Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest Monument of them all, returns on Sunday to conclude the spring Classics season with its 108th edition and the fourth since La Doyenne abandoned the hilltop finish in Ans for a flat run in the city centre.
The past two editions of the race have seen the finish contested by an elite five-man group, two dramatic sprints to the line after over six-and-a-half-hours of racing. Last year's top two finishers, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), were set to return to headline the 2022 race, while Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) lines up for his race debut to complete a triumvirate of superstars heading up the start list.
Pogačar's last-minute withdrawal from the race, though, has substantially changed expectations - having been tipped as the major favourite for this year's race.
257 kilometres of near-non-stop climbing and hills lie between the contenders and glory as the riders head south through the Ardennes to Bastogne before turning back around to face an even more challenging run back to Liège.
Climbs such as the Côte de Saint-Roch (1km at 9.9 per cent), Côte de Wanne (3.5km at 5 per cent), Côte de Stockeu (1km at 12.8 per cent), Col du Rosier (4.4km at 5.7 per cent), Côte de La Redoute (2km at 8.6 per cent) are all packed into the second half of the race, though with the last of them coming 30km from the line, it's likely to be the final one-two punch that proves decisive.
The Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons (1.3km at 10.5 per cent) and Boncelles (1.2km at 6.3 per cent) come in quick succession at 13km and 10km to go. In each of the three editions since the route change, the Roche-aux-Faucons has provided the launchpad for the winning move, from Jakob Fuglsang's solo in 2019 to Alaphilippe and Michael Woods forcing the decisive splits that brought a small group home in the last two editions.
With 4.500 metres of elevation, the toughness of the route can be compared to a Grand Tour stage (the biggest day of the 2022 Tour de France, stage 11, features 4,692 metres of climbing), only spread across an endless succession of short climbs. This means that only the strongest prevail at the end, and why puncheurs like Valverde, Alaphilippe, and Van Aert are the top men to watch on Sunday.
Pogačar was the leading name on the start list, having won the race in that small group last year, and having started his 2022 season as a winning machine. His seven victories rank more than any sprinter so far, though he hasn't taken one since Tirreno-Adriatico last month.
On the Mur de Huy on Wednesday, he was among the strongest before fading as the gradients bit, but his 12th place at La Flèche Wallonne is no indication of a fade in form ahead of Sunday, he reassured the press afterwards. Since then, of course, family tragedy changed his fortunes, as he returned to Slovenia to be with his partner Urška Žigart, following her mother passing away.
Had he been able to race though, it would be hard to miss that Alaphilippe fared better in Huy. That said, his fourth place could still be seen as something of a disappointment, given that he had won the past three editions – 2018, 2019, and 2021 – that he had started.
The world champion will once again be tasked with saving QuickStep's spring on Sunday, with the team not stepped on a Classics podium since Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. A fifth place in 2020 (after he had celebrated first, finished second, and then been relegated) and second last year shows he has mastered this new course and figures to be right up there once more.
For Van Aert, it seems that anything is possible following his second place at Paris-Roubaix. The race marked his return from a Covid-19 infection and no racing in over two weeks. The all-rounder hasn't taken on the challenge of Liège before, but as with the two superstars listed above, he has shown over and over that he can master any terrain put before him.
Marc Hirschi, Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates), Remco Evenepoel, Mauri Vansevenant (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), Tiesj Benoot, Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) make up a host of top-quality support squads for the big trio, with several of those riders – Hirschi, Evenepoel, and Benoot in particular – decent bets to make an impact very late into the race and even the final.
The team of the spring, Ineos Grenadiers, come with Amstel Gold Race winner Michał Kwiatkowski heading up a strong selection of riders. The squad will look to utilise strength in numbers with Geraint Thomas, Dani Martínez (fifth at Flèche), Carlos Rodríguez, and Tom Pidcock. The big question mark, however, lies with the latter, who surprisingly abandoned midweek after being dropped from the peloton on the first of the three circuits over the Mur de Huy.
Bahrain Victorious are another super-team lining up in Liège, boasting Flèche winner Dylan Teuns, Milan-San Remo champion Matej Mohorič, and 2016 Liège winner Wout Poels among their number. Mikel Landa and Jack Haig also make up the team's start list, though all eyes will be on the duo of Teuns and Mohorič on Sunday.
The man Teuns beat on the Mur de Huy is also racing. Alejandro Valverde heads up Movistar as he takes on La Doyenne for one last time, seeking a fifth victory in Liège to equal the all-time record of Eddy Merckx. He'll turn 42 the day after the race, but his podiums at Flèche and Strade Bianche have shown that age has barely slowed him down, and he's certainly among the top contenders for Sunday.
Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) is another veteran taking one last stab at the Monument, and another former winner lining up at the start, though the Walloon doesn't figure to be a major favourite 11 years on from his victory at the race.
The same can be said of fellow veteran Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan) as well as 2018 and 2019 winners Bob Jungels (AG2R Citroën) and Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech), who haven't showed any recent form to suggest they will be among the best on Sunday, though Fuglsang's teammate Michael Woods will be in contention.
Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) has done just that, placing third on his Flèche debut, the latest standout result in his most consistent start to a season yet. He'll also be making his Liège debut and can rely on the likes of Sergio Higuita and Jai Hindley to help him out during the race.
Finally, we come to Benoît Cosnefroy, who leads AG2R Citroën. The Frenchman has been in fine form this spring, recently taking second place at Amstel Gold Race and Brabantse Pijl. He's still searching for that one major breakthrough spring win and has all the right attributes for success in Liège.
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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