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Alejandro Valverde, Michal Kwiatkowski, and...

Preview: Liege could close spring classics season in dramatic fashion

Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège could cap the spring classics season in dramatic fashion, pitting young guns against experienced veterans

The 2015 spring classics season wraps up Sunday with what should be a dramatic exclamation point on a campaign full of aging warhorses and emerging stars.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) emerged as major forces in the northern cobbles, with huge wins at Flanders and Roubaix, respectively, while world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) scored a major coup at the Amstel Gold Race. All are young, talented, and poised to become the riders of reference across the spring classics.

Some aging veterans still had something to say, with Luca Paolini (Katusha) taking a win at Gent-Wevelgem and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) at Flèche Wallonne, to prove that experience and guile still have a place in the peloton.

Sunday’s 101st Liège-Bastogne-Liège should see a showdown between youth and experience in the hilliest of the northern classics. With its long distance — 253 kilometers — and series of ever-more-difficult climbs, the Ardennes monument tips a rider who can go the distance, have the nose to follow the moves, and then the legs to finish it off out of a reduced bunch.

A dozen or so favorites line up with realistic chances to win. Two-time winner Valverde is clearly on spectacular form, and will be the man to beat. Anything can happen in the final hour of racing, but if this year’s previous races are anything to go by, expect to see a fairly large group to hit the base of the final slog up to the finish line in Ans. A winning move could come just before the final right-hander. Last year, Daniel Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) looked to have another win in the bag, only to slip out, opening the door for Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).

The favorites: The Spanish armada

As a nation, Spain has won Liège just twice, both of them coming thanks to No. 1 favorite Valverde, but the Spanish armada will be out in force Sunday. Spain’s “Green Bullet” will see excellent support from Movistar, and is clearly on top form from his impressive win Wednesday at Flèche Wallonne. The Spanish mountain goats always fare better in the Ardennes than they do over the punishing pavé, so watch for Joaquim Rodríguez and Dani Moreno (Katusha), Luis León Sánchez (Astana), and Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing) to mash it up. Valverde and Rodríguez have the best chances to deliver another Spanish win.

“Liège is a beautiful race, and perhaps the one I like most and the one that suits me best, and I dream of being in the mix again Sunday,” Valverde said. “We have high morale, but we’re also going into the weekend with tranquility. We won one, and second in the other [Amstel Gold Race], that gives us confidence for Sunday.”

The other top favorites

World champ Kwiatkowski will be looking to forget his disappointing Flèche (33rd) and remember his winning ways from Amstel Gold Race. Zdenek Stybar (Etixx) will be making his Liège debut, and his teammate Julian Alaphilippe, the 22-year-old phenom who was second to Valverde up the Mur de Huy, will give the squad several cards to play.

Two former winners — Philippe Gilbert (BMC, 2011) and Martin (2013) — both hit the deck Wednesday at what was a very nervous Flèche. Both should be back for the fight Sunday, but could be a touch off their best. The added distance and demands of Liège require a potential winner to be at the top of his game, so it’s hard to say just how rattled they will be until they’re deep into the race Sunday.

Bolstered by the news that it will not lose its WorldTour license, Astana will likely be charged up for a big ride Sunday. Vincenzo Nibali has been close before, and he’s a prototypical rider who can go the distance and have the kick at the end to seriously challenge for victory. Fabio Aru, who pulled out of the Giro del Trentino due to a stomach bug, is also slated to start his first Liège.

Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) could all easily ride into contention if they can stay upright and save their legs for the final decisive moves.

Orica-GreenEdge returns as the defending champion, but Simon Gerrans will still likely be short of contending for a second consecutive win. Michael Albasini, third at Flèche, Daryl Impey, and Simon Yates give the team added depth.

Orica sport director Matt White said he expects another fairly large group to arrive to the final kilometer of the race.

“It’s the most demanding one-day classic of the lot as far as climbing is concerned,” White said. “I think the general trend at all of the classics is that you are seeing bigger and bigger groups closer to the finish. The style of racing in one-day racing has changed.”

A course for climbers

Of cycling’s five monuments, Liège is the one that’s best suited for pure climbers. GC riders stand a chance to win here, with the palmares including such names as Merckx and Hinault, but in modern cycling, a fast finishing kick is also needed to go along with the legs to go the 253km distance of the Belgian out-and-back.

There is no shortage of climbs in the looping route around the Belgian Ardennes, with 10 major ascents in the six-and-a-half-hour race. Though none are terribly long — Col du Rosier at 194km is the longest at 4.4km — what they lack in distance they make up for in punch. The famous Cote de Stockeu is 12 percent, while the final three climbs, including the Redoute, Roche-aux-Faucons, and Saint-Nicolas, all hover around nine percent. Ideal terrain for the puncheurs to pounce.

The race typically sees a fairly large breakaway form in the first hour of racing. Up to a dozen riders can pull clear, often building a sizable gap as the pack pushes south toward Bastogne at 107km, the turnaround point and when the real racing begins.

In today’s peloton, the Stockeu, at 175km, is way too far to make a Merckxian-style attack. The real action begins at the Redoute at 218km. Although the steep, narrow climb is no longer the launching pad for winning moves, it still serves to fracture the peloton and see the first real aggression of the race among the favorites. The relatively new climb at Roche-aux-Faucons at 234km is now the reference point for riders looking to make long, solo moves. The steep climb is followed by a false-flat that provides ideal terrain for riders such as Nibali to make long-distance forays.

The final major climb at Saint-Nicolas will see the front pack whittled down if it’s not already, but the final run up to the Ans is where the winning moves can be made. In today’s much more balanced and equal peloton, the winning surge might not come until 500m to go, and even then, it could be a reduced-bunch sprint.

Weather: Could be sloppy

The race could see some sloppy weather, with a 50 percent chance of showers, temperatures in the low 60s, and 10 mph southerly winds that pick up during the afternoon. If it’s rainy and windy, expect to see more selection in the final hour of racing, and crashes.

History lesson: The oldest of the old

Liège is called “la doyenne” for a reason. As far as bike races go, this is one of the oldest. Dating back to 1892, the race celebrates its 101st edition this year. Belgians, naturally, hog the record books, with 59 wins as a nation — which includes a record five victories courtesy of Eddy Merckx. Moreno Argentin won four times, helping to give Italy the second-most victories per nation with 12.

Valverde could match history

Valverde could match history if he wins Liège on Sunday. Coupled with his win Wednesday at Flèche Wallonne, he could become the second rider to win both races in the same year twice in their career. Ferdi Kubler is the only rider to pull off the Ardennes double twice, in 1951 and 1952. Valverde did it in 2006. Others who achieved the milestone include Stan Ockers (1955), Merckx (1972), Argentin (1991), Davide Rebellin (2004), and Philippe Gilbert (2011).

VeloNews’ pick: Valverde

When it’s long, hard, and a fast finish, there are few in the peloton who can match Valverde’s depth and speed. He’s twice mastered the finale into Ans with victories, and finished on the podium four additional times, including second last year and third in 2013. Valverde just keeps getting better with age and he’s hitting the Ardennes in even better condition than last year. With the backing of a strong Movistar squad, Valverde should be able to avoid trouble, let his team control late-race aggression, and then tee it up in the decisive final kilometers. After a second at Amstel Gold, and a victory at Flèche Wallonne, Valverde will be looking to close out his classics season with a huge ride Sunday.

Our outsider pick: Pozzovivo

Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) won’t bubble onto many favorite’s lists, but he’s been riding consistently over the past month, notching a stage win at the highly contested Volta a Catalunya in March, and giving Richie Porte (Sky) a run for his money Thursday with a stage win at the Giro del Trentino. Fifth last year in his Liège debut, Pozzovivo could surprise the favorites. To win, he will need to ride everyone off his wheel, because others are faster than he is in a reduced bunch sprint.