Being an ASO-owned event, one may have thought race organisers would have retraced part of the route of Liège-Bastogne-Liège including some of its famous côtes or small hills like the Côte de La Redoute, Côte de Saint-Nicolas, La Roche aux Faucons or Côte de Bœuf. (The last I made up; just checking you’re awake after last night’s telecast...) Then again L-B-L needs little promotion because Ardennes specialist or aficionado, in terms of prestige, it’s up there with the world championships, Paris-Roubaix, and the Tour of Flanders.
Mountain passes & hills
Km 6.5 - Côte de Grafenberg: 1.4 kilometre-long climb at 4.5% - category 4
Km 183.0 - Côte d'Olne: 1.3 kilometre-long climb at 4.7% - category 4
It’s been only four years since Le Tour last came to Liège, when the principal economic and cultural centre of Wallonia (that being the French-speaking part of Belgium) hosted the Grand Départ. In 2012, La Grande Boucle began in its traditional way with a 6.4 kilometre prologue won by Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara, who, bathed in Olympic time trial glory from Rio, retired on top last year. In second place was Bradley Wiggins, who, bathed in Olympic team pursuit glory from Rio, also retired last year. However unlike the man they called Spartacus, Sir Bradley continues to find himself mired in controversy after a mystery package delivered to his then Team Sky doctor during that year’s Critérium du Dauphiné was found to have no paper trail of evidence as to its contents. (The only notes have conveniently disappeared on a stolen laptop.) It matters because if Wiggins was using medication that required a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption, which he sought and was granted on three occasions throughout his professional career) but did not apply for one at the Dauphiné, UCI regulations would have him forbidden him from riding that year’s Tour. He won at a canter, not once dropping lower than second on the overall classification and holding yellow from the seventh stage to Paris.
Anyway… Back to today: a 203.5 kilometre northwest route from Düsseldorf to the gritty east-Belgian industrial city situated in the valley of the Meuse River, a stone’s throw from the Dutch border. Without the plethora of topographical obstacles faced in La Doyenne, the second stage will provide greatest opportunity for the sprinters, and for those who did well in Saturday’s time trial, a chance to wear le maillot jaune in the coming days.
Of course, the opening week is never easy. Many Tours have been lost even before a mountain has been climbed, and BMC Racing, Team Sky and Quick-Step Floors are three outfits equipped with notably strong rouleurs for their respective GC contenders Richie Porte, Chris Froome and Daniel Martin. “If you look over our squad, you can notice it's very solid, especially for the first week of the race, which in the past used to be a problem for me,” Martin said, the Irishman having finished no worse than sixth in the five stage races he’s contested this season, including third place overall at Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné. “Many things can happen during the opening part of the Tour de France, and having such a team by my side makes me very happy. (The) first stages could be tricky, but if I get through them without any bad luck and leave the legs to do the talking, then things will be just fine.”
There were also the portentous words of Movistar co-leader Alejandro Valverde, whose Tour campaign abruptly ended after just seven kilometres Saturday: “The first week will be pretty nervous, as always happens at the Tour.” Why he chose to go so fast when he did not need to will be a question he’ll likely ask himself for the next 12 months. “The recovery time expected by the Movistar team's doctors makes it unlikely for the Spaniard to return racing during the current season,” said a team statement, after examinations revealed two fractures to his left leg, one in his kneecap and the other his talus bone.
His team-mate Nairo Quintana also knows flat days can be as decisive as a hors catégorie mountaintop finish, and sometimes more so. Caught out in the crosswinds on the second stage of the 2015 Tour to Neeltje Jans and losing 1’28 to eventual winner Froome, the Colombian effectively lost the race that day because by Paris, he finished just 1’12 behind the Kenyan born Brit. “It’s not like a lottery,” El Condor de los Andes said of who he’ll have to watch out for this July, “but you’ll have to be fortunate as well as strong, because there are so many candidates and you will need to stay out of trouble to win this.”
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“Most of the stage will take place in Germany. During the last visits to Liège during the 21st century, the riders battled it out in time trials while those who normally shine on Liège-Bastogne-Liège are among the best puncheurs of the moment. This time, a sprint victory is to be expected on the Boulevard de la Sauvenière.”
Finish line: Quai des Ardennes, at the end of a 2.9km finishing straight (1km by line of sight). Width: 7m
Weather: 18°C and cloudy at start, 22% precipitation, 71% humidity, wind 18km/h WSW; 16°C and showers at finish, 39% precipitation, 86% humidity, wind 14km/h WNW.