Dan Martin knows how to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège and he knows how to lose it. The Irishman could only smile when that formula was put to him by a reporter at Etixx-QuickStep’s hotel in Maasmechelen on Friday afternoon, and he also knows that a man should never face into La Doyenne with too many fixed ideas about how the race might unfold.
At Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, Martin and his stable-mate Julian Alaphilippe set out with a precise plan of attack for trying to outmanoeuvre Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the Mur de Huy, but found the Spaniard was simply too strong in the final reckoning. They will set on Sunday with a playbook that leaves more scope for improvisation.
“At Liège-Bastogne-Liège, there are so many things that can happen during the day, so you need to be flexible,” Martin said. “You could maybe miss opportunities. You might say you’re going to wait until a specific moment to attack but maybe the perfect moment comes a kilometre before and you miss it because you’re thinking too much of what you’d planned before the race.”
Both in 2013, when he won, and in 2014, when a late crash denied him a repeat victory, Martin waited until the final haul up the Côte de Ans before playing his hand at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and he seems likely to follow a similar template this time around. The addition of the new cobbled climb of the Côte de la Rue Naniot after the Côte de Saint-Nicolas alters the finale, but the overarching tenet of recent editions of the race ought to remain unchanged.
“It’s a waiting game. It’s such a long, hard race, and you pay for any mistakes all the bits of energy you can save in the day it helps for the finish, for the explosiveness in the finish, it helps,” Martin said.
“And it also helps to be strong in your head because even now with the new climb they added and the Côte de Ans, if you look up too far, you don’t even see the top. Or you see the top and it seems so far away. After 250 kilometres, it’s easy to think you’ll never get to the top, your legs are finished. It’s a long game of poker.”
Martin and his Etixx-QuickStep teammates sampled the Rue Naniot when they reconnoitred the route on Friday morning. Rather than opening up the race, the inclusion of the 600-metre-long climb, whose summit comes just 2.5 kilometres from the finish, could ultimately make for an even more conservatively raced edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège than normal.
“I don’t think there’s a cobbled climb after 250 kilometres even in the Tour of Flanders, so it’s going to be interesting, but I just hope it doesn’t make for a more negative race,” Martin said. “We’ve seen that with other races when you make the final more difficult. After they added Roche-aux-Faucons [in 2008 – ed.], nobody attacked on La Redoute. Now they’ve added the new climb, maybe nobody will attack on Saint-Nicolas because they’re thinking of that.”
Though it was been a decidedly mild week in and around Liège, the weather forecast suggests that temperatures will plummet at the weekend, with the possibility of snow in the Ardennes on Sunday afternoon. While the prospect of a repeat of 1980, Bernard Hinault and all that might dominate the headlines in race previews, the prevailing wind is a detail that hasn’t escaped Martin’s notice.
“With the wind this year, I don’t know how aggressive race it will be. There was a strong headwind today on the climbs and that could make for a really negative race – but I’m quite happy if it comes down to the last two climbs,” Martin said.
Valverde, of course, will not be unhappy at the prospect of staking everything on the Rue Naniot and Côte de Ans – nor, indeed, will Martin’s teammate Alaphilippe, but the Irishman is confident that they will not tread on one another’s toes in the finale.
“We both intelligent tactically and we can ride well together. I think the headwind will negate the race and that might be in our favour, if we’re both together in the last 10 kilometres,” Martin said. “I think the new course actually favours the more explosive guys like me and Julian rather than the climbers, because we have the three short climbs in the last 8 kilometres. The longer climbs are further from the finish now so maybe it will be tougher for the GC climbers to win now.”
Martin’s third place at Flèche Wallonne was not his best finish at the race, but it was his best-executed ascent of the Mur de Huy, as he avoided the congestion at the foot of the climb and attacked with 250 metres to go before being overhauled by Valverde. Despite the myriad differences between the two legs of the old ‘Ardennes Weekend,’ the performance, if not the result, was an affirmation of the work Martin has done to date.
“I was really happy with how I rode. Maybe that shows how good my legs are, that I was lucid and able to make those decisions and be aggressive. I wasn’t just hanging on and concentrating on my own race – I was racing guys,” Martin said. “Other years I’ve been concentrating on getting to the top as fast as I can. This time I was actually racing. That’s down to confidence and also because I’d made the decision that I’d wanted to try to win. And if that meant I got 10th, it didn’t matter.”