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Will Alejandro Valverde take his fourth win in what could be an epic edition of La Doyenne?

Photo: Sirotti

LIÈGE - BASTOGNE - LIÈGE

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23.04.2016 @ 23:54 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 will come to a close at 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 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, tat 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 will kick off at 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.In 20144, it was another outsider who emerged as the strongest when Simon Gerrans won the race he actually thought was too hard for him. Liege-Bastogne-Liege may be a brutal race where only the strongest survive but the tactical battle means that the list of possible winners is much longer than it is for Fleche Wallonne which is a race for a select group of specialists.

 

Last year there was no room for surprises though. After his dominant win at Fleche Wallonne, Alejandro Valverde went into the race as the man to beat. Despite being isolated in the finale, he mastered things perfectly to slowly reel Daniel Moreno in on the final rise to the finish in Ans before unleashing his devastating sprint to take his third win in the race. Julian Alaphilippe completed a memorable classics season by taking his second runner-up spot after his surprise second place in Fleche Wallonne while Joaquim Rodriguez saved his classics campaign by taking third. Valverde is back in 2016 as he tries to take win number four in a shortened classics campaign and he will again be up against Alaphilippe who is part of a strong Etixx-QuickStep team, and Rodriguez who is still chasing the win in his favourite race.

 

The course

The 253km 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. In 2014, it was back and together with Redoute, the short, steep Cote de Saint-Nicolas and the slight rise to the finish in Ans, it has formed the tough finale since then.

 

The last few editions have been very controlled and it has all often come down to Saint-Nicolas and the final climb to Ans. This has prompted the organizers to try to spice the finale up and so they have included an extra climb in the finale of the 2016 edition of the race. After Saint-Nicolas, the riders will have to tackle the 600m Rue de Hal that averages 10.5% and even includes some cobbles and as the top comes just 2.5km from the finish, it offers an extra chance to make a late attack, setting the scene for an animated finale.

 

Apart from that, the only major change is that the famous and very steep Cote de Stockey will be skipped. The rest of the final half of the race is unchanged. Yhe distance is reduced from253.5km to 253, making it the shortest edition for more than a decade and the number of climbs will again be 10.

 

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 78.5km 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 125km of racing, it gets serious when they hit the Cote de Wanne (2.7km, 7.4%) with 84.5km to go. From there, the 7 remaining climbs come in quick succession and there will be no time to recover during the remaining part of the course. The riders will skip the famous Cote de Stockeu (1km, 12.5%) and so won’t pass the famous Stele Eddy Merckx and instead they will head straight to the Cote de la Haute-Levee (3.6km, 5.6%) 71km 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. The top is located 61km from the finish and is followed by the Col du Macquisard (2.5km, 5%) whose summit comes with just 48.5km 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 36.5km 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 than 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 in 2014 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 20.5km 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 when Alexandre Vinokourov won, and in 2014 and 2015 did the climb fail 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. In 2014 Julian Arredondo and Domenico Pozzovivo tried a similar move but as the favourites still had lots of domestiques, they were brought back. Last year Jakob Fuglsang, Roman Kreuziger and Giampaolo Caruso went clear in this part.

 

As usual, the riders have a big chance to drop any companions as the Cote de Saint-Nicolas (1.2km, 8.6%) is again located in the finale, with the top coming 6.5km 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, 2014 Giampaolo Caruso and Pozzovivo looked like they had made the race-winning move here, and 2015 when only a small group of riders was left after the climb.. With its location so close to the finish, there is a great chance that any kind of advantage can be maintained all the way 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 has usually been a short descent and flat section that has led to the rise in the finale but this year, the finale includes the new climb of Rue de Hal (0.6km, 10.5%). The top of the cobbled climb comes with just 2.5km and leads straight onto a short descent and the final 1.5km 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 group as it has always done in recent years. 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

For days, the big talking point in Belgium has been the weather. After the hailstorm that marred the finale of the Amstel Gold Race, things are set to be a lot worse for Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the 2016 edition could be a really epic affair.

 

Winter will return to Northern Europe during the weekend and Sunday will be a cold day with a maximum temperature of just 8 degrees. Throughout the day there will be a a 50% chance of rain and sleet may even be on the menu.

 

Furthermore, there will be a relatively strong wind from a northerly direction which means that it will be a tailwind on the way out and a heasdwind and a cross-head-wind on the way back. It will be a headwind almost all the way from the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons to the finish until they turn into a cross-headwind after the final climb. The final turn leads into a cross-tailwind 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. 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 makes 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.

 

In 2014, 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. Last year it was a bit of the same and even though Saint-Nicolas created a bigger selection that it did 12 months earlier, the race was a lot less aggressive that it was just a few years ago.

 

The three 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 followed last year’s formula of bringing the race back to its previous format, with the Cote de la Redoute coming closer to the finish, and most notably they have added the new Rue Naniot. There is little oubt that the new climb will make things a lot more selective but it is likely to maje it even more of a waiting game. Now the riders know that they have a better chance to make a difference in the finale and this will primpt to approach the race with a conservative mindset. Again there is a big chance that a rather big group will be together in the finale. The strong headwind will make it almost impossible to attack from afar.

 

On the other hand, the wintry condition will take its toll. If the riders get cold, they have no chance to keep up with the best and this was what took so many riders out of contention at the Amstel Gold Race. Here it will be even worse and with the headwind, it may be relatively easy to sit on in the peloton which will make it even more difficult to stay warm. This could turn it into a race of attrition and make the race more selective but it probably won’t change the fact that most will wait for the final two climbs.

 

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. Even though many want to wait for the finale, there are a number of good climbers that want to break what is likely to be a strong Movistar stranglehold on the race. Teams like Astana, Katusha and Ag2r have many cards to play and they want the race to be as hard as possible. Tinkoff don’t want to wait for the finale either.

 

Like every year we will definitely see attacks on Roche-aux-Faucons. In the past, the best climbers have ridden away at this point and gone on to decide the race on the Saint-Nicolas or the final climb in Ans. Riders have also gone clear after the top like Alexandre Vinokourov and Maxim Iglinskiy did when they won the race. Most often, a small group may escape on the Cote de Saint-Nicolas like in 2013 or it has all been decided in Ans. This means that it has been be very difficult for the favourites to handle the race tactically and to find out when it is time to play their cards. However, the cold conditions and the headwind mean that we expect more of a gradual elimination race that will be firmly controlled by a very strong Movistar team and then it will all be decided on Saint-Nicolas and Rue Naniot.

 

After his dominant showing in Fleche Wallonne, it is impossible not to regard Alejandro Valverde as the big favourite.He is the most decorated Ardennes rider of his generation and has already won La Doyenne thrice. Last year he returned to the top step of the podium for the first time since 2008 and 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 four 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. This year he is aiming for the Giro d’Italia and the Olympics and this prompted him to change his usual schedule. At first he planned to do the cobbled classics but as he suddenly realized that he had a real shot at winning the Italian grand tour, he changed his plans again. Instead, he has trained at altitude and the Italian race is now a much bigger goal than it was at the start of the year when it was almost all about the Olympics.

 

His new approach means that he admitted that would will probably only be at 80-90% of his usual condition but after he crushed the opposition at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, he realized that he was better than usual. He didn’t say anything publicly but after his dominant showing last Wednesday, he admitted that he had never felt so good before the midweek classic.

 

That’s a scary prospect for his rivals. Last year he was isolated in the finale but he was simply in a class of his own when he slowly reeled Daniel Moreno in in the finale and then still had enough left in the tank. This year he is even backed by a much stronger team with several in-form riders. Moreno is now a teammate and even though he has not been at his best recently, he always seems to be good in La Doyenne even when he has failed in previous races. Giovanni Visconti has been riding very strongly recently and Ion Izagirre will be the key domestique in the finale, the Basque having improved massively and playing a big role by covering attacks in Fleche Wallonne. If one adds good climbers like Carlos Betancur and Ruben Fernandez and the powerhouses of Rory Sutherland and the impressive Imanol Erviti who can control the early part of the race almost singlehandedly, Valverde’s team looks frightening.

 

That is very important as it will be everybody against Valverde but with this kind of team, he could get his favourite scenario. If it’s all decided by the favourites on the final two climbs and the rise to Ans, Valverde will be very hard to beat. He is impressive on short, steep climbs and among the favourites he is by far the fastest in the uphill sprint.

 

The addition of the new climb is even an advantage for him as it will make the finale more selective and it will be more about legs than tactics. If he is isolated after Saint-Nicolas, there will be less room for a brave move from a lone rider and it will be easier to control things on a tough climb than in a flat section.

 

The big question mark is the weather. Valverde has said that he won’t risk anything for the Giro and if it’s too cold, he may even abandon the race. The Giro is the overwhelming goal and Valverde has not always dealt well with cold conditions. A few years ago, he nearly cracked in the Andorra could in the Vuelta and in Castilla y Leon he even lost a bit of time in the finale of the wet and cold first stage. However, if Valverde is at 100% of his capacitites, he will be very hard to beat in this race.

 

The key to beat Valverde could be tactics and this makes in an exciting prospect for Etixx-QuickStep. The Belgian team probably has Valverde’s two biggest rivals riding together and this will provide them with options. Daniel Martin and Julian Alaphilippe were excellent on the Mur de Huy and they have both proved that they can be up there in Liege too, with Martin winning the 2013 edition and Alaphilippe finishing second in his debut 12 months ago.

 

Martin is probably the biggest threat to Valverde. The Irishman is excellently suited to this race and would probably have made it two in a row if he hadn’t crashed in the final turn in 2014. When he manages upright, he knows how to peak for the right day and this makes him one of the best one-day racers in the world. It is definitely no coincidence that he is the only active rider alongside Philippe Gilbert to have won the two hilly monuments.

 

Apparently, his decision to move to Etixx-QuickStep have paid dividends right from the beginning as he has been absolutely flying and much stronger than usual in the first months. Usually a slow starter, he won a stage at the Volta a Valenciana, his first race of the year, and after a bout of illness, he won a stage and rode to third in the star-studded Volta a Catalunya which had the best field of any one-week stage race this year.

 

Martin was off the pace in Pais Vasco but that was only due to his reluctance to go too deep and he was really strong in Fleche Wallonne where he finally managed to get his positioning right. He was unable to get rid of Valverde but he wasn’t far off the mark.

 

Martin seems to be getting stronger in the really long races and he should benefit from the new climb which will make it even harder. He is one of the most explosive riders on short hills and with Alaphilippe at his side, he will have cards to play. The team will probably use the same tactic that they had on Mur de Huy which means that Martin will be on the attack in the finale while Alaphilippe will wait for the sprint. Now Martin has three late climbs where he can try to make the difference. He has been the best on the final climb to Ans twice and it’s definitely not impossible that he will be so again on Sunday.

 

While Martin attack, Julian Alaphilippe will be ready to sprint. It was always obvious that he was a great talent for these races but nobody had expected him to do so well in just his second year at the pro level as he did last year. When Michal Kwiatkowski faded on the Mur, the Frenchman grabbed his chance and rode to a very surprising second place in Fleche Wallonne. A few days later he achieved the same result in Liege and as he had already been 7th in Amstel, he has proved that he can win all of the Ardennes races.

 

This year he went into the Ardennes triptych with lots of uncertainty due to his bout of mononucleosis last autumn. He has had a very slow start to the year and nobody knew whether he would get fit in time for the classics.

 

However, he seems to be just as strong as he was last year. He was really impressive at Brabantse Pijl where he first went on the attack with Tim Wellens and then still had enough left to join the race-winning move. He sacrificed himself completely for Vakoc, single-handedly keeping the peloton at bay, and then still managed to finish the race in the top 10. This showed that he is again brutally strong and he may even be stronger than last year. He was up there in Amstel Gold Race and even though he clearly suffered on the Cauberg, he still sprinted to seventh. On Wednesday, he managed to hang onto Valverde all the way up the Mur de Huy.

 

Usually, one would expect a young rider to suffer in such a long race but Alaphilippe has proved that he can both handle the distance and the cold conditions. He is excellent in an uphill sprint and among the favourites he is the one who has the best chance to beat Valverde in a sprint. If Martin hits out early on the climb to Ans, Valverde may have to start his sprint early just as he did 12 months ago. Last year Alaphilippe couldn’t come around but the 2016 version of the Frenchman may be strong enough to do so.

 

Last year Rui Costa finished fourth in this race when he got his first chance to contest the finale as a team leader. It was no surprise that he did so well as he is simply an excellent one-day rider. It is no coincidence that he has won several stages in the Tour de France and is a former world champion as he knows how to peak for the day. He loves the long distances and he usually does pretty well in bad weather so Sunday’s race is tailor-made for him.

 

Furthermore, Costa is clearly stronger than last year. Usually, he has a hard time on the very steep climbs and so he has never achieved any major results in Fleche Wallonne and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. This year he has been much better than usual on those ascents and he has been pleasantly surprise to see himself doing so well. He was great in Pais Vasco and he finished in the top 10 on the Mur which indicates that he is absolutely flying.

 

Costa is fast but he has no chance against the likesof Valverde, Martin and Alaphilippe in an uphill sprint. However, he is a master in timing his attacks and benefit from the tactical game. With three climbs in the finale, there is plenty of room for him to hit out early and if he gets a gap, history shows that he is almost impossible to bring back.

 

Enrico Gasparotto has been on the podium in this race in the past. In 2012, he was absolutely flying when he won Amstel Gold Race and finished third in La Doyenne. It seemed that he would never get back to that same excellent level but this year he seems to be even stronger than he was four years ago. Already in the Volta a Catalunya, we realized that he was on track for great things as he rode impressively in the mountain stages and since he has arrived at the classics he has been flying. He was second in Brabantse Pijl and won Amstel Gold Race and he was even fifth in Fleche Wallonne whose steep finale doesn’t suit him. In fact he had never even been in the top 10 before, not even in 2012.

 

Gasparotto can handle the distance and the bad weather but the harder finale could be a challenge. He is not climbing as well as the likes of Martin, Valverde and Costa and this could make things more difficult. However, he is so amazingly strong that he should be up there. With his fast sprint, he can win the race in more ways as he can both attack and wait for a sprint.

 

Lotto Soudal are here with three leaders but their best card is definitely Tim Wellens. The Belgian has been riding very aggressively in the first two classics where he has been on the attack in the finale. Unfortunately, this has denied us the opportunity to see what he can do against the very best but it has been evident that he is amazingly strong. It was simply impressive that he still managed to take 10th in Amstel after having spent most of the final 10km in a lone solo move where he rode into a headwind.

 

Wellens prefers wet and cold conditions and he has proved that he can win in this terrain. He has won the queen stage of the Eneco Tour in this terrain twice in a row. More importantly, he won the wet and cold GP Montreal in 2015, a race that many described as the hardest they had ever done. Wellens has regretted his late attack in Wednesday’s race and he will probably stay quieter on Sunday. If he can keep calm and wait until the final three climbs, he will have room to make a lethal attack.

 

BMC are here without Philippe Gilbert but they still have a very good card to play. Just as we thought that Father Time had caught up with Samuel Sanchez, he has proved all his critics wrong. The Spaniard won a stage at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, was one of the best in the Amstel Gold Race and rode to a solid fifth on the Mur de Huy.

 

This race suits him even better. He excels in wet conditions and he likes the long races of attrition. It is definitely no coincidence that he is a former Olympic champion and that he has always done well in Il Lombardia. If this race becomes one of attrition, Sanchez will just get better and better and he has the experience to make a well-timed attack in the finale.

 

Sky were dealth a heavy blow when they lost Sergio Henao but they still have a very strong team. While we don’t believe that Michal Kwiatkowski will be able to turn things around, we are curious to see what Wout Poels can do. The Dutchman was fourth on the Mur de Huy which is just another sign of the huge progress he has made since joining the British team. He has proved that he is now one of the best climbers in the world, especially on short and steep climbs like the ones he will find in the Ardennes. Poels has never really done well in one-day races but on paper the terrain suits him down to the ground. The long distance is a bit of a question mark but he can cope with an extra hour in the saddle, he is likely to be one of the strongest in the finale even though the steeper Mur de Huy clearly suits him better than the Liege climbs.

 

When he was involved in the training crashed, it seemed that Warren Barguil would never get into peak condition for the Ardennes. However, he has defied most expectations and after a decent showing in Pais Vasco, he looked very strong on the Cauberg. He was actually one of the best of the Mur where he came from far back to finish in the top 10. He doesn’t have much experience in the one-day races but he is a hugely talented climber who has the punch and the sprinting skills to do well in the Ardennes. He claims to be back on track after a disappointing 2015 season and there is still plenty of room for improvement. He seems to be one of the best climbers at the moment so if his skinny body can handle the cold, he should be one of the best.

 

Astana are here with a formidable team of climbers but they don’t have an explosive rider for a sprint. There only chance is to make the race as hard as possible and we can expect Diego Rosa, Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang to attack in the finale. The Dane seems to be their best card. He was clearly the best of the rest behind Mikel Landa in the Giro del Trentino and he has proved that he can do really well in the classics. Last year he was 9th in this race and he has been close to the podium in the Amstel Gold Race. He has often done well in bad weather and he should find the harder finale to his liking. Much will depend on his recovery from Trentino but history shows that it is possible to do very well after coming from Italy. If he can make the right attack in a race of attrition, he is strong enough to win.

 

This is the race that Joaquim Rodriguez would most dearly love to win but time is running out for the Spaniard. He was third in last year’s race but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to be at his best. He was solid in Pais Vasco but he was not in the excellent form he had 12 months ago. To make things worse, he crashed in Amstel Gold Race and he quickly faded when he attacked on the Mur. It will be hard for Rodriguez to turn things around but you can never rule him completely out of a race that suits him really well.

 

Instead, Katusha’s best card could be Ilnur Zakarin. The Russian had an amazing WorldTour debut in 2015 and after a poor second half of the year, he has proved that his results were no fluke as he has been flying in the spring. He won the Paris-Nice queen stage and was with the best on the climbs in Catalonia. Since then he has been preparing for the Giro and so his form should be really good. This race is not his biggest goal and he has never really done well in one-day races but there seems to be no limit to his potential. If he can cope with the distance, he could be the big surprise again.

 

Chris Froome has always made it clear that he would like to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege one day but he has never really been good in one-day races. It’s a bit of a surprise as he is the best climber in the world and in stage races, he can easily handle the shorter climbs. This year he will give it another shot and as he is gunning for victory in Romandie, he should be at a good level even though he hasn’t raced since Catalonia. Everybody knows that he is a master in getting peak condition by training but much will depend on his approach to the race. He is not a fan of bad weather and he is unlikely to take any risks so close to Romandie. On the other hand, he must have some ambitions for this race as he has decided to line up despite the difficult weather. If he is on fire, Froome can definitely win this race.

 

Simon Gerrans is a former winner of this race. However, the win came as a bit of surprise for himself as he had always regarded the race as a bit too tough for his characteristics. Hence, it is no surprise that his win came in a year when the course was easier than usual. This year it is the opposite as it has been made tougher by the inclusion of a late climb and we doubt that Gerrans will be able to cope with that extra challenge. Furthermore, he is not as strong as he was two years ago. However, he will always be a big threat if it comes down to a sprint where he is one of the only riders that can beat Valverde.

 

Romain Bardet has a great track record in this race as he has been in the top 10 two years in a row. Like last year he has been preparing himself in Trentino where he gave mixed signals. He was not able to keep up with the very best but he was not far off the mark. Furthermore, it was evident that he held something back on the final stage to be ready for this race. To win the race, he has to attack in the finale and so the harder course should provide him with better opportunities.

 

Vincenzo Nibali nearly won this race in 2012 and it has always been a big goal for him. Last year he won Il Lombardia and he is always strong in the long one-day races. The bad weather and harder final should suit him but he was riding surprisingly poorly in Trentino. He has tried to stay calm but it was evident that he was surprised to be so far off the mark and it was definitely not a case of bluffing. It will be hard for him to turn things around for the race in Liege. On the other hand, he has now got back into the racing rhythm and you can never rule the Italian out in this kind of weather.

 

Finally, we will point to Richie Porte. The Australian made a late decision to do this race which indicates that he will eager to test himself. His big goal is Romandie so if the conditions are too bad, he will definitely abandon but if he is feeling good, he should be one of the best on the climbs. Despite several health issues, he has done really well this spring which just confirms that he is one of the best climbers in the world. With Romandie coming up, he is likely to be even stronger here and if he can get into the finale, he will join forces with Sanchez to form a lethal duo.

 

***** Alejandro Valverde

**** Daniel Martin, Julian Alaphilippe

*** Rui Costa, Enrico Gasparotto, Tim Wellens, Samuel Sanchez, Wout Poels

** Warren Barguil, Jakob Fuglsang, Joaquim Rodriguez, Ilnur Zakarin, Chris Froome, Simon Gerrans, Romain Bardet, Vincenzo Nibali, Richie Porte

* Michal Kwiatkowski, Michael Woods, Diego Ulissi, Roman Kreuziger, Robert Gesink, Rafal Majka, Bauke Mollema, Maurits Lammertink, Tony Gallopin, Jelle Vanendert, Jan Bakelants, Domenico Pozzovivo, Diego Rosa, Arnold Jeannesson, Dylan Teuns

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