Liége-Bastogne-Liége-Spokenforks-2015

The Ardennes – Liége-Bastogne-Liége

The last week’s worth of Ardennes racing reaches its crescendo with the ‘Old Lady’ of racing; Liége-Bastogne-Liége. A testing 253.5km in the saddle, Liége is the last monument for the foreseeable as we enter the annual run of grand tours and all the preparation which builds up to the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España. Only once into the tail-end of the season in September will we have another monument to be contested by the professionals, the Giro di Lombardia drawing the year’s racing to a close. Focus in the meantime will be firmly centred upon a good showing at Liége, displaying good form here can warrant an unexpected berth at the Giro or Tour for example.

Course:

As with any monument, the history which runs through their core makes them the most desirable races to have on a rider’s palmares. While Paris-Roubaix has Arenberg, Milan-San Remo the Poggio; Liége-Bastogne-Liege has been synonymous with the climb of the Cote de la Redoute. In recent times the famous climb had seen its impact nullified somewhat by its placement within the race, but 2015 sees it moved 10km closer to the decisive finish in an attempt to revive the once unpredictable nature of this race. Redoute is only one part of a race which requires intense attention detail to avoid danger and stay at the head of affairs while expending the least amount of energy possible before the finale. In total, ten climbs are present upon the route’s profile and will ensure fatigue accumulates and begins sapping the legs ahead of the fuse being lit later on in the day

Liége-Bastogne-Liége-Spokenforks-2015

Allowing the peloton time to limber up is prevalent throughout Spring’s difficult semi-classics, classics and monuments; Liége-Bastogne-Liége is no different here. Though the terrain is rolling from the off, the riders will not reach their first categorised climb until 79km of racing has passed. The Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne is 2.8km in length and will help to open the legs up as they rise over its average gradient of 6.2%; this being the sole climb en route to the turning point at Bastogne. After this, the return leg back to Liége is greatly contrasting to what they tackled having left the town earlier in the morning; nine climbs now remain between the peloton and finish. First comes the short 1km Cote de Saint-Roch and its maximum ramps which reach 11%, this is followed by an extended period with no recognised climbs before the remaining eight begin coming thick and fast.

At 169km worth of racing the more testing Cote de Wanne will need tackling, 2.7km long and and average of 7.4% will begin offering some insight as to who has a chance of being in the mix come the finish. From this point onwards it becomes a blood and thunder race, increasing pace and attrition as riders begin getting shelled out from the tail-end of the peloton. Like most one-day affairs, anxiety will be palpable as teams stress over keeping their leader’s out of danger and well positioned in the midst of the maelstrom. Though only 1km in length, the Cote de Stockeu will inflict a serious level of hurt upon the pack, its average gradient maintaing a bone aching 12.5% with six further climbs remaining. Next is the Cote de la Haute-Levee which is placed a couple of kilometres shy of 70km from the finish, this climb is 3.6km long and possesses an average gradient of 5.6%. The peloton will then pass through Stavelot on their way to the next climb; Col du Rosier. A surprisingly long 4.4km of ascending will see the riders haul themselves over its 5.9% average gradient and duck under the 60km remaining marker by the time they reach the summit. A predominately downhill section will then follow, comprising most of the racing to the base of the Col du Macquisard (2.5km, avg 5%).

Though the main bunch will have seen its numbers thinned already by this point, the real battle to remain in contention for the win only beings ratcheting up from here on in. A diverse range of tactical battles will be ignited during the remaining three categorised climbs, with teams asking one another to take up the chase as dangerous support men are sent up the road in anticipation of the bigger moves later on. In recent history this has proved a manageable task for the strongest teams present, but with a slightly altered race course to the one the majority of the peloton will have experienced previously, a miscalculation here could prove extremely costly. It is at this point in time we will see the historic Cote de la Redoute make its appearance, positioned at a more crucial point in the race than recent years, it will be interesting to see if this offers anything similar to its previously decisive past in this monument. The climb itself is 2km long and will see riders crack as the fatigue hits home upon its 8.9% slopes which tip upwards to 13%; some favourites might begin to feel isolated as they witness their support riders unable to follow the wheels ahead.

The biggest gap between climbs for sometime in the day now appears, a factor which should mean the chasing teams do not need to go too hard on Redoute in order to ensure the catch of any breakaway is made ahead of the penultimate climb. By the time the leading riders reach the summit of the Cote de la Roche-aux-Fauconx the battle will be well underway as the strongest riders become apparent with less than 20km remaining once its 1.5km climb (avg 9.3%) is summited. The climb itself has picked up the mantle from Cote de la Redoute as the foundations of a race winning move in its short history as part of Liége-Bastogne-Liége; its ramps providing the ideal launchpad has others are left short in the wake of a barnstorming solo attack.

If after the Cote de la Roche-aux-Fauconx no clear breakaway has formed, then the Cote de Saint-Nicolas is the last chance to shake the peloton off before the finish. The climb begins 5.5km from the line and lasts for 1.2km, with early slopes of 10.9% looking the likely scene of a major dig from a contender as they attempt to get away on the final climb. Overall, the average gradient of Cote de Saint-Nicolas is 8.6% and soothes more so as they make progress towards the summit; favourites might be caught out as nobody wishes to instigate the chase for an escapee from the base of the climb.

Only a downhill section into the finish of Ans remains now, it is after this where the leaders will have to fight for the win upon a road which pushes upwards under the flamme rouge with an average gradient of 4.6%. Having already contested over 250km worth of racing, any rider who shows the smallest cracks at this point will see a gulf open ahead of them to those who still have enough left in reserve to attack. Any group present at the start of this uphill section into the finish is likely to see its ranks decimated as it begins fracturing under the strain of those making their moves for the win. A final lefthand turn will remain, the one which saw Dan Martin fall hard on a patch of diesel last year, before the leading rider(s) muster everything left to drag themselves over the last hundred meters and onto the podium.

Contenders:

Yet again in the Ardennes, Alejandro Valverde finds himself the number one favourite and marked man for this race which he has already one on two occasions in 2006 and 2008. This year the Spaniard has looked in imperious form during both Amstel Gold and Fléche Wallonne; winning the latter for the the third time and only being beaten by a faster finishing Michal Kwaitkowski in Amstel Gold. During the final ascent of the Mur de Huy at Fléche Wallone, it was obvious that Valverde intended on cooly climbing the majority before driving to the line with less than 200m remaining and it was exactly what he was allowed to do. Should his rivals allow him to execute his desired plan once again, it is difficult to argue against Valverde given his form during this last week and historic form at Liége-Bastogne-Liége too. His focus will be to remain in contention throughout the day and follow the important wheels when it matters towards the final stages of the race; aiming for a finish which will set him up as the fastest in a select group.

It seemed that Dan Martin would be the favourite to take Liége in 2015 at the start of last week, but disaster struck during Fléche Wallonne when he was brought down by another rider. He hit the deck hard and required a lot of persuading to get back on his bike in an attempt to ride it off, but he eventually withdrew and is yet to make a comment about his condition. With Cannondale-Garmin keeping knowledge of Martin’s injuries to a minimum, it seems that things could be quite bad for the Irishmen; surely you would want to shout about being fine ahead of your year’s biggest target? Having won it in 2013 and only missed out on defending his title the following year when crashing on the final bend, there are no question marks surrounding whether or not this race suits him. Should he been seen to have called his rivals’ bluff by not commentating on the extent of his accident, Martin could be left unmarked due to assumptions surrounding his condition. The final climbs of Liége have previously demonstrated how well he rides in the latter stages of an arduous race such as this and that is why he still needs to be considered a threat until he is certain to have come unstuck.

Joaquim Rodriguez certainly has the ability on paper to win this race and seems to have played his cards close to his chest going into the final Ardennes classic. Amstel Gold and Fléche Wallone have offered little as to his condition beyond which he entered this week of races on after a solid showing at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Absent from the deciding group at Amstel Gold, he managed to finish with the best at Fléche Wallonne; though unable or unsure as to anticipate Valverde’s attack with one of his own. He suits the short and sharp nature of the terrain in this region, but the lack of a summit finish means he would have to attack earlier in order to be alone when making the final turn onto the finishing straight. He is likely to figure when it matters, but it is hard to see him getting the better of everyone on the day.

Lampre-Merida are far from synonymous for targeting this week of racing, but have a dark horse in the shape of former World Champion Rui Costa. Earning the rainbow stripes is confirmation of his ability to cope with long and arduous one day races and Liége-Bastogne-Liége should give him hope of adding an impressive win to this year’s palmares. He rode surprisingly well in Amstel Gold last weekend, being in the mix over the Cauberg and appeared to be a good bet for a podium place at one point during the finale; only just missing out when finishing 4th. Costa has a good ability to pick the right move when it matters most and will be a considerable threat judging by his recent performances. He will have to try and drop those faster than him in a sprint such as Valverde, but is likely to work as part of a group if he believes himself to be the fastest come the finish. The lack of attention focused upon him in recent months makes him out to be a dark horse, whereas in reality, he should be considered a contender.

Joaquim Rodriguez certainly has the ability on paper to win this race and seems to have played his cards close to his chest going into the final Ardennes classic. Amstel Gold and Fléche Wallone have offered little as to his condition beyond which he entered this week of races on after a solid showing at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Absent from the deciding group at Amstel Gold, he managed to finish with the best at Fléche Wallonne; though unable or unsure as to anticipate Valverde’s attack with one of his own. He suits the short and sharp nature of the terrain in this region, but the lack of a summit finish means he would have to attack earlier in order to be alone when making the final turn onto the finishing straight. He is likely to figure when it matters, but it is hard to see him getting the better of everyone on the day.

Vincenzo Nibali has been a protagonist at several one day races so far this spring, but Liége-Bastogne-Liége is likely to prove to be the first where he regains a grand tour level of control and becomes the leader once again. The race suits him the most in the Ardennes and has previously proven it when almost winning in 2012 after attacking solo on the penultimate climb. Nibali will ride aggressively in order to split the pack and reduce the size of any chasing group, he will have to attack solo if he wishes to win as chances of doing the same in a sprinting are greatly diminished. It would come as little surprise to see him attack on the steepest section of Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons and then drop like a stone down the other side in an attempt to stay clear.

The Ardennes are now famous for 2011’s dominance by Philippe Gilbert which saw him win all three in one week to become the first man to win this elusive triple crown in a single year. As a former World Champion and two time winner of the year’s final monument Il Lombardia, he clearly performs well when it comes to long races which slowly wear the riders down. Though many were unfortunate enough to crash during Fléche Wallonne, his accident appeared to be one of the more painful which occurred during the race. Despite a badly ripped kit and some nasty cuts, Gilbert did initially get back on his bike in order to finish the race, but only gingerly pedalled off to end up climbing into the team car sometime later. Appearances can be deceiving, but compared to Dan Martin’s crash, Gilbert’s look considerably more damaging to the Belgian classics specialist.

AG2R La Mondiale attend the race with a three pronged attack in the form of Domenico Pozzovivo, Romain Bardet and Carlos Betancur. The former showed ability in this race last year and will look to build upon this with another punchy rider in attempt to go clear late on. The young Frenchman Bardet could perhaps be the better bet though, he has looked in great form during the mountains stages of Trentino and is believed to have earmarked this as a big Spring effort. He has no qualms with aggressive attacks on short climbs and could be allowed too much freedom if he does so. The form of Carlos Betancur is often a mystery and nothing has changed that as of late, he is a dangerous man when he wants to be and finished 4th here in 2013.

Amstel Gold finally saw the crowning of a man who has come so close to taking an Ardenne’s victory in the last couple of years on several occasions; Michal Kwiatkowski. The young Pole is a diverse rider and has victories which have come in a variety of race formats and attacking styles, often making him a difficult man to disregard. Being the reigning World Champion proves how well he rides during a long day in the saddle, but he shall not be given the same opportunity which he benefited from in Ponferrada; the peloton having learnt this the hard way. He is a gutsy rider who can grit his teeth and perform even when feeling short on top fitness, though this is unlikely to be enough in Liége to take the win. He beat Valverde in Amstel Gold when it came down to the sprint convincingly, but it has to be assumed that the Spaniard will do everything to drop him before the final turn is made.

Roman Kreuziger is sure to be a protagonist during the day’s racing; he has a good record at Liége-Bastogne-Liége (having charted in the top ten previously) and clearly suits the terrain well. It is difficult so say how is best for the Czech rider to approach this race if he intends on winning, though a solo attack is viable, he might be better off working in a breakaway for the most part before going it alone nearer the finish. There is little form thus far to gauge his fitness, but he likes this Ardennes race the most, despite having previously won Amstel Gold in 2013 and has finished 4th and 7th here already.

During Amstel Gold, Jakob Fuglsang maintained that he felt he could have drive his breakaway to the line had he not been followed by Greg Van Avermaet. On this occasion, the terrain will play more so into the Dane’s hands as he offers a dangerous ‘one-two’ attack for Astana with teammate Nibali. Similar to the move Ryder Hesjedal made with Dan Martin in 2013, Fuglsang will need reeling back in if he does make a move, providing Nibali with a free ride amongst the pack as he then attempts a counterattack once his teammate is caught. If he is allowed to work solely for himself, then he will need to attack from far enough out to prevent a sprint finish as he can only win if arriving solo in Ans.

Tony Gallopin is continuing to grow well as a rider and has managed to put in some good showings at Liége-Bastogne-Liége previously. Though he is yet to stick with the favourites during the finale, he has finished amongst the main pack and should feel confident of building upon this in 2015. His performance at Amstel Gold was very impressive and probably should have finished higher given his finishing speed compared to that of those around him, but was badly position when it mattered the most. His condition looks good and a top ten finish should be an achievable target if he reads the moves well and follows the right wheels.

Having finished 3rd, 6th and 12th here before, Enrico Gasparotto will aim to gain a similar result at the very least here. Though 33 years of age, he is perhaps showing some of his best form of his career right now; with a 15th in Fléche Wallonne and 8th in Amstel Gold. He should be able to stick the pace and will certainly be a threat if he should manage to squirrel himself away as part of a group which has to sprint for the win. In 2013 he was the fastest of the main bunch after Maxim Iglinsky and Vincenzo Nibali went up the road and decided it out of reach of the faster men.

Tom Jelte-Slagter could prove to be a handy alternative for Cannondale-Garmin if Dan Martin is still suffering badly from his crash. The Dutchman comes into this race on the back of a 9th place finish at Fléche Wallonne and has already managed a 6th place in Liége-Bastogne-Liége last year.

Outcome: 1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Rui Costa 3rd Dan Martin

Solo: Vincenzo Nibali

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