It may defy logic that a rider on the cusp of his 37th birthday has been the outstanding performer of the campaign to date, and yet Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is the logical favourite for victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday.
On Wednesday, Valverde claimed his fourth Flèche Wallonne victory in as many years, and his fifth in total. At the end of a spring that has seen the Spaniard win the Ruta del Sol, Volta a Catalunya and the Tour of the Basque Country, a fourth Liège-Bastogne-Liège win – eleven years and a doping ban on from his first – falls well within his capabilities.
The formula behind Valverde’s success on this sort of terrain has remained more or less incontrovertible over the course of his career. As a general rule, he climbs better than the other fast finishers, and he sprints better than the other climbers. Those seeking to deny Valverde victory on Sunday will need to try to shake him off before the drag to the finish at Ans or, at the very latest, before the road swings left and flattens out with 300 metres to go.
Over the past decade or so, the difficulty of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège parcours – and its tough closing kilometres, in particular – has served to temper aggression rather than encourage it. Long-range attacks from pre-race favourites seem a relic of the past, with most preferring to spare themselves for the brutal finale over the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and the haul to the line at Ans.
As a consequence, ASO have made various tweaks to the finale of La Doyenne in the hope of creating the conditions for a more attacking race. Although last year’s innovation, the cobbled Côte de la Rue Naniot served as the springboard for the winning move, the race was a conservative one to that point, and the cobbled climb has been excised from the finale this time around.
At Flèche Wallonne, a shoot-out on the Mur de Huy was perhaps inevitable, but at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, there will surely be fewer teams happy simply help Movistar in towing Valverde to the finish. 2013 winner Dan Martin (Quick-Step), second at Flèche, seems the most likely challenger, even if the absence of the injured Julian Alaphillippe and Philippe Gilbert robs him of two very useful foils.
Last year’s winner Wout Poels is an absentee, but Sky have a favourite in their ranks in Michal Kwiatkowski. Winner at Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche, and so impressive at Amstel Gold Race, the Pole has all the attributes to win La Doyenne, even though, his third place in 2014 apart, his performances have never quite added to the sum of his potential in this race. Sergio Henao and Diego Rosa provide Sky with alternative options and, at least in theory, they ought to be one of the principal aggressors.
Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) has placed third and fourth in Liège in the past two editions, though after a fine start to 2017, he has been rather quieter in recent weeks. His teammate Diego Ulissi has the punch for the Ardennes, but questions linger over whether he has can cope with the distance.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has scarcely put a pedal stroke askew all year and, on the evidence of his Olympic victory last year, has the potential to triumph even on a course as arduous as this. At the end of a long spring campaign where he focused on the cobbled classics, it is surely too much to ask of him to be competitive here. The last man to win Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège was Sean Kelly in 1984, after all. Dylan Teuns’ confidence will be bolstered by his podium finish at Flèche but a repeat would be a surprise here.
Orica-Scott boast plenty of options, with Michael Albasini, Roman Kreuziger, 2014 winner Simon Gerrans, and Simon and Adam Yates all set to feature. There will, as ever, be a smattering of Grand Tour contenders hoping to make an impression in La Doyenne, chief among them Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Tom Dumoulin, Warren Barguil (Sunweb), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac). Bahrain-Merida are without Vincenzo Nibali, and Enrico Gasparotto may still be suffering the effects of his crash at Amstel Gold Race, but Ion Izagirre, so consistent this spring, is something of a dark horse.
After the snowfall and frigid temperatures of a year ago, the peloton should face rather milder conditions as they pedal away from Liège’s Place Saint-Lambert on Sunday morning, and there will be a change, too, in the succession of climbs they face at the midpoint of the race.
The traditional trio of the Côte de Wanne, Cote de Stockeu – already absent last year – and Cote de la Haut Levée are all missing from this season’s route due to road works, and have been replaced by the Cote du Pont [km 168], Cote de Bellevaux [km 172] and the Cote de la Ferme Libert [km 180]. Just 1.2 kilometres in length, this last climb averages a stiff 12% and makes for an interesting addition, even if comes more than 80 kilometres from the finish.
The day’s longest climb, the 4.4km Col du Rosier and the Col du Maquisard continue the softening up process ahead of the Côte de la Redoute, which, 35 kilometres from the finish, traditionally signals the beginning of the race’s endgame. The tough Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons (1.1km at 11%) comes 19 kilometres from home, while in the absence of the Rue Naniot, the Saint-Nicolas regains its status as the final springboard before the finishing drag up to Ans.
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