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LIÈGE - BASTOGNE - LIÈGE

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26.04.2015 @ 14:09 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Two classics have already been up for grabs for the climbers but there is one that is more coveted than any other and that's in the dreams of any Ardennes expert. Sunday is the most important day of the spring for many of the world's most formidable bike riders as the classics season comes to a close with the oldest and hardest of the one-day races: Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

 

A win in an Ardennes classic can make the difference in a rider's career but only one race has the status to make a legend and write a rider's name deep into the cycling history. Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne are both prestigious races with their very unique characteristics but they lack the history to be one of the really big ones. That's not the case for the final race in the series which is the one that's on the top of the list for all Ardennes contenders as Liege-Bastogne-Liege is one of the very finest races on the entire cycling calendar.

 

It is no coincidence that almost all of the world's best climbers and stage race experts are travelling to the Belgian city of Liege these days to mix it up with the one-day specialists who have battled it out on the slopes of the Ardennes in the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne. While the first two of the hilly spring classics are suited to riders of an explosive nature, the last of the three races in the Netherlands and Belgium is much more of a climber's race.

 

What characterizes most stage race experts are their strength on the climbs and a formidable endurance and that is exactly what is needed to come out triumphant in Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege. For once the key attributes in a classic are not an ability to handle the constant battle for position or to sprint up short, steep climbs. On Sunday you need the ability to keep going and wear down your opponents on a long, hard day with numerous climbs which are longer than the ones found in the other Ardennes classics and where the long distance will take its toll.

 

These factors give the Liege-Bastogne-Liege its unique position on the cycling calendar. It is the one opportunity of the year to see such a strong line-up of classics specialists and grand tour riders going head to head on almost equal terms. The Tour of Lombardy shares some of the same characteristics but the Italian classic is held at a time when many riders have ended their season and the start list is not nearly as impressive as the one found in Sunday's race. While many riders wait until late in the season to decide whether to ride in Lombardy, the race in Liege is a clear objective for almost every rider with a decent pair of climbing legs.

 

One reason for the esteem of the Belgian race is its nature and characteristics. The other major factor is the deep history of the race. First held in 1892, "La Doyenne" is the oldest among the classics and has an impressive list of winners. Like most other old races, it was originally organized by a local newspaper, L'Expresse, who put on the race to gain publicity. Leon Hua won the first three editions before the race was put on hold until 1908 where it was revived, only to again be shelved due to World War I.

 

When the race was back on the calendar, it was still mainly a Belgian affair, with only one foreign win in the years between the two wars. That changed after World War II and since then it has been one of the most coveted races for every ambitious cyclist. It almost seems to be a God-given fact that the greatest of all riders, Eddy Merckx, tops the rankings with no less than 5 triumphs in Liege while Moreno Argentin has been the greatest Ardennes specialist in recent years as the only one with four wins in La Doyenne in addition to his record three victories in Fleche Wallonne.

 

The race is the fourth of cycling's 5 monuments, the most important one-day races of the sport, and it is without any doubt one of the most prestigious in this very exclusive group. It also plays a crucial role for the most important sport in one of the most split countries in the world. While the Flemish people see the Ronde van Vlaanderen as the highlight of the classics season, their Wallonian compatriots see nothing coming even close to the status of their Ardennes battle.

 

In the past, it was held one day after Fleche Wallonne in the so-called La Weekend Ardennais. In modern-day cycling, it makes no sense to have two of the biggest one-day races on successive days and so the idea has now been shelved but together with Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne it makes of the triptych of the Ardennes classics, held in just 8 days of exciting competition. Only 7 riders have won Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the same year while only Davide Rebellin and Philippe Gilbert have made the Ardennes treble, with the latter even also taking the Brabantse Pijl when he made the feat in 2011.

 

As the hardest of the one-day classics, the race fits perfectly into the overall structure of the cycling season and the anatomy of the Ardennes classics. The hilly one-day races have seen a gradual changing of the guard as more and more climbers have arrived in the classics heartland while more and more cobbles specialists have taken a well-deserved rest. While the strong men of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix could still play a role on the narrow Dutch roads and short climbs in the Amstel Gold Race, they have nothing to do in Liege on Sunday. And as the hard climbs make a much more natural selection and gradual elimination in La Doyenne, positioning is not as important as it has been in the previous races and so the race favourites are much more in need for climbing domestiques than strong riders. Hence, it will be a start list consisting almost solely of riders who specialize in climbing.

 

Furthermore, the race marks a perfect transition from the classics season to the time of the grand tours which kicks off with the Giro d'Italia in a few weeks time. With the stage race experts and classics specialists all gathered on the same start line, it is another perfect example of the beautiful anatomy of the cycling calendar that has taken us from the sprinters at Milan-Sanremo over the heavier guys in the cobbled races and the puncheurs in the first Ardennes races to the climbers in Sunday's final classic and in May's Giro d'Italia.

 

The 2012 and 2013 have proved that one of the beauties of the race is that the winner is not always one of the pre-race favourites. After Maxim Iglinskiy's surprise win in 2012, it was Daniel Martin who denied the biggest names in 2013. Last year it was another outsider who emerged as the strongest when Simon Gerrans won the race he actually thought was too hard for him. In a surprisingly non-selective race, Giampaolo Caruso and Domenico Pozzovivo almost denied the favourites the chance to battle for the win with a gutsy lat attack and it was only a huge effort from Gerrans’ teammate Pieter Weening who got the favourites back into striking distance by the time they hit the final rise to the finish in Ans. Here Martin accelerated clear and looked poised to make it two in a race until he famously crashed in the final turn. Instead, it was Gerrans who timed his sprint perfectly to beat Alejandro Valverde and Michal Kwiatkowski and take the biggest win of his career. After an injury-filled first part of the season, Gerrans will be back to defend his title while Valverde and Kwiatkowski will both hope to take their second win in the 2015 Ardennes campaign.

 

The course

The 253.5km race is one of the few classics - Milan-Sanremo is another - which really keeps its tradition of travelling between the cities that make up its name. Even though the race route varies a bit from year to year, the strong links to the past means that the race has been using the same roads and climbs for years. Unlike races like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and especially Il Lombardia which always undergo significant changes, the alterations to the Liege course are usually only minor corrections.

 

That doesn't mean that things haven't changed though. In the past, the race's key climb was the Cote de la Redoute which was always the scene of the big battle between the race favourites. With modern-day racing being more controlled, however, the organizers had to come up with a plan to again make the race more selective as the landmark climb was now located too far from the finish for the favourites to make their move.

 

That idea was to introduce the climb of the Cote-de-la-Roche-aux-Faucons which is located much closer to Liege and so comes inside the final 20km of the race. It was first included in 2009 and since then it has been the most important point of the race. Due to road construction, however, it was absent from the 2013 course, making it an unusually easy affair. Last year it was back and together with Redoute, the short, steep Cote de Saint-Nicolas and the slight rise to the finish in Ans, it will again make for a tough end to a long race in 2015.

 

Last year's edition was the 100th and so the organizers wanted to celebrate the race's long history. This prompted them to make a few key changes to the route to include more historic roads but overall, the race was very similar to the most recent editions, with the climbs being mostly the same. One of the main changes was the inclusion of the Cote des Forges in between Redoute and Roche-aux-Faucons. This meant that the landmark climb was located much farther from the finish that it has been in the past and maybe played a role in making the race unusually less selective. This year the organizers have removed that climb to return to the traditional format, meaning that the Cote de la Redoute now comes 10km closer to the finish. Furthermore, they have reduced the distance to 253.5km, making it the shortest edition for more than a decade, but there will still be 10 categorized climbs on the menu.

 

As usual, the race starts in the industrial city of Liege and travels south into the heartland of the Belgian Ardennes. As it is the case in most of the classics, the opening part of the race is not overly difficult and while it is impossible to traverse the region without going up and down most of the time, the 106km from Liege to the turning point in Bastogne only take in one categorized climb, the Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne (2.8km, 6.2%) after 79km of racing. This part of the race plays the same role as it does in all major classics as it allows the early break to take off and accumulates fatigue in the riders' legs. Early escapees have no chance in this long race but team tactics play a big role and it may be no bad idea to have a rider up the road. Hence, it may take some time for the early break to get clear and we can expect a fast start to the race. In such a long event, the break usually gets a rather big gap as the race settles into a steady rhythm.

 

When the riders reach Bastogne, they turn around to head back to Liege but this time they take in a much longer and harder route. Having climbed the Cote de Saint-Roch (1.0km, 11.1%) after 125.5km of racing, it gets serious when they hit the Cote de Wanne (2.7km, 7.4%) with 84km to go. From then on the 7 remaining climbs come in quick succession and there will be no time to recover during the remaining part of the course. The next one is the brutally steep Cote de Stockeu (1km, 12.5%) which leads to the Stele Eddy Merckx and comes 78km from the finish. Then it's the Cote de la Haute-Levee (3.6km, 5.6%) 72km from the finish before the riders return to the Col du Rosier (4.4km, 5.9%) which has traditionally been the longest climb of the race but was absent from last year’s course. The top is located 59.5km from the finish and is followed by the Col du Macquisard (2.5km, 5%) whose summit comes with just 46.5km to go.

 

This is the time for the strong teams to start to apply the pressure, and from then on it is a gradual elimination race as every climb sees plenty of riders drop off under the hard pace. Meanwhile, the race is usually very aggressive in this phase. It is not uncommon to see the creation of a break from which the strongest are able to remain in contention deep into the finale. By sending riders up the road, several teams want to prepare later attacks and force their rivals to chase hard and it is not unusual to see the race situation change rather often at this point, with riders falling off the pace and more riders bridging across to the lead. At the same time, the strong teams try to control the situation.

 

The race reaches its landmark climb the Cote de La Redoute (2.0km, 8.9%) with 35km still to go. As said, the ascent is no longer the decisive point in the race as it used to be but it still plays a very important role. This is the place where the first major selection takes place and it is a brutal war to get to the bottom in one of the leading positions. The first kilometre has a gradient of around 8% while the next 500m are the steepest at 13% before it again levels out. At the top of the Redoute, the number of contenders has been drastically reduced and the climb remains a perfect opportunity for riders just below the front row to hit out in an attempt to try to surprise the favourites.

 

Unfortunately, the section after Cote de la Redoute is much better suited to a chasing peloton that to attackers and this means that a rather big regrouping usually takes place. This was what the organizers tried to prevent by introducing a new climb last year but the idea didn’t work. It would be no surprise if the major teams have caught all escapes by the time they hit the Roche-aux-Fauconx (1.5km, 9.3%) whose top comes 19.5km from the finish. After a hard start with a 9% gradient, it gets slightly easier at the midpoint before it reaches its steepest gradient near the top with a 10.8% gradient

 

Since being introduced in 2009, Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons has always played a key role in the race and it has been the place for the favourites to drop their competitors. In 2009 Andy Schleck soloed off the front to take an emphatic victory, in 2011 the decisive move with the Schleck brothers and eventual winner Philippe Gilbert went clear on this climb and in 2012 Vincenzo Nibali put down the hammer and dropped all of his companions on this crucial ascent in what seemed to be the race-winning move. Only in 2010 a when Alexandre Vinokourov won, and in 2014 the climb failed to create a major selection.

 

At the top of Roche-aux-Faucons, a select group of favourites may have gone clear but if the cards are not right, there is still plenty of room for a regrouping to take place. Despite the terrain not being very difficult, this section cannot be underestimated as domestique ressources will be limited and it will be less obvious who's going to chase down the attacks. That's what Vinokourov and Alexandr Kolobnev benefited from when they made their race-winning move in 2010. Last year Julian Arredondo and Domenico Pozzovivo tried a similar move but as the favourites still had lots of domestiques, they were brought back.

 

As usual, the riders have one final chance to drop any companions as the Cote de Saint-Nicolas (1.2km, 8.6%) is once again located with just 5.5km to go. This is usually the scene of the final attacks of the race, and the steep slopes can create plenty of damage late in a long, hard race. This is where the main selection was made in 2013 and in 2014 Giampaolo Caruso and Pozzovivo looked like they had made the race-winning move here. With its location so close to the finish, there is a great chance that any kind of advantage can be maintained to the finish. The climb is very steep at the bottom where it averages 10.9% for the first 500m but then it gets significantly easier.

 

After the top it is a short descent until the final 1.5km to the finish line in the Liege suburb of Ans. This final section has a gradual incline and while it is not one of the categorized climbs of the race, a 4.6% average gradient in the final kilometer makes for a hard finish to an already very hard race. Usually that kind of gradient cannot make a huge difference for the best climbers in the world but after more than 250km of hilly racing, it can do a lot of damage and split the field as it did in last year’s race when a rather big group was still together. If more than one rider arrives together at the bottom, the front group is likely to have split by the time the leading rider takes the right-hand turn onto the finishing straight a few hundred metres from the line. It is not always the fastest who wins a sprint into Ans but more often the one with most power left in his legs, making it a fitting end to one of the most prestigious and probably the hardest one-day race on the calendar.

 

 

 

 

The weather

Since the riders arrived in Belgium and the Netherlands for the hilly classics, they have had splendid weather conditions and summerlike conditions. That will all come to an end on Saturday which will siginal a complete change of the weather for the next few days.

 

This means that the scene is set for a harder edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege as the riders will have rainy conditions for the 101st edition of the race. The only consolation is the fact that it won’t be very cold as the temperature will reach a maximum of 15 degrees.

 

There will be a moderate wind from a southwesterly direction which means that the riders will first have a cross-headwind during their long run to Bastogne before they turn into a cross-tailwind for their journey back to Liege. Just before the Col du Rosier, they will turn into a crosswind and that will be the conditions for most of the time until they have reached the top of the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons. Then it will be a cross-tailwind for most of the final part of the race until they again turn into a crosswind with 2km to go. The final turn leads into a headwind for the final 150m.

 

The favourites

Even though Liege-Bastogne-Liege is held in the same week as the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne, it would be a mistake to make too many comparisons with the two previous Ardennes classics. Even though several key contenders are the same in the three races and the list of favourites contain some of the same names, a number of factors mean that completely new names can turn up near the front and that the internal hierarchy between the Ardennes contenders cannot just be transferred from Amstel and Fleche to Liege.

 

First of all, the nature of the race is very different. In Amstel and Fleche, it is all about explosiveness and punchy climbing skills and with a limited selection, positioning is key to success. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race of attrition where endurance and climbing skills count for a lot more. The natural selection is much bigger and so you don't need to be positioned near the very front to achieve success and even though a fast sprint is of course a big advantage, it is more about freshness and strength when we pass the 200km mark and get into the finale of the race. Amstel lacks the toughness and Fleche the distance and the combination of those two factors make Liege a different affair.

 

Furthermore, the race is the biggest target for most of the Ardennes contenders and a number of key riders may have held something back in the two previous races to stay fresh for Sunday's race. It is not unusual to see riders who have shown nothing in the first two races suddenly figure at the pointy end of the race. Finally, a host of new riders from Trentino and elsewhere have been brought in for this race, making the line-up of climbers one of the most star-studded of the entire season, probably only rivaled by the one for the Tour de France.

 

With the absence of the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons, the 2013 course was rather easy, making the race less selective than usual, and it was a rather big group that arrived at the bottom of the Cote de Saint-Nicolas. However, it is testament to the general toughness of the terrain that the group exploded on a short climb that would make a much smaller difference if it had been located at the end of just about any other classic.

 

Last year the Roche-aux-Faucons was back and the race was expected to be back to its usual selective format. However, it was a surprisingly big group that arrived at the bottom of the Cote de Saint-Nicolas which failed to make much of a difference and for the first time in years the race almost ended with a bunch sprint up the short climb in Ans.

 

The two most recent editions follow a trend that has seen the classics become less selective and nowadays it seems that sprinting abilities and team support are more important than ever before. To avoid a similar scenario, the organizers have brought the race back to its previous format, with the Cote de la Redoute now coming closer to the finish. This should make the race harder but there is still a big chance that a rather big group will be together in the finale. The rainy conditions may make the race tougher though and as there will mainly be a cross-tailwind in the finale, it will be easier for late attacks on the Roche-aux-Faucons to stick.

 

It is always a delicate affair to find out where Liege-Bastogne-Liege will be decided. The attacks on the Cote de la Redoute rarely pay off but from the Roche-aux-Faucons, everything can happen. The best climbers may ride away at this point of the race and go on to decide the race on the Saint-Nicolas or the final climb in Ans. Riders may get clear after the top like Alexandre Vinokourov and Maxim Iglinskiy have done when they won the race. A small group may escape on the Cote de Saint-Nicolas like in 2013 or it may all be decided in Ans like last year. This means that it will be very difficult for the favourites to handle the race tactically and to find out when it is time to play their cards.

 

Despite the many different scenarios, one rider seems to be able to win in all of them. Alejandro Valverde is the most decorated Ardennes rider of his generation and has already won La Doyenne twice. His last win dates back to 2008 but it speaks volumens about his skills in this race that he has only missed the podium thrice in his nine participations in the race. He was 33rd in his debut, 19th in 2009 and disqualified three years ago but otherwise he has always finished in the top 3.

 

With such an impressive palmares, it must be scary for his rivals to learn that the Movistar leader feels that he has arrived in the Ardennes with a better condition than ever before. In the Amstel Gold Race, he was boxed in at the bottom of the Cauberg and was nowhere to be seen when Philippe Gilbert made his big attack. When he found an opening, however, he easily joined Gilbert and Matthews but at this point it was too late to make a difference as he only made the junction at the top. One can only wonder what would have happened if Valverde had been able to make his own attack on the climb…

 

In Fleche Wallonne, Valverde confirmed his great condition. The Spaniard was superior on the Mur de Huy, controlling the pace all the way up and being at ease when he accelerated clear to write his name onto the list of three-time winners in the mid-week classic. Valverde was readt to respond to every attack but apparently none of his rivals had the power to give it a go, making it clear that Valverde is by far the strongest rider at the moment.

 

Valverde has proved that he can be in the mix in all three Ardennes classics and there is no reason to suggest that he will pay for his efforts when we reach the finale in Liege. However, it will still be difficult for Valverde to come away with the win as they race will be very difficult to handle from a tactical point of view.

 

Valverde will probably ride the race with a defensive approach and so be content with following the attacks on the final two climbs. He knows that he will be the favourite to win the sprint in Ans – last year he was beaten by Simon Gerrans but the Australian is not at 100% - and among the pre-race favourites only Michal Kwiatkowski, Dan Martin and maybe Joaquim Rodriguez seem to pose a real threat for Valverde if he is still in contention at that point. However, everyone wants to rid themselves of the Spaniard before the finish and this will make it a tactical challenging affair.

 

The key for Valverde is a strong team as he could find himself in a very difficult situation after the Roche-aux-Faucons if he is isolated. The team will be expected to do most of the early work and this will leave them with fewer ressources for the finale. Giovanni Visconti, Jose Joaquin Rojas and Gorka Izagirre have all been riding strongly but if the race gets very selective, they are unlikely to be there in the finale. The key rider is Nairo Quintana but the Colombian wasn’t really impressive in Pais Vasco or Fleche Wallonne and has never been a great one-day rider.

 

It is very unlikely that anyone will be able to drop Valverde but he has often been the strongest rider without taking the win. Last year it was only a very strong Pieter Weening who brought things back together and this year Valverde may have less allies. Favourites like Dan Martin and Philippe Gilbert are licking their wounds after Fleche Wallonne and Orica-GreenEDGE are unlikely to work too much for a sprint with Gerrans not being at 100%. Katusha and Astana have lots of cards to play and it may be hard for Movistar to keep things together. However, Valverde is clearly the strongest rider in the race and if Movistar can step up, the Spaniard is the overwhelming favourite.

 

The list of favourites was turned upside down in Fleche Wallonne where no less three of the biggest contenders hit the deck. One of them was 2013 winner Daniel Martin who would probably have gone into this race as a two-time defending champion if he had not crashed in the final turn in last year’s race. His consistency in this race proves that he is perfectly suited to its challenges and he is evidently one of the biggest favourites.

 

Martin is one of the select few riders who have that formidable ability to shine on the day they have targeted. The Irishman may not have won a lot of races but when he crosses the line in first position, it is usually in the biggest races. Despite his young age, he has already won the two monuments he can realistically target and among the current Ardennes specialists, only Philippe Gilbert joins him on that list.

 

Martin always has a slow start to his season but this year he felt better than usual in the Volta a Catalunya. He hoped that this was a good sign for the Ardennes and he looked very strong in the Amstel Gold Race whose short climbs and constant stress don’t suit him at all. He was fully ready to go in Fleche Wallonne when disaster struck. Like many other riders, Martin hit the deck and even though he managed to rejoin the bunch, he later had to abandon.

 

At the time of writing, Cannondale-Garmin have not announced anything about his condition but it was reassuring that he managed to rejoin the bunch. Nonetheless, there is still no guarantee that he will be at the start in Liege this Sunday and that he will be 100%. Hence, it is risky business to put him close to the top of our list of contenders but if he is able to recover from his injuries, he is probably Valverde’s biggest rival. Unlike many others, he usually gets better as the day goes on and even though he often seems to be suffering on the earlier climbs, he is always their in the end. He is very strong on this kind of short, steep climbs and he has the punch to make the difference in Ans. In fact, he has been the best rider in the final two years in a row and he is the rider who is most likely to distance Valverde on the final rise. Furthermore, he is a fast sprinter and even if a few riders are together in the final turn, he will be one of the favourites. If he can recover from his injuries, Martin may take his third monument win in Liege.

 

Going into the Ardennes classics, much was expected from Joaquim Rodriguez after he took a fantastic win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. However, the Katusha leader has failed to live up to expectations in the first two races. In the Amstel Gold Race, he was not even in the group that sprinted for the win after he had been held up by two crashes that forced him into chase mode. However, Valverde and Rui Costa had similar misfortune in the finale and both of them finished in the top 4. In Fleche Wallonne, Rodriguez was unable to match the likes of Valverde, Julian Alaphilippe and Michael Albasini in a finale where he is usually almost unbeatable.

 

The first two races clearly indicate that Rodriguez is still not back at his former level. However, it will be a big mistake to rule out the Katusha leader for La Doyenne. In 2013, Rodriguez had crashed in the Amstel Gold Race and was off the pace in Fleche Wallonne. When it was time for Liege-Bastogne-Liege, however, he was flying and got agonizingly close to winning the race.

 

Rodriguez has done nothing to hide that Liege is his favourite event and he may even put a victory in the oldest classic above a grand tour win on his list of objectives. With two second places, he has been close but until now he has been unable to make things come together. There is no doubt that he has had his eyes on Liege in the first two classics and he may have held something back. It would be no surprise if Rodriguez is at a higher level on Sunday.

 

As double winner of Il Lombardia, Rodriguez has proved that he can handle the long distances and he is perfectly suited to the short, steep climbs in the Ardennes. With his great punch, he can make the difference on the final rise in Ans or on the Cote de Saint-Nicolas. However, he needs to get rid of the likes of Valverde and Martin before the final turn as both of them are faster in a flat sprint. That could be a challenging affair for the Katusha leader who will have a hard time making a solo move on the Saint-Nicolas and would have preferred the final climb to be steeper. However, he has proved that he is strong enough to make the difference in Ans and if he has really held something back in the two previous classics, he may be flying in Liege.

 

Rui Costa has flown under the radar but it would be a very bad idea to underestimate the former world champion. The Portuguese is one of the best one-day riders in the world and even though he has never achieved great results in the Ardennes, he has all the skills to be a big contender. Until 2013, he was riding in support of Alejandro Valverde but he still managed to finish in the top 10 in Liege in his final season as a Movistar rider. Last year he failed to reach his best condition and as he crashed out of La Doyenne, we never got a chance to see what he could achieve.

 

This year Costa seems to be in pretty good condition. In the Amstel Gold Race, he was the 8th rider to crest the summit of the Cauberg which was a solid performance by the strong Portuguese who is not perfectly suited to the explosive nature of that climb. He came up short on the Mur de Huy in Fleche Wallonne but that was no surprise as he has never been a rider for the very steep gradients.

 

Now Costa goes into the race that really suits him. The longer climbs and the long distance in Liege-Bastogne-Liege suit him perfectly and as he proved in Florence in 2013, he is a danger man in these long, hard races. He knows how to time his attacks and he seems to be one of the strongest climbers at the moment. He knows that he won’t beat Valverde in a sprint but he has the skills to attack in the finale. With his fast sprint and good climbing skills, he should be strong enough to finish it off in Ans.

 

For Philippe Gilbert, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the most important race of the entire season and the Belgian would love to take a second win in his home event. However, the harder profile of this race has often made it tough for the former world champion who has often come up short even when he was close to his very best. Only in his magical 2011 season has he managed to win this race and things really need to come together for Gilbert to win on this kind of course.

 

However, Gilbert is a double winner of Il Lombardia which often has even more climbing than Liege-Bastogne-Liege and when he is 100% fit, he will always be one of the favourites in these races. This year he seems to be at a higher level than he has been for a couple of seasons. He rode very strongly in Pais Vasco and even though he failed to drop Michael Matthews on the Cauberg, he was clearly very strong. If one adds the fact that he was riding exceptionally well in the final part of the 2014 season, a number of factors suggest that he is getting closer to his 2011 level.

 

Like Martin, Gilbert hit the deck hard in Fleche Wallonne and even though he didn’t suffer any major injuries, he could find himself in a lot of pain on the road to Liege. Furthermore, he will always be a marked man in this race and even though he is fast in a sprint, he is not as fast as Valverde. This means that he will probably have to distance the Spaniard to take the win and he may have to ride a bit more aggressively than he has done in past editions of this race. He is part of a very strong BMC team that may have a few cards to play in the finale and this could open the door for Gilbert to finally reap the fruits of his good condition.

 

Vincenzo Nibali was agonizingly close to winning this race in 2012 when he had distanced all his key rivals on the Roche-aux-Faucons before being passed by Maxim Iglinskiy in the finale. The Italian dreams about winning this big classic and it is his big goal in the spring season. In the first two races in the Ardennes, he played a domestique role but he will be the leader for the big one in Liege.

 

Last year Nibali didn’t reach his best condition in the early part of the year and in the first part of this season it was a case of rendezvous. However, a training camp on Mount Teide seems to have paid off for the Tour de France champion who rode strongly in the Amstel Gold Race and seems to be pretty pleased with his form.

 

Nibali’s big challenge is the fact that he is one of the slowest riders in a sprint and will have to arrive alone at the finish. This means that he will have to ride aggressively but he is not afraid of doing so. In the 2012 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia, he attacked from afar and if he has the legs, he will go on Roche-aux-Faucons. No one really knows how strong he is at the moment but everybody knows that he could emerge as the best climber if he is close to his best. The Tour de France champion is the rider who is most likely to take a solo win in this race.

 

Michal Kwiatkowski won the Amstel Gold Race but it seemed that he achieved that win by using his head more than his legs. Already in Pais Vasco, it was clear that he was not as strong as he was in 2014 and it was hard not to have the same impression when he struggled on the Cauberg. He was wise enough not to go too deep to save something for the sprint but he admitted that he had actually been on a pretty bad day. In Fleche Wallonne, he was far off the pace on the Mur de Huy and this again suggests that he is not at 100%.

 

Furthermore, Kwiatkowski will be a marked man as it is never easy to escape the attention as the reigning world champion. This will make things even more complicated for the Pole who is usually not afraid of riding aggressively. However, Kwiatkowski is very fast in a sprint and is one of the select few who can realistically hope of beating Valverde in Ans. If he can gauge his efforts well, he may still be contention when they pass the flamme rouge and then he is fast enough to finish it off.

 

Last year Domenico Pozzovivo made his debut in this race and he surprised himself by getting agonizingly close to the win after a very aggressive showing. He immediately fell in love with the race and so he has made it his first big target of the year.

 

Over the last few years, Pozzovivo has gradually improved and this year he has taken another step. Despite having missed the second part of the 2014 season due to injury, he was strong already in the Tour Down Under. He had to make a small break to undergo surgery but was back to his best already in Tirreno-Adriatico. In the Volta a Catalunya, he won a stage and finished on the podium and since then he has been preparing hard for La Doyenne and the Giro.

 

Pozzovivo returned to racing in Trentino where he had a bad day in the first mountain stage. However, he proved that he is fully ready for his big goals when he won the second big mountain stage and this will have provided him with lots of confidence for Liege. Last year he proved that he can handle this hard classic just two days after the end of the Italian race and there is no reason to suggest that he will be too fatigued.

 

Pozzovivo is no fast sprinter and like Nibali he has to attack in the finale. He did so in last year’s edition where he was maybe the strongest rider in the race. Despite his skills as a pure climber, he is pretty punchy on short, steep climbs and he has the strength and panache to make the difference.

 

Jakob Fuglsang has not done a lot of racing this year but whenever he has pinned on a number, he has been very strong. He was among the best in Paris-Nice and in the Ardennes he has been incredibly good too. Neither Amstel Gold Race nor Fleche Wallone suit him well but he was among the best on the climbs in both races.

 

Now he goes into the race that suits him the best and even though he lines up alongside Vincenzo Nibali, he should be allowed to play his own cards. Astana have to ride aggressively to win this race and that should open the door for both Fuglsang and Nibali. Like his captain, he is not fast in a sprint but he seems to be strong enough to make a solo move in the finale.

 

Roman Kreuziger has flown a bit under the radar in the first Ardennes classics but there is no reason to rule out the Czech. In fact, he seems to be in very good condition and he has been fully focused on Liege which is the classic that suits him best. He has finished in the top 10 in the past and last year he was one of the strongest riders who launched repeated attacks.

 

This year Kreuziger will again have an aggressive mindset and his performances in the first two classics suggest that he is ready to attack. As he is not a fast sprinter, he could find allies in Fuglsang and Nibali who have the same characteristics and all plan to blow the race to pieces. In 2013, Kreuziger proved how strong he can be in these long races when he won the Amstel Gold Race and he seems to be strong enough to repeat that performance in Liege.

 

Romain Bardet has made this race his big goal of the spring season. Last year he proved his skills in the Ardennes when he finished 10th and this year he claims to be even stronger. He changed his original plans of doing all three classics and instead he has been riding in Trentino to prepare for this race. In Italy, he proved that he is very strong at the moment. In the hard third stage, he attacked early in the race and went again on the penultimate climb. Despite being caught with 3km to go, he was still strong enough to finish the stage in 4th.

 

Bardet seems to be fully ready for his big goal and he has the explosive climbing skills to shine in this terrain. Last year he proved that he can handle the distance and he has the right aggressive mindset to attack in the finale. Combining forces with Pozzovivo and Rinaldo Nocentini, he is part of a vert strong trio that has the firepower to put Movistar under pressure in the finale.

 

On paper, Daniel Moreno is number two in the Katusha hierarcy but the Spaniard doesn’t seem to have reached his best condition. Furthermore, he has never been very good in the very long races and his best result in Liege is last year’s 9th place.

 

Instead, Katusha may look to Giampaolo Caruso to animate the finale. The Italian got agonizingly close to the victory in 2014 and this year he is again riding impressively well. He was one of the strongest on the Cauberg and he was again on the attack in the finale of Fleche Wallonne. He is perfectly suited to this terrain and he is pretty fast in a sprint too. Katusha are unlikely to ride defensively to set Rodriguez up and Caruso will probably have the job of going on the attack. He seems to be strong enough to finish it off.

 

Jelle Vanendert has had a disastrous Ardennes campaign. The Lotto Soudal leader crashed in both Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne and so he has never had the chance to show his good form. However, he was riding better than unusal in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and he is one of the most consistent and strongest riders in the Ardennes.

 

On paper, this race is the one that suits him the best and he will be very eager to finally reap the fruits of his hard work. He is part of a very strong Lotto Soudal team that can also rely on Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens but it seems that Vanendert is the strongest of the trio. Like many others, he is not fast in a sprint but he is not afraid of attacking in the finale. He suffered no major injuries in his crash and should be ready to go for glory in Liege.

 

While we have not been too impressed by Michal Kwiatkowski’s condition, Julian Alahilippe has been stronger than expected. It has always been clear that he was destined for greatness in these races but few would have expected him to already finish second in Fleche Wallonne.

 

Liege-Bastogne-Liege is obviously much tougher and longer than the mid-week classics but in the Amstel Gold Race, Alaphilippe proved that he can handle the distance. His first goal is to support Kwiatkowski but if the Pole is not at 100%, Alaphilippe may be allowed to play his own card. Furthermore, he may go on the attack as part of the Etixx-QuickStep strategy. If he can handle the harder climbing and make it into a small group, he will be hard to beat in a final sprint.

 

Astana have several cards to play in this race. In addition to Fuglsang and Nibali, Michele Scarponi is a candidate in a race where he has been one of the best before. In 2013, he looked like the strongest on Saint-Nicolas and after a below-par 2014 season, he seems to be back at a high level in 2015. He was very strong in Pais Vasco and he looked strong in Fleche Wallonne too. Scarponi knows that he can handle the distance and he has loads of experience. With Fuglsang and Nibali at his side, he has lots of cards to play and he is pretty strong in this kind of finish. It would be a good idea to look out for the wily veteran in the finale.

 

Another experienced Italian who is always strong in this race, is Enrico Gasparotto. The Italian finished third in 2012 and he doesn’t seem to be far from the level he had back then. He was one of the best in the Amstel Gold Race and he did reasonably well in Fleche Wallonne which has never suited him. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is much better and with his fast sprint, he is a danger man in Ans. He will probably have a defensive mindset but if he is still there at the finish, he will be an obvious threat.

 

Sergio Henao is tailor-made for these races and he was incredibly strong in Pais Vasco. However, he doesn’t seem to be at the same level in the Ardennes. The longer distances seem to have taken their toll on the Colombian who has done very little racing in the past 12 months. With Liege-Bastogne-Liege being the hardest race, it may be a bit too much to expect Henao to be a contender. On the other hand, he has the skills to win these races and if he can rediscover his Pais Vasco legs, the fact that he has now survived to longer races could turn him into a contender.

 

Pierre Rolland is not your typical one-day rider but the Frenchman seems to be incredibly strong at the moment. He took a storming win in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon queen stage and he looked very strong on the Mur de Huy which doesn’t suit him at all. The longer climbs and the longer distance in Liege suits him really well and he will be keen to go on the attack in the finale. He is not afraid of attacking from afar and he seems to be close to the level he has in the 2014 Giro. If that’s the case, he will be hard to catch and even though he has to arrive solo at the finish, he is strong enough to create a surprise.

 

***** Alejandro Valverde

**** Daniel Martin, Joaquim Rodriguez

*** Rui Costa, Philippe Gilbert, Vincenzo Nibali, Michal Kwiatkowski

** Domenico Pozzovivo, Jakob Fuglsang, Roman Kreuziger, Romain Bardet, Jelle Vanendert, Giampaolo Caruso, Julian Alaphilippe, Michele Scarponi, Enrico Gasparotto, Sergio Henao, Pierre Rolland

* Tom Dumoulin, Daniel Moreno, Michael Albasini, Wilco Kelderman, Tony Gallopin, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Tim Wellens, Rinaldo Nocentini, Tejay van Garderen, Ben Hermans, Dylan Teuns, Mathias Frank, Bauke Mollema, Simon Gerrans, Simon Yates, Warren Barguil, Rafael Valls, Davide Formolo, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Rafal Majka, Nairo Quintana, Giovanni Visconti, Jan Bakelants, Rudy Molard, Pieter Weening, Simon Clarke, Rein Taaramae, Luis Leon Sanchez, Paul Martens, Arthur Vichot, Jarlinson Pantano, Fabio Felline, Louis Meintjes

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