders that would normally not focus upon the race, but with the promise of a very hard course in Rio for the Olympics, they have been enticed out to give one-day racing a try before Brazil beckons.
Chris Froome (Sky) and Richie Porte (BMC) are perhaps the most notable of these. Neither has much pedigree in the one-day classics, but both have said that they’ll be targeting a medal in Rio, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the closest preparation they’ll get.
Neither Froome nor Porte appear to be in peak form at the moment, with the Tour de France still a way off, but it will be interesting to see how the former team-mates do in the more intense battle of a one-day classic.
With chilling rain, competing tactics and a showdown between the gold medal favourites for Rio de Janiero, the 102nd edition of ‘La Doyenne’ looks set to be a cracker and well worth the late Sunday night.