By Jonny Long
Tadej Pogačar pipped Julian Alaphilippe on the line to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2021 after a group of five had gone clear on the final climb of the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, the Tour de France champion beating the world champion in the sprint finish.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) had led out in the finishing straight, Alaphilippe exploding from behind, but Pogačar was on his wheel and as the two came to the fore the Slovenian came up and past the world champion to claim his first Monument victory.
Groupama-FDJ's David Gaudu settled for third, Valverde fourth, while Israel Start-Up Nation's Michael Woods, who had ignited the move on the last climb of the day, was the fifth and final of the quintet across the line.
Ineos Grenadiers had tried to animate the race over the closing kilometres, Tao Geoghegan Hart whittling down the peloton on La Redoute before Richard Carapaz attacked solo, brought back on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons.
UAE Team Emirates' Marc Hirschi led home the chase group, seven seconds later after his team-mate had crossed the line in first place.
How it happened
Seven riders quickly got themselves up the road after the flag drop, a smattering of Belgian teams in attendance for their home race, Lotto-Soudal's Tomasz Marczynski, Loïc Vliegen and Lorenzo Rota from Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, Mathijs Paasschens and Laurens Huys (Bingoal Pauwels Sauces WB), Aaron Van Poucke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and Sergei Chernetski (Gazprom-Rusvelo).
Their gap soon yawned out as the peloton settled in for more than 250km in the saddle, growing to more than 10 minutes with 220km to go, Deceuninck - Quick-Step, Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates taking charge of the early 'chase', given they held the pre-race favourites within their ranks.
The break soon started the first climb of the day, with most of the ascents stacked in the second half of the race. The bunch soon began to bring them back slightly, the gap nudging back under the nine-minute mark.
Another minute had been lost by the halfway mark, the action calm for now. More teams beginning to show themselves at the front, Alejandro Valverde's Movistar and Wout Poels' Bahrain-Victorious, and the gap had decreased to six minutes by the start of the Côte de Mont-le-Soie, another minute lopped off by the time the escapees arrived at the Côte de Wanne, Marczynski earning his keep as he took long pulls up the gradient.
Finally, some action from the peloton, as Astana's Luis Leon Sanchez hit out with 85km to go, Ineos Grenadiers then pick it up on the descent of the Wanne.
10km later and UAE Team Emirates' Brandon McNulty was getting distanced on the Côte de la Haute-Levée, David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and Enric (Movistar) also struggling.
Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën) then put in a big attack a few kilometres later, Lotto-Soudal's Tosh van der Sande going with him as Deceuninck - Quick-Step marked the move.
Tadej Pogačar had a mechanical with 65km to go, eagerly getting back on his bike, before Astana's Alex Aranburu was the latest to try and stretch things out but that move was quickly snuffed out.
As the breakaway began to come back down the road, a counter-attack soon emerged from the bunch, featuring Harm Vanhoucke (Lotto-Soudal), Mark Donovan (DSM) and Mark Padun (Bahrain-Victorious)
As the break reached the foot of La Redoute, there was a big crash with 36km to go, an Alpecin-Fenix rider holding his arm on the ground.
Tao Geoghegan Hart soon came to the front as an Ineos quartet drove the pace up La Redoute, Pogačar lurking in fifth wheel. The British squad's effort split a small group off the front of the peloton, bringing riders up the road back into the fold.
Alaphilippe had missed this move, for whatever reason, causing Deceuninck - Quick-Step to come to the fore to bring the race back together.
Adam Yates then took over, Kwiatkowski on his wheel, before Roglič and Vingegaard could be spotted locked in conversation towards the back of the bunch.
24km to go and Geoghegan Hart stretched things out again on the Côte des Forges, the penultimate climb of the day, Vingegaard latching on and the Ineos rider looking around to see what effect he'd had.
Up in the break and Vliegen finally broke, nearly coming to a standstill as he zig-zagged across the road, using his hands to try and make his legs turn the pedals.
Yates was locked on Geoghegan Hart's wheel as they caught Vliegen, with Vingegaard third in line and then a gap to the rest.
Alaphilippe then started moving up the group on Woods' wheel as a whittling down process began in the bunch.
More riders had joined the move up ahead, Tadej Pogačar accelerating to see who was serious about this move, Mauri Vansevenant unlikely to contribute with his team leader behind.
Richard Carapaz then countered the group, this being his Liège-Bastogne-Liège debut, Ineos looking to use their numbers, and the chase not immediately forming as the Ecuadorian escaped up the road.
Soon, Carapaz had a 17-second gap as it ticked under 20km to the finish.
James Knox took up the chase with 14km to go up the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, Alaphilippe on his wheel. Carapaz had 15 seconds, trying to hang on to the top of the climb, Knox coming into view behind.
UAE Team Emirates' Davide Formolo then took over, quickly bringing Carapaz back in, the front group who'd survived the first selection stringing out once more.
Israel Start-Up Nation's Michael Woods was the next to have a dig, Gaudu, Pogačar, Alaphilippe and Valverde following, Primož Roglič caught out as the quintet snipped off the front.
Woods continued to drive the effort, only 10 seconds of breathing room as Kwiatkowski tried to bring them back, Yates falling off that group.
As the front five began to dither Woods refused to let it die, pressing on regardless, some cohesion then materialising, as Alaphilippe and Gaudu pulled through.
20 seconds was now the gap as the 10km banner loomed, Roglič leading the chase behind now, but the gap was soon out to half a minute with 7.5km to go until the line.
These five were now clearly going to contest the final, the 30-second buffer maintained into the last 5km, Alaphilippe, Valverde, Woods, Pogačar and Gaudu starting to eye each other.
The chase behind continued but was in vain as the front five readied themselves with 2km to go, having worked well together up until this point.
Woods put in an initial dig with 1.4km to the line, not confident with his sprint. Guadu was lingering on the back and thought about a move before the flamme rouge, Alaphilippe's head on a swivel and watching his compatriot.
Valverde led into the finishing straight, watching Woods behind in second wheel as the chase groups emerged behind in the distance, and it was the Spaniard who opened from the fron, Alaphilippe soon coming around, shadowed by Pogačar, the Slovenian then dragging the world champion back before edging ahead of him on the line, throwing his hands into the air in astonishment, his first Monument victory.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2021, Liège to Liège (259.1km)
1. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, at 6-39-26
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck - Quick-Step
3. David Gaudu (Fra) Groupama-FDJ
4. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar
5. Michael Woods (Can) Israel Start-Up Nation, all at same time
6. Marc Hirschi (Sui) UAE Team Emirates, at seven seconds
7. Tiesj Benoot (Bel) DSM
8. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo, both at same time
9. Max Schachmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, at nine seconds
10. Matej Mohorič (Slo) Bahrain-Victorious, at same time
Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races. I'm 6'0", 26 years old, have a strong hairline and have an adequate amount of savings for someone my age. I'm very single at the minute so if you know anyone, hit me up.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab, reporting about students evacuating their bowels on nightclub dancefloors and consecrating their love on lecture hall floors. I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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