The spring classics end Sunday with a flourish over the Belgians Ardennes. The cobble-bashers are all licking their wounds and resting their legs (except for Paris-Roubaix winner Greg Van Avermaet, of course), so the climbers and puncheurs take center-stage at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The oldest monument in cycling — the original race was held all the way back in 1892 — deserves its moniker as La Doyenne. Many feel the “old lady” needs a facelift, with some looking at Amstel Gold Race as an example to follow. Some pundits suggest the race has devolved into a waiting game and a race of attrition, and thus lacks the punch and tactical tension that’s typically synonymous with the monuments. The modern version of Liège is a tug-of-war between the strongest riders all the way to a finish line in Ans in front of a gas station and grocery store that’s anything but monumental for its setting.
Make no mistake, Liège is the real deal, and Sunday’s race of 258km follows a familiar course, out and back to Bastogne over an endless string of short, punchy climbs, and is packed with climbing. By official estimates, more than 5,000 vertical meters are in the offering, equal to major climbing stage at the Tour de France. So any winner at Liège is a worthy champion.
“Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a war of attrition. It’s an incredibly hard course. There are officially only about 10 climbs, but in reality there are more like 30 to 35. It’s an unreal amount of climbing,” Martin said on the Velon site. “You learn from experience that you have to be at the front at the critical times. Tactics play a big part and it’s a real waiting game.”
Liège usually sees a few GC riders parachute in for the lone monument that favors their strengths, but it’s usually the finisseurs like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Dan Martin (Quick-Step), both former winners, who rise to the top. The closing 40km are hard enough to thin the group, but usually not hard enough for a pure climber to simply ride everyone off his wheel.
As we’ve seen over the years, there are a few ways to win La Doyenne. Let’s us examine the three most probably outcomes for Sunday’s race.
Long bomb: A dying tradition
Some of Liège’s most storied victories involved dramatic, long-distance attacks. The hilly terrain naturally favors aggressive riders, but the nature of the more-calculating modern peloton and the collective strength of the peloton have made such long-distance sorties less successful of late.
The most famous came from Liège record=man Eddy Merckx, who attacked solo with 92km to go to claim his second of five wins, riding through horrendous weather only to be caught by compatriot Georges Pintens. In 1980, in the infamous “Neige-Bastogne-Neige” edition raced in a raging blizzard that saw only 21 of 174 starters even finish, Bernard Hinault attacked alone at 80km to go to win his second Liège title.
By the 1990s, the decisive attacking point evolved at the Redoute climb at 40km to go. In 1997, Michele Bartoli and Laurent Jalabert attacked on La Redoute, with the Italian countering late to win solo. In 1999, Frank Vandenbroucke also took flight to claim his breakout victory.
The last true long-distance winning attack came in 2005, when Alexander Vinokourov beat Jens Voigt after the pair attacked together with about 80km to go. These days, this type of dramatic, long attacks are largely foiled due to suffocating team tactics, high speed, and a deeper field of riders looking to control the action until the final hour of racing.
Who might try: An early breakaway will certainly go, but there might be a few riders trying from a Hinault-esque distance. Riders looking to get up the road to later assist a leader might give it a run. Riders such Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Luis Mate (Cofidis) or even Luis León Sánchez (Astana), perhaps inspired by his boss Vinokourov.
Mid-range sortie: La Roche aux Faucons
Nearly a decade ago, race organizers added the Roche aux Faucons at about 20km to go to add some extra spice to the race. With La Redoute considered a touch too early, La Roche quickly proved a succulent launching pad. Andy Schleck won in 2009 with a vicious attack on the steep climb. Vincenzo Nibali tried in 2012, only to be chased down by Astana’s Maxim Iglinsky (who later tested positive for EPO).
With powerful teams, such as Sky, Orica-Scott and Movistar pulling hard for their leaders, it will be a big challenge to try to go the distance, yet riders who don’t have the best finishing sprint, but who have good legs, might be tempted to give it a try.
Who might try: Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) has been aggressive all spring, and could give it a run. Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo), Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac), Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing), Sergio Henao (Sky) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) are riders who might try to sneak away from the favorites before the pack boils into the final 10km of racing.
Hanging on: Drag race to the line
The last several editions have followed a similar pattern: early attacks have proved futile, and a hardened dozen top riders hit the final 5km on the rivet. The final unrated climb to Ans has been the launching pad for the winning accelerations, with riders such of Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott), Martin and Valverde all taking their Liège wins out of small groups that fractured on the final accelerations in the closing 5km.
Who might try: All the favorites will likely hold their powder until the final surge. Behind Valverde and Martin, others looking to save it all for a winning surge will be Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott), and perhaps even Warren Barguil (Sunweb) or Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe). Van Avermaet will be an interesting card to watch. After winning Paris-Roubaix, the Belgian is taking on Liège for the first time in five years. He’ll likely want to follow all the moves and see if he has something left in the tank for a final charge for the podium. But he might throw caution to the wind, especially if he is feeling good, and try to attack at La Roche or perhaps even La Redoute. He’s strong enough to fend off the peloton, and if he gets a few riders to tag along, they could break the script that seems to have a stranglehold on La Dayonne.