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Course Preview: Course change alters Liege–Bastogne–Liege finale

With the loss of the Roche aux Faucons for 2013, Liège–Bastogne–Liège should see the biggest group to have arrived to Ans in years

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LIEGE, Belgium (VN) — As one of the oldest races in cycling, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is affectionately referred to as the “old lady,” but “La Doyenne” just keeps getting better with the passage of time.

This year’s 99th edition mixes the best of old and new. The “old” includes the finest elements of the classic parcours south across the Belgian Ardennes toward the World War II battlefields of Bastogne, with a climb up the narrow, fan-packed streets of Houffalize, before making a U-turn and rolling back north, passing the historic climbs of Stockeu and La Redoute.

The “new” includes the hilltop finish at Ans, introduced in 1992, and the race-breaking climb at Roche aux Faucons, added with thrilling consequences in 2008. Road work, however, has shelved “Falcon’s Rock” this year and forced organizers to take the route over a new hill, the Colonster climb, which will come with 17 kilometers to go.

The Colonster is just under 3km long with an average grade of 5.9 percent — a challenge this late in the race, but not nearly as much a barrier as the Roche aux Faucons.

Though shorter, at 1.6km, Falcon’s Rock is much steeper, at 10 percent, and, after a short descent, the climb is immediately followed by a grinding, two-kilometer false-flat before a long, high-speed descent toward Seraing and the Saint Nicolas climb.

The impact of the absence of Falcon’s Rock remains to be seen. The Roche au Faucons has supplanted the famous steeps of Le Redoute as the decisive moment of Liège over the past few editions.

Organizers felt the distance between La Redoute and Saint Nicolas was so long, at 33km, that it warranted an additional major climb to spice things up. That instinct was right. After a brutal selection up La Redoute, the Falcon’s Rock has acted like a buzz saw to chop the peloton into small pieces.

The new climb, added temporarily to maintain the finale’s profile without the Faucons, will certainly not be as selective, so a bigger group of perhaps a dozen riders could well enter Liège with options.

Clean sheet breeds desperation in Wallonie

Teams will be busy scouting the final sections of the course over the next few days, but an aggressive race is all but assured. Many teams are desperately chasing results to save their spring campaigns.

Tops among them are Sky and BMC Racing. Sky has dominated the stage race front, but has fallen flat so far in its quest to win a major spring classic. Sergio Henao’s second-place podium on Wednesday in Flèche Wallonne will give the team extra wings on Sunday, not to mention the arrival of Chris Froome.

BMC Racing, meanwhile, is hoping world champion Philippe Gilbert can pull something out of his hat on Sunday. According to time splits, Gilbert was 22 seconds slower up the Mur de Huy on Wednesday than during his extraordinary sweep of the Ardennes in 2011. Liège was Gilbert’s principal target of the first half of the 2013 season and he’s been known to deliver come crunch time.

Several teams will be bringing at least two cards to play, and the finale could well come down to a numbers game.

Last year saw solo fliers, first from Vincenzo Nibali (now Astana) and eventual winner Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana). Nibali’s move to Astana is typical of several teams bringing two options for victory.

There are many others: Garmin-Sharp, with Ryder Hesjedal and Daniel Martin; Katusha with Joaquim Rodríguez and Flèche Wallonne winner Daniel Moreno; Movistar with Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana; and Saxo-Tinkoff, with Alberto Contador and Amstel Gold Race winner Roman Kreuziger.

Any team that can place more than one rider into the decisive move in the final 25km will have a distinctive edge on its rivals. This is perhaps even truer with the new finale, which should see larger numbers arrive at the base of the Saint Nicolas.

Weather is a factor in any race, but Sunday’s forecast calls for cooler, but pleasant temperatures in the upper 50s Fahrenheit, with a slight chance of rain. After a harsh winter and equally brutal spring, the sudden spike in temperature caught a few riders off guard, namely Peter Sagan (Cannondale), who suffered cramps last Sunday at Amstel Gold.

If it doesn’t rain, the cooler temperatures should present ideal race conditions for the season’s final classic.

The familiar Liege–Bastogne–Liege stage and script

“La Doyenne” typically follows a familiar pattern. After rolling out of central Liège, the route carries the peloton south. Long-distance breakaways typically form, and though they can open up substantial gaps, they almost never pose a major threat to the pre-race favorites.

Like all monuments, it’s the final hour of racing that counts. Though Eddy Merckx would famously use the Stockeu, with nearly 100km to go, to soften up the peloton en route to five career Liège victories, the racing typically does not heat up until the closing 50km.

La Redoute, 2km at eight percent, plows straight up the side of a hill on a narrow road lined with ecstatic fans; this is where the hammer is thrown. Teams will send their designated co-captains on the attack, forcing rivals to chase, and allowing their A-listers a chance to rev up their engines.

The most effective attacks come near the summit, where riders can carry speed over the top to gap the seriously fractured pack.

A serpentine descent carries the pack into a valley open to gusting winds. Anyone who does not regain contact with the leaders can stick a fork in their chances. This is where Valverde followed a race motorcycle off-course in 2012 after crashing on the climb. This year, the route will take a sharp corner into the new climb at Colonster. The tension will be high with no one knowing exactly what to expect.

It’s still a long descent toward Saint Nicolas (1.2km at 8.6 percent) and strong descenders such as Nibali can use the approach as a chance to gap the fast finishers. That’s what he did last year, until Iglinskiy countered and came down on him like a MiG fighter.

The final rise to Ans, just over one kilometer at a steady six percent, is a battle of wills. Climbers are desperate to drop the sprinters, while the fast kickers are doing all they can to hang on until the final left-hander with 200 meters to go.

It’s hard to imagine one rider strong enough to drop every rival on the top teams, but stranger things have happened. With the new finale, the small bunch kick is likely in the cards.

The finale in Ans, on a bland pedestrian street in front of a run-down suburban strip mall, is hardly worthy of a grand dame of such class. But the action on the road is another case.

Climbs of the 2013 Liège–Bastogne–Liège
Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne (2.8km, 6.2%) — 70km
Côte de Saint-Roch (1km, 11%) — 116.5km
Côte de Wanne (2.7km, 7.3%) — 160km
Côte de Stockeu “Stèle Eddy Merckx” (1km, 12.2%) — 166.5km
Côte de la Haute-Levée (3.6km, 5.7%) — 172.5km
Col du Rosier (4.4km, 5.9%) — 185km
Côte du Maquisard (2.5km, 5%) — 197.5km
Mont-Theux (2.7km, 5.9%) — 208km
Côte de La Redoute (2km, 8.8%) — 223km
Côte de Colonster (2.4km, 6%) — 244.5km
Côte de Saint-Nicolas (1.2km, 8.6%) — 256km