Liege-Bastogne-Liege: 10 to watch

Valverde faces challenges of Martin and Kwiatkowski

Liege-Bastogne-Liege brings the curtain down on the Classics campaign and while Alejandro Valverde lines up as the obvious favourite, the Spaniard will have to fend off a strong challenge if he is to claim a fourth victory in La Doyenne. With ten classified climbs and the haul to the finish at Ans, nobody wins Liege-Bastogne-Liege by chance.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

The obvious place to start. Even if his form were an unknown and he hadn’t just won La Fleche Wallonne, Valverde would be considered a top favourite.

But the Spaniard collected his routine victory atop the Mur de Huy on Wednesday to further enhance a 2017 results sheet that was already nothing short of sensational. The 36-year-old, not simply evergreen but somehow still getting better with age, has won the Ruta del Sol, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco and as a result is already in double figures for victories – a milestone many a sprinter would settle for at the end of an entire season.

Add to that form Valverde’s record in La Doyenne – three victories and three further podium finishes – and you have a runaway favourite, certainly in the eyes of the bookmakers.

A chink of doubt comes in the form of last year’s display, when Movistar worked all day in the blizzard, only for Valverde to miscalculate the impact of the finale’s new cobbled climb, the Cote de la Rue Naniot, and miss the race-winning split. Nevertheless, you sense that’s a mistake that won’t be made twice, and Valverde has all the ingredients – a stronger climber than the fast finishers and a stronger sprinter than the pure climbers – to claim a fourth title and move to one shy of Eddy Merckx’s record.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)

Van Avermaet is more of a ‘one to watch’ in the sense that it will be interesting to see how he fares, rather than him being a bona fide favourite such as Valverde.

The Belgian is a cobbled classics rider at heart but last year’s Olympic Games road race caused a re-evaluation of his characteristics and capabilities. No one really gave him a chance in Rio on what was billed as a ‘climber’s course’ but he came away with the gold medal, a month on from a fine win on a medium-mountain stage of the Tour de France.

Van Avermaet has traditionally fared well at the hilly Canadian WorldTour races, and although the attritional Liege is another kettle of fish, there’s a growing sense that it could be within his grasp before his career is out.

“I’m not going there as a big favourite, it’s more just to try again and see how far I can go in this kind of race,” he said.

Seventh on his debut in 2007 – one of only three appearances – certainly augurs well, and Sunday could be an important outing in terms of plotting his direction in the coming years.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)

In a reverse of the musician’s second album syndrome, Kwiatkowski endured a disappointing debut campaign with Team Sky but is a man revitalised this term, and it’s fair to say he’s been the British team’s leading light – not to mention one of the standout riders of the whole peloton this spring.

Winner of Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche, the former world champion skipped the cobbled classics to focus on the Ardennes and, along with Philippe Gilbert, was a cut above the rest of the peloton at Amstel – that acceleration to bridge to the leading group on the Keutenberg, soaring away from Van Avermaet and Valverde, was stunning.

His podium finish at Liege three years ago proves he can go the distance and he certainly has the finishing kick to finish the race off from a small group.

Michal Kwiatkowski attacks Phlippe Gilbert near the end of the Amstel Gold Race

Sergio Henao (Team Sky)

Sky may be without their defending champion – the man who brought them their first Monument, no less – but they are not without options. Joining Kwiatkowski in the line-up is a bang-in-form Sergio Henao, who has gone from strength to strength since recovering from that horrific leg break a few years ago.

The Colombian, who made the top 10 of both Liege and Il Lombardia last year, won Paris-Nice in March and has clearly carried that form into the Ardennes, with 6th at Amstel and 4th at Fleche. At Amstel, he made the selection on the Kruisberg before Kwiatkowski bridged over, and there will be genuine excitement in the Sky camp over how the duo can dovetail their efforts again on Sunday.

Dan Martin (Quick-Step)

A perennial Ardennes favourite, and this year is no different. Martin is one of only three former winners on the start list, even if he’ll feel that should only be two (on course for a momentous back-to-back in 2014, he agonisingly slipped out on the final corner, allowing Simon Gerrans to come through and take the spoils).

As sure as Valverde will win Fleche, Martin will make a late surge for a near miss, and Wednesday, if disappointing, provided confirmation that his form is in the right place. Empty legs saw him dropped from the favourites group towards the end of last year’s blizzard-struck edition, but this year the conditions are set to be much more clement. Also different is the make-up of his team, with co-leaders Julian Alaphilippe and Philippe Gilbert ruled out through injury. A bit more pressure on his shoulders, then, but multiple cards aren’t so important in what’s more of an elimination race than a tactical battle.

Martin won Liege in 2013 and Il Lombardia the next year and it seemed his palmares would continue to fill up – another big one-day win is overdue.

Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors)

Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates)

Rui Costa thrives on long, hard days of racing – that’s what won him the Worlds in 2013 – and he’s usually up there at the end of Liege. Last year he was third, having made the race-winning move with Michael Albasini and Wout Poels, and the year before he was fourth.

He was anonymous at Fleche but at Amstel he quietly impressed. He had to endure a long, hard chase to get back to the peloton after a mechanical at a time when BMC were setting a fierce pace, but went on to bridge over to the chasing group once the selections started to be made. Otherwise, his blistering start to the season – overall wins at the Vuelta a San Juan and the Abu Dhabi Tour and second at the Tour of Oman – suggest the Portuguese rider has rediscovered his winning touch that seemed to have deserted him in the wake of that glittering 2013 campaign.

Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott)

Orica-Scott are a team with cards to play and, while Simon Gerrans has won this race before and the Yates twins are both real one-day talents, it’s Michael Albasini who perhaps represents their most appealing card.

The Swiss veteran has been creeping closer to an Ardennes breakthrough and, in the absence of Poels, he’ll wear the number one dossard thanks to his runner-up spot 12 months ago. He’ll still be rueing what might have been that day as Poels, a rider he'd ordinarily out-kick, sprang early round the final bend, leaving him in too-small a gear to come round. 3rd at Amstel and 5th at Fleche in the past week show that Albasini's form is at least as good as it was 12 months ago.

Michael Albasini (Orica Scott)

Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale)

Bardet is a thoroughbred general classification rider but is a racer in the truest sense of the word and always enjoys getting stuck in at Liege and Lombardia.

The Frenchman has raced the last four editions of La Doyenne, and has finished 13th, 6th, 10th, and 13th, proving that it’s a race well suited to him. Yet it remains hard to see him actually winning it, given the superior finishing kick of nearly all those on this list.

Bardet is racking up a portfolio of audacious and opportunistic solo displays – see stage 19 of last year’s Tour de France – and an open race that kicks off from far out could showcase his best.

Warren Barguil (Sunweb)

Like Bardet, another young French stage race talent with a penchant for one-day outings. 6th here last year and 8th at Lombardia are solid foundations and this could be the year we see the 25-year-old land a breakthrough result.

He has prepared specifically for these races and his form seems to be good. At Amstel he missed the split on the Kruisberg but then did a good job of bridging up to the chase group, while he was 6th on the Mur de Huy at Fleche. Liege, though, is by far the one that suits him the best.

Sunweb also have Tom Dumoulin in the mix, and the multi-talented Dutchman has been working hard on his climbing and power-to-weight ratio as he prepares for a GC bid at the Giro d'Italia next month.

Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida)

The Spaniard has enjoyed a strong start to his first campaign for the new Bahrain-Merida team, finishing 7th at Paris-Nice and 3rd at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, and his displays in the Ardennes so far certainly mark him out as one to watch.

Sonny Colbrelli and defending champion Enrico Gasparotto were billed as the team’s leaders for Amstel, but it was Izagirre who assumed the mantle and made the selection on the Kruisberg with the likes of Gilbert and Kiwatkowski, eventually finishing 7th. Not the most explosive of climbers, he was still 12th on the Mur de Huy at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday.

Izagirre has grown in stature in the past couple of years, winning a memorable mountain stage of last year’s Tour and although his results at Liege aren’t much to write home about – his best is 30th last year – Sunday will be his first attempt outside the shadow of Valverde.

Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) tried to stick with Valverde in Murcia

 

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