26 April 2015
After a great month of racing, it’s now time for the last spring classic of the season. The 101st edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
From the start in Liège, it takes over 75 km before the riders start on the first of 10 marked climbs. However, don’t let the profile fool you. In reality there are much more ascents to overcome today. This course constantly goes up and down.
As the peloton reaches the feed zone in Bastogne, they start heading back towards Liège. With a bit more than 80 km to go, the riders take on a series of tough climbs. First up is Côte de Wanne (2.7 km / avg. 7.4 %). This is followed by Côte de Stockeu (1 km / avg. 12.5 %), Côte de la Haute-Levée (3.6 km / avg. 5.6 %) and the two new climbs, Col du Rosier (4.4 km / avg. 5.9 %) Col du Maquisard (2.5 km / avg. 5 %), which have replaced Côte de la Vecquée and Côte des Forges.
Even though these hilly 30 km definitely will leave their mark in the legs of the riders, they aren’t likely to be crucial for the final outcome. Usually, Liège-Bastogne-Liège doesn’t open up until the peloton starts on Côte de la Redoute with 35 km to go. The 2 km towards the top have an average gradient of 8.9 %. This is where we will see which riders don’t have what it takes to win today.
From the top of the Côte de la Redoute, it only takes about 15 km before the peloton faces Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons (1.5 km / avg. 9.3 %). This is where Vinokourov and Kolobnev went away in 2010, and where Gilbert and the Schleck brothers attacked in 2011. In 2012, Nibali went solo on the descent of the climb, only to get caught on the last kilometer of the race. In case you haven’t been able to drop your rivals on Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons, you’ll have another chance on Côte de Saint-Nicolas. This 1.2 km climb has an average gradient of 8.6 % and there are only 5.4 km to go from the top.
The steepest part of Côte de Saint-Nicolas is at the beginning with gradients over 10 %. However, usually, the best place to attack is near top where it evens out a bit. There won’t be many riders left in the peloton at that point, meaning the favorites won’t have many - if any - teammates left to chase down a late breakaway. If you get a small gap over the top of Côte de Saint-Nicolas, you can increase it significantly on the following short descent if the other favorites are left looking at each other, not willing to chase alone. This is what happened last year, when Caruso and Pozzovivo went clear.
The last 1.5 km of Liège-Bastogne-Liège are uphill with an average gradient of 5 %. In 2013, Purito Rodriguez attacked with 1.2 km to go. The Spaniard seemed to have timed it perfectly but with 500 meters left of the race, Dan Martin caught Purito and soloed away. After over 250 km on the bike, this final uphill kilometer is very hard. Everything can easily be turned upside-down if you don’t time you effort to perfection.
Given his recent performances, the number one favorite for this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège has to be Alejandro Valverde. Of the three Ardennes classics, this is the one best suited for the Spaniard’s characteristics. He has won the race twice in the past (2006 & 2008) and finished on the podium four times additional. He was third in 2013 and second last year. It will be difficult to prevent Alejandro Valverde from making it back to the top spot on the podium this Sunday. He’s one of the most explosive riders in the peloton and he will be very tough to drop on the climbs. Furthermore, he’s extremely fast on the line, meaning he can win from a reduced group too. After placing second in Amstel Gold Race and winning Flèche Wallonne, Valverde can take on Liège-Bastogne-Liège without pressure. He knows he can win this race but it’s not all up to Movistar to catch the morning break. Therefore, the team won’t have to sacrifice riders in an early chase. This should help them have a couple of strong riders left to help Valverde on the deciding last 30 km.
Personally, I have very high expectations for Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. The explosive Spaniard has won a lot of races but this is the one he really wants to put on his palmares. As mentioned above, he came very close in 2013. Last year, a crash in Amstel Gold Race caused him too much pain to even finish Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Now, Purito is back in tip-top condition and he’s very eager to take revenge after the agonizing defeat two years ago. In Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he proved to very strong, which he showed again in Flèche Wallonne by finishing 4th. Had he not been boxed in with 250 meters to go, he probably would have done much better. Katusha sends a very strong team to support Purito. Giampaolo Caruso will most likely try to attack from afar, like last year, while Dani Moreno will stay with Purito, setting him up for what seems like an inevitable attack either on Côte de Saint-Nicolas or on the last 1500 meters. In a sprint, Purito won’t stand many chances against the fast riders. Therefore, he has to go solo before the last left-hand corner with 250 meters to go.
Like Valverde, Michal Kwiatkowski too has already made the spring season a success. He took a beautiful win in the rainbow jersey in Amstel Gold Race and now he has his eyes fixed on Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The course suits him very well, which he proved by finishing 3rd last year. Preparing for this season, Kwiatkowski lined out this race as one of his big goals. He’s obviously in great shape and it would be a surprise not to see the Pole in the mix fighting for the win. He’s not as punchy as Valverde and Purito but he won’t be far off. On paper, he’s not as fast as Valverde either, should it come down to a sprint. In Amstel Gold Race however, Kwiatkowski showed that after 250 km on the bike, anything can happen.
One of the best riders in Liège-Bastogne-Liège within the last two years has been Dan Martin. The Irishman timed his attack perfectly in 2013 where he won the race. Last year, he seemed to have done it again. Unfortunately for Martin, he crashed in the last corner, just as he was about to overtake Caruso. It’s always hard to predict what would have happened, had he not crashed, but personally, I think he would have won the race again. Dan Martin must be extremely eager to get another shot at winning La Doyenne this year. However, after crashing in Flèche Wallonne last Wednesday, it’s not certain in what condition Martin will arrive. If he’s ready though, he’ll be very strong candidate for the win.
One of the big surprises in last year edition was Domenico Pozzovivo. The pint-sized Italian was one of the few riders able to light up a doll race with a couple of strong attacks. On the last kilometer, Pozzovivo faded after his big effort earlier on. Afterwards, he admitted he should have raced differently. He simply didn’t know how strong he was and therefore he decided to attack from afar. This experience has served Pozzovivo well. He now knows exactly what to do and - more importantly - what not to do. The Ag2r co-captain is in great shape at the moment, which he proved by winning the mountaintop finish on stage 3 of Giro del Tretino last Thursday. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a big goal for Domenico Pozzovivo. If he can time his attack perfectly this year, I won’t be surprised to see him cross the finishing line first Sunday afternoon.
Personally, I also think Vincenzo Nibali and Rui Costa will do great today. Nibali has come close in the past but he has never managed to win this race. The Italian always rides aggressively. He knows he doesn’t have a chance in a sprint. He needs to attack from afar. Much like he did in 2012. Hopefully, for him, just with a better outcome. Rui Costa is not slow in a sprint. However, I doubt he’ll be able to beat the likes of Valverde and Kwiatkowski. The Portuguese rider is in very good shape. I’m sure we will see him try something on the last 20 km. Actually, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rui Costa and Nibali join forces in an attack. If so, it will be very difficult for the peloton to rail them back in.
For other strong outsiders look to in-shape riders like Sergio Henao, Tim Wellens, Jakob Fuglsang, Roman Kreuziger and Bauke Mollema. I also think the following three Frenchmen will be able to perform very well.
Before this season, Warren Barguil moved to Nice where he has been training on climbs matching the descriptions of those in the Ardennes. He’s in good condition and, together with Tom Dumoulin, he’ll lead Giant-Alpecin today. Romain Bardet hasn’t raced any of the last two Ardennes races. Instead, he has been using Giro del Trentino as preparation. He was very strong in Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year and it seems like he has timed his shape perfectly again this year. Ag2r has a very dangerous duo in Romain Bardet and Domenico Pozzovivo.
My personal joker this year is Tony Gallopin. The Frenchman seems to have taken another step up the latter this season. His solo effort on stage 6 of Paris-Nice stands as one of the most memorable and impressive performances this year. He did very well in Vuelta al Pais Vasco and again in Brabantse Pijl (4th) and Amstel Gold Race (6th) last week. This year, Gallopin decided to skip the Flemish races in order to arrive as fresh (and light) as possible to the Ardennes. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a big goal for him and, due to his aggressive riding style and his fast finish; I’ll give him very good chances of making a big result this Sunday.
Last year’s winner Simon Gerrans is at the starting line as well. However due to injuries, the Australian is not nearly in the same good shape as he was in last year at this time. Therefore, GreenEdge best cards to play this Sunday are probably Michael Albasini (third in Flèche Wallonne), Esteban Chaves and youngster Simon Yates who did very well in Vuelta al Pais Vasco earlier this month.