The end of the spring Classics is nigh, with Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège bringing the curtain down on the series of cobbled and hilly races in northern Europe.
After last weekend's circuit race at Amstel Gold Race and the kilometre-long lung-buster at La Flèche Wallonne, Liège is the longest of the trio of Ardennes Classics at 259 kilometres, as well as being the most prestigious and the oldest race of spring.
The peloton will tackle a near non-stop barrage of climbs on the way north from Bastogne to the newly reintroduced flat finish in Liège, including famous names such as the Wanne, Stockeu, La Redoute, and the final test of the Roche-aux-Faucons.
Scroll through the start list and one can pick out a number of top names who will be in contention this Sunday, from Grand Tour winners to world champions, past winners and neo-pros. We've gone through the big names and picked out five who we think should make the biggest impact at La Doyenne. Here are our five riders to watch at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Age: 28
- Best result: Second, 2015
On Wednesday, the Frenchman became the second current world champion to win La Flèche Wallonne after Anna van der Breggen stormed across the line just a few hours earlier. It was a win Alaphillipe very much needed after a rather underwhelming spring campaign that failed to net a single one-day victory.
At Flèche he was back to something like his best and showed Primož Roglič a clean pair of heels with a late dash for the line. With his confidence high, he returns to Liège – a race he should have won last year – looking to win the second Monument of his career.
The Frenchman has cracked the top five three times in La Doyenne since 2015 but this is a very different race to Flèche. Wednesday's race came down to a single lung-busting effort, but Liège is comprised of a series of such endeavours, it’s around 60km longer, and there are far more variables in play when compared to the uphill bleep test that is Flèche.
Going into Sunday, the question is whether Alaphilippe is at his imperious best or whether Flèche was just the perfect platform for his natural ability and acceleration to make the difference. Certainly, the trajectory of his form suggests that he'll be a major force in Liège, and on paper, he and Roglič should be the strongest riders in the race.
Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)
- Age: 31
- Best result: Winner, 2020
The Slovenian goes into this Sunday’s race with a 100 per cent record, having won on his debut last year, and, in theory, he’s the favourite to defend his title, despite such limited one-day experience and losing out to Alaphilppe midweek.
His second-place finish at La Flèche Wallonne was something of a surprise given that the 31-year-old is seldom caught when he puts the hammer down for an uphill effort but he arrives at his final spring appointment in fine fettle and with the knowledge that this is a chance to lay down a marker before mid-season hibernation sets in and his next rendezvous at the Tour de France.
His ride in Amstel Gold Race, as well as second in Flèche, showed his current form while he's won a quarter of the race days he's taken part in so far this year – and that doesn't include the overall win at Itzulia Basque Country. His consistency remains as striking as ever.
Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation)
- Age: 34
- Best result: Second, 2018
The Canadian lost La Flèche Wallonne before the race truly burst into life after making a tactical error in not following his teammate Krists Neilands on the final climb and finding himself blocked right when it mattered.
Losing momentum once on the Mur de Huy tends to scupper all hope but the fact that Woods was forced to chase several times and he still netted fourth demonstrated that the 34-year-old has rediscovered his top form after a stop-start spring disjointed by illness and bad luck. In a sense, Flèche epitomized his campaign to date – strong and looked good in places, but we’re left wondering what might have been had he enjoyed a clear run to the line.
On Sunday, the Israel Start-Up Nation rider has the chance to make up for Wednesday’s performance and a podium spot is well within his grasp. He was second in 2018 behind Bob Jungels and has three more top 10 results to his name. His team are well drilled and better than many give them credit for and Woods certainly has the kick and the durability to be a major player in Liège. Unlike others on this list, however, he can’t rely on a sprint when up against his rivals, so he needs a near faultless ride and certainly no more mistakes or bad luck.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Age: 21
- Best result: N/A
Whether through luck or design, Ineos have made the most of Pidcock’s stellar start to his WorldTour career, allowing him to kick off the season with just one stage race and then letting him find his rhythm and tempo in a string of one-day events over the last few months.
He really has been a revelation, which is quite an achievement given all the hype after the success he has earned as a cyclo-cross and U23 rider. His win in De Brabanstse Pijl grabbed the headlines but in truth he’s impressed over a number of races.
What’s more, he’s learning from his mistakes and not letting them dent his confidence. In Flèche Wallonne he came back from a crash and finished sixth, but Liège-Bastogne-Liège will be a far greater test. It will be the longest race he’s done since Milan-San Remo and the climbs on Sunday have unraveled far more experienced and accomplished one-day riders than the 21-year-old.
That said, he’s answered so many questions and lingering doubts about his experience, and whether he’s ready or not, that maybe he can do what would have seemed unthinkable a few months ago and win a Monument at just the third time of asking.
Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe)
- Age: 27
- Best result: Third, 2019
We don’t yet know if UAE Team Emirates will ride, so including Tadej Pogačar and an off-form Marc Hirschi on this list would be unfair given the calibre of riders in contention and especially given that we have limited ourselves to five riders.
Cases can be made for Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious), and a handful of riders who have warmed up nicely at the Tour of the Alps, but the final spot on our list goes to Schachmann. His one-day pedigree is still in the development phase but he was third in Liège back in 2019 and with third at Amstel Gold Race a week ago he should certainly feature on Sunday when attrition and stamina are more substantial attributes than they were at La Flèche Wallonne.
Bora-Hansgrohe has a solid team based around the German, and it feels as though the 27-year-old doesn’t always get the credit his natural talents deserve. He was shockingly overlooked for our riders to watch for Paris-Nice (sorry) and then won the race for a second time running. Although he suffers from a mediocre sprint, he’s also the sort of rider who can climb, go under the radar more than some of the most established headliners and then time trial away for the win.
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