After matter-of-factly claiming his third straight La Flèche Wallonne in midweek, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) lines out for Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday seeking the third Ardennes Double of his career and his second in succession.
No man has achieved the feat two years running since Ferdi Kubler managed it in 1951 and 1952. Kubler was, of course, the first man to complete the Ardennes Double at all, and in the half century that followed Stan Ockers’ double in 1955, it became a once-in-a-generation accomplishment, within the reach only of Eddy Merckx, in 1972, and the startling 1991 vintage of Moreno Argentin.
It has become less of a rarity in recent years, of course, with Davide Rebellin (2004) and Philippe Gilbert (2011) adding Amstel Gold Race to their April haul, but even in that context, Valverde’s record startles. His first Flèche-Liège double came in 2006. Nine years and a doping ban later, he claimed a second last April, and now, on the eve of his 36th birthday, is halfway towards a third.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège has undoubtedly come to be more conservatively raced nowadays than it was in the 1990s, for instance, with the contenders increasingly keen to save their energy for the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and the final haul up to Ans, rather than test the waters on the Redoute.
It’s a tactical approach that undoubtedly plays into the hands of Valverde, who, as a rule, climbs better at La Doyenne than the other fast finishers, and sprints better than the other climbers. That formula has yielded victories in uphill sprints at Ans in 2006, 2008 and 2015, and the task facing Valverde’s rivals this year is finding a way to change the dynamic of the race.
Second and third at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, Etixx-QuickStep duo Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin seem the men most likely to deny Valverde on Sunday. The pair dovetailed their efforts well in a bid to unseat Valverde on the Mur de Huy, but victory on its slopes inevitably falls to the strongest man.
Martin pointed out afterwards that having a foil is of greater benefit at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The Irishman certainly deployed his teammates smartly en route to victory here in 2013 (and again in 2014, when a late crash denied him a repeat), and he ought to be well-complemented by Alaphilippe on Sunday.
Winner in 2014, Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) has the rare knack of riding almost unnoticed through a 250-kilometre race and then tumbling out of the Trojan Horse at the last moment to claim the spoils. Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) fell surprisingly flat at Amstel Gold Race, and the Pole opted to train in Valencia rather than race Flèche, but he will return north among the favourites for victory at Liège, where he will be supported by Wout Poels, fourth at Flèche, and – perhaps – Chris Froome.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is also, of course, the lone Belgian Classic that draws the best Grand Tour riders northwards, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) feels he has unfinished business with the race after his second place behind Maxim Iglinskiy in 2012. After racing the Giro del Trentino this week, the Sicilian will form an interesting double act with Diego Rosa, who guided him to Tour of Lombardy victory last year.
Amstel Gold Race winner Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) – third in Liège in 2012 – followed up with his best-ever Flèche Wallonne finish, and is an obvious dark horse for Sunday. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) has been a perennial contender at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, though one wonders if his best opportunity passed him by in 2013. Former world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) was fourth a year ago and thrives over the distance, which has so far proved beyond his teammate Diego Ulissi.
For the injured Philippe Gilbert (BMC), meanwhile, a repeat of his 2011 win seems unlikely following the extent of his travails at Amstel and Flèche, and Samuel Sanchez may lead the line for the team. Home hopes, meanwhile, look set to be carried by Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens, who is sure to be an aggressive presence, along with Jelle Vanendert, BMC youngster Loïc Vliegen and Jan Bakelants of AG2R La Mondiale.
Romain Bardet and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) are riding at the Giro del Trentino this week, and each travel north at the weekend with ambition, the Frenchman in particular. Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Froome, Richie Porte (BMC), Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) also line out, with varying degrees of expectation.
The route – and the weather
As ever, the leg from Liège to Bastogne provides the – relatively – gentle introduction before the vicious sting in the tail on the road back north to the City of the Prince-Bishops. There are ten categorised climbs on the route and hostilities begin in earnest with the Côte de Wanne with 85 kilometres remaining, followed by the Haute-Levée soon afterwards.
The wearing down process continues on the Col du Rosier and the Maquisard, before the race hits its most hallowed site, the Côte de la Redoute. Two kilometres in length at an average gradient of 8.9%, the summit is too far from the finish (35 kilometres) to tell us who will win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but it often tells us who won’t.
After the Roche-aux-Faucons (1.3km at 11%) with 20 kilometres remaining, the shoot-out begins in earnest on the outskirts of Liège, as the race tackles the stiff Côte de Saint-Nicolas (1.2km at 8.6%) and then the short Côte de la Rue Naniot (600 metres at 10.5%), before the seemingly interminable haul to the finish at Ans.
The greatest obstacle of all, mind, might prove to be the weather. Although the Ardennes have been bathed in pleasant sunshine for much of the week, the forecast predicts a dip in temperatures at the weekend, with the distinct possibility of snow on Sunday afternoon.
Such conditions will, inevitably, inspire memories of Bernard Hinault’s solo victory in the snow in 1980, when he beat second-placed Hennie Kuiper by more than nine minutes. It seems unlikely that even the most extreme weather could provoke equivalent time gaps in 2016, but amid the fine margins of the modern Liège-Bastogne-Liège, it could prove a decisive factor in tipping the balance.