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Liege: Valverde looks unbeatable

A few riders could upset favorite Alejandro Valverde in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but the weather could really throw a wrench into the mix.

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The 2016 classics season concludes Sunday over the frothy hills of the Ardennes at Liège-Bastogne-Liège with one talking point: who can beat Alejandro Valverde?

The Movistar veteran reconfirmed his status as King of the Ardennes Wednesday with a master class on how to race the Mur de Huy to clinch a record fourth victory at Flèche Wallonne, setting himself up for an unprecedented third Ardennes double in the 253-kilometer race.

Sunday’s 102nd Liège could deliver epic conditions as well, with forecasters calling for wind, rain, and maybe even snow, perhaps setting a stage for a repeat of the classic 1980 edition won by Bernard Hinault through the snow that was dubbed, “Neige-Bastogne-Neige.” Sunday’s race has all the trappings of another classic edition.

Valverde tops list of favorites

Look no further than Wednesday’s Flèche to see who has legs to win Sunday. Liège rarely delivers an outside victor, with Maxim Iglinskiy in 2011 the last rider who wasn’t a marquee name to win in more than a decade. The demands of the course, the distance, the pace, and the intensity of the final 40 kilometers mean only the fittest and most experienced riders have a shot at the podium.

Without question, Valverde is the top favorite. He has the team, the experience, and the form to win. Wednesday’s resounding win at Flèche erased any doubts that he might be a touch off his top form because he’s aiming for the Giro d’Italia this year for the first time, meaning he wants to peak in mid-May, not late April. Someone’s going to have to pull off a superb ride to beat him.

Alaphilippe and Martin: Second and third at Flèche, Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin form a formidable duo within the deep Etixx – Quick-Step squad. Their one-two punch could work in Liège better than it did at Flèche, forcing others to chase and opening up a chance for one of them to win. Martin knows what it’s like to win in Ans, and he looks to be in great form.

Alaphilippe, too, wants to improve on his breakthrough second last year. Will Etixx’s first major classics win of the year come in the Ardennes?

Gerrans and the Yates brothers: By not covering Enrico Gasparotto’s winning surge, Orica – GreenEdge missed a chance to win Amstel Gold Race last weekend. Liège is still too hard for Michael Matthews, giving former winner Simon Gerrans clear leadership. The Yates brothers will be there too. Clearer roles within the race will also mean a better final result.

Rodríguez: Aging veteran Joaquim Rodríguez of Katusha could still deliver a surprise. “Purito” has never won Liège, but he went too early on the Mur to reveal that his ambitions might outstrip his form this spring.

The year for an outsider?

Despite the depth of the confirmed favorites, there is a baker’s dozen of riders nipping at their heels. Liège’s longer distance and harder pace typically sees more selection than at either Amstel Gold or Flèche, but there are several riders clearly on good form. Gasparotto cannot be overlooked. Second at Brabantse Pijl and a winner at Amstel Gold, he was fifth Wednesday up the Mur. Pouncing to fourth Wednesday was Wout Poels of Sky, who’s been on a good run all spring.

Tony Gallopin (Lotto – Soudal), Michael Woods (Cannondale), Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi (Lampre – Merida), and Vincenzo Nibali and Luis León Sánchez (Astana) are all riders capable of going deep into the race. And why not Chris Froome? Sky confirmed the two-time Tour de France champion will race.

Falcon’s Rock is the decider

With a long string of short but demanding climbs, the battle kicks off in the final hour. La Redoute, at 218km in, is too far away to serve as the launching pad as it once did, though the selection certainly begins there.

Since its inclusion, Roche-aux-Faucons at 234km is the new race-breaker at Liège. Its steep pitch sees the decisive split in the pack, and the false-flat leading to a long descent to the final major climb at Saint-Nicolas is where the attacking groups form.

In today’s more balanced and deeper peloton, the winning surge might not come until 500m to go on the final run up to Ans.

Weather will be a factor

After mild spring weather throughout the northern classics, rain and colder temperatures are forecasted for Sunday. There’s even a chance for snow, perhaps setting the stage for an epic battle against the elements. The sudden shift in weather will certainly impact the race. Whoever can fight through the meteorological mash-up will have an edge over the rest of the suffering peloton.

History lesson

The oldest of the old Liège is called “la doyenne” for a reason. As far as bike races go, this is among the oldest. Dating back to 1892, the race celebrates its 102nd edition this year. Belgians, naturally, hog the record books with 59 wins, including Eddy Merckx’s record five victories. If Valverde wins Sunday, he will be the first rider to win the Flèche-Liège double three times.