Thirty six years have passed since a French rider last won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the bleak forecast for the Ardennes on Sunday has inevitability dredged up memories of Bernard Hinault’s snowbound 1980 victory.
After finishing second to Alejandro Valverde a year ago, Julian Alaphilippe is viewed as the man most likely to succeed Hinault on the roll of honour, but Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) sets out from Place Saint-Lambert with no less ambition.
“It will make the race harder,” Bardet told reporters in Liège on Saturday afternoon when asked about the frigid temperatures expected during the race. “The worse the weather is, the more spectacular the race.”
Second at the under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2011, beaten by Tosh Van der Sande in the sprint on the Alleur velodrome, Bardet has raced the professional version in the past three seasons, placing 13th in 2013 and 10th in 2014, before taking 6th in the sprint behind Valverde in 2015.
Like last year, Bardet prepared for La Doyenne by competing at the Giro del Trentino during the week, placing 6th overall after performing consistently throughout the four-day event. His teammate Domenico Pozzovivo and Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang also followed the same build-up.
“My form is good,” Bardet said. “I did a big block of work in Trentino and put in some good efforts. I was a bit tired afterwards but I’m hopeful 48 hours will be enough to recover. It was enough last year, for me and a few of the other protagonists, so I’m confident.
“I think I’ve started to get to know this race well now. It’s my fourth participation and I’m not setting off into the unknown. I’m very motivated.”
Bardet’s abilities as a climber and puncheur may lend themselves naturally to Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but in the modern era, the race has increasingly rewarded those who hold their fire until the closing kilometres. Over the years, Bardet has learnt the value of curbing his natural aggression, at least for the final Sunday in April.
“I think experience counts and I’ve improved year by year, bit by bit,” he said. “I’ve stopped making useless efforts so I’ve got more force for the final and the battle on the Côte de Ans. It’s a race that requires patience, and I’ve adapted to that and I’ll wait for the finale.”
The addition of the Côte de la Rue Naniot to the finale has divided opinion among observers, and Bardet wondered whether it might have the opposite effect to the one intended by the organisers. Rather than ensuring a smaller group at the front on the final haul up to Ans, it could well lead to a more conservative approach from the main contenders.
“There’s little chance to regroup after the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, there’s no dead time. There’ll only be very strong riders left for the final sprint in Ans, because the last climb is so hard that it will require a lot of energy and you can’t hide there,” Bardet said.
“But I’m worried that the more difficult finale might actually delay the attacking and just postpone the decisive section of the race to the very end. Saint-Nicolas is decisive every year and I hope that’s the case again this year. The new climb will make the finale a lot harder if we go up Saint-Nicolas very fast like in other years, but if people hesitate there, we could just end up with even more riders on the Côte de Ans.”
However the cards are dealt on Sunday afternoon, one senses that the road to victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège will ultimately run through Alejandro Valverde, who is seeking his fourth win at La Doyenne after racking up his fourth triumph at Flèche Wallonne in midweek.
“He’s clearly the rider with the best punch on the Côte de Ans. When it flattens out after the left hand turn at the top, it’s very hard for anyone to beat him there, and he’ll be strong tomorrow of course,” Bardet said. “Though the addition of the new climb might make it more difficult to control the race, provided people decide to attack earlier.”