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This weekend, in the Wallonia region of eastern Belgium, road cycling’s Spring Classics season comes to a close. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the third and final of the so-called Ardennes Classics — after the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne — and the hardest of the three.
Now in its 102nd edition, “La Doyenne” is the fourth of the season’s five one-day Monuments and a long, hard race of attrition.
Here’s what we think you should know before tuning into Sunday’s race.
The race can be divided into two sections
As the name suggests, Liege-Bastogne-Liege begins in Liege, heads south towards Bastogne, then turns around and makes its way back towards the finish in Liege. (Technically the race finishes in Ans, just outside of Liege, and has done so since 1992.)
The first part of the 253km route is the easier of the two — it’s 106.5km down to Bastogne with just two categorised climbs along the way. The way back to Liege is considerably harder — in the remaining 146.5km there are eight categorised climbs and an uncategorised climb to the finish.
There are a few small changes to the route this year, including the the removal of one climb and the addition of another.
There are 10 categorised ascents and plenty more climbing besides
While the turn-around point of Bastogne provides a logical way of breaking the race in two, the 90km-to-go mark is probably more significant in the context of the race. At this stage just two of the 10 categorised climbs have been completed and the remaining eight start to come in quick succession.
The most significant climbs in the race are likely to be the final four: the Côte de la Redoute (36km to go; 2km at 8.9%), the Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons (19km; 1.3km at 11%), the Côte de Saint-Nicolas (6km; 1.2km at 8.6%) and the Côte de la Rue Naniot (2.5km; 0.6km at 10.5%). This final classified climb is a new addition in 2016 and replaces the Côte de Stockeau which peaked 78km from the finish of last year’s edition.
Unlike the short, frequent climbs of the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold, Liege-Bastogne-Liege’s climbs are longer and more taxing. Most are several kilometres in length and many have average gradients in the double digits.
And while the 10 categorised climbs make for a challenging enough race on their own, there are numerous other uncategorised climbs along the way as well. The most important of these unheralded ascents is the final climb to Ans — a 1.4km drag at roughly 5% which peaks at close to 10%.
In all the riders will climb close to 4,000m throughout the race.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a true race of attrition
As with all five Monuments, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race for the true strongmen of the peloton; the riders that can make it through more than 250km of hard, hilly racing, while still having something in the tank for a hard finale.
The many climbs (categorised and otherwise) serve to thin down the peloton considerably as the race plays out, and when the pace increases in the final 50km or so, only the best will be there to have an impact.
Expect a break to get up the road and build a lead of as much as 10 minutes in the early kilometres. The teams of the big favourites are sure to be attentive at the front of the bunch, however, working to reel in the escapees in the closing kilometres before the usual volley of late attacks will begin.
The last four climbs provide the most likely platform for a late move. It will be interesting to see what impact the addition of the Côte de la Rue Naniot has, given it comes in the final 3km of the race. It’s only 600 metres long, but at more than 10% it could well provide a great launch pad for a late salvo.
In the last 10 editions of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, half have been won in a sprint from a group of between three and 10 riders. Three have been won in a two-up sprint, and the remaining two were won solo (Andy Schleck in 2009 and Maxim Iglinsky in 2012).
Based on these stats, and based on how last year was decided – with a sprint from a group of 10 – the most likely scenario for Sunday seems to be a small group sprinting for victory. But who really knows – just about anything can happen over the course of six-plus hours at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne provide clues about who to watch on Sunday
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was simply sublime at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday. The Spaniard tamed the tough, race-ending Mur de Huy climb, following moves with apparent ease before sprinting to a record-breaking fourth title. Valverde won Fleche Wallonne last year as well, before going on to take his third Liege-Bastogne-Liege win a few days later.
Liege is a race that suits Valverde’s strengths perfectly — he’s an excellent climber and he’s got a formidable kick at the end of long, hard races. He’s also got a rock-solid team behind him: Dani Moreno, Giovanni Visconti, Ion Izagirre, Imanol Erviti, Carlos Betancur … They’re all terrific riders in their own right and they’ve shown on many occasions that they can protect Valverde throughout races such as Liege, allowing the Spanish champion to do his thing on the final climb.
Valverde’s overall record at Liege-Bastogne-Liege makes for impressive reading: three wins, two seconds and a third. He goes into Sunday’s race as the rider to beat.
While Valverde won Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne, Etixx-QuickStep took the remaining spots on the podium. Both Julian Alaphilippe (second) and Dan Martin (third) are clearly in excellent form and both should be in the reckoning again on Sunday.
Martin has had a mixed history with Liege-Bastogne-Liege — he won in 2013 and then crashed out in both 2014 (while arguably en route to defending his title – see video below) and 2015. He’ll be hoping for some better luck on Sunday to go along with his winning form.
The Irishman’s already got two victories beside his name in 2016 — stages at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and at the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya — and he’s among the best in the world on punchy, uphill finishes.
Julian Alaphilippe was something of a revelation at last year’s Ardennes Classics, finishing second to Valverde at both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Martin and he put in an impressive 1-2 punch on the Mur de Huy on Wednesday and the pair will be hoping to go one better on Sunday.
Enrico Gasparotto’s win at Amstel Gold last weekend puts the Wanty-Groupe Gobert rider right in the reckoning at Liege as well. The Italian is a consistently impressive performer at “La Doyenne”, with a third-place in 2012 and a sixth the following year. In addition to his win at Amstel he was also second at Brabantse Pijl last Wednesday and fifth at Fleche Wallonne earlier this week. It would be a mistake not to cover a late move from the Italian on Sunday.
Simon Gerrans should also be considered among the big favourites
At last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews had to share the leadership at Orica-GreenEdge and things didn’t work out as well as they might have. At Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Gerrans will be GreenEdge’s sole leader and he goes in with a solid chance of victory.
Gerrans won the 2014 edition from a small group after Dan Martin’s perplexing last-corner spill (see video above) and the Australian will be looking for a similar outcome come Sunday (a victory, that is, not another Martin crash). Gerrans certainly won’t be wanting a repeat of last year’s race in which he crashed twice himself.
Gerrans will take shelter in the wheels of his Orica-GreenEdge teammates throughout the race then give it everything up the final climb to be in with a shot in what he will hope is a small-group sprint. The biggest question might be whether he can outsprint Alejandro Valverde, like he did to win in 2014.
For another potential favourite, look to Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). He’s another rider who’s been very consistent at this race in the past, having snagged an eighth, a third and two seconds. Unlike Valverde and Gerrans, Rodriguez won’t be hoping for a reduced sprint at the top of the final climb – he’ll need to get away solo on the climb. He’s tried on several occasions before, but just hasn’t been able to make his move stick. Maybe 2016 is the year for Purito?
Beyond the big favourites there’s a long list of would-be contenders
Like any event at this level, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the sort of race that any of about 20-30 riders could potentially win. Here are some of the more likely candidates among them.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) has been a little off his best in recent weeks but, on his day, the former world champion should be in with a shot. He was third in 2014 and will likely be Option A for a Sky squad that also contains Chris Froome. While Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the Spring Classic that best suits the Grand Tour GC riders, Froome’s best result at Liege is 36th and it would be something of a surprise to see the two-time Tour de France winner in the mix at the finish.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is perhaps a more likely GC rider to see in the action towards the end of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The 2014 Tour de France winner enjoys a late attack, particularly at this race, and can be counted on for another aggressive ride this weekend.
Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff) is another consistent performer in the race having netted three top-10 finishes in recent years. He could be dangerous if he gets away in the closing kilometres.
The similarly aggressive Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) rode strongly at Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne, putting in late solo attacks in both races. He can be expected to try something similar again on Sunday and will be dangerous if not closely marked. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) is also partial to a late attack at Liege (and generally) and needs to be covered.
Former world champ Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) is consistently around the mark in the Ardennes Classics, making him one to keep an eye on as well. His teammate Diego Ulissi also warrants attention. The Italian has a fast finish after hard, hilly races and, after top-10 results at Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone, could be in the reckoning as well.
The weather forecast is looking pretty grim for Sunday
According to the latest weather forecast, the riders seem likely to face temperatures of around 8ºC and showers come Sunday. There were even some suggestions earlier in the week that snow might might fall during the race, but that seems less likely now.
— Chris Froome (@chrisfroome) April 21, 2016
Regardless, the cold and wet conditions will likely increase the difficulty of the race and they might accelerate the rate at which the field is whittled down (through crashes if nothing else).
Liege-Bastogne-Liege will be broadcast live around the world
Australian viewers can catch Liege-Bastogne-Liege live on SBS TV and streaming via Cycling Central from 10:30pm AEST. Foxtel subscribers can also catch the race on Eurosport (channel 511) from 10pm.
Viewers in the US can catch the race on NBCSN (check local guides for details) and for those in the UK and mainland Europe, Eurosport will have live coverage.
You can also follow the race on Twitter using the hashtag #LBL. The official race account can be found at @LiegeBastogneL.
Who’s your pick for the 2016 Liege-Bastogne-Liege? And how will they win it?