Analysis: New route opens up possibilities at ‘La Doyenne’
Will a flat finish mean a more explosive finale at Liège-Bastogne-Liège? Race organizers are betting on it.
It’s hard to imagine that arguably the most physically demanding one-day race of the season had become predictable. But that’s largely what happened over the past decade as the peloton figured out the code to unlock the mysteries of cycling’s oldest one-day race.
The uphill finale at Ans, added nearly three decades ago to add excitement to the Ardennes monument, ended up having the opposite effect. The Ans finish delivered a thrilling closing few kilometers of racing, but it largely squeezed out any unknown factors of an ever-familiar script. Big teams with sleek climbers and fast finishers collaborated to control the action to deliver their leaders to the bottom of the ramp. No one dared to attack at the race’s emblematic climbs from afar. Believe it or not, Liège had grown predictable — even stale.
So Liège organizers are bringing the finish line back home, with the finish on the tony Boulevard d’Avroy, with the expectation that the race will see a revival thanks to a flat finale that will put pressure on the protagonists once again attack from afar.
Searching for Amstel drama
After 27 years in Ans, the “Doyenne” returns home to the downtown streets of Liège. Moreno Argentin was the last rider to win in Liège back in 1991. Without the Ans finale, the Cote de Saint-Nicolas is also gone with it.
ASO is hoping that the new finale will impact the race in a manner similar to what the peloton’s seen develop over the past few years at the previous weekend’s Amstel Gold Race.
Held on the Ardennes-like steep hills of the Netherlands’ Limburg region, the Dutch classic followed a similar trajectory as Liège, moving its finale from Maastricht, where a reduced bunch would usually make it home for a sprint finale. Organizers relocated the finish line to atop of the steep Cauberg climb. For a few years, it delivered the goods, and Amstel Gold was more exciting for it.
But then the uphill finale largely tamped down on late-race dynamics. Favorites would simply wait until the Cauberg to hit the after-burners and win in the final 500m.
Dutch organizers started to see the downside of that scenario and soon tweaked its finale. First, they moved the finish line more than a kilometer past the Cauberg peak, to a finish similar to 2011 worlds, where Philippe Gilbert won the rainbow jersey. And then they moved the finish line yet again, opening the door for what the world witnessed last week: an early bold move followed up by Mathieu van der Poel’s thrilling final-kilometer chase and eventual victory.
Liège organizers are hoping for a similar impact with thrilling and unpredictable race dynamics to close out the spring classics season in its 105th edition.
Still packing a punch
While Liège, loaded with climbs and 256km long, is always a battle of attrition, Sunday’s new finish line should open up the race. Or at least that’s the expectation.
Instead of waiting until the final surge to Ans, riders will need to pile on the gas earlier in the race to force a selection and eliminate fast finishers like Michael Matthews (Sunweb). Three-time world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who decided this week not to race, had put Liège on his radar this season hoping to sprint for his third monument win.
Though perennial favorites such as Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) or Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) are still in the hunt, the new finish could favor riders like Matthews or Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team).
The traditional difficulty of the Ardennes coupled with the new finale will also give riders who have the legs to go the distance, such as the very strong Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) or even a grand tour winner like Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), a real chance at reaching the podium.
The takeaway? Liège is suddenly a very open race.
Organizers are also hoping the new course design will see the Cote de la Redoute, at 35km to go, return to its former glory. The steep ramp was often kingmaker in historic editions of Liège, but in today’s highly calibrated peloton, an attack on the hump was viewed as too far away to stick.
The Cote de La Roche-aux-Faucons at 25km to go has emerged as an important launching pad since its inception over a decade ago. The steep ramps have seen long-distance attacks succeed from the likes of Andy Schleck in 2009 and last year’s winner, Bob Jungels. To spice up the finale even more, the Cote des Forges is squeezed in between La Redoute and La Roche-aux-Faucons.
Now that La Roche is the final climb, the expectation is that the race-breaking moves will need to come much earlier.
Equally decisive is the unrated false-flat to Boncelles immediately following La Roche. It’s a nearly kilometer-long drag up to a higher flat area that often sealed the deal for would-be attackers. With the changes this year, this sector should prove even more decisive. From Boncelles, it’s largely flat with a slight decline for nearly 5km, then a fast, 3km descent to the Meuse River. Instead of turning up to Ans, the finish line for the past 27 editions, the course stays on the valley floor for a 3km run into downtown Liège.
Anyone clear once they have the Meuse in sight could have a very good chance to make it.
The hope is that the final hour will be a thrilling tug-of-war between attackers, fast-finishers, and unexpected protagonists.
The wind is always a key factor in any edition, and Sunday’s forecast is calling for westerly breezes at 10-15kph, meaning cross-headwinds coming into the final decisive hour of racing. That could block the race a bit, but if the wind kicks up, the strongest riders will have a better chance of staying clear if the race is blown to bits and there’s no organized chase.
Will the new finale have its desired effect? Sunday’s race will be interesting enough simply because no one’s raced on this course before. It usually takes a few years for riders and teams to figure out how a race will play out, so Sunday should be thrilling for that very reason alone. No one knows what to expect.
After what has been an enthralling spring racing season, Liège looks ready to once again be the exclamation point the classics deserve.