The 2016 Spring Classics came to a close on Sunday with the season’s fourth Monument: Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Wout Poels took an impressive victory from a group of four after the rain- and snow-affected race split on the final categorised climb.
It was a memorable end to the Ardennes Classics and Classics season as a whole. Here’s what we’re talking about after the 2016 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
We haven’t seen weather this bad since the 2013 Milan-San Remo
The 2013 edition of Milan-San Remo will go down in cycling folklore for having some of the worst conditions ever seen at a bike race. A section of that race was skipped, with riders being ferried around the race’s highest point. Images of riders piling onto their team buses with ice-caked helmets won’t easily be forgotten.
Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege wasn’t quite as dramatic as that, but it wasn’t far off. The race was rerouted early on to avoid the worst of the conditions, and even then the riders endured several hours of heavy rain and snow, interchanged with intermittent but infrequent clear skies.
— cyclingnieuws (@cyclingnieuws1) April 24, 2016
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is hard enough as it is; throw in weather conditions at the very limit of what’s safe to ride in and you’ve got the makings of a truly memorable spectacle.
Snow threatened to neutralise the race entirely and indeed there were noticeably fewer attacks than normal from about 85km to go, when such moves usually begin. But as the final climbs rolled around, we got the action and the gripping finale we were after.
Chapeau to all the riders that braved such horrendous conditions for more than six hours to create such an thrilling spectacle for those of us watching from the warmth and comfort of our living rooms.
Some days the life of a pro cyclist seems glamorous. Sunday was not one of those days.
Movistar rode a near-perfect race but came up short on the day
When you’re racing Liege-Bastogne-Liege and you’ve got three-time winner Alejandro Valverde in your ranks, you can probably expect to spend a fair bit of time on the front of the bunch. Sure enough, Movistar spent many hours controlling proceedings on Sunday, leading the peloton around the rain-soaked Wallonian countryside and keeping the breakaway in check.
Unheralded Aussie veteran Rory Sutherland did a mountain of work, the Canberran’s lanky frame a fixture on the front of the bunch as the kilometres ticked away. And when other teams finally gave Movistar a hand in the final 25km — just before the break was caught — Movistar turned from defence to offence with Carlos Betancur (see below).
Ultimately, when the winning move went on the final categorised climb, Movistar and Valverde weren’t able to shut it down. Valverde himself later said he didn’t expect that climb to determine the race in the way it did: “It was disappointing because I thought that the cobblestones wouldn’t be decisive,” Valverde said. “Later, it was too late to get back into the winning sprint.”
It was a reminder that even when you’ve got the hottest of favourites in your team, and even when you do everything you can, things don’t always go to plan. Such variability is one of the many reasons we love tuning in to races like Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
It’s great to see Carlos Betancur getting close to his best again
It’s easy to pick on Carlos Betancur about his weight. Indeed, there was no shortage of such commentary on social media as Sunday’s race unfolded. And sure, he might still be a few kilograms heavier than he was at his very best, but it’s just great to see the Colombian at the front of bike races again, having an impact.
With the break caught and Etixx-QuickStep leading the peloton, Betancur attacked with 18km to go on Sunday, livening up the race. That move would soon be caught, as too would his next two moves – one with Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Andrei Grivko (Astana), and another solo dig – but after several years in the wilderness, the 2014 Paris-Nice winner showed more intent and motivation on Sunday than we’ve seen from him at this level in quite a while.
— Le Gruppetto (@LeGruppetto) April 24, 2016
It seems clear Betancur has found a happier home at Movistar than he had at Ag2r La Mondiale, and a stage victory at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon earlier this year shows the 26-year-old is getting back to his best. In addition, the fact he rode Sunday’s race without leg warmers on a day of heavy rain, snow, and apparent temperatures of below freezing? Ballsy.
The last climb was a terrific addition
While the route for this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege was more or less the same as last year, there was one notable difference: the addition of the Côte de la Rue Naniot with less than 3km to go.
After 245km of racing and with an average gradient of more than 10%, this 600m climb would have been hard enough on perfectly smooth bitumen on a warm, dry day. Add in a rough cobblestone surface and freezing conditions and you had a genuine challenge for the riders and one that ultimately shaped the race.
The Côte de la Rue Naniot was the launch pad for the final selection with four riders forging clear over the top and tackling the technical descent off the other side in treacherous conditions. That same group of four would get to the top of the final uncategorised climb together before duking it out in a slow-motion sprint.
Where the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne have developed a reputation for being somewhat predictable races that are decided by the final climb, Liege-Bastogne-Liege has a tendency to be a little more variable. The longer, tougher climbs certainly help, as does the amount of climbing overall, but it’s also arguably the willingness of organisers to play around with the finale to see what works, keeping things fresh.
The addition of the Côte de la Rue Naniot this year proved to be a masterstroke.
It’s easy to underestimate Michael Albasini
So much of the talk around Orica-GreenEdge’s Ardennes campaign was focused on tensions between Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans that the squad’s Plan C, Michael Albasini, barely got a mention. And that’s probably not a great surprise — Matthews and Gerrans are such strong riders in their own right that both should have had the team’s backing (in separate races, mind you, not in the same race).
And yet it was the Swiss veteran that took the team’s best result in this year’s Ardennes Classics with second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday.
GreenEdge went into Liege with Simon Gerrans as Plan A, and rightly so. He won the race in 2014 and was probably the team’s best option of a result again this year. And yet, when Gerrans was dropped with about 7km to go, Albasini stepped up in a big way.
It was the ferocious pace of Albasini on the Côte de la Rue Naniot that forced the final selection inside 3km to go, with only Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Wout Poels (Sky) and Sammy Sanchez (BMC) able to follow. And then Albasini contributed to the hard work that ensured the quartet would stay away to contest the sprint.
The 35-year-old was perfectly placed coming into that sprint too, sat right on the wheel of Wout Poels. But when it came time to jump, he simply didn’t have the legs.
Still, it was a rock-solid performance from Albasini and further evidence of the great depth that Orica-GreenEdge enjoys. Watch out for ‘Alba’ at the Tour de Romandie this week — a race he’s dominated in the past two years.
Wout Poels might be asking for a little more money in contract renewals later this year
After more than six years and many near misses, Sky finally has its first Monument victory. It’s been a long time coming for the British-registered squad and few would have picked Wout Poels to be the one to do it.
But the Dutchman deserves this success. He’s improved considerably in recent years, he’s had a great start to 2016 — Liege is his fifth win — and he rode a terrific race on Sunday.
Poels kept himself out of harm’s way for the first six hours of the race and while his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski was taking a late flyer, he bided his time in the bunch. And then when Albasini ramped up the pace on the Côte de la Rue Naniot, Poels spotted the move and made his way across.
The image of Poels’ taking off his gloves just before the sprint (4:40 in the video below), a literal throwing down of the gauntlet to the three ahead of him, was demonstrative at the time and even more so in hindsight. The 28-year-old moved to the front with 500m to go and then lead out the sprint from there, holding on for the biggest win of his career.
Poels has shone since joining Sky in 2015 and with his contract up for renewal at the end of this year, you can only imagine the British squad will be keen to keep him around. He might just cost them a little bit more this time.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege was a fitting end to a memorable Spring Classics season
It’s always something of an anti-climax when the Ardennes Classics begin. Paris-Roubaix always delivers an exciting, unpredictable spectacle — this year in particular — and Amstel Gold and Fleche-Wallonne a week later, while entertaining in their own way, just aren’t quite as engaging.
But with Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Ardennes Classics (and indeed the Spring Classics as a whole) ended with another very exciting race. The #epic weather certainly helped, as too did the addition of that final climb, but overall Liege just seems to be a more interesting race than the rest of the Ardennes.
It feels like just yesterday that we were getting excited about Belgian opening weekend, Milan-San Remo and the beginning of the Classics season. And now it’s all done for another year.
Still it’s not all bad — the Giro d’Italia is just around the corner and before we know it the Tour de France will be here as well. That said, there’s just something about the Spring Classics. The long and brutally hard one-day races, the unpredictable weather, the passion of the fans in what is road cycling’s heartland … it’s a magical time of year.
We can’t wait for it all to roll around again.
What have we missed? What will you take away from the 2016 Liege-Bastogne-Liege?