The week of classics racing in the Ardennes reaches its crescendo with the year’s fourth monument of the season, Liége – Bastogne – Liége; the penultimate chance to win a monument until the Giro di Lombardia in late September. Known as La Doyenne or ‘The Old Lady’, the race’s 103rd edition since its founding in 1892 totals 258km from Liege and back again to the suburb of Ans. A predominantly tame opening half will do little to worry the bunch, allowing the day’s futile breakaway to obtain their time on TV for the sponsors, before being drawn back in by the peloton during the much harder second half of the race. Once the riders begin to turn back towards the fringes of Liége, where the finish line in Ans awaits them, they shall hit a gruelling sequence of nine climbs intended to send plenty of riders out the back door. The introduction of a short cobbled section towards last year’s finish has been removed, which should mean that the familiar triumvirate of Côte de La Redoute, Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons and Côte de Saint-Nicolas shall be the officially recognised battleground as they bear down upon Ans. However, as we have seen previously, it is the unclassified rising road into the finishing straight which has become a key springboard for remaining riders to make their move for the win. The rise lasts for almost 1.5km and hits a gradient of 10%, a challenge which will feel more like a mountain after more than 250km worth of racing.
There are many critics of The Old Lady, labelling it as a race where nothing much really happens for the most part, but in an era of teams throttling the life out of stage racing and several monuments, La Doyenne remains a contest few would wish to stake their savings on predicting.
Alejandro Valverde has once again entered the week of the Ardennes classics in the type of form which surely leaves some rivals pondering if it is even worth them showing up to contest these races. The Spaniard is in imperious form so far in 2017, the peloton all too aware of this fact when reaching the Mur de Huy during Wednesday’s La Flèche Wallonne, left to simply watch Valverde sail uphill to yet another victory. His Movistar team will seek to control the bulk of the day’s racing once again, confident that their team-leader will be able to follow the most important moves late on solo, finally putting his rivals to the sword with his customary burst of pace.
Dan Martin is still smarting from his crash in the final corner of 2014’s edition, appearing on course to defend his 2013 title and no doubt believes there to be a great deal of unfinished business with Liége – Bastogne – Liége. He was once again unable to beat Valverde at La Flèche Wallonne, though did suffer from undesirable positioning when his longterm classics rival finally attacked for the line. Martin will want to make the final kilometres as hard as possible, hoping to blunt the speed of faster finishing rivals, most likely doing so by attacking on the final rise into Ans as he did in 2014 before crashing. His buildup to 2017 has been one of his most impressive in his career, but unfortunately for the Irishman, Valverde’s has been equally eye catching.
Sergio Henao‘s progress at the Ardennes classics has been hampered over the years by unfortunate injury and all the hassle surrounding his native blood values, but the Colombian rider finally looks en route to success in 2017. The Sky rider worked hard for teammate Michal Kwiatkowski during Amstel Gold and followed it up with a convincing fourth place atop the Mur de Huy at La Flèche Wallonne. He looks strong enough to follow all the right moves and possesses a faster sprint at the end of a race like this than many would expect.
Michal Kwiatkowski is the other option for Team Sky and forms a seriously strong two man attack alongside Henao for the British outfit at Liége – Bastogne – Liége. The former World Champion has one of the fastest sprint finishes for a race like this after Alejandro Valverde, however, it seems that his growing penchant for late attacks is the method which the Polish rider is most likely to utilise in order to secure his second monument victory of 2017.
Greg Van Avermaet will be eager to eke out every last watt of his incredible Spring form, lining up at La Doyenne with serious ambitions of challenging for the win. His consistency during the cobbled classics has been extremely impressive, but this contest is an entirely different affair altogether for the Belgian and it seems unlikely that this year’s Paris – Roubaix winner will also be champion of Liége – Bastogne – Liége. With nothing to lose and no real pressure upon his shoulders, Avermaet is a very dangerous rider in relation to the hopes of day’s bigger favourites and will demand the respect of typical Liége contenders; as the Belgian will punish anyone who gifts him too much freedom.
Michael Albasini has always performed well at one day races, yet at the age of 36, still lacks the palmarés to demonstrate his talents for these gruelling events. The Swiss rider was one of the few to benefit from the introduction of the short cobbled sector of Côte de la Rue Naniot during last year’s race, utilising it effectively to really put his rivals under the hammer and thus making Albasini one of the few riders to truly miss the sector this year. His strength this year should assure him of being in the mix once again, but it often feels a struggle to back Albasini over more successful riders when it matters most in a major race.
Warren Barguil continues to improve at the Ardennes and secured himself sixth place during Wednesday’s edition of La Flèche Wallonne despite a far from ideal run into the Mur de Huy. The combative Frenchman may be more synonymous with grand tour mountain stages, yet he also finished sixth at last year’s running of Liége – Bastogne – Liége, suggesting he does favour these longs days in the saddle with plenty of climbing. He appears to be the best bet for Team Sunweb, as Michael Matthews has not really displayed enough convincing form to suggest he can take the win in Ans.
Romain Bardet spoke recently of his love for this race and its importance to lithe limbed climbing specialists like himself; La Doyenne being their best hope of a monument victory. Bardet is an aggressive rider who appears to relish the intensity of these single day races, finishing second in 2011’s U23 edition of Liége and now possessing four top 15 finishes as a senior rider; two of which being top ten placings. Bardet’s best hopes of victory will come from attacking either on the final uphill section into Ans or going much earlier during the sequence of Côte de La Redoute, Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons and Côte de Saint-Nicolas.
Other riders deserving of attention during the year’s fourth monument are Rui Costa, Alex Howes, Dylan Teuns, Tosh Van Der Sande, Samuel Sanchez, Jakob Fuglsang, Enrico Gasparotto, Diego Ulissi, Rigoberto Uran and Tom Jelte-Slagter.
1st Romain Bardet 2nd Sergio Henao 3rd Dan Martin