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MAASTRICHT, The Netherlands (VN) — The absence of the race-breaking Côte de Roche aux Faucons in the final hour of racing will surely alter the outcome of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday.
How it will shape the race, no one’s quite sure.
On Thursday and Friday, teams previewed the Côte de Colonster, which will replace “Falcon’s Rock” in the final classic of the spring. Reviews have been mixed. Everyone agrees that the new climb is not as steep or challenging as the Faucons, but what that means for the race has been a point of discussion.
“It’s not as steep and it’s a wider, better road, so it will not be as explosive as the other climb,” Movistar director José Luís Jaimerena said. “It is longer, but there will be an uncertainty in the bunch on how it will shape the race. Perhaps because it’s not as hard, there will be more attacks earlier.”
Added in 2008, the Côte de Roche aux Faucons comes after the Côte de La Redoute and before the final categorized climb, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, and has proven to be the launching pad for winning moves ever since. Road work this year, however, has forced organizers to redirect the route over a new climb at Colonster, 17 kilometers from the finish.
The Colonster is just under 3km long with an average grade of 5.9 percent, a challenge this late in the race, but not nearly as much a barrier as the Roche aux Faucons.
Though shorter, at 1.6km, the Faucons is much steeper, at 10 percent, and, after a short descent, the climb is immediately followed by a grinding, 2km false flat before a long, high-speed descent toward Seraing and the Saint-Nicolas climb.
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), hoping for a strong ride on Sunday, said the Faucons climb was better for him.
“I prefer the other version, but it depends on how broken up the race is at that point,” Contador said after riding the climb on Friday. “I see a big difference in the change. The road is wider, so there could be wind, and teams can work together better. It will make the group arriving to Saint-Nicolas even bigger.”
Having an easier climb after the Redoute could make Liège’s most famous climb that much more decisive. Over the past few years, riders have eased back over the Redoute to save their matches for Roche aux Faucons.
With the buzz going around the peloton that the Colonster is not as steep, riders might be more willing to attack over the Redoute with hopes of clearing the new climb with an advantage going to Saint-Nicolas.
On the other hand, an easier road to the finale could mean the biggest group in years hits Saint-Nicolas, the short but steep penultimate climb.
And without a clear favorite towering above the field, there could well be a big group hitting the final ramp in Ans to the finish line. Liège–Bastogne–Liège will certainly not end in a bunch sprint, but there could be a dozen riders kicking for the win.
“I see a group of 40-50 riders arriving at the foot of Saint-Nicolas,” Gilbert said. “It’s a short sprint up the climb and I see riders regrouping. On the final climb to Ans, it would be hard to defend a 10-15-second gap. There are a lot of riders on the same level.”
Teams are already thinking the race will be a numbers game. Any team that can place two or three riders in the front group can start attacking and counter-attacking.
“I reckon it’s an easier hill than the Roche aux Faucons that it has replaced,” Orica-GreenEdge director Neil Stephens said about the new climb. “I expect the final to be a bit easier this year without the Roche aux Faucons. I tend to think this new course leaves the race a little more open to the opportunists. A team with numbers that is eager to seize any opportunities they see will have more of a chance.”
What’s sure, is that no one knows what will happen on Sunday.
There is one rider who could blow the race open and he hasn’t even seen the course yet: Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Last year, “The Shark” attacked over the Roche aux Faucons, only to have now-Astana teammate Maxim Inglinskiy reel him in at the base of the Ans climb with less than 2km to go.
Nibali arrives in Belgium on Friday night, hot off his impressive victory at the Giro del Trentino. He will not see the course update until Saturday, but if anyone can upset the group sprint at “La Doyenne,” it could by the man who nearly rode away with the race one year ago.