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by Matt de Neef
April 27, 2015
Photography by Cor Vos
The Spring Classics are over for 2015. In the final of the Ardennes Classics, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) completed a rare Fleche Wallonne/Liège-Bastogne-Liège double, his third victory in each race.
With the Classics specialists now taking a well-earned rest, and the Grand Tour riders gearing up for the Giro d’Italia, we look back at yesterday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège and focus on some of the elements of the race that stood out to us, in no particular order.
Alejandro Valverde’s performance was a true masterclass
After his win at Fleche Wallonne, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) went into Liege-Bastogne-Liege as a clear favourite. With favourite status comes a lot of pressure — from within the team and from without — not to mention the challenge of being heavily marked within the race itself. Valverde handled these challenges with undeniable class and delivered what was expected of him.
Valverde admitted after the race that when Dani Moreno attacked on the final climb, he thought the race was over. He looked around for some help in the chase group but, understandably, no-one was willing to drag the in-form, two-time former winner to the line.
And so the Spaniard did it all himself. He bided his time, waiting until about 550m to go to launch a vicious acceleration which eventually caught Moreno. And when a consolidated 10-rider group approached the line, Valverde still had enough in the tank to sprint to a convincing win.
Valverde’s win puts him in esteemed company (yet again) — just six riders have won Liège-Bastogne-Liège on three or more occasions. It also puts the Spaniard at the top of the WorldTour rankings, deposing a rampaging, Giro-bound Richie Porte.
Regardless of your feelings towards Valverde and his past indiscretions, it’s hard to deny his class. He frequently delivers when it counts — and hits the podium more often than just about anyone — and he has a palmares that’s just about as diverse as you’re likely to see.
It was refreshing to see an unusual finale
If there was one criticism that could be levelled at the first two of the Ardennes Classics — Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne — it’s that they were a little predictable. An early break got clear, got wound in, the peloton shut down any late escapes and then the big-hitters duked it out on the final climb. Thankfully Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a little less predictable.
Sure there was the early break, but with Europcar chasing hard in the bunch for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (maybe for Pierre Rolland?), the break’s lead was down inside 30 seconds with 75km still to race.
What followed was a fascinating conclusion to the race. The break’s day was done on the Côte de la Haute-Levée and then we saw a series of smaller, more threatening groups split off the front of the main field at various times.
Among the highlights: Astana had two riders in a three-rider breakaway which forced Movistar to chase for Valverde; and Valverde himself attacked on the Côte de Saint Nicolas, as too did Vincenzo Nibali, forcing the other big-hitters to chase. All the while, the race’s 10 categorised climbs (and many uncategorised ones) thinned down the field dramatically.
Katusha had three riders in the 13-rider elite group that hit the final ascent in the lead and Moreno’s attack from that group was spectacular. As mentioned, it took Alejandro Valverde to shut it down before going on to finish the job. Some wonderfully exciting racing to end the Spring Classics.
Dan Martin might just be the unluckiest guy in the peloton
It hasn’t been a great week for Dan Martin. He crashed hard at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday and wasn’t able to finish the race. And then yesterday, at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Irishman was caught up in the day’s biggest crash, the result being another DNF beside his name.
When you consider Martin’s most unfortunate last-corner crash at last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, his victory of 2013 must feel like a long time ago.
Of course, Martin wasn’t the only rider to hit the deck yesterday — at least two of his teammates also came a cropper, including Australia’s Nathan Haas.
As discussed in our Fleche Wallonne “talking points” piece earlier in the week, it’s been a forgettable year for Cannondale-Garmin thus far, and yesterday didn’t help things at all. Their best-placed rider? Davide Formolo in 32nd place, 1:10 behind Valverde. The team continues to languish at the bottom of the WorldTour rankings, with table leaders Etixx-Quick-Step on nearly 32 times as many points.
Astana clearly wanted to prove a point in yesterday’s race
A couple days before Liege-Bastogne-Liege Astana got the news that, despite a spate of positive tests in the past few 12 months, it would be allowed to continue racing in the WorldTour … for now. The decision was met with a widespread sense of incredulity — how had the UCI’s License Commission not ejected the Kazakh team?!
It was clear yesterday that Astana was keen to put the whole saga behind it and focus on racing the best race it could.
After Europcar did much of the work to shut down the early move, Astana had no fewer than seven of its eight riders on the front, driving the pace. When the early break was whittled down and eventually caught Tanel Kangert and Michele Scarponi emerged in a dangerous three-rider break inside the closing 50km.
When that break ended, Jakob Fuglsang attacked out of peloton to join the two new leaders: Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha). Vincenzo Nibali was on the attack a little later as well, on the Côte de Saint Nicolas, albeit briefly.
Astana eventually had to settle for ninth place (Fuglsang) but the team’s intent throughout the race was hard to ignore. Ultimately it remains to be seen what fate has in store for the Kazakh squad but for now the riders and staff will be hoping all attention on the team is as a result of strong, clean performances on the road.
Julian Alaphilippe is a more-than-exciting prospect
In some ways Alejandro Valverde’s victory wasn’t a great surprise. The performance of his podium companion Julian Alaphilippe in recent weeks was, however.
Julian Alaphilippe was unimpressed at finishing second, but he’ll have plenty more opportunities in the years to come.
In just his second season at the WorldTour level the Etixx-Quick-Step rider has had a week to remember: seventh at the Amstel Gold Race in the lead group, an impressive second at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday and second again at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
At 22 years old Alaphilippe is a very exciting prospect for French cycling. He won a stage of the UCI 2.1 Tour de l’Ain last year and the UCI 1.2 Grand Prix Südkärnten the year before that, but it surely won’t be long before we see the name Julian Alaphilippe at the top of a results sheet in a much bigger race.
We’ve seen an unusual number of sprint finishes in the Classics
It’s been a bit of a weird Classics season. Barely any Fabian Cancellara, almost zero Tom Boonen and a seemingly unusual number of reasonable-sized groups getting to the finish together.
Paris-Roubaix ended in a small-bunch sprint on the famous velodrome, Amstel Gold Race came to a sprint of 18, there was another small group at Fleche Wallonne and then there were 10 vying for the win in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Sure, several of the Classics didn’t end in a sprint — Geraint Thomas (Sky) won E3 Harelbeke solo and Luca Paolini (Katusha) did the same at Gent-Wevelgem, for example — but in general we do seem to have had bigger groups getting to the finish in this year’s Classics. Whether there’s anything we can read into this isn’t entirely clear.
Simon Gerrans is living proof that cycling is a sport of ups and downs
In 2014 Simon Gerrans had arguably the best year of his career, winning the Australian road title, the Santos Tour Down Under, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec and Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal and, most relevantly to this discussion, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But in 2015, Gerrans’ fortunes have gone in a drastically different direction.
A crash while mountain biking in the off-season saw Gerrans miss the Australian summer of racing with a broken collarbone and then, in his comeback race — Strade Bianche — he crashed and broke his elbow.
Gerrans’ form had apparently been building nicely through the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Amstel Gold Race and he went into yesterday’s defence of Liège-Bastogne-Liège as Orica-GreenEdge’s protected rider, despite being significantly underdone.
And then the Victorian crashed, not once, but twice in the space of 10 minutes, ending his race. The first crash was the one that claimed Dan Martin (and half the peloton, it seemed); the second occurred while Gerrans was trying to make his way up to and through the race convoy. “I was just rolling down the hill and on the very first corner I hit, I fell off again,” Gerrans wrote on his website. “That was the icing on the cake really, what was a bad day turned worse.”
We’re hoping that Gerro’s luck turns around soon and that he’s able to be at full strength for the Giro d’Italia, which starts on May 9 and, beyond that, for the Tour de France.
So, what did we miss? What will you take from the 2015 Liège-Bastogne-Liège?