The Ardennes Classics are coming to an end, with the tough final act playing out on Sunday on the unrelenting terrain of Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes.
The first round at Amstel Gold Race was won from a small group by the powerful sprint of Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) while the undisputed Queen of the Mur de Huy, Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) made it seven in a row at La Flèche Wallonne, as no one could keep pace with her on the wall of climb.
At Liège-Bastogne-Liège we head into a race where the dual world champion is the only rider to have taken the top step more than once, as while it may be the oldest of the Ardennes Classics for the men, it is the youngest for the women with only four editions having been run. After the race was introduced to the women’s calendar in 2017, Van der Breggen won the first two, then it was her regular rival Annemiek van Vleuten, and in 2020, Lizzie Deignan held on for a solo win ahead of a rapidly closing Grace Brown.
In the fifth edition, old rivals and new are taking to the start line, with Van der Breggen again a contender, but then so again are a number of her teammates, not least of all Demi Vollering. Van Vleuten is stepping in with a third and a fourth in the previous races knowing that this final event is the one that suits her best. Vos has already managed to deliver wins at two races this season that weren’t on the long list of events where she had reigned supreme and the top step at Liège would give her a third.
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How the race unfolded in 2020
Riders to watch
Defending champion Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) was a powerful force at the end of last year with her Liège-Bastogne-Liège making it three Women’s WorldTour victories, but without so much as a top ten on her results list this year it has been her teammates have taken the limelight so far this season, so it would take a big resurgence for Deignan to hit that top step again.
Teammate Elisa Longo Borghini, however, has already delivered a solo victory this year and has so often been up the front in the pivotal moves but this is the one Ardennes Classic where she’s never managed to make it to the line among the first few riders, despite repeated podiums in the others.
US champion Ruth Winder made herself increasingly difficult to go past at the mid-week classic of La Fleche Wallonne, making the chase group work hard to close down a gutsy solo move and finishing seventh atop the Mur de Huy.
SD Worx again presents a powerful team, with the winner of the first two editions of the race, Anna van der Breggen, showing she is well and truly back after a bout of illness by taking her seventh win at La Flèche Wallonne while Demi Vollering is clearly firing after two second places in the last ten days and impressive work to pull back Winder during the mid-week Ardennes classic.
Team BikeExchange is all in for Amanda Spratt, who had her tilt at victory with a solo break foiled in 2018 by Van der Breggen, as the longer climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège make this her favourite of the three races. Grace Brown, who posed a threat to Deignan’s solo victory last year, is sitting this one out after a long, and successful, Classics campaign.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), who won in 2019, stood on the podium of Amstel Gold Race this year and came fourth at La Flèche Wallonne, the least favourite of the three races as the Mur de Huy is no friend to the Dutch rider. The final race of the trio, however is the one she favours so with all the indication that she’s getting into the groove with her new team expectations are high that she’ll be aggressively pursuing that second Womens’ WorldTour win of the season on Sunday.
Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) has been establishing a bit of a run this year, filling in those rare gaps in her palmares by scooping up some of those races where she hasn’t already taken a victory – first it was Gent-Wevelgem and then Amstel Gold Race. Liège-Bastogne-Liège happens to be another one of those rare gaps and while her results over the years have been uninspiring, by Vos standards at least, she did hang in with the lead chase group of three last year to come fourth. Plus, even if the longer climbs don’t completely work in her favour, it’s hard to ever discount a rider with such tactical nous and sheer determination to win, let alone one with as impressive a history as Vos.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) has shown she’s carrying some fighting form, being the only rider who even came close to matching up to Van der Breggen on the Mur de Huy, taking second as a result. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) didn’t have quite as good a run, coming seventh, but she’s been remarkably consistent this year, usually finding herself a place in the top ten so while Liège may not be the Ardennes Classic where she’s delivered her best results before, perhaps the combination of a bit of daring and a bit of luck could turn that around.
The longest of the women’s Ardennes Classics at 140.9 kilometres, the race – despite its name – actually starts in Bastogne and then goes onto converge with the men’s course over the final 80 kilometres. The unrelentingly lumpy route through Wallonia will include seven climbs this year, with the addition of two new categorised climbs.
The start of the Belgian race is by no means flat but it's not until after 50 kilometres that we see the first of these key climbs, the Côte de Wanne, and then they just keep coming as the race rolls through the Côte de la Haute-Levée and Col du Rosier before heading into the new climb of the Côte de Desnié.
The downhill run then quickly ramps up to the signature, and potentially race shaping, Côte de La Redoute before heading onto the second new climb of the Côte des Forges and finally the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons before finishing in Liège.
There may be a downhill run in the final kilometres but the very last thing that faces the riders as the finish comes into sight is an uphill drag that, while mild, is sure to sap the final reserves from the already climb worn legs.
The key climbs
- Côte de Wanne (56.7 km) - 3.6 km at 5.1 per cent
- Côte de la Haute-Levée (65.1 km) - 2.2 km at 7.5 per cent
- Col du Rosier (79.2 km) - 4.5 km at 5.9 per cent
- Côte de Desnié (92.6 km) - 1.6 km at 8.1 per cent
- Côte de La Redoute (105.7 km) - 2.1 km at 8.9 per cent
- Côte des Forges (117.6 km) - 1.3 km at 7.8 per cent
- Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons (127.6 km) - 1.3 km at 11 per cent
What to expect
It may end with a gentle uphill drag to the line, not a brutal wall like the Fleche Wallonne’s renowned Mur de Huy, but the longer climbs during the race and constant up and down make it a tough day out in the Ardennes that has, in all four editions so far, produced a solo winner.
The challenging climbs earlier in the race are likely to whittle the numbers down early and by the time the field has reached the race’s signature climb, the Côte de La Redoute at about 106 kilometres in, there’s generally only a small proportion of the peloton still in contention. Whether that key climb is the launching point for a solo attack, like it has been the past two editions, or is a means to slim down the lead group it often plays a crucial role in shaping the race.
It is not completely out of the question that it could be something other than a solo rider coming to the line, with it being two together till the final kilometre when Van der Breggen beat Spratt in 2018, plus it has often been a small group contesting those lower podium places.
Team strength could also play an important role in shaping an aggressive race, with squads like SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo having the firepower to send a serious contender out for an early move while other sit back and enjoy the ride, ready to react if the first gambit fails.
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