Liège–Bastogne–Liège is also known as La Doyenne, ‘The Old Lady’, because it’s the oldest of the one-day races. It’s the third ‘monument’ of the year, and the last of the spring classics.The race was first organized by L’Expresse (spot the theme!) and, as was the norm in those days, it was run for amateurs. In 1892 it ran over 250km from Spa (Liège wasn’t used as the start until 1908) to Bastogne and back again. The train station at Bastogne was chosen as the turning point, because of its convenience for race officials, and also because many riders abandoned and took the train back to Spa – no such joy for non-finishers in 2016!
Record-winner Eddy Merckx won Liège–Bastogne–Liège five times, three of which were consecutive wins. He also made a total of seven podium finishes. Moreno Argentin was another multi-winner here, winning four times in total. Bernard Hinault won the race twice, both times in harrowing weather conditions — especially in 1980 in a flurry of snow and baltic temperatures, when only 21 of 174 riders finished. In contrast to this week’s Flèche Wallonne, which was raced in spring sunshine, the weather forecast for this weekend shows signs of snow again, which will have fans reminiscing about the Frenchman’s exploits.
In the ’90s the race changed significantly: the start and finish moved to different locations in Liège, and five new climbs were included. In recent times there have been memorable wins for Andy Schleck in 2009, who won from a solo breakaway. Controversially, in 2010 Alexander Vinokourov won his second title by out-sprinting his breakaway companion Alexander Kolobnev. Vinokourov, who had recently returned after a doping ban, was accused of buying the victory to the tune of €100,000, and both riders were charged with bribery.
There are ten climbs in this, the 102nd edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. 253km is the length, making it the shortest of the monuments this year. Similar to Flèche Wallonne, the first 70km or so are a warm up before the first climb of the day — the Côte de la Roche Ardenne (2.8 km at 6.2%) — arrives at 78.5km. After the turn at Bastogne the real racing starts, and at 125km the riders will face the short but very punchy Côte de Saint-Roch (0.8km at 9%), which Tim Wellens will know well from stage 6 of last year’s Eneco Tour.
Once the riders reach the Côte de Wanne (2km at 8%) at 168.5km, the climb fest is on with 75km remaining and seven climbs still to go. First is the Côte de Haute Levée (3.5km at 6%), then the Col du Rosier (4.4km at 6%), and then Col du Maquisard (2.5km at 5%).
At 216.5km we come to the most iconic climb of the race, La Redoute, with a maximum gradient of 22%! This is where we will see the first big attacks of the race and, potentially, the winning move with still 36km to go. Next comes the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons (1.3km at 11%) which will offer another spring board/thinning out of the peloton opportunity.
Now, for 2016, the race organisers have mixed things up a bit. The iconic final climb of Saint-Nicolas (1.1km at 9%) is no longer the final climb. With 2.5km, we have a return to the cobbles, the Côte de la Rue de Naniot, which is no walk in the park at only 600m but it does hit a gradient of 10.5%. How the few remaining riders cope with the sudden change in terrain in the run up to the finish is anyone’s guess.
But let us, nevertheless, take a look at likely winners. We will, of course, be looking at many of the faces seen in La Flèche Wallonne.
Alejandro Valverde played Flèche Wallonne to perfection, and it looks a lot like history is repeating itself — he’s a huge favourite to do the Ardennes double, and to claim his fourth LBL win. His form is great, he was unmatchable on the Mur de Huy. Will the cobbles prove his undoing, or will the weather freeze him in his tracks? It seems unlikely, though they might offer a good chance to another rider. Valverde has much the same team as he did last week, with Betancur, Moreno, and Visconti there to back him up. It’ll take something special from the other teams to puncture Movistar’s dreams.
One team that could definitely do it, though, is Etixx-Quickstep. Both Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin were hot on Valverde’s heels at the end of Flèche Wallonne, taking second and third respectively. Their tactics worked well, with the more explosive Martin attacking repeatedly, whilst Alaphilippe rode a steady tempo game behind. Alaphilippe has now been second to Valverde three times in a row at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — surely he can make it fourth time lucky!
Philippe Gilbert has pulled out of this race, which is unsurprising given his current slump in form, due to injuries. Instead, Richie Porte and Samuel Sánchez will be leading the team. Porte is probably out to rack up the kilometres before the grand tours, more than anything, but Sánchez rode well in Flèche Wallonne, taking sixth overall; he’ll be BMC’s best bet for the podium. Dylan Teuns was talked up a lot before Flèche Wallonne, but failed to deliver — we think he’ll be out to make amends on Sunday, so expect him to be near the front going into the last 30km.
Same again for Lotto, with Tony Gallopin looking like the likely leader, and Tim Wellens reserved for plucky attacks. Actually, if we were putting money on either for the win here, we’d back Wellens. He’s put in race-changing moves at the end of both Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne, and we fully expect him to animate things once again here. That said, we’re judging Gallopin by what looks like a lull in his form — he wasn’t really up to much at Flèche Wallonne, and couldn’t find his sprint at Amstel (but few could). However, it’s arguable that he might just have been riding his way up to this race, his real target. We also think he’ll go well in the bad weather, where others might suffer.
Joachim Rodríguez was far more involved on the Mur than many would have expected, though he went too early and lost a lot of ground in the final — he came 28th overall. But these are good signs for Sunday. Expect him to be amongst the leaders on the Côte de la Rue de Naniot; if he times his inevitable attack just right, then he may well get a top five out of this.
Sergio Henao, if you haven’t kept up with the news, is facing time away from the bike due to biological passport complications. That’s a real shame, as he’s been showing good form recently. However, Sky are lining up Chris Froome and Michal Kwiatkowski for double leadership. Expect Froome to ride this race like Richie Porte; that is, he’ll be looking to get some kilometres of racing in his legs, and may not be a key player in the final. Kwiatkowski is a question mark. He really suffered in the Amstel Gold race, and will be looking to make amends here if possible. The fact that he’s on the start list suggests it might have just been a bad day at the office, and the parcours here suit him well. If neither Froome nor Kwiatkowski are holding the pace on the final climbs, look no further than Woet Poels, who took a frankly amazing fifth place in Flèche Wallonne.
There’s one big change at Orica-GreenEdge: Michael Matthews is out, and Simon Gerrans is in. We’re expecting them to dedicate their team to Gerro here, given the nature of the course, and if he’s feeling good then a top five isn’t out of the question. However, Michael Albasini also went like a dream at Flèche Wallonne, taking seventh overall. This gives Orica a good back up plan, and, with
both the Yates brothers on the squad again Adam Yates also capable of being up there, we think they’ve got a solid chance at a high finish.
Lampre rode a Flèche Wallonne to be proud of, with Diego Ulissi finishing 8th, and Rui Costa in 10th. Despite the fact that Ulissi rode a more attacking final, Costa held the pace well and stayed amongst the lead pack. We think he’s now the more likely candidate for this race, which won’t quite require the uphill kick in the same way, but nevertheless expect them both to be near one another at the end. Costa for a strong top ten.
We still think Cannondale’s plans will centre around Simon Clarke, despite a relatively weak Flèche Wallonne. He missed some important moves, and failed to hold the pace when it mattered. By distinction, his teammate Michael Woods came 12th, a great performance after a couple of quiet months from the senior neo-pro. But a glitch in form won’t be enough to invert the roster, and we fully anticipate that Woods will be riding for Clarke. If Clarke suffers at all, then Woods will get the signal to attack. A podium for them here, though, might be too much to ask.
Warren Barguil managed 9th overall in Flèche Wallonne, a powerful performance and a sign that he’s going well. He’ll be back to lead here. We’d definitely not bet against him finishing amongst he leading pack again.
Interestingly, Rafal Majka has been added to the Tinkoff squad for this race, along with the solid duo of Roman Kreuziger and Micheal Valgren. We’re not sure, though, that there will be a change in the ranks, as Majka is unlikely to be in super-strong form at this point. Kreuziger managed to finish in eleventh at Flèche Wallonne and he’ll lead again here. Arguably, the finish here suits him more, so he could go a few places higher this time.
Two other key riders here are Ag2r’s Romain Bardet and Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, both coming off the back of the Giro del Trentino. Bardet has been riding well; Nibali has not. It’s possible that Nibali has kept one eye on this race all along, but we have doubts that we’ll see much from him. The bad weather could level things though and we know he excellent in such conditions. Bardet, though, might be in for a top ten finish and the only General Classification rider that we see potentially getting a result here.
Other outsiders of note include Wanty’s Enrico Gasparatto (fifth at FW, first at Amstel!), Trek Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema, Cofidis’s Julien Simon, and LottoNL’s Robert Gesink who all went well at Flèche Wallonne
James is sticking with Dan Martin, who won’t be doing the double, but might well get the LBL.
Chris is going for the other Etixx man, Julian Alaphilippe.
Andy is going for Alejandro Valverde. He might actually do the double.