The alter ego to de Ronde van Vlaanderen is its predecessor and part-motivator for its existence, the deliberately French Belgian Monument Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Canonizing one of cycling's great formats in 1892, the race features a relatively painless ride out to Bastogne from the regional capital Liège, and a much more painful return route over some of cycling's more famous climbs. I like to think of this race having been invented by a typical Belgian powerhouse and his little climber buddy, the former choosing a rolling course to blast through on the way to Bastogne. At that point, the climber says to his friend, "That was fun, but let's race home. And this time, I'm choosing the route."
Like all the old races, La Doyenne (as it is known) has a cultural backstory that serves as a stepping stone in the sport's development. It was founded by yet another newspaper, L'Expresse, as a publicity stunt -- a format to be repeated over and over again in all the big races -- Le Tour, de Ronde, il Giro, etc. -- all of which came later. Because the newspaper was in French, the race stuck to Wallonia. Road racing in France (as opposed to track) was ahead of other scenes, in terms of athletes, events and manufacturers, and the French influence went on to feed the scene in Wallonia as well. The somewhat exclusionary nature of it led to a reaction by Flemish riders and supporters which gave birth to the Tour of Flanders in 1913. Nowadays ASO runs L-B-L, just as Flanders Classics gives de Ronde its own heavyweight presence up north. But they're far less likely to throw stones at each other than perhaps in old times.
Today, de Ronde and L-B-L are the two most respected and loved classics in the world (debatable, you say, but I'll go with this). They are completely international, recognized for being both beautiful and difficult, and revered for their long history. Together, they are the heart of elite professional Belgian cycling.
Liège is historically known as a fortress town, with Wikipedia citing the construction of a ring of 12 forts as a way to block the "traditional invasion corridor from Germany." This is what counts as "tradition" in northern Europe, I guess. Anyway, fortresses aren't worth much anymore, and Liège is more of a university town now. Also, the race stopped ending in the city years ago.
Oh, and there is a U23 L-B-L, won last week by French rider Guillaume Martin. Some other recent victors include Tosh Van Der Sande, Michael Valgren (twice), Rasmus Guldhammer, Ramunas Navardauskas, Grega Bole, Jan Bakelandts, and Johan Van Summeren.
The array of climbs in the latter half of the race gets reshuffled a bit each year, and this edition is no exception. While last year they stuck in the Côte des Forges at km 231, a 2km ascent of just under six percent, this year the race has spread out the climbs and made them less backloaded. After the Côte de la Redoute at km 218 (of a total 253), there are only the traditional Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons (km 234) and the Côte de Saint-Nicolas (km 248) before the uphill drag to the line in Ans.
Inserted into the race are the Col du Rosier and Col du Maquisard, prior to La Redoute. These climbs last appeared in 2013, followed by a ride to Mont-Theux and then La Redoute. There is no Mont-Theux this year, making the race 8 km shorter and forcing rders coming off the earlier duo to deal with La Redoute sooner than they might prefer. The Côte de La Redoute is usually raced extremely hard, even if not always decisively, so coming over the 4.4km, 6% Rosier and 2.5km, 5% Maquisard is a way of softening up legs coming into the critical phase of the race.
Generally the race is regarded as a climbers' affair, but it's not your ordinary climbers' race. At over 250km (and usually more like 260+), and with long rolling stretches in between climbs, it's a race for puncheurs and generally strong riders too. Not that they can win, but you should probably have some around to keep things under control. What's also unique is the rhythm of the race, which resembles de Ronde. Like the other Ardennes Classics, it's raced on small roads that twist and turn endlessly. But the distance is longer and the major efforts -- the climbs -- are more spread out. The eleven rated climbs leaves off many other overlooked moments of incline, including the finish line, so it's harder than some of the assembled statistics suggest.
The lingering question is whether this year's course encourages attacks. Riders will do what they're gonna do regardless, but a tired and disorganized pack might have less impetus to chase down breaks, and a powerful break is more likely to get away here in the last 50km -- possibly even off La Redoute with 35km to go -- than in Amstel or La Flèche. Add in lousy weather which is forecast for the entire weekend, and you could see a wet, wild L-B-L this year. Fingers crossed...
Riders To Watch
Conor covered the big names (replete with Polish accents -- respect) prior to Amstel, and the names have barely changed. It's helpful to see Michał Kwiatkowski and Alejandro Valverde at the top of their games, as well as nice performances from Julian Alaphilippe and Dylan Teuns. It's nice to know that Philippe Gilbert, a former winner, wasn't scraped up too badly in his crash yesterday. After that, it's the usual cast of characters.
Katusha's magical spring could continue with the duo of Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno taking charge, as they looked to do on the Mur de Huy... but couldn't. Dan Martin of Cannondale is owed a debt by a manhole cover in Ans, and would be a real rider to watch if someone could assure me he's just fine after crashing out of La Flèche. [Cue Conor in 3...2...]. Movistar are loaded, of course (Valverde, Visconti, Quintana), but so too are Orica-GreenEdge (defending champ Gerrans, Albasini, Yates, Clark), Astana (Nibali, Scarponi, Fuglsang), BMC (Gilbert, van Garderen, Samu Sanchez, and probably Teuns) and Tinkoff-Saxo (Kreuziger, Majka and Valgren). Don't sleep on AG2R (Pozzovivo, Bakelandts), Wanty (Gasparotto, Leukemans, Marcato), Lampre (Costa, Ulissi, Valls Ferri, Polanc) and even Giant-Alpecin (Barguil, Dumoulin, Craddock). This race is loaded with talent, everywhere you look. Who's feeling it after 250km is the real question.
Pick To Win
Valverde. This would be his third victory, putting him on quite a pedestal. Only Merckx has 5 and Argentin 4. For a race that had no Spanish winners in its first century, the Green Bullet is making up for lost time.