I'm still shaking the Pacific Ocean out of my brain, so I don't have much in the way of insight to offer here. Let's call this an open source LBL preview! But I know enough about what's happening right now to say that the central theme to the race will be whether anyone can prevent Movistar's Alejandro Valverde from gaining a fourth victory. Things in Valverde's favor, right now...
Valverde is wicked experienced
Valverde is coming up on his 36th birthday next week, and hopes to be celebrating another palmares over whatever it is he celebrates his birthday with. He has ridden La Doyenne 11 times previously, with six podiums, half of which are victories. Two of those wins were a while back in the early post-Puerto era, but he also won last year -- after serving his time and against a field that ... well, is probably more worth watching. So even throwing out the older appearances, he's had three consecutive finishes of third, second and first. He's been on top of his game here. He knows how to race this race.
This experience was the dominant message from yesterday's Flèche Wallonne victory. Like no other race, La Flèche requires patience in the last moments of the finale. Valverde was as patient and steady as a surgeon in taking the win in Huy. That same principle can apply in LBL -- if a small group finishes together, knowing when to launch is the difference between victory and pounding the bars. When's the last time we saw Valverde pounding his bars?
Valverde can sprint
Related... if it comes to a sprint, the reason he can be so patient is that Valverde knows he's probably got the fastest kick. This hardly bears discussion, it's been true for so long. Last year he won LBL from something of a bunch. The year before he lost to Simon Gerrans, when Gerro -- who also finishes well for a climber -- maneuvered Valverde into leading him out. The year before Valverde won the sprint for third after Dan Martin and J-Rod got away.
We aren't talking 2005 Tom Boonen here (note: I am always ready to talk 2005 Tom Boonen), but he's very reliable against most of the guys we should find ourselves talking about in a small bunch. Obviously Gerrans, who is there Sunday, is a threat. Gilbert would have been but he's off the startlist now. Diego Ulissi is another, if he were strong enough to make the finale. Got anyone else in mind? I don't.
Valverde has a strong team
The obvious way to deal with a guy who finishes quickly and smartly is to try to finish without him. Mano-a-mano Valverde is strong enough to stick around to the end, but tactical attacks are always a feature in the classics, and LBL is no exception. If you want to grouse about the downturn in aggressive riding in cycling, particularly in the Ardennes, I won't try to dissuade you. But if there is one thing that is bound to get people attacking, it's a dominant end-of-race guy, and while Valverde has always been such a person, I think now more than ever the message is being heard, loud and clear. You simply can't bring him to the finish if you want to win.
Clever directeurs sportif have undoubtedly spent time in recent seasons saying this to their riders, but it just seems like the message might get better penetration this time? I dunno, but you can count on people having plans in place to launch from somewhere. The question is, where?
A long-range attack is a risky thing, so for teams to plan one, they have to have an excess of resources and/or a sense of nothing left to lose. I can think of several teams that fit that description on paper: AG2R, Astana, Tinkoff and Sky come to mind first, though I'll ask you guys to fill in my blanks re who's on form. Orica can maybe afford to wait and take another chance with Gerrans. Etixx-Quick Step really have to do something after losing to Valverde yesterday, because surely Martin and Alaphilippe know what will happen in the last 50 meters. But long range? Who has the guts? Besides Michal Kwiatkowski, of course.
The other issue is whether teams believe they need to be so aggressive. This year's edition of LBL is a bit more crowded at the end with climbs, including the newly-inserted Côte de la Rue Naniot, a modest 600 meters at 10.5% but deliciously close to the end:
BTW here's your entire profile:
I don't have much to say about how all the climbs will set up versus past years. The final hour is the usual La Redoute-Falcon's Rest- St. Nick and assorted last minute stuff. Per above, the last-minute stuff definitely is different. So in my mind, that's what's interesting from a strategic standpoint. It's not to say that the earlier array of climbs won't see important moves; it's just that such a threat is the same level as usual.
Given the stuff close to the line, there are reasons not to try a long-range attack. I'd add to that the effect of Movistar, easily the dominant squad here. They feature usual suspect Dani Moreno, who generally scores some secondary points here; a resurgent Carlos Betancur, who once took fourth; and guys like Ion Izagirre and Giovanni Visconti, on whom Valverde can rely for either chasing down attacks or joining them in order to put other teams on defense. With Valverde the cherry on that sundae, Movi have more than enough cards.
So how will it go down?
My bet is that teams will remember how Valverde has won, but also how he has lost. The action at the end of this long, beautiful beast of a race gets so incredibly intense that Valverde tends not to have teammates by his side inside the last 3km. It's been up to him to finish it off, and the last two years everyone has forced him to do some final chasing, with it working once and failing a second time. Still, he can be had in the last few climbs, simply by being outnumbered by the Stop-Valverde crowd (not you Jens, the ones actually in the race). If we get 10 guys in the final 5km, at least half of those guys need to be thinking about trying on the Rue Naniot or the Ans incline (which is probably harder and more decisive, but risky because there is so little race left if it fails). Valverde will be forced to chase them all, and he won't be able to. The problem last year was that there was really only a single guy to hunt down at the very end, and Valverde reeled him in. It's going to require a more aggressive finish than that.