Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest, hilliest and meanest of cycling’s classics, is all set to see new rainbow jerseys, young upstarts, and traditional gritty weather on Sunday.
Known as “La Doyenne” – the Old Lady – by virtue of it being the oldest of the five monuments, the race will be playing out five and a half months later than in a typical season. While the 2020 edition may have a new slot in the calendar, all the features that make Liège-Bastogne-Liège one of the hardest races to win remain.
Rolling for 257-kilometers through the lumps and bumps of Belgium’s Ardennes, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a true test of hardiness and resilience. And just as several recent editions have been hit by cool temperatures, heavy rain, and even snow, Sunday’s race is going to be made that bit harder by a weather forecast calling for thoroughly Belgian conditions, with stormy winds and heavy rain on the radar.
Among the hardmen set to line up for the race Sunday are newly-crowned world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), young hotshot Marc Hirschi (Sunweb), Tour de France champ Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) and Ardennes specialist Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling).
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is renowned to be one of the toughest races in the world, and just looking at the saw-tooth parcours says it all. At 257 kilometers and taking in around 5,000 meters of ascent across a battery of 11 classified climbs and a host of other peaks and troughs, this sure isn’t one for the faint-hearted.
The route was modified last year to return the finish line to Liège, rather than previous editions which came to a close in the gritty suburb of Ans. By stripping out the grinding uphill finish in Ans and tough Cote de Saint-Nicolas that fell before it, event organizers hoped to incentivize longer-range attacks and open up the action after suggestions that the age-old race was going stale.
The route for Sunday’s edition retains 2019’s new finishing template, but the age-old characteristics that define the parcours remain.
The outward run to Bastogne serves as a mere aperitif for the return leg. The first 100km of the race plays out over the long rolling hills and gentle grades of the Ardennes forest, at which point the peloton hits a turnabout point at border town Bastogne. Heading back north to Liège, the race takes on a whole gnarlier character as it passes through the gritty towns and even grittier bergs of east Belgium, with climbs such as the Cote de Stockeau and Col du Saint-Roch walloping the legs with 15+ percent grades.
Its the iconic Cote de la Redoute, rising out of Philippe Gilbert’s hometown Remouchamps and daubed with the name of the local hero, that sees the start of the major shakeup. The two-kilometer test falls with just 35km and a handful of ascents to go, and has repeatedly seen the selective attacks of the day.
From there, there are still two categorized climbs remaining before the final flat run toward Liège. Last year, the final climb of the day, the Roche-aux-Faucons, served as the platform for Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) to launch his winning attack before soloing to the line.
Having decided to sit out a defense of his Flèche Wallonne title on Wednesday, Alaphilippe will be debuting his rainbow jersey Sunday. And fittingly enough for the new world champion, the French star is a top contender for the victory. The steep hills and grinding length of the attritional Imola race last weekend made for a route akin to that on tap Sunday, and the flying Frenchman rose to the occasion in style.
Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck-Quick-Step team is throwing all it has at the race, sending a packed roster to support their leader including 2018 winner Bob Jungels, climbing talents Dries Devenyns and Andrea Bagioli, and the massive motors of Rémi Cavagna and Tim Declercq.
Rising Sunweb star Hirschi could prove Alaphilippe’s fiercest foe Sunday. The young Swissman is on red hot form after adding a Tour de France stage victory, a third-place at the world championships, and a mid-week win at La Flèche Wallonne to his trophy cabinet in the past six weeks.
Despite only making his debut at the elite Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year, 22-year-old Hirschi is more than familiar with the tough hills of the Ardennes having twice raced the U23 edition, taking fifth in 2018. He will be backed by equally-capable Belgian tough guy Tiesj Benoot, who was instrumental in Sunweb’s stunning successes at the Tour de France.
Others to keep an eye on include Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates), Richie Porte (Trek Segafredo) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers), all carrying form from the Tour de France and all to the fore when the steepest slopes of the Mur de Huy bit into the legs in the final minutes of Flèche on Wednesday.
Canadian climber Woods returns to the race after taking top-six finishes in the past two editions and is another major contender, as is Max Schachmann (Bora Hansgrohe), who last year took third place and has a strong Tour de France and top-10 finish at the worlds in his legs.
Defending champion Fuglsang will be absent as he challenges for GC at the Giro d’Italia, which kick-starts in Sicily on Saturday. While it was long-known that Fuglsang would not race Sunday, it came as a surprise to see four-time winner Alejandro Valverde omitted from the Movistar selection. The 40-year-old had chosen to rest his legs rather than race Flèche this week and the world was expecting the veteran to make his 15th start in Liège this weekend. The team has yet to give a reason for benching the Spaniard.
How to watch
The race will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Gold in the USA and FloBikes in Canda. European viewers will be able to tune in via GCN Race Pass and Eurosport.