When: Sunday April 24, 2016
Rank: UCI WorldTour
A week of Ardennes Classics comes to a close with the most esteemed of them all – Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
For one thing, there’s its status. As one of the five Monuments of cycling, the Classic is coveted by riders from all across the peloton.
Riders such as Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), for instance, skipped La Flèche Wallonne to go into this race as fresh as possible, while big stars such as Chris Froome (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will ride despite having skipped virtually all of the Spring Classics season so far.
Then there’s its age. At its core cycling is a sport in love with tradition, and therefore races that have been around since the early years of the sport are regarded as special by the fans and riders.
And none are as long-lasting as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which was first held all the way back in 1892, and is nicknamed ‘La Doyenne’ after the French for ‘The Old Lady’.
Finally, and crucially, there’s its difficulty. Whereas the former two each rely on short, steep hills to break up the race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a more arduous affair with climbs that are longer and altogether more difficult. Here, a puncheur can’t get away with short, intense efforts to get over the uphills – they have to be genuine climbers.
Among the toughest climbs is La Redoute, the landmark the race is most closely associated with.
Narrow and flanked by hordes of cheering roadside fans, there’s nothing to compare to this in either of the other two Ardennes Classics – its average gradient of around 8.4% and maximum of over 20% is as steep as anything found in those races, while its length of nearly 2km marks it out as relatively long.
The seventh of the ten climbs tackled, La Redoute kicks-off the race’s endgame. Next up, a little further up the road at 20.5km from the finish, is the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, an even steeper effort (9.9%) where Andy Schleck attacked to win the 2009 edition.
The Côte de Saint-Nicolas is the penultimate climb, which always plays host to attacks from very big names, although in recent editions has failed to make for an effective launchpad for successful attacks.
That may be why the Côte de la Rue Naniot has this year been added between the Saint-Nicolas and the draggy uphill finish in Ans.
Positioned 4km after that previous ascent and just 3km out from the finish, this 600 metre, 10.5% averaging cobbled climb will make for an even harder finale than the riders are used to, and ought to make for a more select race than the last two editions, where unusually large groups remained intact to the finishing sprint.
This adjusted finish will do little to dampen Alejandro Valverde’s (Movistar) confidence of landing a second successive and fourth career victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The extra climbing ought to play in his favour, and he’s on great form having won La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.
The Spaniard won’t find this race quite as straightforward, however. The extra climbs and more nuanced route will give Etixx-QuickStep’s duo of Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin – who rounded off Wednesday’s podium behind Valverde, and have a strong record in this race having finished second last year and won in 2013 respectively – more of a chance to work together to put Valverde under pressure.
As mentioned above, riders such as 2014 winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali (who regularly animates this race) and Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski (who, as a specialist of this kind of route, will be given leadership ahead of Chris Froome) will likely be will also return having missed La Flèche Wallonne.
And the kind of long range attacks that Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) has put in throughout this Ardennes campaign will be harder to control.
Valverde might be favourite, but there’s a long queue of riders plotting to take his title from him.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Recent winners
2015: Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar
2014: Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
2013: Dan Martin (Irl) Garmin-Sharp
2012: Maxim Iglinsky (Kaz) Astana
2011: Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
2010: Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana
2009: Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank
2008: Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Caisse d’Epargne
2007: Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas
2006: Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Caisse d’Epagne-Illes Balears
Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Last year’s top 10 (2015)
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar in 6-14-20
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Etixx-QuickStep
3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha
4. Rui Costa (Por) Lampre-Merida
5. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff-Saxo
6. Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale
7. Sergio Henao (Col) Sky
8. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r
9. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana
10. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha all same time