Road

How Liège-Bastogne-Liège showed the ‘grand tour specialist’ is no longer a thing

This weekend's race saw the ever-versatile new generation of GC greats stealing the headlines.

Member Exclusive

Become a member to unlock this story and receive other great perks.

Join

Already a member?

Sign In

As the aphorism goes, “If a grand tour racer is going to win a monument, it’s likely to be Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”

Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar proved the saying true Sunday, blasting to victory to scoop his first monument in downtown Liège. But Pogačar is not an exception from the rule in the ever-evolving modern peloton.

Ineos Grenadiers’ two former Giro d’Italia winners Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart lit up the final of Liège this weekend, while budding grand tour star David Gaudu nabbed a slot on the podium. The absence of Vuelta a España champion Primož Roglič from the final selection further reinforces the point.

Also read: Tadej Pogačar takes maiden monument at Liège

Modern-day grand tour greats are no longer one-trick ponies, but versatile all-out racers. Here’s how the 2021 Liège-Bastogne-Liège proved the ‘grand tour specialist’ is no longer a thing:

Tadej Pogačar shows he can do it all (again)

He can sprint, he can time trial, he can climb high mountains. Is Pogačar the most complete rider in the peloton? Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Tadej Pogačar became the first Tour de France champion to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège since Bernard Hinault did it in 1980 (Andy Schleck won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2009, and was later awarded the 2010 Tour).

Hinault and fellow legend Eddy Merckx went on to win hatfuls of monument and GC trophies, and it looks like Pogačar has plenty more one-day and grand tour wins to come in the next decade of his young career.

Pogačar and Roglič emerged in 2020 not just as the major movers in grand tours but aces in Ardennes, with the pair sharing the podium in Liège and sending Slovenia close to a world title last fall. Although Pogačar only raced once in this spring’s classics after his team was sidelined by a COVID scare, the Slovenian’s poise, positioning and race-winning kick Sunday made for an ominous hint to the bunch around him that there’s plenty more to come.

Roglič lost his legs when the pace skyrocketed on the final climb of the day Sunday. However, his job as “MVP” for Wout van Aert at Amstel the weekend prior and a near-miss at Flèche Wallonne further confirmed that the best modern-day racers have more than one trick up their sleeve – and that Pogačar is no one-off.

 

Alongside the more classics-focused van Aert, the Ardennes classics reinforced that Pogačar and Roglič are possibly the two most “complete” riders in the bunch right now.

Also read: Why it matters that Roglič and Pogačar are racing in the Ardennes

All roads lead to the Tour de France for the two Slovenian stars, and Pogačar’s canny racing and searing sprint into Liège arguably puts him a half wheel ahead of Roglič in the early season form-book. Like his elder, Pogačar can time trial, sprint and climb. But perhaps unlike Roglič, the baby-faced assassin seems to have the mark with pinpoint accuracy time after time.

Ineos Grenadiers transforms Ardennes ambitions with GC hitters

Ineos Grenadiers put its grand tour armory into use with Geoghegan Hart, Carapaz and Yates in the final of Liège. Photo: Erik Lalmand – Pool/Getty Images

Tao Geoghegan Hart, Richard Carapaz and Adam Yates are drilling it at the front of the peloton. What is this, the Giro d’Italia? No. It’s the climb of La Redoute in the season’s toughest monument.

Ineos Grenadiers has had a facelift this spring. Gone are the stuttering classics campaigns of the past decade, and in has come a brash, bold new attacking force. Tom Pidcock may have led the charge, but through the Ardennes, it was the grand tour stars that paved the way.

Carapaz, Yates, Geoghegan Hart and Michal Kwiatkowski blew the race to bits over La Redoute on Sunday, moving en masse to string out the bunch. It was a Team Sky-era show of force, only in the Belgian hills rather than the French Alps. Seemingly taken aback by their own strength, it took the Ineos quartet some time to decide to send Carapaz on the attack with a daring solo move that was ended on the Roche-aux-Faucons and then scrubbed off the record books by a disqualification.

It was a gamble that didn’t pay off – but the fact that the team was willing to make it was telling.

Ineos Grenadiers comes out of the Ardennes with the “most improved” award, and though it was Pidcock that stole the headlines, Carapaz and Geoghegan Hart had big parts to play in earning the prize.

Also read: Pidcock leads classics renaissance at Ineos Grenadiers

Carapaz combined with Kwiatkowski to set Pidcock on his way to a photo finish at Amstel Gold Race. And the former Giro champion again made the moves at La Flèche Wallonne, finishing ninth to net one of the best one-day results of his career.

While Carapaz and his young teammates were busy ripping up the script in the Ardennes, veterans Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte were in their armchairs resting ahead of the Tour de Romandie.

Thomas has looked slow out the gate as his big engine warms ahead of a challenge for the yellow jersey, while Carapaz has shown the attacking vigor that is coming to characterize the peloton’s leading stage racers. Thomas is in a contract year and in the twilight of his career and a Tour de France title in summer could be a make-or-break.

While it’s not necessarily a changing of the guard, Carapaz and Co.’s performance at Liège is a sign of the way things are moving both within the team and in the grand tour landscape.

David Gaudu unseats Thibaut Pinot at the top of Groupama-FDJ

Gaudu finished third behind Pogačar. They will be seeing a lot of each other in the years to come. Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Just 24 hours after it was confirmed that Thibaut Pinot’s season was up in smoke before it had even begun, his young teammate David Gaudu sprinted to third in Liège.

It could have been a pivotal moment for Groupama-FDJ and its longer-term ambition. Pinot is still suffering back injuries and abandoned his plan to race the Giro d’Italia. And he’s no shoo-in for the Tour de France – that’s the hunting ground of Gaudu and sprinter Arnaud Démare this year.

Also read: What’s next for Thibaut Pinot?

Gaudu improved in every grand tour he’s started, even while being shackled to Pinot as domestique on two of the four occasions. And without team talisman Pinot to look after at last year’s Vuelta, Gaudu hit a career-best eighth overall, earning himself a prestigious leader’s slot at his squad’s home race this summer. The 24-year-old Gaudu has gone on to reaffirm his team’s faith this season, notching victories at the Faun-Ardèche classic and Itzulia Basque Country, along with two top-10s in the Ardennes.

Much like his similarly youthful rival Pogačar, Gaudu shows that the modern grand tour racer is not just a three-week diesel engine. Like Pogačar and Primož Roglič, Gaudu is a veritable Swiss army knife, multi-tasker with a finishing kick and attacking swagger to match his big motor for the longer climbs.

Gaudu was the least-known name in the five-up Liège sprint Sunday, but may not be sat in the shadows much longer.

The Frenchman shares the template of his Slovenian rivals, and it’s he, not Pinot, that is likely to be squaring off against them from April through September for years to come.