Philippe Gilbert (BMC) believes that the absence of the Roche-aux-Faucons climb from Liège-Bastogne-Liège will mean that a larger group than normal will contest victory in the finale, although he is hopeful that the Côte de Saint-Nicolas will remain a potential springboard to victory.
Road works at Roche-aux-Faucons mean that the climb – which replaced the Côte du Sart Tilman in 2008 – will not feature this year. Instead, the peloton will tackle the new climb of the Côte de Colonster with 17 kilometres to go.
“We have a new final and I think it's going to be more tactical than before. It’s going to change the race although I can’t say for sure how it’s going to be,” Gilbert said at the BMC press conference on Friday. “I imagine there will be more riders still up there at the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and it will be a more tactical race too, where having strength in numbers will play an important role. It’s going to be a different race.”
On paper at least, the Colonster is less challenging than Roche-aux-Faucons, but Gilbert gave short shrift to the idea that a large group would still be together on the sapping drag to the finish at Ans. The reason? The Côte de Saint-Nicolas, which comes after 256 kilometres of racing.
“You can imagine everything but it’s the riders who will make the race. We will have a more bunched race but Saint-Nicolas is just long enough and steep enough to make the difference, and the summit is 5 kilometres from the finish, so that’s something that will allow me to fight for the win. The scenario I see is a group of 40 riders on Saint-Nicolas and it will be a sprint of 700 metres there.”
Gilbert lines up for his home classic still seeking a maiden victory in the rainbow jersey of world champion, but he downplayed the idea that he was under pressure to break his duck. The Belgian came close at Brabantse Pijl last week but at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, he was perhaps too eager to lead the pursuit of Carlos Alberto Betancur on the Mur de Huy and he finished a disappointed 15th.
“I would have preferred to have won a race,” Gilbert admitted. “The start of the season hasn’t been easy with the extreme weather conditions and so forth. I took the risk of going to Australia and that wasn’t easy with the travel and then after the Tour of Oman I was ill for the best part of a month. So I was physically off as a result of that, but I still came close to getting some wins.”
Gilbert’s status as world champion, past winner and local hero means that he lines up as one of the principal favourites for the win on Sunday, but he pointed out that Katusha and Astana’s strength in depth will make them difficult to beat. Katusha boast the past two Flèche Wallonne winners Dani Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez in their ranks, while Astana can rely on the top two from Liège last year, Maxim Iglinskiy and Vincenzo Nibali.
“There are a lot of riders around the same level and there’s nobody who’s destroying the opposition,” Gilbert said. “We saw at Amstel and Flèche that the level is very equal and positioning is very important.”
BMC manager, John Lelangue, also flatly confirmed that speculation that Gilbert would be prevented from starting Liège-Bastogne-Liège due to a littering offence at last year’s race was wide of the mark. “A bit of a sensationalist article in a French newspaper [L’Équipe] was unfortunately picked up without verification,” Lelangue said. “I can tell you that there was never any threat of not taking the start.”
The riders in question have, however, been handed a €500 fine, according to AFP. “We don’t have the authority to stop a rider from starting a race,” a spokesperson for prosecutors in Liège said of the L’Équipe article.