1. Movistar Team
Protagonists: Alejandro Valverde, Nairo Quintana
Support: Giovanni Visconti, Gorka Izagirre
Form: Won Flèche, 2nd in Amstel.
In their favour: Valverde can win in a number of circumstances.
Not in their favour: A lack of options.
Analysis: Once Gilbert and Martin crashed, there was only going to be one winner of La Flèche Wallonne, and he duly delivered, leading the whole way up to take it from EQS' Julian Alaphillipe and Orica-GreenEDGE's Michael Albasini. I am of course talking about Alejandro Valverde. He repeated his win from last year and 2006. He won Liège in 2006 after taking Flèche, and was second last year, to a guy who won't be there on Sunday. Quintana - it's difficult to know his form and priorities, he's going to a heavily contested Tour de Romandie on Tuesday, and he might be there to support Valverde. Teammate attacks are often crucial in Liège, and Izagirre has shown good form recently. How can they win? How about this scenario? Quintana makes a big attack on a climb near enough to the finish, pulling a select few clear. Valverde could win the sprint. The only problem here's name is Kwiatkowski.
Verdict: Valverde to make the podium, if not to win.
(Bryn Lennon, Getty Images)
Protagonists: Michał Kwiatkowski, Julian Alaphillipe,
Support: Zdenek Stybar, Petr Vakoc, Maxime Bouet, Gianluca Brambilla
Form: Won Amstel, 2nd in Flèche.
In their favour: Kwiatkowski can outsprint Valverde, and is unlikely to be dropped by him. In an easier race, Alaphillipe may be the fastest guy in the finishing group.
Not in their favour: Kwiatkowski could be worked over in a group.
Analysis: Their Liège prospects may hinge on one question: Did Gilbert drop Kwiatkowski on the Cauberg? Or did he intelligently drop back. Kwiatkowski was floating in no-man's land, ahead of the people who didn't choose to follow and the people who couldn't but behind Michael Matthews. Anyway, they were caught and he won the sprint. In Flèche, despite being highly placed all day, and avoiding the crashes which took out Gilbert and Martin, he lost position going onto the Mur, and finished in a lowly 33rd. Here's where Alaphillipe comes in. Despite all the attention put on Kwiatkowski, the Frenchman was in the top five as Valverde went to the front, and stuck with him, finishing 2nd at the same time as the Spaniard, surprising many in a stellar performance. He is also at least as good a sprinter as Kwiatkowski, perhaps better. This gives them a two-pronged attack. It's set in stone that their Ardennes campaign will be better than their cobbles outing, and a Liège win would put the icing on the cake, maybe pulling the pitchforks from the hands of some of the angry Belgians. They are unlikely to win a race with attacks from 90 kilometres to go, but in a race like last year's I'd put money on them.
Verdict: They'll get a win, or in the top 5.
(Luc Claessen AFP Getty)
Protagonists: Joaquin Rodríguez, Daniel Moreno
Support: Giampaolo Caruso
Form: Good...ish. Invisible in Amstel, which would never suit them, but 4th and 5th in Flèche.
In their favour: Two guys in the top 10 of Flèche bodes well for the finale of Liège. Remember last year? Caruso very nearly made it to the finish.
Not in their favour: Won't win a sprint.
Analysis: After Purito's excellent ride in Pais Vasco, he was always going to be there or thereabouts in La Flèche Wallonne, and indeed he was, but again not winning. However, he was thankfully for the team joined by his team-mate Dani Moreno in the top 10, and with other climber Giampaolo Caruso in the team, they are in a good place. Rodríguez still has no victory in La Doyenne, and the only way he can change that is to finish alone, or with a non-sprinter.
Verdict: Two or three in the top 10.
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)
Protagonists: Dan Martin, Tom-Jelte Slagter
Support: Nathan Haas, Alex Howes, Davide Formolo, Matej Mohoric
Form: 15th in Amstel with Martin, 9th in Flèche with Slagter
In their favour: Martin is good at taking races that he has no right too.
Not in their favour: He's injured.
Analysis: 5th October, 2014, Il Lombardia. Daniel Martin is at the very back of a 13-man escape group as they jockey for position. Too far back. There is a moment of freewheeling, and he moves up. They pass the Flamme Rouge. He attacks. He reaches a 90 degree turn and his supporters hold their breath. Because they are thinking of another 90 degree corner, leading into a street in Ans, for him the most important street in the world on one day a year. He attacked to win Liège here, but Liège had the last laugh, leaving him distraught by the side of the road, bloodied and bruised. He wouldn't defend his 2013 title, marking Rodríguez and blowing past him to win alone. But he is through this last turn this time, and sees the line. Valverde senses the danger, and chases. But it is to no avail. Martin crosses the line, arms aloft, one second ahead of Valverde. It was his second monument victory. This year he wanted to win Flèche. And he crashed. Is he injured? His twitter account has been quiet, and the only word is that Garmin are "hopeful he can start." Is it just a ploy? Or is it true? Come on, it's cycling, it's a ploy. Or that's what I'm telling myself. If I'm wrong, it falls to Tom-Jelte Slagter to win for Cannondale. Can he? He had a decent Flèche. He also finished well in that ludicrously big group last year.
Verdict: Martin to win if he's fit.
5. AG2R La Mondiale:
Protagonists: Romain Bardet, Domenico Pozzovivo, Jan Bakelants, Carlos Betancur (I know!)
Support: Rinaldo Nocentini
Form: Difficult to say. Bardet will lead them, but he's been at Trentino and if he wasn't keeping his powder dry it was no more than damp.
In their favour: Lots of cards to play.
Not in their favour: Cooks and broth? They're AG2R? Take your pick.
Analysis: Bardet has not shut up about Liège. He has targeted it, "sod those other so called classics, I'm off to Italy to ride." How will this work? I'm not sure. It's quite rare. Will Betancur be back to his best? In Pais Vasco he actually did something, so maybe? Bakelants actually attacked in last year's Liège, unlike everybody else. Domenico Pozzovivo looked quite good this season as well. I like their chances.
Verdict: Many top 10s. Especially in a hard race. Bardet can possibly win.
(Bryn Lennon Velo/Getty)
6. Team Sky
Protagonists: Sergio Henao
Support: Nicolas Roche, Lars Petter Nordhaug
Form: Not bad...for Henao. 7th in Flèche. Roche was the only other Sky in the lead group.
In their favour: Henao may be one of the strongest on the climbs.
Not in their favour: He has to win alone
Analysis: Henao forced the groups clear in País Vasco, but the 2013 form isn't there. Not bad for someone who was told that he'd never race again though. Roche is proving an able team-mate, 27th in Flèche ain't bad. But either of them would have to get quite lucky to win. Henao isn't likely to outsprint too many people, so he has to win alone, and I don't think he can manage a solo breakaway. So can Roche win? If he gets into a group...unlikely, and that's a stretch. He won't be marked as tightly as Henao, but it's before the Tour, and he doesn't tend to do much at this time of year.
Verdict: Continuing their poor Ardennes history.
7. Orica GreenEDGE
Protagonists: Simon Gerrans, Michael Albasini, Simon Yates
Support: Johan Chaves, Simon Clarke, Daryl Impey
Form: 3rd in Amstel with Matthews (not riding.) 3rd in Flèche with Albasini.
In their favour: Loads of ways to win.
Not in their favour: Is anyone quite on form?
Analysis: The defending champion, Simon Gerrans - no form. That's him out, if he makes it to Ans I'll be surprised, if he makes it with the front group I'll give up making predictions. Albasini - yes he had a good Flèche, but he's never been in the top 50 of Liège. However, his Flèche form really bodes well for him to do what Gerrans did last year. Yates is a sort of unknown quantity for these sorts of races, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's too long for him. It'll be the second-longest bike race he's ever finished if he makes it to Ans.
Verdict: Unlikely winners, but dark horses as usual.
(Bryn Lennon - Velo/Getty Images)
Protagonists: Tim Wellens, Jelle Vanendert, Tony Gallopin.
Support: Louis Vervaeke
Form: As results go, not great. Gallopin got a 6th in Amstel, but Wellens attacked excellently in Flèche.
In their favour: Options
Not in their favour: Vanendert looked quite bad after his crash.
Analysis: Tim Wellens had no chance of winning Flèche on the Mur, and he know it. So what did he do? He attacked on the climb with 6 kilometres to go and hung on...for a damn long time! He made it almost half way up the Mur, but could only manage 33rd. He was 19th in Amstel, in the front group. Is he Red Lotto's best chance for a Liège win? Probably. Their usual Ardennes guy Vanendert was last seen lying on the ground, so their effort s should be direscted towards him. He's no stranger to long races, finishing 4th in last year's Lombardia.
Verdict: A top 10.
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)
Protagonists: Philippe Gilbert
Support: Dylan Teuns, Tejay Van Garderen, Samuel Sanchez, Ben Hermans
Form: Hermans won Brabantse Pijl, Van Avermaet was 5th in Amstel, Teuns was their best in Flèche with 13th after attacking first on the Mur.
In their favour: Gilbert has it in him to win these races.
Not in their favour: They have actually given details about his injury...and it's not good.
Analysis: Gilbert says that his injury means that he can only put out 500 watts, whereas he needs far more to win Liège, so assuming he's not lying, who can win? Teuns tried his best on the Mur, but I don't know if he can handle 250 kilometres. Hermans? He clearly has good legs. If he's not marked, he'll be getting into dangerous groups. Van Garderen's speciality is not these types of races. If Gilbert can do it, they might win, that was a decent attack on the Cauberg, but clearly he's not as good as last year.
Verdict: Probably nothing.
Protagonists: Ruí Costa, Diego Ulissi
Support: Rafael Valls
Form: Okay. 4th in Amstel, nowhere in Flèche. (That's Costa, Ulissi's nowhere everywhere)
In their favour: Costa has a good sprint, and has been there or thereabouts while defying gravity recently.
Not in their favour: Ulissi, who should be a major weapon, is nowhere.
Analysis: Costa has sort of suffered from the curse of the rainbow jersey. YES, he won Suisse AGAIN, but the cycling gods must have conspired to let him have it every year. However, apart from that, there were second places, third places, fourth places, but no wins. Ulissi racked some up before testing positive on stage 11 of the Giro, and getting a ridiculous and negligible 9-month ban. In Amstel he was sort of decent, but come on Ruí, you should be doing better than 28th in Flèche!
Verdict: Maybe another 4th...?
Protagonists: Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang,
Support: Michele Scarponi, Luis Léon Sanchéz, Fabio Aru
Form: Fuglsang 17th in Amstel, but you can't say they didn't try. A decent 8th in Flèche, also from Fuglsang.
In their favour: Nibali is possibly the only guy who can go long to win solo, because he knows that he has no other choice.
Not in their favour: Cycling media won't welcome a win. Also, they can't win from a group of more than one.
Analysis: Did anyone expect them to actually lose their license? I didn't. Now they're secure again, and Fuglsang had a great Flèche, for someone who I hadn't down as a great puncheur. Nibali will not win from a group of twenty. Nibali will not win from a group of ten. Nibali will not win from a group of two. He needs to finish alone, as he oh so nearly did in 2012. See how I effortlessly segued to Iglinsky? Twitter would erupt if an Astana guy won the race the week that they got their license back, and everyone's been talking about them.
Verdict: Probably not in the top 10, but Nibali can make it interesting.
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)
Other teams to look for are Tinkoff-Saxo, who are riding for Kreuziger, Wanty, who are looking after Gasparotto, Lotto-Jumbo, who have Kelderman, and Trek, who have a collection of riders, none of whom are on form.