Bad day for former winners Dan Martin and Alejandro Valverde
There are two names that stand out from recent editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège – Dan Martin and Alejandro Valverde.
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Both former winners, Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and Valverde (Movistar) have become regular features of the Liège podium, making them ever-present front-runners in the Belgian Monument.
But the 2019 edition of the race proved to be a disappointment for these two favourites, as both men abandoned well before the final.
Valverde, four-time winner of Liège, stepped off with more than 100km left to race.
His Movistar team said the 39-year-old had been suffering from “various physical problems” in the last few days, forcing him to abandon.
Valverde last won in 2017 and was looking to match the record held by Eddy Merckx with a fifth career Liège win.
Martin, winner in 2013, abandoned earlier in the race while passing through the first feed-zone as the Irishman was still recovering from an illness picked up at the Tour of the Basque Country.
The loss of Martin and Valverde only added to the unpredictable feeling of the day’s racing, especially when twinned with the altered final.
New finish sets up unpredictable end
Liège has often been criticised for its formulaic nature, with the race often decided in a climber’s sprint on the final rise to the line.
For 2019 the organisers opted for a flatter finish, moving the line to Liège for the first time in almost 30 years.
Removing the famous Côte de Saint-Nicolas created a fast final 10km with a 3km flat run to the line.
These changes added an element of unpredictability as the race approached the final, with the possibility of a bunch sprint emerging with 20km to race.
But as the race exploded on the final climb, and riders were splintered across the course, it became clear that Liège remains a Monument for the climbers.
Strong showing from Grand Tour contenders
Liège is a battleground for Grand Tour contenders looking to take Monument victory over the Ardennes hills.
The 2019 edition was no different, as an elite selection of stage racers lined up for 256km of relentless climbing.
Grand Tour winners Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) raced shoulder-to-shoulder with three-week rivals like Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Mikel Landa (Movistar) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) with the aim of Classics glory ahead of their bigger goals.
Nibali, Landa and Yates all showed promising form in the sharp end of the race, proving themselves among the strongest in the peloton as the race hit the final climb, the Côte de la Roche-Aux-Faucons.
Yates was the best of the general classification riders finishing fourth, with Landa in sixth and Nibali in seventh.
Landa looks to be returning to his best after suffering injury early this season, with the Spaniard looking ahead to the Giro d’Italia where he will face Nibali.
Yates will return to the Tour de France this year, meaning he still has plenty of racing left before his main target of the season.
Dumoulin finished an underwhelming 50th – possibly a worrying omen as the Dutchman is set to start the Giro d’Italia next month.
Jakob Fuglsang takes revenge after Classics near-misses
It had been a spring of frustration for Jakob Fuglsang, who was the perpetual bridesmaid in his one-day campaign.
The Dane missed out on Strade Bianche to Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), then finished third in Amstel Gold Race behind winner Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) and Alaphilippe in second.
When Fuglsang (Astana) finished Flèche Wallonne in second again behind Alaphilippe, it looked as though he might be destined to trail the Frenchman in the Classics.
But as he dropped his rivals in the final of Liège, Fuglsang’s consistency paid dividends as the 34-year-old rode solo and took the first Monument of his career.
Fatigue sets in for Quick-Step as Astana take the reins
All eyes were fixed on Deceuninck – Quick-Step and Astana heading into Liège.
Both are among the most successful teams in professional cycling this season, with Quick-Step dominating the one-day races while Astana took control of the early-season stage races.
Alaphilippe was the clear favourite heading into the final Monument of the spring, having won three of his five Classics this season.
But as the race entered the final kilometres it became clear Alaphilippe was not at his best, struggling to follow the wheels as Fuglsang went clear at the head of the race.
Astana had put numbers at the front of the bunch to set up the Fuglsang victory, while Quick-Step lost the race-defining control that had seen them win nine Classics before Liège.
Quick-Step are still the most successful team this season, leading the UCI’s team rankings, but with Fuglsang’s victory Astana proved they can take the fight to the Belgian behemoths.