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Revitalized Liège attracts Sagan

Organizers are expected to move Liège-Bastogne-Liège finish to flatter terrain, opening the door for fast-finishing classics riders.

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Peter Sagan’s confirmation Monday that he will target Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2019 sets the stage for a revival of cycling’s “doyenne.”

Race owner ASO has yet to officially reveal the revised parcours for the 105th edition of the Ardennes monument, but it’s already been confirmed the finish line will be in downtown Liège instead of atop the sharp climb to Ans.

That course change that will see the race conclude with a flat run-in to the finish line will not only dramatically alter the outcome of the race but also open the door for riders who typically avoided the hilly race across Belgium’s rugged Ardennes region.

Sagan, who’s joked he would need to lose 20 pounds if he ever wanted to try to win the Tour de France, confirmed Monday during a press conference he will race the climber-friendly Liège for the first time.

“The plan is to carry on until Liège-Bastogne-Liège,” Sagan said Monday. “I’ve never raced it before so it could be good for me to race it for future years. Maybe it’s for experience.”

Sagan’s confirmation is the first hint of how the new-look Liège course could see a major overhaul of what type of riders will try to win the Belgian monument.

Sagan, 28, has never raced Liège before in large part because the hilly parcours and the uphill finale to Ans were simply too difficult for his bulky build. Other big northern classics riders, such as Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, never raced Liège-Bastogne-Liège during their respective careers because the course didn’t favor them.

Officials are expected to reveal the route details in the coming weeks, but it’s already been confirmed that last year’s edition won by Bob Jungels (Quick-Step) would be last at the Ans uphill finale.

Instead of finishing on the ridge overlooking the Meuse, the grueling one-day race will conclude on the flats in central Liège.

After moving the finish line from downtown Liège to Ans 27 years ago, the finale is coming back home in 2019. Hints suggest that the finish line could be on the Boulevard d’Avroy, where stages at the Tour de France have finished, right in the shadow of Liège’s main historical sites.

The course will still be packed with the short but steep climbs on its hilly out-and-back loop from Liège to Bastogne. It’s also still not confirmed if the famous La Redoute climb at 25km to go will be backed up by the fairly recent edition of La Roche aux Faucons at 15km to go, two of the course’s most emblematic climbs.

Even without knowing the final details, Sagan’s decision to at least have a run at Liège reveals the promise of the new course to attract a different style of rider.

“If it’s a flat finish into Liège, you could see riders like Sagan or [Michael] Matthews winning,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “You could see the green jersey winner from the Tour de France winning now at Liège.”

Though considered one of the most difficult, prestigious, and demanding of the classics, the past several editions have seen fairly blocked race dynamics. Any early attacks were neutralized as the top protagonists knew that the winning move could be made with a well-timed surge under 500 meters to go before the final left-hander to Ans.

Organizers are hoping a flatter approach to the finish line would help transform Liège from a race of attrition and patience into one of attacks and aggression. Attackers might feel emboldened to move earlier and more often if they know they don’t have the final climb to Ans waiting to slow them down.

Ans isn’t completely out of the picture. The suburb will serve as the start of Flèche Wallone, the mid-week classic that finishes atop the Mur de Huy.

ASO is hoping these tweaks will help revive interest in the Ardennes classics, races that have been overshadowed of late by the booming interest in the cobbled classics.

It will be interesting to see if Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), Michael Valgren (Dimension Data), and others who can climb well and sprint out of a reduced group, will also take up the Liège challenge. Whether a rider like Sagan could drag himself over the climbs and still be a factor in a reduced bunch sprint to challenge for victory remains to be seen. Just having Sagan at the start line will help spice things up.