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Looking for a true monument at Liège

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Apr 24, 2015 – Every year before the start of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic, the fourth of the season’s five monuments, Liège’s medieval Place St. Lambert is abuzz with speculation about the upcoming race as the stars of the sport sign in. This year, the buzz is likely to be about what type of race to expect. With rain showers in the forecast, and a favorable southerly breeze for the finale, there’s hope that those stars—men such as local hero Philippe Gilbert, triple grand tour winner Vincenzo Nibali and the controversial but still winning Alejandro Valverde—will produce an aggressive classic and not wait until the very final kilometers to make their moves.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

Three years ago, in one of my early pieces for peloton.com, I wrote a column titled: “Hilly classics shouldn’t be so negative.” It opened with a quote by an old-fashioned racer, now retired, Andy Schleck, who said, “I don’t understand the tactics of the peloton today.” He was referring to the manner in which modern pro team leaders wait and wait and wait…and end up running out of time and space to make a decisive move. Or as Schleck put it: “No one attacked, no one did anything.”

Such negative racing was anathema to Schleck, who won the 2009 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in a 20-kilometer-long solo breakaway after attacking on one of the Belgian classic’s steepest hills. Perhaps in this weekend’s 101st edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the tactics won’t be so negative and someone will break the negative tactical mold—but more about that later.

This past week has seen the two lesser of April’s three hilly classics, the Amstel Gold Race in the lumpy Limburg region of the Netherlands and the Flèche Wallonne in the northern part of the Belgian Ardennes. Before the Dutch classic (not a monument), reigning world champion Michal Kwiatkowski made a valid comment about today’s tactics: “It’s true that 90 percent of WorldTour races are played out at the end because each leader is always well protected by his team, and you always have to stay ready. In fact, there’s no need to know all the crucial part of a course because the key move can happen anywhere.”

Kwiatkowski is both right and wrong. He’s right that (in theory) crucial breakaways can happen anywhere, but the success of a break depends very much on the layout of the race and the strength of the opposing teams. Last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race was a case in point. All the leaders were well protected, and virtually all of them waited to make their biggest effort on the final slog up the infamous Cauberg (the locals pronounce it the “Cow-berg”)—a kilometer-long hill that averages 7.5-percent grade with a 13-percent pitch of pain in the middle. It’s a hill that BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert had used to win three editions of the Amstel Gold Race and a world title, but this time his brilliant (and expected) attack was marked by a brave Australian named Michael Matthews. The Orica-Green Edge man grimly clung to the back wheel of the Belgian—who didn’t want to tow Matthews all the way to the line, knowing the Aussie is a much faster sprinter.

gilbert amstel gold 2014

The result was a regrouping of 18 riders (from the 60 or so that hit the foot of the Cauberg together), including Kwiatkowski—who said, “…I have to admit: I was in trouble on the Cauberg”—who smartly threaded his way through the desperately sprinting group to take his first UCI WorldTour classic from the “eternal” Valverde and the plucky Matthews. Rolling home in 65th place was reigning Tour de France champ Vincenzo Nibali of the beleaguered Astana team, who was the only team leader to break the day’s stalemate. His attack on the Amstel Gold Race’s steepest climb, the 1.6-kilometer Keutenberg that has a 22-percent pitch, was spectacular and allowed him to join the remnants of an earlier break. Unfortunately, in the Dutch classic’s currently restructured course, the Keutenberg comes 31 kilometers from the finish instead of it being much closer before the organizers added an 18km finishing loop. Even so, Nibali’s move was hailed as one that should have earned him a better reward.

Nibali—who said afterward, “I’m confident enough for the rest of the week. I’ve worked hard, I’ve confirmed that the legs are more or less there”—tried another aggressive move at the midweek Flèche Wallonne. This time the Italian’s attack came on the Côte de Cherave, a 1.3-kilometer, 8.1-percent climb that the organizers inserted 6 kilometers from the finish in an attempt to break-up the logjam of riders that usually contests the finish up the savage Mur de Huy. Nibali’s move did cause a split, did see a solo counterattack by Belgian hope Tim Wellens of Lotto-Soudal, and did result in a group half the size of the regular 60-strong peloton to hit the “Wall of Huy.”

But the end result wasn’t much different: a third victory in the Flèche for Movistar’s Valverde, who simply pounded clear in the final 200 uphill meters to win ahead of the exciting young French climber, Julian Alaphilippe—who’d been unchained from his domestique duties by his Etixx-Quick Step team when, a kilometer from the finish, leader Kwiatkowski was in no state to repeat his Amstel Gold Race victory. As for the two late aggressors, Wellens was passed by 30 riders in the final 500 meters for his hard-earned 31st place, 36 seconds down, while Nibali hung tough to take 20th, at 19 seconds.

VALVERDE Alejandro023pp

So what can we expect from this weekend’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège? Like the two classics we’ve just seen, it has an uphill finish into the Liège suburb of Ans. But the classic point-to-point nature of the course, as opposed to courses that rely on loops and circuits to make up the distance, contribute to this race’s status as a true monument.

The cities of Liège and Bastogne are on opposite ends of the Ardennes, a chain of high ridges that tops out on a bleak plateau at 2,277 feet (694 meters) above sea level and is dissected on all sides by steep-sided river valleys. From Liège, the current course heads south on a fairly direct route, taking in half a dozen climbs, only one of which is classified for the event’s King of the Hills award. The peloton is usually intact, save for the likely early breakaway group, when it reaches Bastogne after 107 kilometers. Here, the riders pass a World War II tank, a relic of the Battle of the Bulge, and grab their musettes at the first of the race’s two feed zones. After making the turn at Bastogne, the course heads northeast to start the much tougher return leg (146 kilometers) that features a succession of 10 gnarly climbs (eight counting for the King of the Hills classification) that vary in length from one kilometer to 4.4 kilometers. The finish is in the gritty suburb of Ans, in the hills just to the west of Liège.

That finish is preceded by four steep climbs in the final 35 kilometers of the 253-kilometer race: La Redoute (2km at 8.9 percent), the unclassified Sprimont (1.1km at 6.3 percent), La Roche-aux-Faucons (1.5km at 9.4 percent) and Saint-Nicolas (1.2km at 8.6 percent). The Roche-aux-Faucons (“Falcons Rock”) has a steepest pitch of 15 percent and there’s a short downhill after the summit before it continues climbing on a straight concrete road exposed to the wind, 18 kilometers from the finish. That is where the key break developed in each of the first four years the climb was included in the course.

In 2008, three men emerged from that critical stretch to contest a sprint finish: Valverde, Davide Rebellin and Fränk Schleck (Andy Schleck was fourth); in 2009, winner Andy Schleck was alone for the last 20 kilometers; in 2010, the successful move was made by two men, Alexander Vinokourov and Alexander Kolobnev (in a never-ending private corruption case, now-retired Kazakh veteran Vinokourov is accused of paying a 150,000-euro bribe to the Russian to let him win the final sprint); and in 2011, Gilbert out-sprinted his two breakaway companions, the Schleck brothers.

In 2012, Nibali made a solo attack on Falcons Rock and gained as much as 45 seconds, but he was caught and passed on the 1.5-kilometer-long haul to the finish line by Kazakh Maxim Iglinskiy (whose positive for EPO last year triggered the investigation into the Astana team’s ethics). Roche-aux-Faucons wasn’t included in 2013 because of road work, but the Garmin team’s Ryder Hesjedal made use of the longer, easier replacement climb to make a solo break that eventually enabled his teammate Dan Martin to win the race in spectacular fashion.

MartinWinLombardia1

Last year, the Roche-aux-Faucons was back on the course, but the benign Côte des Forges was placed before it, meaning that the often-decisive La Redoute was 45 kilometers from the end rather than 35. So everyone was a little fresher on reaching Falcon’s Rock and the decisive move didn’t come until the Saint-Nicolas climb, 5.5 kilometers from the finish, where Italian Giampaolo Caruso of Katusha attacked with Domenico Pozzovivo of AG2R La Mondiale. That pair held on till the final corner, where the pursuing Martin skidded and fell before Orica’s Aussie sprinter Simon Gerrans burst past the two leaders to take the win from Valverde and Kwiatkowski.

So let’s hope there’s a positive race this Sunday. Let’s hope that Nibali’s form does come through to enable him to attack on Falcon’s Rock. And let’s hope that Martin stays upright, Gilbert hangs tough, and that they and all the other stars create a monument worthy of its designation.

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You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson