With snow already falling 80 kilometres south in the Ardennes, the riders of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège peloton were understandably reluctant to leave the sanctuary of their team buses to go and sign on ahead of the race on Sunday morning.
Half an hour before the start, the general mood of foreboding darkened still further when leaden drops of rain began to fall over the Place Saint-Lambert, with only the rare brave soul such as Ion Izagirre (Movistar) venturing out early to sign the start sheet and speak with the television crews beneath the dais.
As one of Alejandro Valverde’s key lieutenants on Sunday, Izagirre will be called on to support his leader deep into the race. “Alejandro is going very well but Julian Alaphilippe could be dangerous,” Izagirre said.
2014 winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) was well wrapped against the elements, and with the rain beginning to fall more determinedly, he was understandably reluctant to be detained for too long at the signing-on ceremony.
“I’ve already won here and I’m still dreaming of a second win. I’ve never ridden a Liège with weather like this and we’ve never done the new climb in Liège either. It’s going to be a completely different final,” Gerrans said. “The new climb is very difficult, especially because of the pavé and if it’s wet, that will make it even more difficult.”
The last 20 minutes before the start finally saw the rest of the peloton make their way warily out of the team buses, some barely recognisable beneath jackets, snoods and extra layers, and a lengthy queue formed at the signing on podium.
Some, like Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing) and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) could smile and make light of the conditions when speaking with reporters beneath the rostrum. “I feel good, the course is a nice one and I quite like this weather,” Wellens said cheerfully.
Others wore haunted faces, as though already picturing the sleet and snow that await later in the day, with photographs already circulating on social media of the frigid conditions out on the course.
Wisely, the Etixx-QuickStep team of Dan Martin and Alaphilippe had signed on more than an hour before the start, and they avoided the ‘traffic jam’ near the podium in the final minutes before the start, with more than one rider’s unattended bike clattering to the ground in the commotion.
Having missed Saturday’s pre-race presentation, late arrival Chris Froome (Sky) was a man in demand at the start on Sunday. “We’ve got [Michal] Kwiatkowski, who is going really well and Wout Poels came fourth in Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday, so we’ve got two guys who can definitely be up there,” Froome said. “Myself, I’ll going to see how, obviously, the legs are going and hopefully be in the final to give them a hand.”
Among the last to arrive was Alejandro Valverde, who took a wrong turning as he looked for the steps to mount the podium. It was the first step he has put out of place at the Ardennes Classics for some time, and he lines out as the heavy favourite for a fourth Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory. “I have no stress,” Valverde insisted. “I have already won Flèche Wallonne and I’ve got the Giro coming up.”