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Liège Roundtable: How to beat Valverde

The 2017 spring classics season went out like a lamb on Sunday with Alejandro Valverde sprinting to his fourth victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The predictable finish (after a month of exciting racing) begs a few questions. Does the race known as “La Doyenne” need a facelift to promote more excitement? Should Tim Wellens quit those suicidal attacks? How can anybody beat Valverde at these Ardennes races?

Let’s roundtable!

What is your opinion of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and its spot within pro cycling?

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegsIt certainly is exciting for core cycling fans, but if I sat down to watch this year’s edition with a casual rider, someone who only sees a few big races each season, I doubt it would enthrall them. Should every race have broad appeal? It would be nice, but sort of like the hour record, I think Liège is more exciting to talk about than it is to actually watch all the way through.

Fred Dreier @freddreier: I have always loved Liège, but the race has become a snore. A diminished peloton of really tired guys always comes into Côte de Bombed-Out-Warehouse [more commonly known as Côte de Saint Nicolas -Ed.] and then a flurry of attacks occurs just before Valverde out sprints everyone after that left-hand turn. This year Michael Matthews and Greg Van Avermaet were in the final group, and both guys were too gassed to do anything. For such an iconic race to feature just 15km of action means something needs to change.

Andrew Hood @EurohoodyIt is the hardest race of the year that looks easy. The climbing and the speed make for a brutal day, one of the hardest of the entire season depending on the race conditions. Add in some rain and cold, and LBL would look very different. No one said every monument has to be a masterpiece.

How could organizers change the dynamic of the race?

Spencer: I like my one-day races to play out like ‘90s rom-coms (will they? won’t they?) So the finale this year left me uninspired. I think it’s important for at least one of the spring classics to be a pure endurance test that favors climbers. Given the tradition and heritage surrounding Liège, I’m not sure if organizers should monkey with the formula. New riders will come up the ranks and give us an animated finale, and sooner or later they will cryogenically freeze Valverde.

Fred: Shorten the distance, remove a few of the early climbs, and then place La Redoute a bit closer to the finish, to give riders real incentive to attack up the flanks. Keep the St. Nicolas but remove Roche-Aux-Faucons. La Redoute is a big, hard climb, and I’d like it to become a springboard for that will-they/won’t-they finale that Spencer loves so much.

Andy: Perhaps the idea of having it play out in the flats after one of the major climbs could be interesting to create a more tug-of-war dynamic between attackers and finisseurs.

Tim Wellens again went for the suicidal move inside 15km. What’s your advice for him?

Spencer: Get a teammate who can close the deal to sit back in the chase group. I really like how do-or-die Wellens is in these big races. I don’t want him to stop attacking, but if Lotto-Soudal brought on a bit of support, maybe from a fast finisher like Michael Matthews or Simon Gerrans (who aren’t on his team, by the way), his breakaways would have a chance.

Fred: Keep at it, Tim! One of these days the peloton will finally blink, and those precarious 12-second gaps you love to nurse will balloon out to 45 seconds. Wellens doesn’t have the power to win a sprint or attack in the final, so it seems like the suicide move is his best card.

Andy: Keep trying — sooner or later one of those attacks will work, it’s the only card he can play so he has to keep playing it. And maybe someday someone will go with him who has legs to win.

What’s the scenario that brings Cannondale-Drapac the win?

Spencer: Given Michael Woods’s experience, I think his top-10 result is quite good. As for a win? That would have to come out of a small group where the tactics play out to perfection. I don’t think anyone on that team has the finishing kick to go up against the favorites in the final selection.

Fred: Cannondale had the numbers but lacked the legs. If the peloton snoozed for another kilometer, then Formolo may have had the real estate to stay away. Conversely, if Woods or Uran had the legs, they could have mounted a counter attack when Formolo was caught.

Andy:  I think it’s the right tactic to get into the late-race breakaways and to try to surprise the favorites. No one on the team has the right profile to go up against one of the five-star favorites however.

How do you beat Valverde at Liège if he’s on form?

Spencer: You know that scene in “Breaking Away,” when the Italians give Dave the ol’ frame pump in the spokes? … In all seriousness, Valverde won this year’s edition more with brawn than guile. Dan Martin’s attack really forced his hand. Michal Kwiatkowski was slightly out of position, otherwise, Valverde might have dragged him right to the front. If Julian Alaphilippe had been in this final group — not sidelined with a knee injury — he would have been the perfect card for Quick-Step to play. Have the young Frenchman mark Valverde while Martin attacks and then pip him at the line.

Fred: Death ray? Make him race on a Brompton? Attach this thing to his bike? I think the key is you can’t go into the final kilometer with him by your side, so that means you need to have the numbers to send a guy up the road on the Côte de Saint Nicolas. Team strength seems like a natural answer. Perhaps the best thing to do is just pray.

Andy: Someone who has the team to drag him to the line as far as Valverde gets with a Movistar and then come past in the sprint — Valverde’s on true dig comes with 500m to go.

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