Preview: Your guide to the 2018 men’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege

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Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the third and final of the so-called Ardennes Classics and the last race on the Spring Classics calendar. Held in the French-speaking Wallonia region of southern Belgium, Liege is the oldest of the sport’s five Monuments and one of the hardest one-day races on the calendar.

Ahead of Sunday’s 104th edition of “La Doyenne” (“The Old Lady”), we bring you up to speed on the course, the climbs, the contenders and more.

The course

The parcours for Sunday’s race is largely similar to last year’s edition, albeit with a few minor changes. The riders will head south out of Liege for a relatively easy 90km jaunt down to Bastogne — there’s only one classified climb in this opening section.

The 168km return to Liege is considerably longer and tougher than the way out, featuring 10 categorised climbs and a lot more climbing besides.

In all, the 2018 Liege-Bastogne-Liege will be contested over 258.5km with roughly 4,500m of climbing. In short, the Spring Classics end with another long, hard day in the saddle.

The climbs

As mentioned above, Liege-Bastogne-Liege “only” has 11 categorised climbs for the riders to tackle — significantly fewer than other Spring Classics like the Tour of Flanders or the Amstel Gold Race. But the climbs of Liege are generally longer than in other races and there’s also plenty of climbing to contend with between the designated climbs.

While the riders will turn around at Bastogne at 90km, the more meaningful turning point comes after 167km. From here it’s 91km to the finish and eight of the day’s 11 climbs are still to come.

There are a couple of small changes to the climbs list for 2018. The Cote de Bonnerue (2.4km at 5.8%) has been swapped in as the first climb of the day, coming after 72km of racing. The Cote de Mont-le-Soie (4km at 6.1%) joins the line-up as climb #3 after 152km of racing. Besides that, the rest of the climbs are the same meaning climbs 4 through 11 are the same as last year.

2018-Liege-Bastogne-Liege profile

As you might expect, it’s the last three climbs of the day that are the most significant. These climbs are:

– 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 finish
– The Cote de Saint-Nicolas (1.2km at 8.6%), 5.5km from the finish

But probably the most important ascent of the day is one that’s not even on the list of classified climbs. The final uphill drag to the line in Ans is 1.4km long at 5% with a maximum grade of roughly 10%. It’s a tough challenge to conclude one of the most gruelling race days on the calendar.

The race

Like most of the Spring Classics, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race of attrition. The length and difficulty of the course serve to thin out the bunch as the day wears on, leaving only the strongest riders to contest the finale.

Expect a breakaway to get up the road early, searching for some TV time and to relieve their teammates of the burden of chasing. The breakaway will almost certainly be reeled in as the final 90km of the day unfolds, before the attacks begin in the closing kilometres.

Expect plenty of aggression on the final three climbs in particular as opportunistic riders try to break free and stop the race from being decided from a reduced peloton on the final ramp.

Tim Wellens goes on the attack in last year’s race.

So how will Sunday’s race be won? A look at the past 10 editions shows that the race is almost always decided from a small group. Of those 10 editions, two were won solo (by Andy Schleck in 2009 and Maxim Iglinsky in 2012), one was decided from a group of 10 (in 2015), and the remaining seven were won from a group of two, three or four riders.

The most likely outcome is that a reduced bunch will reach the foot of the final ascent before breaking into many smaller groups by the top. As mentioned though, there will be plenty of riders doing what they can to avoid that …

The contenders

There are a handful of riders that will start Sunday with a strong chance of taking victory:

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Before Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne, Valverde would have been the unbackable favourite to win a record-equalling fifth Liege-Bastogne-Liege, joining Eddy Merckx at the top of the leaderboard. But on Wednesday, Valverde looked fallible.

The Spanish veteran didn’t have the legs to respond to Julian Alaphilippe’s acceleration on the Mur de Huy and for the first time in five years, Valverde wasn’t first across the line.

That said, Valverde did finish second and writing him off for Sunday would be a mistake. He’s the defending champion, he knows exactly how to win at Liege, and he’ll be keen to bounce back after being beaten on Wednesday.

Valverde congratulates Alaphilippe after Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne.

Look for Movistar to control the race in the closing stages, bringing things back together before the final climb. Then it will be a case of seeing whether Valverde has the legs.

Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep Floors)

Alaphilippe’s win at Fleche Wallonne was an important victory for the Frenchman. He’d been second there on two occasions, and his win on Wednesday was a confirmation of his significant ability. He’s been second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege as well and it would be no surprise to see him improve on that come Sunday.

The 25-year-old has had a great season so far — probably the best of his career to date — with a stage win at the inaugural Colombia Oro y Paz, two at the Tour of the Basque Country and then his win at Fleche Wallonne. Watch for Alaphilippe to do as he did on Wednesday — bide his time until very late then punch away from his rivals at the top of the final ramp.

Alaphilippe riding his way to victory in Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky)

After a great start to the year ‘Kwiato’ hasn’t ridden to his potential in the Spring Classics. But that doesn’t mean you should discount him for Sunday.

He was third at Liege in 2014 and last year and his great climbing and fast finish make him well suited to this race. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him bounce back from a sub-par Ardennes campaign thus far and post a great result on Sunday.

Michael Matthews (Sunweb)

‘Bling’ has had his fair share of frustration this season with a crash and broken shoulder at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February and then an untimely puncture at Amstel Gold Race last weekend. But at Fleche Wallonne the Australian showed the great form we all know he’s capable of.

Matthews finished fifth on Wednesday, part of a small group behind Alaphilippe and Valverde. Like the riders listed above, he’s well suited to this race — he has a very fast finish, and he also climbs well. One to watch.

Matthews (far left) was in a small group that got clear on the Cote de la Redoute last year.

Roman Kreuziger and Michael Albasini (Mitchelton-Scott)

Roman Kreuziger has had a terrific Ardennes campaign so far, with second (in the winning move) at Amstel Gold, and fourth at Fleche Wallonne. The 31-year-old is clearly in strong form and will be a compelling prospect for Mitchelton-Scott on Sunday. Liege is a race he’s done well at in the past too: he was fourth in 2011, then seventh, fifth, and seventh again between 2014 and 2016. Dangerous.

If Kreuziger isn’t on a good day, look to his teammate Michael Albasini. The Swiss hasn’t had a good Ardennes campaign so far — DNFs at both Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne — but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him turn that around on Sunday. He certainly knows how to do well at Liege — he was second in 2016 and seventh last year.

Jay McCarthy (Bora-hansgrohe)

With Peter Sagan now taking a well-earned rest, McCarthy will get his chance to lead Bora. McCarthy also has a good combination of climbing ability and finishing speed, as demonstrated at the recent Tour of the Basque Country where he outsprinted Alaphilippe, Matthews, Kwiatkowski and Albasini to win a stage. He also won the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race earlier this year from a reduced group. Beware the Queenslander.

McCarthy winning the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race earlier this year.

Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors)

While Alaphilippe will be QuickStep Floors’ main man on Sunday, Gilbert is certainly a handy backup. In addition to winning the race in 2011 — the year he won seemingly everything — Gilbert’s also finished third, fourth, seventh and eighth. A dangerous prospect for a team that’s already won a staggering 26 races this year.

Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)

While most of the favourites will have be hoping the race comes back together for the final climb, Nibali will probably need to get away on his own if he’s to win. He likely doesn’t have the punch to snap the elastic of the puncheurs on the final ascent, so he’ll be thinking longer range — one of the final three categorised climbs, perhaps.

Nibali’s reached the top 10 at Liege on three occasions and was second back in 2012. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him get away late and go on to win solo.

Nibali won Milan-San Remo last month with a solo attack. Could he do the same at Liege?

Tim Wellens, Tiesj Benoot and Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Soudal)

Lotto Soudal have quite a few options for Sunday, with Wellens and Benoot being strong options for a late escape, and Vanendert being their man from a bigger group.

Both Wellens and Benoot have shown good form this season and both are partial to (and sometimes successful with) a late attack. Wellens attacking in the Ardennes Classics is de rigueur at this point, and Benoot can be counted on to be in the mix as things heat up towards the end.

Vanendert was third at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday and always seems to perform well at this time of year. He’s been top 10 at Liege before and consistently finished inside the top 25.

The outsiders

The riders below aren’t as likely to reach the finish line first, but they’re certainly capable of doing so if things fall their way:

Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates): A former winner and normally an auto-include on the list of contenders. Has been out of form of lately, though, and will need to turn things around considerably to win.

Michael Valgren (Astana): Winner of Amstel Gold with a clever solo move, winner of E3 Harelbeke in similar fashion. A solo move is his best chance.

Simon Gerrans (BMC): Won the race in 2014. His best is beyond him now, but shouldn’t be ruled out if he’s still there on the final climb.

Gerrans outsprints Valverde and Kwiatkowski to win the 2014 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale): Better known as a Grand Tour GC contender but very capable of a good result. Sixth last year and ninth at Amstel Gold last week, showing he’s in good form.

Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie): An aggressive rider on good form. Won Paris-Camembert and La Drome Classic recently, both on his own, and could be dangerous if he gets away solo.

TV coverage

Viewers in Australia will be able to catch live coverage of Liege-Bastogne-Liege on SBS Viceland and streaming at SBS Cycling Central from 10pm AEST.

US fans can get access via NBC Sports Gold’s “Cycling Pass”, streaming live from 8:05am ET. The race will also get a delayed telecast on NBCSN that night from 11pm ET. Eurosport has coverage in the UK, Europe and beyond.

As ever, be sure to check your local guides or for more information.

Who’s your pick for the 2018 men’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege? And how will they win it?

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