EVENEPOEL COMES OF AGE WITH EMPHATIC DEBUT VICTORY
Sunday could go down in history as the race when Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) truly came of age.
Seldom has a rider attracted so much hype at such a young age, but though the Belgian has shown flashes of rare brilliance, he’d struggled to consistently replicate those performances at the very biggest races. He was conspicuously off the pace during his second and most recent Monument appearance at last year’s Il Lombardia, while the climbing proved too much for him on Grand Tour debut at last year’s Giro d’Italia.
That all changed at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where Evenepoel emphatically put to bed any doubts that he might not be able to make the jump to the very highest level, or that his life-threatening crash at Il Lombardia two years ago had stalled his development, with a stunning solo victory.
It was a victory in the manner of the rider he is so often likened to, Eddy Merckx, in a race that the Cannibal made his own. Undeterred by the rarity in contemporary editions of successful long-range attacks, Evenepoel fully committed to a devastating acceleration up the famous Côté de la Redoute, then went all-in on soloing the final 29km to the finish.
The ride showcased all his unusual, unique attributes as a rider, as the 22-year-old, tucked in his streamlined aero position, inexorably extended his advantage over the chasing group, relishing as always the freedom of riding solo despite his small stature and the apparent advantage the chasers, in theory, should have had by being able to work together.
They gained some ground on the uphills, but there’s simply nobody quite like Evenepoel when in full flight over flat and rolling terrain, and his eventual winning margin of 48 seconds was the biggest of any Liège-Bastogne-Liège over the past 13 years. The outpouring of emotion at the end showed Evenepoel knew he had achieved something special, in a result that could be the first of many.
BRUTE FORCE ENOUGH FOR VAN VLEUTEN TO WIN AGAIN
Without a win since February, it seemed possible that Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) might have been reconsidering her tactical approach ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Previously this spring, the 39-year-old had been unable to ride away from her rivals with the decisiveness as in past seasons, despite producing her familiar sustained, out-of-the-saddle accelerations at every opportunity. Brute force was no longer enough alone for her to win, as other riders and teams were able to match her, and outmanoeuvred her in the finale of races.
But despite her winless streak, Van Vleuten stuck to her guns at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and threw caution and tactical nuance to the wind. After launching her first attack on La Redoute, she appeared totally unperturbed by the presence of Marlen Reusser (SD Worx) on her wheel, even as the Swiss rider refused to take a turn. And despite declining to sit up and wait after work from Leah Thomas (Trek-Segafredo) and Evita Muzic (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) brought a chasing group back within sight of her, she still had the power to mount her second big move on Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons.
For a lesser rider these multiple efforts would have been a naive, possibly reckless use of energy, and previous Classics had suggested that even Van Vleuten herself could no longer finish off races in which she had made so many attacks. But not today, as the Movistar rider held off a chase despite committed work from FDJ with Grace Brown and Marta Cavalli, and SD Worx with Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio to ride the final 14km solo to the finish,
She thus sealed a second career Liège-Bastogne-Liège title with the kind of special performance that should not be taken for granted despite how often she produces them. In a race as tough as La Doyenne, there is still simply nothing the other riders can do to stop Van Vleuten, who today looked back at the very peak of her powers.
YET ANOTHER MONUMENT PODIUM FOR VAN AERT
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) ends his spring campaign without his longed-for Monument victory, but third-place on debut at Liège-Bastogne-Liège finished what has been a mightily impressive spring.
There are plenty of statistics to illustrate just how unusually diverse his results have been. Following his runner-up finish at Paris-Roubaix last weekend, he becomes the first rider in 36 years to podium at these two most diametrically opposed Monuments in the same season, and the first rider since Philippe Gilbert (who incidentally was riding his last ever Liège-Bastogne-Liège today) to make the podium in four of the five Monuments.
To do so, he had to dig deep. He rode a far more conservative race than during the cobbled Classics, instead choosing to preserve energy over the climbs rather than make any attacks, and was dropped on a final, uncategorised uphill while the purer climbers like Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe), Dani Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Alexsandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) went clear.
But he avoided going into the red and managed to rejoin the group before the sprint to the finish, where he stood out as the much taller and stronger rider in a group of lightweight climbers.
The only surprise was that he did not win the sprint, being pipped to the line by compatriot Quentin Hermans (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materieux). Despite being dropped earlier, Hermans ends up with a totally unexpected Monument podium finish, having only registered his first-ever podium finish of any WordTour race at a stage of the recent Itzulia Basque Country.
Together, Van Aert and Hermans rounded off an all-Belgium podium, in a race that had only seen one home winner over the past 22 years.
USUAL SUSPECTS COMPETE FOR PODIUM SPOTS BEHIND VAN VLEUTEN
The same riders who battled it out on the Mur de Huy during Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne were again at the forefront of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with five of the riders in the top six that day again finishing in the top six today.
In the case of SD Worx’s Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, they even finished in exactly the same place, third and fourth respectively. Just as they were unable to match Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) on the Mur de Huy, they were incapable of doing anything to stop Annemiek Van Vleuten (Movistar) motoring away to the finish despite working together to try and bring her back.
The result means that SD Worx finish the spring campaign without a victory in the Ardennes Classics for the first time since all three races have been on the calendar.
Even though Cavalli was unable to complete what would have been a sublime Ardennes hat-trick, her lead-out in the chasing group helped team-mate Grace Brown sprint for second place, confirming beyond that they were the top team of the Ardennes Classics.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) was the only other rider to finish in this elite group, claiming a fifth-place finish to round-off what has been another superb spring campaign for the Italian.
However, Liane Lippert (DSM) and Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ) weren’t quite so strong on the harder climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège as they had been in the previous Ardennes Classics, failing to make the select group that went clear on Roche-aux-Faucons and finishing eighth and 13th respectively.
ALAPHILIPPE VICTIM OF HUGE CRASH
Given the rotten run his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team has been on all spring, and his own unfortunate history in this race that has been littered by near-misses, bad luck and fatal errors, Julian Alaphilippe appeared destined to suffer some form of misfortune today.
So it felt grimly inevitable to find the world champion down in a ditch as one of the worst off in a huge crash in the peloton 62km from the finish.
His French compatriot Romain Bardet (DSM) was concerned enough to even descend into the ditch to find out if Alaphilippe was OK, sacrificing his own chances of success. Thankfully Alaphilippe was conscious, but his body was in a bad way, and it was later announced that he had suffered several fractures and a collapsed lung.
Considering the size of the crash, and the fact it occurred near the front of the peloton, it’s a blessed surprise that it did not appear to affect the outcome of the race too much. Riders like Alexsandr Vlasov, Sergio Higuita (both Bora-Hansgrohe) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) might have been held up, but all returned to the peloton to play key roles in the endgame.
And even Alaphilippe’s Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl bounced back from the incident, with Remco Evenepoel relishing the freedom and responsibility upon being promoted to team leader, and salvaging the team’s spring just when it appeared they were doomed to yet another major disappointment.
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