La Doyenne gets a facelift with the oldest race on the calendar getting a new finish, gone is up the uphill finish in Ans and now there’s a flat finish in downtown Liège.
256km, almost 4,000m of vertical gain and a return to tradition. It’s just over 100km to Bastogne and then the return features the classic trilogy of Wanne-Stockeu-Haute Levée, in place of the triptych of climbs leading to the Ferme Libert. The Col du Rosier is the high point of the race and adds to the fatigue.
La Redoute, once the strategic rendez-vous, is a very awkward road to ride with a gradient that keeps changing. It’s the Walloon version of the Koppenberg or Kapelmuur, painted with PHIL, PHIL, PHIL – freshly painted – in tribute to local hero Philippe Gilbert but with a twist as a Japanese chef living nearby has refreshed the PHIL, PHIL, PHIL over 300 times and added “ジルベール” or Gilbert in kana.
The Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons is next, it’s not a classic climb only appearing in 2008 but very selective. Listed as 1.5km at 10%, this is hard enough but after a brief descent of a few seconds it starts rising again to the village of Gonhis and it’s 1.6km long with a gradient of 5.5% which isn’t steep but with all the climbing before, both cumulatively in the day and the sharp effort just before, it’s a difficult moment.
Gone is the Côte de Saint Nicolas, leaving the guy with the eccentric fashion tastes (kilt, fur coat) to find another place. Instead they race into Liège and the descent features a couple of sharp corners but the riders will all have ridden it by now. The idea is to mix up the race, to change the script but it’s also a tale of Walloon machine politics with the mayor of Ans being a kingmaker in the world of Belgian socialism and so he was long able to keep the race in his fiefdom.
Julian Alaphilippe is the obvious pick given his recent results, he can jump away on the climbs and he can win a sprint from a group. His problem is being the certain pick for an uncertain scenario, the new finish means nobody knows how the race will play out, it’s not as predictable as Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne. Deceuninck-Quickstep will try to set things up for Alapahilippe to reach Liège with a small group but easier said than done. Philippe Gilbert was off the radar in the Amstel but was the last Quickstepper left once Alaphilippe was up the road and Enric Mas looked strong in the Flèche Wallonne.
Jacob Fuglsang is having his best spring ever but still not winning races. So what to do? Perhaps he could have outsprinted Alaphilippe last week as the Frenchman was grimacing and cramping, so the harder the race the better and Astana bring a very strong team with several riders able to act as meat tenderisers to soften the legs of everyone else. Alexey Lutsenko plus Ion and Gorka Izagirre bring more options.
Michał Kwiatkowski is made for a race like this with the sharp climbs and then the finish in Liège suits him even more. It’s the last outing for Team Sky before the squad’s great future in plastics under the Ineos label. Tao Geoghegan Hart enjoyed two stage wins in the Tour of the Alps showing a handy sprint while Wout Poels has come out of the same altitude training camps and ought to feature but has been quiet so far in the classics.
Fifth in the Amstel, fifth in the Flèche, Max Schachmann is likely to place again. Bora-Hansgrohe bring a strong squad with Davide Formolo and Patrick Konrad in support.
Alejandro Valverde was 11th on the Mur de Huy, an unusual result for but the story of his spring so far. Bad luck, age, the “curse” of the rainbow jersey (also known as commercial obligations/cashing in on the title) or other changes this season. Either way he’s not been a factor in the classics this month. Still he’s not ruled out and Movistar’s Carlos Verona looks strong too.
Bjorg Lambrecht hit the headlines after fourth place on Wednesday. Another 50km today make this a different race but the Lotto-Soudal neo-pro coped fine in the Amstel too where sixth place was his worst performance so far in the “Ardennes” races. Tim Wellens and Jelle Vanendert should feature as well.
Dan Martin was a pick for the Flèche Wallonne but had a jour sans, we’ll see if this extends to a semaine sans and if he’s thrived in this race before he’s now less of a reassuring pick. Diego Ulissi still got third in Huy.
EF Education First’s Simon Clarke is quietly assuming the role of freshly retired Simon Gerrans, a rider who doesn’t, and proabably can’t, make flamboyant attacks but instead saves their energy while others are busy wasting theres. Useful on the climbs and with a good finish, Clarke’s an outsider on a team with options like Michael Woods and Alberto Bettiol.
Michelton-Scott are another team who won’t stir up the race but will try to set up Daryl Impey and Michael Albasini for a sprint with the latter a regular dark horse for Liège but he’s 38 now, while Adam Yates leads but he must be sore after a hard crash on Wednesday.
Vincenzo Nibali widens the cast of characters we’ve seen so far in the “Ardennes Week”. Active in the recent Tour of the Alps, Liège has been a sore point for the Italian who almost won in 2012 and this is a race to add to his palmarès. Dylan Teuns brings another option but Bahrain-Merida are struggling so far this season, just one win to their name.
The flat finish suits Michael Matthews, it’s getting there that is the hard part. Team Sunweb also bring Tom Dumoulin, a rare glimpse of him before the Giro and he’s been aggressive in the Ardennes before.
Romain Bardet has been chasing this race for ages and made the podium a year ago but without the uphill finish things are harder now. Ag2r La Mondiale team mate Benoît Cosnefroy is quietly impressing in one day races too.
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) has made the top-10 in this race before and that was with the uphill finish into Ans so in theory his chances are better here. Only he’s seemed on a downward glide ever since the Omloop.
Among the wildcard invitations Lilian Calmejane (Total Direct Energie) is a long shot but suited to hard racing and coming into form.
Michał Kwiatkowski, Jacob Fuglsang
Max Schachmann, Philippe Gilbert, Michael Matthews, Simon Clarke
Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali, Bjorg Lambrecht
Yates, Dumoulin, Woods, Impey, Bettiol, Bardet, Wellens, Ulissi, GVA, D Martin, Calmejane, Formolo
Weather: a cold and damp day. A top temperature of 12°C and frequent rain showers and a light tailwind on the return leg of 10-15km/h.
TV: coverage starts at 2.00pm CEST and the finish is forecast for 4.50pm. It’s an ASO race so look for it on the same channel you watched Paris-Roubaix or the Tour de France and local coverage is by RTBF.
Women’s Race: it starts in Bastogne at 10.35am and finishes at 2.30pm CEST and shares the same final 40km as the men’s race. If you can share a good preview add it to the comments below and I’ll link to it here.