• Rúben Silva

Liège-Bastogne-Liège Preview

The grand finale of the Ardennes triptyque, La Doyenne is the oldest of cycling's monuments and will have it's 105th edition this year. And it's a special one, with a route re-design, the race will keep itself respectful of the name but it will have a very different finish, with the uphill drag to Ans being switched by a flat arrival in the center of Liège, after what will be a just as hard race that the organizers shaped so as to have more agressive racing.

The Route

Despite the changes in the route the race's distance remains the same essentially, and the main climbs will all be present except the Cote de Saint-Nicholas, the previous major climb in the race. To have it out of this year's edition is a big statement, but the route hasn't gotten any easier with it's removal.

The route to Baatogne got a little bigger, with the addition of the Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne which will make for a usualy rolling start, the Côte de Saint-Roch, one of the race's most iconic climb also remains in the route, but quite separated form the other major climbs to be a decisive place.

With 161 kilometers of racing, 95 to the finish begin the sequence of definitive climbs, with Mont-le-Soie, Wanne, Stockeu having fierse gradients that will cause the race to implode, the Haute-Levée and Rosier are the longer climbs of the race. With the Maquisard to complete that sequence. They come with 95, 86, 80, 74, 61 and 49Km to the finish. We should see some moves in those climbs but chances are the next one will be where the main contenders won't restrict of making a serious move.

With 37Km to the finish comes the Côte de la Redoute, one of the other iconic climbs in the Ardennes, it is a long one by the race's standard featuring 2.1Km and it's gradients are hard, after a gruelling Km at 7% the climb ramps up for 13% for 500 meters, briefly coming back to 7% before topping out. It's a 5-minute long climb, the gradients are hard enough and well in reach of seeing the favourites make a move.

It's crucial what happens after the summit, the race will be torn apart and it will be the moment where some of the favourites will have to decide if they will attack, contribute to a chase or wait for teammates and rely on them until Roche Aux-Facons.

It's a rolling terrain after the climb, featuring the Côte des Forges (1.3Km at 8.2%) halfway, so it will be another chance to make a move.

A slight descent will lead into the next and final climb of the day which is the Côte de la Roche Aux-Facons. It's summit will come with 15 kilometers to go and it's a brutal climb in the end of a 6-hour race, a constant 1.4Km at 10% gradient is set to shatter the groups left, see decisive moves and contenders loosing the race.

With 12Km to go summits the final ascent, uncategorized but there are 1100 meters at 5.7% that are only separated by a very short descent between them, it can be a tricky one, it can also be as decisive as Roche Aux-Facons.

From there on route flattens out and then descends to the Liège center, where the final 4Km will be ridden in flat roads.

The Weather

It will be wet and cold! It comes as good news to some, bad for others, and is sure to make for a very tense race, and crashes will likely be happening often as in Flèche Wallone.

There is a forecast of rain all day long, not a lot, but it will at least make the roads wet that's for sure. The temperatures in Liège won't go above 9ºC, in Bastogne it won't go above 5ºC, which means the first few hours of racing will be very cold, and likely wet as rain forecasts for Bastogne show a bigger precipitation level.

The wind, it will come from the south and with good intensity. Until the race reaches Bastogne it will come as mostly a headwind, when it comes back tailwinds and crosswinds will rule. This will mean crosswinds in the final decisive couple of climbs, but a very mixed approach as the directions will be changing constantly.

What really stands out is that it will come as a clear tailwind to the line, the river approach to the line won't be very technical and will have the wind from the back, which will clearly be a motivation for escapees and means it is more likely to see a small group or solo rider in front succeed opposed to being caught by a possible chasing group.

The Favourites

With the eminent rainy conditions it's fair to mention some of the riders who love these harsh conditions. Tim Wellens is the first name that pops, he hasn't been having his top performances lately but the route suits him much better than Flèche where he was 17th. He has Bjorg Lambrecht and Jelle Vanendert who have been on great form recently. Vincenzo Nibali comes straight out of the Tour of the Alps, he is a known monument winner and he looked sharp in Italy. His specialty doesn't come in the explosive climbers but the amount of climbing and lenght of the race play into his cards. Matej Mohoric is another rider who loves the rain, Bahrain should be one of the moving teams in such weather, with Damiano Caruso and Dylan Teuns also in the team they are a dangerous squad nonetheless.

Another one of the climbers, Romain Bardet is a very serious threat. Third last year, he is one who deals very well with the race distance and amount of climbing, he also has the explosiveness needed for such race, taking into acount the steepness of most of the hills on the route, he will have main support from upcoming revelation Benoit Cosnefroy and Alexis Vuillermoz.

In the main puncheurs there's the obvious Julian Alaphillipe card. He's been almost unstopable this season and Flèche was no exception. He has the form needed, he is as explosive as any rider in both steep and shallow climbs and has a very strong sprint. Plus he is set to have a huge support. Last year's winner will come back to defend his title, if his form matches the one he showed on the cobbles he is a big rider to look out, as is Enric Mas who proved essential support for the Frenchan's win on wednesday. And even outside of them it's a very strong team, with riders like Phillipe Gilbert, Dries Devenyns and Pieter Serry.

Despite recent lack of results Alejandro Valverde needs to be mentioned as a top favourite, he's won this race 4 times and his set of skills until last year was perfectly fit for the race. This year not so much but the climbs will be just as hard and he is well capable of making the difference. Mikel Landa will be in the squad aswell adding to a climber-focused approach.

Adam Yates crashed in Flèche Wallone but he will race Sunday in the same condition we're lead to believe. The short steep climbs suit him very well, his doubt now must be coming from the weather and the slick roads, surely he'll have some struggles taking the right risks.

Michael Woods and Simon Clarke lead EF, Madouas/Gaudu/Molard trio can also play a big role in the finale as they all like the short climbs.

It is no surprise that Jakob Fuglsang is rated as one of the top contenders for this race. He looks on the form of his life and has had nothing but great results all sprint long. His one-day results specially have been amazing, leading the team on the hilly classics he's so far been on the podium of Strade Bianche, Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallone, without winning any and battling with his arch-nemesis Alaphillipe in all of them. Ion Izagirre, Alexey Lutsenko headline his supporters, with a full squad of strong climbers who can make the race hard.

UAE Emirates have a very strong squad but no leadership certain. Diego Ulissi surprised for a third place in Flèche, where Dan Martin abandoned. Martin looked very strong in Basque Country but hasn't yet shown his legs in the Ardennes at all. Rui Costa, Sergio Henao and Tadej Pogacar all look in great form, UAE have lots of options in reality so the lack of pressure on one's shoulder may prove a positive card.

Team Sky bring Michal Kwiatkowski, his Flèche performance wasn't unexpected as the climb didn't suit him, but he looked good and in Amstel the same. He is an experienced face in this race and is one of the main favourites, with former winner Wout Poels, David de la Cruz and Eddy Dunbar as reliable backups and early attacker for his advantage.

Bora-Hansgrohe bring the Flèche trio, all of them finished in the main group and all look in great form. Formolo, Schachmann and Konrad. An array of possibilities where they can shine, having so many riders in the shot of a win is something almost no other team has, their strenght in numbers (and in individual quality aswell) should put them in the main list for the win, they are all a serious threat.

Lastly in the team section there's also Dimension Data. They haven't shown much this sprint, this season in fact. Roman Kreuziger looked good wednesday but he crashed out of the race, he is an outsider but he is looking strong, he'll have his planned co-leaders to back him up, Michael Valgren, Enrico Gasparotto and Tom-Jelte Slagter.

Finally there's three other big outsiders. Michael Matthews obviously, as a sprinter he's felt the pressure on the past races and will always have the target on his back, but with Tom Dumoulin also marking presence he can have a more relaxed approach and a ride with less pressure, it's a duo that can play well. The other is Greg van Avermaet who's had another cobbles season marked by the lack of forgiveness from his peers, he's under pressure for a big result but he looks on form for the possibility of it, we are left to see what he can do in the final race of his spring.

The Teams

Deceuninck/Bora/Astana - The main favourites, they have strenght in number and individually, lots of possibilities for them so they should crush the race from early on.

Movistar/Mitchelton - Two of the big favourites in here, but their support isn't as good, and playing with teammates will definetely be a big challenge against the other teams.

Bahrain/Lotto Soudal/Sky/UAE - These teams have good numbers, good riders for a top result and secondary riders to cover the moves.

Dimension Data/FDJ/EF/AG2R - These also have good riders, what puts them so far low is the sheer quality of the startlist, but in good form all have good chances of a top result.

CCC/Sunweb - These teams will focus more on the puncheurs who can sprint, maybe the teams/riders that most pressure will feel to reel the race back in the finale.

Direct Energie/Vital Concept/Jumbo-Visma/Cofidis/Wanty/Katusha/Trek - These have solid riders but with such competition it'll be hard to see them in front.

Sport Vlaanderen/Arkea/Wallonie - These don't really have riders to contend the race, lower result or breakaway will be their focus for sure.

Prediction Time

Alaphillipe, Fuglsang, Schachmann

Jungels, Konrad, A.Yates, Nibali, Wellens, Kwiatkowski

Mas, Formolo, I.Izagirre, Valverde, Teuns, Lambrecht, Vanendert, Ulissi, D.Martin, R.Costa, Kreuziger, S.Clarke, Bardet, Matthews, Dumoulin, GVA

I think it's his time. If there's one thing cycling has taught me is that with time, all riders who have good results will attract an elusive win. Fuglsang is showing form like he has rarely shown, and he looks like the strongest rider in the startlist. His explosiveness isn't a match to Alaphillipe's but he has shown to be stronger on the longer efforts and the race, and it's main climbs will be longer efforts. In Flèche he almost made the sprint too long for Alaphillipe, here he has other chances of cracking him.

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