Liège-Bastogne-Liège proved to be a thrilling spectacle, with the new climb up the Côte de Rue Naniot setting the scene for an explosive finishing. It’s a fitting tribute to the Spring classics that the winner of the last event couldn’t be predicted until the last 500m. Here’s how it went down, before we take a look at the Ardennes in general.
It was a hard day in the saddle for the riders, to say the least. Thick and oppressive clouds covered the sky for much of the day, and, although there were occasional bursts of sunshine, there were also several spots of snow and driving rain. 45 riders did not finish, including a big favourite Tony Gallopin. Chris Froome also took a tumble, but, despite rumours, he did eventually finish, coming in ten minutes down in the same group as another faller, Rafal Majka.
Those who did stay upright and well-nourished also needed to stay wrapped up warm and attentive to the slippery roads, but all this didn’t stop the race taking off over the long series of climbs towards Liège. An eight-man break went in the morning, featuring the talents of Jéremy Roy and Thomas de Gendt, amongst others. They’d enjoyed a maximum of 8 mins 30 lead over the chase, but by the last 30km they were down to a minute. Only two men from the original break remained until 23km to go, when a huge effort from Etixx on the front of the peloton meant that they were altogether. It was one greatly reduced peloton that would be taking on the last tough climbs.
Etixx were looking good on the front for Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin, with around five men controlling the pace at all times. But attacks came, and many of those attacks were from one man. Carlos Betancur was showing some good form by repeatedly pulling away from the group and making Etixx chase, and he was, all the while, saving Movistar some energy. It was looking good for pre-race favourite Alejandro Valverde.
The next attack came from Andriy Grivko, who might have been trying to soften things up for team leader Vincenzo Nibali. However, Nibali himself was suffering, and quickly disappeared out the back of the leaders’ group as they arrived at the penultimate climb, the famous Côte de Saint-Nicholas. With Grivko back in the pack, it was Kwiatkowski’s turn to lead the bunch, with a sprightly but short-lived attack off the front.
It was here that Simon Gerrans also disappeared from the selection, at the same time as the Etixx train fell apart. They’d looked so strong and controlling for much of the race, but on the penultimate climb the race was every man for himself. Up to the top of the climb, Astana’s Diego Rosa, possibly receiving news that Nibali was out the back, put down a move of his own, and he and Ilnur Zakarin took off and crested first. They led the race towards the foot of the final climb, but it was all coming back together.
And then, the final, fearful climb. It was to be a short drag up the monstrous Rue Naniot, before a longer wind up to the line, and the rough and wet cobbled streets were looking unappealing to the riders. Here, Etixx once more had a man on the front, as the group surged past Rosa and Zakarin. Albasini for Orica found a small gap, which became bigger, and then bigger, as he drove a relentless pace over the cobbles. He was followed by Sky’s Wout Poels, Lampre’s Rui Costa, and BMC’s Samuel Sánchez. This was to be the final selection, and both Movistar and Etixx had missed out.
Under the flamme-rouge, the question remained as to who would have anything like a sprint left. Poels pushed on, but dragged the others with him, thanks to the dogged pursuit of Albasini. Poels and Albasini were both looking strong, with Sánchez barely about to stay in the slipstream. Costa fought hard, but he was clearly lacking the kick. As Poels opened up his sprint, Albasini followed, but the Swiss rider couldn’t keep up, and it was Poels who took the win, handing Sky their first monument. Albasini will be grateful for his second place, and Costa completed the podium. A weary Sánchez had time to look over his shoulder to make sure no one would take fourth of him, and then he was happy to just roll across the line.
Thus endeth the Ardennes for another year. It was certainly a mixed set of races for Etixx, who continue to appear dominating for much of the classics races, but often came away empty handed. Their best placed rider in LBL was Alaphilippe, in 23rd. Indeed, Alaphilippe was best placed for Etixx in all three races, and, with Martin taking third in Flèche Wallonne, those two podium places are Etixx’s best. It was a much better week for Wanty-Groupe Gobert, who had Enrico Gasparotto in all three races. After his unexpected win in Amstel, he surprised again in FW by coming in fifth. He rounds off his week with a strong 12th place in LBL.
Tim Wellens never scored big, maxing out with a lucky 10th place in Amstel, but he was always there animating the racing, and throwing everything he had in a trademark late attack. Also take note of Warren Barguil’s performances. Arguably, Barguil is riding into shape ahead of the bigger tours, but he easily represented the best of Giant-Alpecin this week — the only World Tour team not to have won in a World-level race this year, courtesy of bad luck all round. Barguil managed 15th in Amstel, then 9th in FW, then finally 6th in LBL. That level of consistency is precisely what he’ll need to compete with the best in a grand tour, and his ability to mark moves and match power was on show all week.
Finally, Michael Valgren, for Tinkoff, also had a good week. A lacklustre performance in FW is forgivable, thanks to his opportunistic second place in Amstel Gold race. But 14th after a difficult, cold, wet day in Liège-Bastogne-Liège is no mean feat, and Valgren, at only 24, has shown terrific promise this last week of racing.