The sight of former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Dan Martin and other UAE Team Emirates riders dodging between city centre traffic at the end of their reconnaissance ride this Friday said all you need to know about the very different nature of this year’s edition of La Doyenne.
Even for Martin, who has raced Liège nine times, much about this year’s edition of the Monument represents utterly unknown territory. Identifying the exact spot of the finish - no easy matter in two busy lanes of Liege lunchtime traffic - was vital.
Gone is the final ascent to Saint-Nicolas and the uphill drag to Ans, replaced by a flat city centre finale last used in 1992. From the moment the riders crest the summit of the final climb, the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, and begin a fast, initially very technical, test into Liege, anything is possible.
As if that was not enough of a change, a trilogy of three hallowed Liège-Bastogne-Liège climbs make a return as well. The Stockeu is back for the first time since 2015, as well as the mid-race Wanne and the Haute-Levée, last used in 2016.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, in short, is heading back to its more traditional format with a vengeance, and that will automatically ensure that any number of outcomes are possible at the finish. Even a small group sprint cannot be ruled out, although, given the speed of the mostly descending 15 kilometres into Liège after such a tough climb to the Côte de la Roche Aux Faucons, it would seem highly unlikely.
The plethora of different possible outcomes does make for a longer list of possible contenders on Sunday, but there can be no doubt who is headlining the show. Julian Alaphilippe leads a formidable Deceuninck-Quick Step, who may be lacking last year’s winner, Bob Jungels, but boast Philippe Gilbert, a former Liege winner and clearly in excellent shape after his victory at Paris-Roubaix earlier this month.
Smarting from two major defeats at Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, four-time winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), if he is in top form - and it is a big if - represents another solid option, if only because his Liege track record is so good.
Furthermore, as Michael Woods (Education First), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) - all due to take part in Liege and with top three finishes for Bardet and Woods last year to boot - can testify from the Worlds last year, Valverde’s turn of speed at the end of a very hilly day’s racing is not something anybody wants to test if they can avoid it.
Even with Peter Sagan missing from the Liege grid after his uneven Classics campaign fizzled out 40 kilometres before the finish of Fleche Wallonne, Bora-Hansgrohe have an exceptionally strong line-up, with Max Schachmann a solid bet. Michal Kwiatkowski has a fast finish, too, and is clearly in good form, and former Liege winner Wout Poels is amongst Team Sky’s options, too.
Another Classics star, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC-Racing) is still determined to give it one last roll of the dice this spring.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) may pay a price for his long transfer up to Liege from the Tour of the Alps, but is evidently far from lacking in condition after securing a spot on the final podium. Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) has solid experience and a very powerful back-up team, whilst Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Luis León Sanchez (Astana Pro Team) and Enrico Gasparotto (Dimension Data) could all be in the running.
After two defeats by Alaphilippe and one near-miss in three major races, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana Pro Team) is probably the Ardennes rider with the biggest point to prove this Sunday. But how much that will actually matter on Sunday is anybody’s guess.