After La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, the delayed spring Classics campaign continues on Sunday with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which, with Amstel Gold Race cancelled, is the only other major Ardennes Classic in 2020.
The new calendar, in which La Doyenne clashes with the second stage of the Giro d’Italia, has deprived it of a couple of big names, with 2019 champion Jakob Fuglsang racing in Italy and four-time winner Alejandro Valverde plotting an alternative path to the Vuelta a España.
However, the field is still deep and brimming with quality. New world champion Julian Alaphilippe makes his debut in the rainbow jersey, while the likes of Marc Hirschi, Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, Max Schachmann, Adam Yates, and a host of others ensure a varied list of contenders for a race that could go a number of ways.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the oldest of the Classics, having first been run in 1892, but in its current guise it’s only one year old. Having grown tired of the uphill finish in Ans, in place since 1992, last year the organisers moved the finish line back to the centre of Liège, and the 2020 edition retains that finale, as well as the hilly nature of the rest of the route.
The flatter run-in was said to open the door to a wider range of candidates, but to also in turn inspire more aggressive racing from the stronger climbers. In the end, it still came down to the final climb, now the Côte de Roche-aux-Faucons, but Fuglsang was able to go clear and solo to victory on the 15km run-in.
This year, we have a near-identical route, 256km in length with 11 short but nasty climbs in the Wallonia Ardennes. The race starts out from Liège and makes its way south to Bastogne after just over 100km, with just one climb – the Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne coming before the turn back towards Liège. The Côte de Saint-Roch comes next after 123km but there are still 40km until the next climb of the Côte de Mont-le-Soie. That, however, signals the start of the serious phase of the race, with nine climbs and barely a metre of flat in the final 95km.
The Côte de Wanne and the Côte du Stockeu will sting the legs ahead of the longer Côte de Haute-Levée and Col de Rosier. A descent through Spa leads to the Col du Maquisard, before the riders descent to one of the race’s most emblematic climbs, the Côte de la Redoute (1.6km with an average gradient of 9.5 per cent) with 35km to go.
10km of undulating terrain leads to the Cote des Forges, which is followed by a descent to the foot of the final climb, the Roche-aux-Faucons. With an average gradient of 9.3 per cent over 1,500m, it’s a key selection point after so much elevation gain and ahead of the largely downhill 15km run-in to Liège. Fuglsang got away there last year, and although it wasn’t the final climb back then, it’s also where Bob Jungels sailed clear for his solo victory in 2018.
Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is one of three former winners on the start line, along with Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Wout Poels (Bahrain McLaren).
However, the leading light at Deceuninck-QuickStep is the new world champion, Alaphilippe, who proved with that rainbow victory that he’s in flying form after a Tour de France in which he was apparently holding back. Unmatchable on the similar final climb at Worlds, and with a zippy sprint if he does have company, he’s the undoubted pre-race favourite, whose potential at the race has been clear since he placed second on his debut in 2015.
However, there are a host of other names who could drag the race in any number of directions, not least Marc Hirschi, who already rubbed shoulders with Alaphilippe and ran him close on the second stage of the Tour into Nice. The 22-year-old former U23 world champion went on to win a stage at the Tour and then battled with Alaphilippe again at Worlds, taking the bronze medal. After winning La Flèche Wallonne, he’s a big contender, even on his second appearance at Liège.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is the Tour de France champion, even if his performance at La Fleche Wallonne suggested his efforts in France are catching up with him, while fellow Slovenian Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), runner-up at the Tour, was part of the chase group behind Alaphilippe at Worlds. Tom Dumoulin also lines up for Jumbo-Visma.
Max Schachmann, third last year, heads up a Bora-Hansgrohe squad that also contains one of the standout riders of 2020 in Lennard Kamna, while 2016 champion Wout Poels lines up in a strong Bahrain McLaren squad that also features Dylan Teuns and Mikel Landa. EF Pro Cycling are another squad with options, from chief Ardennes card Michael Woods, who was third at Flèche, plus the Tour of Flanders champion Alberto Bettiol and Colombian climbers Rigoberto Urán and Daniel Martínez.
Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was fourth last year and is certainly cut out for one-day efforts as well as stage races, while Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers) has all the ingredients and has twice finished on the podium. Other names to watch out for include the perennially attacking Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), the Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), who has a strong record for such a hilly race, Cofidis’ Guillaume Martin, who put in a strong shift for Alaphilippe at Worlds, and French puncheur Benoit Cosnefroy (AG2R La Mondiale), who was runner-up at Flèche.
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