Preview: Your guide to the 2021 men’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège
With the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne now behind us, it’s time for the biggest of the three ‘Ardennes Classics’: Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Now into its 107th edition, ‘La Doyenne’ is one of the oldest bike races on the planet and the third of five Monuments this season.
Here’s what you should know about Sunday’s 2021 men’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Stay posted for Abby Mickey’s preview of the women’s race, coming soon.
The overall shape of this year’s course is the same as usual: starting in Liège – in the French-speaking region of Wallonia, in south-eastern Belgium – the riders head south towards Bastogne before turning around and heading back towards the finish in Liège. The route back to Liège is considerably longer, windier, and hillier than the southward leg.
The 259 km course is virtually identical to that used in last year’s edition (which was delayed until October due to COVID restrictions). The only real difference is the eighth climb of the day. Last year that climb was the Col du Maquisard; this time around it’s the Côte de Desnié.
Speaking of climbs, there’s a total of 11 recognised ascents for the riders to conquer. Just two of those come in the first half of the race; the other nine land in the final 100 km.
Here are the 11 climbs:
1. Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne: 2.8 km at 6.2%
2. Côte de Saint-Roche: 1 km at 11.2%
3. Côte de Mont-Le-Soie: 1.7 km at 7.9%
4. Côte de Wanne: 3.6 km at 5.1%
5. Côte de Stockeu: 1 km at 12.5%
6. Côte de la Haute-Levée: 2.2 km at 7.5%
7. Col du Rosier: 4.4 km at 5.9%
8. Côte de Desnié: 1.6 km at 8.1%
9. Côte de la Redoute: 2 km at 8.9%
10. Côte des Forges: 1.3 km at 7.8%
11. Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons: 1.3 km at 11%
From the top of that final climb it’s 13.3 km through to the finish line in Liège. Those 13.3 km consist of a short descent, another uncategorised 2 km climb, then some flat and downhill roads to the finish.
As you can see from the profile below, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is peppered with climbs that aren’t among the 11 recognised ascents. All up, the riders will amass roughly 4,400 vertical metres on Sunday – a significant amount of climbing.
What happened last time
In last year’s edition of Liège the decisive move came on the final classified climb – the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons – when Julian Alaphilippe punched away from the peloton in his first race as world champion. When the dust settled, Alaphilippe, Marc Hirschi, Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar had formed a leading quartet with 13 km to go.
Matej Mohoric bridged across just before the final sprint; a sprint that was notable for a couple errors on Alaphilippe’s part. The world champion swerved in front of Hirschi, almost causing Hirschi and Pogacar to crash, and then posted up early, thinking he’d won.
Unfortunately for the Frenchman, Roglic was flying past on his right to pip Alaphilippe on the line. Adding insult to injury, Alaphilippe was then relegated to fifth for his dangerous sprint.
How it might unfold this year
As we saw last year, it’s likely to be the final climbs that offer the most suitable launchpad for a race-winning move. Expect a decent breakaway to get up the road early, but for that move to be swept up inside the final 50 km.
The pace is normally quite frenetic by the time the riders hit the Côte de la Redoute with roughly 37 km to go. From there, we’ll see plenty of attacks as riders try to forge clear of the bunch.
The Côte de la Redoute, Côte des Forges, and Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons all have the potential to host the decisive move, particularly the final of those which averages more than 10%.
It won’t be a big group that reaches the finish to contest a sprint. Most likely it will be a small group, likely between three and 10 riders. A solo winner is more than possible too, as we saw in 2018 and 2019 when Bob Jungels and then Jakob Fuglsang rode to the finish alone.
Note that the front group is likely to look a little different at Liège than it did at the Tour of Flanders, say, or Amstel Gold. As you can see in the list above, the climbs of Liège are longer than those at Flanders or Amstel. As a result we often see Grand Tour GC contenders mixing it with the best puncheurs at Liège.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) would already have been one of the riders to beat before his win at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday. Now that he’s got that win under his belt – his first one-day win of the year – the world champion is arguably the top favourite for Liège.
Sure, Liège offers a different finish to Flèche Wallonne – a flat run-in vs an uphill drag to the line – but Alaphilippe has shown many a time that he’s more than capable of taking a sprint from a small group on a flat finish. Heck, he showed it at last year’s edition of Liège, before sitting up too early.
Alaphilippe’s trademark is a full-gas attack on a late climb, getting away either on his own or in a small group. Expect more of the same on Sunday.
Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) comes in as the defending champion and one of the big favourites. He’ll be riding with the frustration and motivation of a close second place at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday. Roglic’s surge on the Mur de Huy was truly phenomenal, but he couldn’t quite hold it all the way to the line.
Roglic will be hard to distance on any climb come Sunday and as he’s shown in recent years, he’s got a damn good sprint for a Grand Tour GC contender. Back-to-back wins for the Slovenian would surprise exactly no one.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) was initially planning to skip Liège but he now appears to be a late inclusion. Given how impressive the 21-year-old has been in his neo-pro season, that’s a great thing for the race and those of us watching. With third at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, fifth at Strade Bianche, second at Amstel Gold Race (by the narrowest of margins), sixth at Flèche Wallonne after a crash, and a win at Brabantse Pijl, Pidcock has been one of the standout performers of the spring.
The multi-discipline star is well capable of making it into the winning move on Sunday, if not winning the race. After all, he climbs brilliantly, he loves being aggressive where necessary, and he sprints with the best of them in a reduced bunch. A win on debut is a real possibility.
Note too that Pidcock is far from the only card Ineos has to play. Michal Kwiatkowski has been top 10 on three occasions, with two third-place finishes. Richard Carapaz was in the mix at Flèche Wallonne, Adam Yates is climbing beautifully this season, and last year’s Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart will be there as well.
UAE-Team Emirates is another squad with multiple strong options (assuming the team is able to start the race). Both Marc Hirschi and Tadej Pogacar were in the winning move last year – albeit on different teams – and both are more than capable of the same again in 2021.
It’s not exactly clear how the team will use its resources but both riders have a realistic chance of winning, depending on how the race unfolds. Both are aggressive and love going on the attack, and both will be very keen to make up for the frustration of missing Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday due to a couple COVID positives in the team.
Based on his form, you wouldn’t know that Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is turning 41 on Sunday. The four-time Liège winner was fifth at last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race, third at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, and looks likely to be among the best on Sunday as well.
If Valverde can make it to the front group for the final sprint, he’s a real chance. And if he does manage to take the win, his five victories will see him tied with Eddy Merckx for the all-time record.
Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) has been knocking on the door of a big win all season. Sixth at Milan-San Remo, fifth at Gent-Wevelgem, fourth at Amstel Gold Race, a couple of podiums at Paris-Nice – that’s an impressive haul without taking a win.
As with Valverde, if Matthews can weather the attacks on the last few climbs and find his way into the lead group, he’ll have a great shot of victory. You can bet the likes of Alaphilippe and Roglic will be desperate to offload the fast-finishing Australian though.
Note that Matthews has Esteban Chaves in support. The Colombian has looked good in the last little while and will likely feature in the pre-final, either closing down moves or getting up the road himself.
Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) would probably rather Liège still finished with the uphill drag into Ans like it did until 2019, but he still shouldn’t be discounted. He’s one of the strongest in the world on climbs like these, and should be somewhere near the front in the closing kilometres. To win, he’ll probably have to get away alone.
Woods’ teammate Dan Martin also deserves a mention. The Irishman won this race back in 2013 and has been climbing well in recent weeks. Keep him in mind.
Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) was third at this race in 2019 and comes in off the back of third at Amstel Gold Race and a victory at Paris-Nice. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see Schachmann find his way into the top five again on Sunday after following the winning move.
As mentioned, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) won this race solo in 2019 and while he’s not nearly at the same level now as he was then, he shouldn’t be given any latitude if attacks late.
For other would-be contenders, look out for:
- Mauri Vansevenant (Deceuninck-QuickStep): Seventh at Flèche Wallonne, great uphill, and a tenacious fighter.
- Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Victorious): Fourth last year and ninth at last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race. Ever-aggressive, often to great effect.
- Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal): Also super-aggressive with a penchant for a late move.
- Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo): Been in great form and has two top 10s at Liège already.
- David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ): Also great this season, with a couple of wins. Sixth in 2019.
How to watch it
If you’re watching Sunday’s race in Australia, you’ve got a couple options. SBS is broadcasting the race live in the eastern states (delayed in other timezones), both on SBS Viceland (TV) and via SBS On Demand (streaming). You’ll also be able to catch the race on GCN+ in Australia.
In the USA, NBC Sports Gold is where you’ll find coverage, while GCN+/Eurosport is your best bet in most other markets.
Who’s your pick to win the 2021 men’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège?