By Andrew Hood
A new climb with about 20 kilometers to go in Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège should pump fresh excitement into one of the oldest races in cycling.
The steep climb at La Roche aux Faucons (“Falcon’s Rock”) is giving hope to riders such as Damiano Cunego, Frank Schleck and Cadel Evans that the hardest of the Ardennes classics will be even more explosive.
“I think this climb will make the final more selective and even harder,” said Cunego, winner at Amstel Gold Race. “This is a true climb that I think will change everything. I see a small group pulling away and staying away.”
That kind of thinking is just what race organizers are hoping for. They’re pulling a longer, but gentler climb and adding the shorter, but potentially much more explosive La Rouche climb that they hope will give new wings to riders daring to attack from afar.
“We see it as a way to allow riders to show themselves even more,” race director Christian Prudhomme told reporters this week. “We like to change little things here and there each year. We’ll see if the climb can add some new elements to the race and change a certain attitude of the race. To see a solo winner arrive to line wouldn’t be so bad.”
The Tilff-Sart Tilman climb (3.6km at 5.3%) is being eliminated in favor of the shorter but steeper La Rouche aux Faucons (1.5km at 9.9%).
Unlike the Tilff climb, which cuts a smoother grade to accommodate heavy car and truck traffic, the new route will carry the peloton up narrower, less-trafficked roads past a hodge-podge of houses and farms.
Many believe the new climb will dramatically alter the outcome, allowing for a much smaller group arriving at Ans to dispute for one of cycling’s most prized crowns.
“It’s a good climb, very hard. Frankly, I’m glad it’s there. I think it’s all going to be decided there,” said Team CSC’s Schleck. “I think five or six riders will be able to pull clear from the rest. This new climb will allow me to try to make a difference, something that I couldn’t do last year. Di Luca stayed with me up the final climb at Ans and easily came around me in the sprint. This climb changes everything.”
La Rouche aux Faucons covers roughly the same amount of elevation (about 360 vertical feet) but in about half the distance.
That offers a much more challenging hurdle at one of the most critical moments of the race and should give strong attackers more options at holding off chasing riders.
The field typically fractures on the always-decisive La Redoute climb, but with nearly 35km to go, there’s plenty of road to organize a proper chase. The successive climbs at Côte de Sprimont (1.4km at 4.7 percent) and the old Tilff-Sart Tilman climb just weren’t steep enough or long enough to give strong attackers an advantage or slow down the chasers.
The descent off the Sprimont also brings the peloton directly to the foot of the new climb, eliminating a flat stretch of three or four kilometers along the Ourthe River that allowed riders to chase heading toward Tilff-Sart Tilman.
The new climb is also demanding enough to shape the outcome. Position will be critical up the narrow strip of asphalt, which opens with a very steep ramp about 200 meters long before sweeping left then right before hitting a very sharp rise of about 400 meters.
It’s not the Mur de Huy, but the legs will undoubtedly be aching after almost six hours of racing.
“It’s like having two climbs up La Redoute. It’s going to make Saint-Nicolas a slog. No more big ring up the last drag, those days are over,” said Slipstream-Chipotle’s David Millar. “It all depends on how they race it. I think teams will be putting their No. 2 riders into some early moves because they think they might be able to make it over the new climb. If that happens, it’s going to be a nasty race.”
Once on top, the new route also takes a tighter, more technical road back down to the valley floor at Seraing and the foot of the Saint-Nicolas climb instead of the wide-open road off Sart-Tillman, giving would-be escapers even more rope.
“I think it gives more riders a chance to attack,” said Rabobank’s Robert Gesink. “After the Redoute, there were some big roads, now you’re on smaller roads all the way to Liège. It’s on small roads and goes up and down after the top of La Rouche. It makes for more exciting racing and we’ll try to have someone there to attack.”
Most teams had their first look at the climb during Friday’s training rides and VeloNews watched several teams ride up different sections of the climb.
One Euskaltel-Euskadi rider was overheard saying it wasn’t that hard, only to look back to see captain Mikel Astarloza getting a tow up the hill by a team car.
Joaquin Rodríguez, the Spanish national champion on Caisse d’Epargne, just flew up the climb while Alejandro Valverde, winner in 2006, took a good dig in training as well.
“It’s going to be pretty hard. It’s just a hard, tight climb and looks like that it should explode things,” said Slipstream-Chipotle’s Ryder Hesjedal after getting a look at it Friday. “Things will get broken up and it’s pretty technical, so guys can get gaps. Maybe it will all be smaller groups from there. We’ll have to see how the racing is Sunday.”
How decisive the changes prove to be will have to wait until Sunday.
The climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège:
Côte de Ny (57.5km): 1.8km at 5.7%
Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne (82km): 2.8km at 4.9%
Côte de Saint-Roch (128km): 800m at 12%
Côte de Wanne (172km): 2.7km at 7%
Côte de Stockeu (178.5km): 1.1km at 10.5%
Côte de la Haute-Levée (184km): 2.4km at 6%
Côte du Rosier (196.5km): 4km at 5.9%
Côte de la Vecque (209km): 3.1km at 5.9%
Côte de la Redoute (226.5km): 2.1km at 8.4%
Côte de Sprimont (232km): 1.4km at 4.7%
Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (241.5km): 1.5km at 9.9%
Côte de Saint-Nicolas (255.5km): 1km at 11.1%
Climbing finish to Ans at 261km