With a successful solo attack 18km from the finish, 25-year-old Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) took the biggest victory of his career Sunday, winning the 104th edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The victory gave Quick-Step Floors a second Monument win of the 2018 Spring Classics season, won in very similar fashion as Niki Terpstra at the Ronde van Vlaanderen — a strong rider from the strongest team going clear after a long-range solo attack. It was also marks the first time the Quick-Step organization has won Liège-Bastogne-Liège since the team’s inception in 2003.
“To be honest I didn’t believe it until I saw nobody here at the finish line,” said Jungels, Luxembourg’s national champion. “I was feeling good all day long. After Wednesday [at Flèche Wallonne] we had Julian [Alaphilippe] as our clear leader. At some point I tried to go, to keep him in a good position, and nobody ever came back.”
Canadian Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac) finished second, 37 seconds behind, just ahead of Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). Alaphilippe finished fourth, another two seconds back.
“It’s definitely a special day for me,” Woods said. “I was lucky to see Bardet attack, I was inspired by how he raced and luckily I was able to follow him. Bob Jungels was incredibly strong, he deserves the win today. It’s definitely the best result I’ve ever had in my life. It’s a win for me.”
In all, Quick-Step won 11 Belgian classics and semi-classics since February 27 — a new record — when Terpstra soloed to victory at Le Samyn, winning ahead of teammate Philippe Gilbert.
In addition to Terpstra at the Tour of Flanders (and Le Samyn and E3 Harelbeke) and Alaphilippe at Flèche Wallonne, other wins include Fabio Jakobsen at Danilith Nokere Koerse and Scheldeprijs, Yves Lampaert at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Elia Viviani at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, Alvaro Hodeg at Handzame Classic, and Rémi Cavagna at Dwars door West-Vlaanderen.
“We are more than a team, Quick-Step Floors is a family, we trust each other and everybody knows his own role and more importantly, gets a chance on the team, as we could see in many of this season’s races,” Jungels said. “We are always there for each other, fighting until the very end, and that is just one of the things that make this team great.”
— Liège-Bastogne-Liège (@LiegeBastogneL) April 22, 2018
Sunny skies, 11 climbs, and 258km of racing
A peloton of 175 riders from 25 different teams lined up at Place Saint Lambert in Liège for the 104th edition of La Doyenne, 126 years after the first edition. The riders were greeted with unseasonably warm conditions and relatively calm winds.
On the day’s menu: 258km and 4,500 metres (14,500 feet) in elevation gain over 11 classified climbs from Liège to Bastogne, and back to Ans, a bit northwest of Liège.
Five former winners were at the start in Liège: Valverde (Movistar), the defending champion and four-time winner, as well as Wout Poels of Team Sky (2016), Dan Martin from UAE Emirates (2014), Simon Gerrans of BMC Racing (2013), and Philippe Gilbert of Quick-Step Floors (2011).
Other pre-race favorites and marquee names included Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), Tom Dumoulin and Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), and Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal).
The course’s defining climbs are the Cote de la Redoute, 35km from the finish, followed by the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons, at 20km remaining. The summit of the Cote de Saint-Nicolas comes just 5.5km from the line before the final pitch to the finish in Ans.
Nine riders escaped the bunch after 10km: Loïc Vliegen (BMC Racing), Anthony Perez (Cofidis), Mark Christian and Casper Pedersen (Aqua Blue Sport), Florian Vachon (Fortuneo-Samsic), Jérôme Baugnies (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Paul Ourselin (Direct Énergie), Mathias Van Gompel (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Antoine Warnier (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic), and Mathias Van Gompel (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise).
With 200km to go, the breakaway had established a solid six-minute advantage as UAE Emirates drove the chase behind led by Australian Rory Sutherland.
With 90km to go, following the short, steep Cote de Pont, two riders — Warnier and Van Gompel — were dropped from the breakaway. The seven riders that remained held a four-minute lead.
With 60km to go, the gap was down to 3:15, and only four riders remained: Perez (Cofidis), Christian (Aqua Blue Sport), Baugnies (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Ourselin (Direct Énergie).
The four escapees tackled the Col du Maquisard at 50km to go with a lead of 3:05. They exited the climb with their gap reduced to 2:25.
Into the finale
Inside the final 40km the race heated up. Baugnies went clear of his breakaway companions on the Cote de la Redoute, a 2km ascent with an average gradient of 8.9%.
Behind, as Quick-Step riders Enric Mas, Pieter Serry, and Jungels pushed the pace, 2016 winner Wout Poels (Team Sky), whose spring campaign was derailed with a broken collarbone at Paris-Nice, was put into difficulty.
Baugnies summited the Côte de la Redoute 20 seconds ahead of the three chasers and 1:15 ahead of the peloton, with Quick-Step manning the front.
— Liège-Bastogne-Liège (@LiegeBastogneL) April 22, 2018
As the fight for position became intense, a crash in the peloton saw U.S. national champion Larry Warbasse (Aqua Blue) and Natnael Berhane (Dimension Data) go down in a sweeping lefthand turn.
As Baugnies nursed a narrow lead heading into the base of the Roche-aux-Faucons, several of the race’s big names positioned at the front of the peloton; among them were Valverde, Nibali, Alaphilippe, Dumoulin, Matthews, Wellens, Martin, and Bardet.
A solo attack on Roche-aux-Faucons
Upon catching Baugnies, Bahrain-Merida came to the fore on the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons. Gilbert attacked early on the climb, with 20km remaining. Colombian Sergio Henao (Team Sky) chased, and immediately counterattacked; driving the case were Dumoulin and Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac.)
Henao’s move was neutralized, and the next to attack was another Quick-Step rider, this time it was Luxembourg national champion Bob Jungels.
Over the top of the Roche-aux-Faucons, Jungels quickly opened a gap of 20 seconds as the team leaders, many isolated, looked at one another rather than chase themselves.
Wellens sensed the danger and jumped away from the bunch, a move that prompted a reaction from Alaphilippe, Valverde, and Martin before the bunch reacted and closed it down.
Next up was the Cote de Saint-Nicolas, 5.5km from the line. But Valverde wasn’t waiting, and the Spanish veteran attacked from 15km out, however he was quickly chased down.
Inside the final 10km, Jungels’ gap opened to over 45 seconds, while Martin suffered a puncture, his chances of another victory over.
On the Cote de Saint-Nicolas, with 6km remaining, Jungels held a 40-second lead. Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal), third at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, jumped away, alone, in pursuit.
As Vanendert rode alone in pursuit of Jungels, Bardet jumped from the bunch inside the final 3km, followed by Woods.
But no one would bring back the Quick-Step rider, who held a 36-second lead with 1km to go and had plenty of time to celebrate across the line.
“It’s the greatest one-day race to me, the most beautiful,” Jungels said. “As a Luxemburghese, I had lots of supporters cheering for me and my family also came to see me racing, so it’s very special to win here. I made the most of my rouleur abilities in the finale. I needed to be very careful with how I used my strength, especially when we got to Saint-Nicolas. I couldn’t push too deep. And then I still feared being caught in the finale. It was the longest kilometre in my life. I only saw I could win when I entered the last curve, not before.”
Woods came around Bardet to take second, 37 seconds back, perhaps the biggest result yet from the Canadian climber.
“I started off the season just having a rough start, I was sick, I had no legs… I was questioning my abilities as a rider and today was the first day I actually felt like a bike racer,” Woods said. “Originally, my plan was to attack at La Roche-aux-Faucons but I felt so strong I wanted to save it for the sprint… I proved today I can be in contention in a WorldTour race. I was at the front of the race, and it was cool.”
Bardet, who finished second at a muddy Strade Bianche seven weeks earlier, was philosophical about another podium finish.
“It’s a satisfaction,” Bardet said. “I’m very motivated for this race, I love it. So I’m happy with getting closer to the win. I don’t have any regrets. I had good legs but mostly I was smarter than other years. Bob Jungels was the strongest guy today. He deserves his victory. When he went clear on La Roche-aux-Faucons, the pace was really high. We attacked in the finale and we weren’t able to see him so we knew we were racing for the second place because he’s such a class rider, we knew we couldn’t bridge the gap on the flat.”