Bob Jungels (Quick-Step) left all the favourites in his wake with a long-range solo attack to win the 2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The Luxembourg champion broke off the front of the lead group just after they had climbed the Côte de Roche-aux-Faucons with 19.6km to go, with no-one immediately following him.
He quickly gained a lead of 30 seconds on the flat run towards the final classified climb of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, and had just over 50 seconds when he hit the bottom of the climb.
A chase group behind containing many of the favourites like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Jungels’ team-mate Julian Alaphilippe and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), among others, failed to make a cohesive effort to chase him down.
It wasn’t until Wellens’ team-mate Jelle Vanendert attacked from the group on the Saint-Nicolas that Jungels began to look under threat, with his gap dropping to 20 seconds on the climb.
But in the end no-one was able to do anything about the 25-year-old out front as he powered up the final climb to Ans, with Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac) attacking in the final 2.5km and having to settle for third and second respectively.
The Liège win is the biggest of Jungels’ career so far and his first victory in a Monument, capping off an extremely successful Classics campaign for Quick-Step Floors which saw them take victories including Tour of Flanders, Flèche Wallonne and now the oldest Monument, La Doyenne.
How it happened
The riders were welcomed with an unseasonably hot day in Liège for the start of the 258.5km race, where Alejandro Valverde was looking for a record-equalling fifth victory.
As usual, an early break was allowed to get away, with nine riders – Florian Vachon (Fortuneo-Samsic), Jérôme Baugnies (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Loïc Vliegen (BMC), Anthony Perez (Cofidis), Mark Christian, Casper Pedersen (Aqua Blue Sport), Paul Ourselin (Direct Énergie), Antoine Warnier (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic) and Mathias Van Gompel (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) – allowed to build a maximum gap of 6-30.
As the peloton conserved energy en route to Bastogne and over the initial climbs of the day, that advantage gradually dropped, but the attrition was quickly beginning to show for the riders out front.
With 67km to go the surviving breakers of Jérôme Baugnies, Loïc Vliegen, Anthony Perez, Mark Christian and Paul Ourselin hit the Col du Rosier with a lead of 3-20 over the reduced peloton.
That was whittled down to just four in Perez, Baugnies, Christian and Ourselin with 60km to go, but they still carried three minutes advantage as they began the final 50km.
With the fearsome Côte de La Redoute approaching, the peloton had began to up the pace, and the escapees’ gap had dropped to 1-20 over the top La Redoute, where at 36km to go, Baugnies left his fellow riders behind and went solo.
The Belgian never looked like having the energy to make it stick though with such a long day in the legs already, and was caught with 23km to go.
Bahrain-Merida then began to push the pace towards the climb of the Roche-aux-Faucons, perhaps hoping to deliver Vincenzo Nibali to his second Monument victory of the season.
But that pace wasn’t able to stop attacks when the peloton hit the climb, with Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) the first to hit out with 20.5km to go.
That was short lived as the 2011 winner was chased down by Sergio Henao (Team Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
Henao counter-attacked immediately after catching Gilbert but he was brought back by Bob Jungels, working in service of Julian Alaphilippe, with Michael Woods and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) among the riders to jump on his wheel.
The leading riders were all together in a group as they crested the climb, but on the immediate descent with 18.6km to go, Jungels drifted of the front with no-one initially making chase.
Eventually formed a chasing group which contained Valverde and Alaphilippe as well as Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet, Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott), Sergio Henao, Jakob Fuglsang, Tim Wellens, Jelle Vanendert and Michael Woods, among others.
With Jungels gaining a gap of over 40 seconds on the flat run towards the final categorised climb of Saint-Nicolas, Valverde was one of many riders to try and go across the gap, with Dan Martin trying numerous times.
But the presence of Jungels’ team-mate Alaphilippe meant nothing was sticking, and it was Astana who eventually took up the chase with Davide Villella working in service of Fuglsang.
Martin, who had been so active in trying to get away from the group, then suffered a stroke of bad luck with 8km remaining as he punctured, looking visibly frustrated as the chase group rode into the distance.
Jungels had powered on to extend his gap to 50 seconds at the foot of the Saint-Nicolas, but that dropped very quickly to 32 as riders behind attacked on the climb.
Again, nothing was sticking for the named favourites, with Jelle Vanendert the rider to eventually get away after taking off once his team-mate Wellens had upped the pace on the front.
That attack brought the gap down to 19 seconds as Jungels crested the climb with 5km remaining, but Vanendert couldn’t capitalise on it with Jungels extending it back out as the road descended and then flattened in the final kilometres towards the final ascent to Ans.
At 4km to go Alaphilippe tried to bridge to Vanendert to bring him back, with Davide Formolo (Bora-Hangrohe) following and then Valverde.
But again that move was shut down, allowing Jungels gap to grow back out again, with Vanendert beginning to fade behind.
Bardet was the next to attack after bringing the Alaphilippe group back, with Michael Woods sitting on his wheel as Vanendert slipped to 25 seconds down on Jungels, the race leader then able to push that out to 35 seconds ahead of the final climb to the finish in Ans.
Bardet and Woods were able to close down Vanendert on the final rise to the finish, but there was nothing they could do to stop Jungels riding home for a surprise victory.
Bardet, who had led most of the way up the final climb, was unable to stop Woods from rounding him in the final hundred metres and sprinting in for second place. The Frenchman claimed third, with Jungels’ team-mate Alaphilippe taking fourth in the chasing group at two seconds back. Defending champion Valverde finished at the back of the chasing group to claim 13th place.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2018 (258.5km)
1 Bob Jungels (Lux) Quick-Step Floors 6-24-44
2 Michael Woods (Can) EF Education First-Drapac, at 37s
3 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
4 Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 39s
5 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
6 Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
7 Davide Formolo (Ita) Bora-Hansgrohe
8 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Mitchelton-Scott
9 Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky
10 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team, all same time