DESPITE RECENT VULNERABILITY, POGAČAR IS THE MAN TO BEAT
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) defends his Liège-Bastogne-Liège title with an aura of invincibility around him. His performances in the Classics since that win 12 months ago have been astonishing, with him simply riding away from everyone to win last autumn’s Il Lombardia and this spring’s Strade Bianche, and very nearly doing the same at the Tour of Flanders.
He hasn’t actually won any of the four Classics he’s ridden since Strade Bianche, but unlike the cobbled roads of the Tour of Flanders and Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the shorter, punchier climbs of Milan-San Remo and Flèche Wallonne, the longer uphills of Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the territory he really excels in.
The expectations are therefore high for the Slovenian, and everyone watching and racing will be anticipating his attack. With the likes of Marc Soler, George Bennett, Diego Ulissi and 2020 runner-up Marc Hirschi all in support, UAE Team Emirates should also be able to make the race hard for everyone, and put their rivals under pressure even before Pogačar makes his expected move.
However, there is a glimmer of hope for everyone else. There was a moment on the Mur de Huy during the climax of Wednesday’s Mur de Huy that we bore witness to a rare sight — a genuinely tired-looking Tadej Pogačar. He lost the wheel when well in contention for victory, and faded into 12th.
That moment of weakness might have helped puncture the aura of invincibility that has grown around Pogačar in the minds of his rivals, and could make all the difference in the outcome of the race. The memory of that moment gives them hope that even if he does go clear at some point, it is possible that he’ll crack, and, even if only on a subconscious level, they might continue to chase to bring him back where previously they’d have resigned and focussed on the runner-up finishes instead.
CAVALLI GUNNING FOR RARE ARDENNES HAT-TRICK
To win all three of Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same season, a rider must be in the form of their life.
Anna van der Breggen was at the very peak of her powers when she achieved the hat-trick in 2017, the first year it was possible for a woman to do so following the introduction that year of the new Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège races.
And in the much longer, half-century history of the men’s Ardennes Classics, only Philippe Gilbert during his annus mirabilis of 2011, and Davide Rebellin in 2004 (with, it turned out, the help of illegal substances) have managed to win all three in the same season.
So it would be a hugely significant feat if Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) were to follow her victories at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne with La Doyenne on Sunday. Both those results came as a surprise, as she took the more fancied riders off guard with a well-timed attack at the former, then exceeded even her own expectations by following Van Vleuten all the way up the Mur de Huy to win the latter.
She’s unlikely, however, to go under the radar for a third time after such success, and she’ll face new, trickier circumstances as a closely marked top favourite. She’s proven herself to be a canny rider, especially in the last few weeks, but will need to devise a new, different kind of plan if she’s to win yet again.
One thing she does have in her favour is a very strong and ever-improving FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope team, with Grace Brown and Cecile Uttrup Ludwig set to join Brodie Chapman and Evita Muzic, who both played such a key role in setting her up for that Flèche Wallonne win. Even if it’s not Cavalli, one of these other riders could make it a hat-trick for the team.
VAN AERT'S PRESENCE THROWS A SPANNER IN THE WORKS
The unexpected presence of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) has thrown an intriguing spanner in the works in the men’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The focus on the Belgian’s spring had been the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but a Covid positive that forced him to miss the former, and an injury to 2020 winner Primož Roglič who had been set to be Jumbo-Visma’s team leader, has prompted a change of plan.
His recovery from Covid has been rapid, and he looked at his very best at Paris-Roubaix, where he placed second despite being struck by multiple unfortunate mechanicals. And although he has never before ridden Liège-Bastogne-Liège, his climbing performances in other races suggest it is well within his capabilities to win.
His presence poses a real problem for every other contender, who can’t afford to take him to a finish in a sprint, where he should have the beating of anyone. Even Pogačar will have to be very wary of him, and will surely make it a priority to take him out of contention.
These two riders are probably the best in the world right now, and watching them go head-to-head should be a rare treat. Van Aert’s decision to skip Strade Bianche this year and forced absence from the Tour of Flanders means they have only met once this season at Milan-San Remo, where both were among those duking it out at the front on the Poggio.
This time their battle could be much more prolonged on, much like it was when they met at the Olympics road race in Tokyo last year, when Van Aert took silver ahead of bronze-winning Pogačar after the Slovenian failed to drop him on the climb.
The climb of La Redoute is likely to be key. An attack on its famously steep slopes seems to be the obvious strategy for Pogačar to adopt, and if Van Aert can survive it still in contention, then he’ll really fancy his chances of taking the Monument that has so far narrowly eluded him all spring.
VAN VLEUTEN AMONG THOSE HOPING FOR A HARD RACE
A recurring theme this spring has been Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) bemoaning that a Classic hasn’t been ridden hard enough.
She said the same thing at the end of both the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold, suggesting that her best chance of winning was in the action kicking off early on with all-out racing, and not the more nuanced, tactical races that transpired.
Luckily for her, Liège-Bastogne-Liège features arguably the hardest climbing of any of the Classics, and could therefore be the one that suits her the best.
It’s certainly proven to be a very selective race, with last year’s five-up sprint the only time the race hasn’t been won by a solo attacker since first being introduced in 2017, and Van Vleuten was herself the victor from such an attack in 2018.
Van Vleuten’s well-known power makes her attack the one everyone will be anticipating, but she won't be the only rider hoping for a hard, aggressive race. Elisa Longo Borghini is another master of long-range attacks, and won last weekend’s Paris-Roubaix with one, and looks set to be Trek-Segafredo’s outright leader in a race she finished third in last year.
If she’s got better legs than at Flèche Wallonne, then Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM will surely attack at some stage, while Liane Lippert (DSM) and Amanda Spratt (BikeExchange-Jayco) have ridden aggressively in recent races.
But there are other teams that will want a more tactical race than one decided by pure power — specifically, SD Worx. Last year a long turn from Anna van der Breggen in the final kilometres ensured that no attacks went away, and set things up for a Demi Vollering victory from a small group sprint. Vollering will be their leader again this year, and although she won't have Van der Breggen to support her this time, the team will have quality riders like Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Niam Fisher-Black, and young Brit Anna Shackley to neutralise any riders that attempt to attack, and try to ensure the race unfolds on their terms.
ALAPHILIPPE AND OTHER OUTSIDE CONTENDERS
Pogačar and Van Aert might be the star names, but there’s no shortage of other top candidates vying for victory on Sunday.
Chief among them is Julian Alaphilippe. The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider has long coveted this race since finishing second behind Alejandro Valverde in 2015 as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, and since then has been marred by several more near-misses, pipped to the line by Primož Roglič in 2020 after celebrating too early, and being narrowly out-sprinted by Pogačar last year to again place second.
He wasn’t at his best at Flèche Wallonne, where he placed a career-low fourth, suggesting that he might have lingering issues following his crash at Brabantse Pijl, but he’s been known in the past to find his best form just in time for his biggest targets, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the race he’s been building up to all season.
Although there will be doubt about Tom Pidcock’s participation following his off-colour showing at Flèche Wallonne, Ineos Grenadiers still look very well-equipped, with Amstel Gold winner Michał Kwiatkowski and the in-form Dani Martínez, who was fifth at Flèche, both very strong cards to play.
Bahrain-Victorious are equally strong, with Dylan Teuns now looking like a potential winner after his Flèche Wallonne success, and Matej Mohorič in the kind of long, hilly conditions he thrives in provided he’s not too tired from his many big efforts over the spring.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has another shot at equalling Eddy Merckx’s record of five title here, while his team-mate Enric Mas is among a handful of purer climbers who could be in contention in this, the most climber-friendly spring Classics, along with Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), who impressed on Wednesday to finish third on debut at Flèche Wallonne.
And there are plenty of other puncheurs who have impressed during the spring, including Benoit Cosnefroy (Ag2r Citroen), Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic), Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ), and an improving Michael Woods (Israel-PremierTech) who could spring a surprise as Teuns did on Wednesday.
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