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Commentary: How to make Liege great again

The oldest monument has struggled to generate excitement until all but the last few minutes in recent years — what can be done?

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The 2018 spring classics campaign winds down this weekend with the oldest of them all.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège, now in its 104th edition dating back to 1892, marks the end of the spring’s major one-days. The 258-kilometer course is the oldest, one of the most prestigious, and arguably the hardest of all the monuments, but is it the best? At least in terms of racing dynamics, it’s far past its best days.

The legendary Doyenne is starting to look a lot like its namesake — the old lady. Compared to the fireworks in nearly all of the other major spring classics, Liège delivers a rather limp conclusion to what is the most exciting block of racing of the entire season.

How many recent editions of Liège can you remember? Roubaix, Flanders, and even Sanremo pack more punch than what is the most physically demanding of all the monuments.

Despite seeing the course become more difficult — or perhaps because of it — the past several editions have ended with a highly controlled race. Rather than delivering the daring attacks and tactical spectacle the other one-days evoke, Liège-Bastogne-Liège has become a race of attrition. Riders know if they can hang on until the final steep run into Ans, and grab the first wheel coming through the last left-hander in front of the gas station and discount store, they have a very good shot of winning.

It wasn’t always that way. Some of cycling’s most epic battles unfolded on the deep-forested hills of Belgium’s Ardennes region.

The UCI moved Liège-Bastogne-Liège from the weekend immediately after Roubaix to its current slot as the closing act of the spring classics. In theory, it should provide the perfect bookend to the most exciting period of racing. It’s time to admit it: Liège-Bastogne-Ans just isn’t working anymore.

So what can we expect Sunday? Based on what we’ve seen so far this spring, a very strong Quick-Step Floors will ride to control the race to set up Julian Alaphilippe. Or perhaps we’ll see yet another Alejandro Valverde post-up for a record-tying fifth win. In other words, another predictable Liège.

Up to now, the 2018 classics racing season has been good to very good — not quite great — but it’s been anything but predictable. Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix both saw exciting finales with audacious winners. Fan-favorite Tour of Flanders was a bit flat if you’re not a fan of the winning team. It was kind of like watching the Denver Broncos getting smeared 55-10 in the Super Bowl. Quick-Step was impeccable at the Ronde, but it was a lopsided highlight reel. The other one-days have almost become better watching, from E3 Harelbeke to Gent-Wevelgem to Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne.

It’s time to make Liège-Bastogne-Liège great again.

How do you do it? Easy. Relocate the finish back to Liège.

Moving the finale away from the Ans hilltop and back along the Meuse River into downtown Liège would dramatically alter the dynamics of the final hour of racing.

A finish in Liège would transform it from a race of attrition and patience into one of attacks and aggression. Instead of playing the waiting game and hanging on for the final charge up to Ans, attacking riders would be rewarded for early moves. The final climb would likely be at Saint-Nicolas at about 5.5km to go — that’s assuming the race would not go up Ans and loop back around to Liège — and conclude with a fast, technical descent and some flats into downtown Liège.

That finish-line scenario would provoke a flurry of movement, especially at the Roche aux Faucons with 15km to go. Or even perhaps as far away as the Doyenne’s most famous climb at La Redoute at 25km to go. Why? Because attackers would have a much better chance of making it to the line for the win.

What makes races like Sanremo and the Ronde so interesting is the inevitable late-race chase. If Sanremo ended on top of the Poggio, it would be the most boring race of the year. But by having the finish line 5.4km from the Poggio ridgeline sets up the most spectacular few minutes of racing of the season. And the same goes for Flanders. It’s that final 13km from the crest of the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg double to the finish line into Oudenaarde that often makes that race so incredibly tantalizing and emotional.

The uphill finale at Ans — in what’s got to be the most unglamorous finish of any major bike race in the world — has been a Liège feature since 1992. That could be changing. The contract with Ans officially ends with this edition. There have been media reports in Belgium that race owner ASO is considering offers from Liège city officials to move the race back to the historic center where the race starts.

Let’s hope ASO will do what it always does, and takes the money. If they move the finish back to historic Liège, it could inject much-needed life into what’s become a moribund race.

Change is not always bad. Look at Flanders Classics. Belgian promoters committed cycling heresy a few years ago when they rejigged the finish line, taking the mythic Kampelmuur out of the mix and moving the finish to Oudenaarde. That decision was made purely for economic reasons so that more VIP tents and an accommodating finishing town could cough up the euros. But today, everyone is in near-universal agreement that the race is better off for it.

It’s that “will-they-make-it-or-get-caught” tug-of-war between attackers and chasers after six hours of all-in racing that creates the magic of the monuments. Having the finish in Liège instead of the hilltop finale at Ans would set up the same thrilling dynamic.

There’s another lesson to be learned from the trajectory of the Amstel Gold Race. Nearly two decades ago, the start and finish was in and around Maastricht. The Cauberg was the emblematic climb, but it was not steep enough and too far from the old Maastricht finish line to create that necessary and desired tension that makes for a great bike race. So they moved the finish line right to the top of the Cauberg. And what happened? It all but blocked the race. Sure, there were sorties and attacks, but everyone knew that the winning move would be made 200m from the finish line.

While that makes for one pleasing spurt, it certainly doesn’t deliver the drawn-out battle and tactical interplay that everyone wants to see. So Amstel Gold Race organizers followed the lead from the 2012 worlds and moved the finish line to about 1.5km after the top of the Cauberg. That immediately created more tactical uncertainty and drama into the race. Looking for even more give-and-take, organizers have tweaked the finale twice in the past two editions, and the race is better off for it.

Make no mistake; hilltop finales are great, especially in grand tours. They give something for puncheurs and provide an interesting narrative for the day as the race trundles along for three weeks.

In one-day racing, however, hilltop finales are race killers. In today’s highly equalized peloton, races like Flèche Wallonne, the old Amstel Gold Race finale, and the current Liège course are all about control and then delivering on the final ramp. Everyone knows the action is compressed into that one final lactate-churning grind to the line, so the collective tactics and interests conspire to have a highly controlled race. There are always a few brave souls, like the eternally fearless Vincenzo Nibali, but Liège rarely delivers an unpredictable outcome.

The modern-day version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège simply doesn’t create the emotional punch that the race deserves.

Moving the finish line back to Liège would not change the brutal nature of the race, but it would encourage riders to attack further from the finish line and provoke a more tactically dynamic race.

After all, Liège is one of the oldest and most prestigious of the one-days. Just about every racer Sunday will tell you it’s the hardest one-day effort they will make of the year. Liège is to climbers and puncheurs what Roubaix is to the cobble-eaters.

It’s time for Liège-Bastogne-Ans to put that second Liège back into its name.