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by Matt de Neef
April 21, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos
It’s time for the third and final of the Ardennes Classics, and the very last of the Spring Classics for 2017: Liege-Bastogne-Liege. First held in 1892, “La Doyenne” is the oldest of the season’s five Monuments and the fourth such race this year (after Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.)
Here’s what you need to know before tuning in to Sunday’s 103rd edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The course is an out-and-back affair of sorts with a considerably harder second half.
From the industrial city of Liege in Belgium’s east, the riders head south towards the town of Bastogne. It’s there, after 97.5km, that they turn around and start making their way north, taking a different and considerably more difficult route back towards Liege. There’s just one categorised climb in the opening section down to Bastogne, and nine climbs in the return leg.
In all the riders will complete 258 hard, hilly kilometres through the Wallonia region of Belgium, racking up roughly 4,000 metres of climbing in the process.
The route is similar to last year’s, but differs in a couple ways — not least in the categorised climbs that the riders will face.
Last year’s late, decisive, cobbled climb is gone in 2017.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege has “only” 10 categorised climbs on the menu — significantly fewer than, say, the Tour of Flanders or the Amstel Gold Race. But the climbs of Liege are generally longer than those used at other races, and there’s plenty of climbing between the designated ascents as well.
While the riders reach Bastogne after 97.5km and start heading north, a more important turning point in the race is likely to be after 168km. From here there’s 90km to the finish and eight of the race’s 10 climbs still to complete.
Seven climbs return from last year’s edition but there have been three changes. The most significant of those is the removal of the Cote de la Rue Naniot, a 600 metre-long cobbled climb that came in the final 3km of last year’s race. After just one year in the race — and after forcing the final selection last year — the Cote de la Rue Naniot is gone for 2017.
As a result, it’s the following trio of climbs — the last three of the race — that will likely have the most impact: the Cote de La Redoute (2km at 8.9%), which peaks 35.5km from the finish; the Cote de La Roche-aux-Faucons (1.3km at 11%), 19km from the end; and the Cote de Saint-Nicolas (1.2km at 8.6%), just 5.5km from the finish line.
As if to highlight the fact that there’s more climbing to Liege-Bastogne-Liege than just the designated climbs, the final ascent of the day — the unclassified ramp into the town of Ans — is probably the most significant of all. It’s a 1.4km drag at 5% that peaks at roughly 10% — a tough finale after one of the longest, most challenging one-day races on the calendar.
The winner is likely to come from a small group.
By its very nature, Liege-Bastogne-Liege — as with most of the Spring Classics — is a race of attrition. The length of the race and the difficulty of the parcours serve to thin out the peloton, and when the action really heats up in the closing kilometres, only the strongest riders are able to hold their place at the front.
Expect a breakaway to get away early in search of some TV time (and to relieve their teammates of the burden of chasing) before the teams of the big favourites start to reel in the escapees towards the end. There’ll be attacks on many of the climbs that fall in the last 90km, particularly in the last couple.
Looking at the last 10 editions of Liege-Bastogne-Liege we can see that the race is almost always decided in a small group. There have been two solo winners (Andy Schleck in 2009 and Maxim Iglinsky in 2012), and a sprint from a group of 10 in 2015, but the remaining seven editions were won from a group of two, three, or four riders.
The teams of the big favourites will ride to put their leaders into good position for the final ascent to Ans. From there it’s a case of who’s got the legs to get to the top at the front and if it’s a small group that gets there, who’s got the legs to win the reduced-group sprint.
Alejandro Valverde is the man to beat, but he’ll have plenty of challengers nipping at his heels.
There’s little doubt that Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) goes into Sunday’s race as the big favourite. The 36-year-old Spaniard has had his best-ever start to a season, with 10 wins to his name already (the most of any rider) including three stage-race victories, and a dominant win at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday (his fifth in that race).
It’s Valverde’s Fleche Wallonne victory that’s most instructive. Everyone knew what Valverde was going to do — attack late on the Mur de Huy — and yet, when he did just that, no one was able to come close. He simply rode away from some of the best climbers and puncheurs in the world. The ascent to Ans is different to the Mur de Huy — not as steep — but Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the perfect race for Valverde. It’s long, it’s hard, and it often comes to a sprint from a small group.
Valverde has won Liege-Bastogne-Liege three times (2006, 2008 and 2015) and he will be very hard to beat on Sunday. Despite his Movistar team controlling virtually the entire race last year he missed the move that went on the aforementioned cobbled climb. The removal of that climb suits Valverde and it’s hard to see him being caught out again.
On paper, and assuming he has no mishaps, Valverde should win. But as we know, bike racing is never quite that simple.
If Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) isn’t in career-best form, he’s incredibly close to it. He’s won Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo this year, he was second at the Amstel Gold Race (and arguably cost himself the win with an ill-timed sprint), and he looked incredibly comfortable at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday. He couldn’t go with Valverde’s acceleration on the Mur de Huy, but the gentler slope into Ans will suit him a little better.
Kwiatkowski could win the race in a small-bunch sprint, but he could also win it on his own with a late attack. He’s also just one of two very good options for Sky who will be hoping to repeat Wout Poels’ win from last year (the Dutchman is out with a knee injury). Colombian champion Sergio Henao has shown great form in recent weeks, winning Paris-Nice, finishing sixth at Amstel Gold and fourth at Fleche Wallonne. He, like Kwiatkowski, needs to be marked.
Kwiatkowski was second at the Amstel Gold Race after getting in the winning move with Philippe Gilbert.
With Philippe Gilbert on the sidelines with a kidney injury, QuickStep Floors will be all-in on Dan Martin come Sunday. The Irishman won the race in 2013 (see video below), but has had a hard time of it since, including famously crashing out in 2014 when he was arguably on his way to a repeat victory.
Martin was second to Valverde at Fleche Wallonne and didn’t help himself by starting a long way back in the final dash. His best chance of winning is perhaps to get away alone on the final ramp to Ans, but if it comes to a small group he’ll be aiming for better positioning than he had at Fleche Wallonne.
Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) has had a good lead-in to Liege-Bastogne-Liege and hits the race as a genuine contender. He won a stage at the Tour of the Basque Country, he was third at Amstel Gold Race (he won the sprint from the chase group behind Gilbert and Kwiatkowski) and then fifth at Fleche Wallonne.
One of Albasini’s greatest strengths — besides his fast sprint in hard, hilly races — is his racecraft. He has a knack of being where he needs to be, when he needs to be there. He got in the winning move at last year’s race — indeed he helped start it — and ended up second behind Poels. With Orica-Scott working for him, the experienced Swiss is a chance of another podium, if not his first Monument victory.
Beyond the main contenders, there are many more would-be winners.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has probably been the strongest performer at this year’s Spring Classics, with wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix, plus second at the Tour of Flanders despite a late crash. While most riders do either the Cobbled Classics or the Ardennes Classics, Van Avermaet has done both, trying to squeeze as much out of his career-best form as possible.
He was a little off his best at Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne — a heavy Classics race load will do that to you — and he admits he won’t be a big favourite on Sunday, but Van Avermaet still needs to be respected. Sure, he hasn’t raced Liege since 2013, and his best result is seventh (in 2011), but few will ignore a late surge from the Olympic champion in Sunday’s race.
And should Van Avermaet not have the legs, his compatriot Dylan Teuns could be a solid Plan B. The 25-year-old was third at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday and is capable of another good result.
Van Avermaet was on the move at the Amstel Gold Race.
It wouldn’t be an Ardennes Classic without an audacious attack from Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal). The Belgian hasn’t made one of his late salvos stick just yet, but one day he will, and that day might be Sunday. He’s at his best when he’s away solo and while he’s unlikely to be given too much latitude by his rivals, if he can get away at the right time, he’ll be hard to beat.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) certainly hasn’t had the Classics season he was hoping for. Sure, he was eighth at Gent-Wevelgem and 10th at Amstel Gold, but “Bling” would love to have hit the winners’ list by now.
He’s only ridden Liege once before (in 2013), but in theory it should be a race that suits Matthews reasonably well. He hasn’t had the most amazing team support so far this year, and he’ll need that if he’s going to register a good result, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do so.
Worth noting: Team Sunweb also has Warren Barguil as a compelling option. Indeed, it could be that Barguil is Sunweb’s Plan A, and that Matthews is Plan B. Barguil was strong at Fleche Wallonne and finished sixth, and could be in the mix again on Sunday.
Michael Matthews has had a bit of a tough time of it so far this spring. He’ll be hoping for a reversal of fortunes on Sunday.
UAE Team Emirates has a couple of good options in Diego Ulissi and Rui Costa, the latter in particular having performed well at Liege. The former world champion was third last year, and fourth the year before, and while he hasn’t had any notable performances in the Classics thus far in 2017, he’s a rider that’s more than capable of a big result on his day.
The weather is looking fine.
Last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege was raced in positively wintery conditions. Snow fell through much of the race (see feature image above), making an already tough race even tougher.
The weather for this year’s edition is looking far more friendly. It’s not going to be warm – the current forecast suggests 10ºC – but it should be dry. There’s also likely to be very little wind around.
You can catch the race live on TV.
Australian fans have a few options when it comes to watching the 2017 Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The race is live on SBS Viceland (formerly SBS2) from 10:15pm AEST and streaming live on the SBS Cycling Central website. Those with a Foxtel subscription can also catch the race via Eurosport (channel 511) from 10:15pm.
Viewers in the US will need a subscription to NBC Sports Gold, while fans in the UK and Europe can try Eurosport or other local broadcasters. Check out steephill.tv and your local guides for more information.
Who do you think will win the 2017 men’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege? And how will they do it?