When was the last time you truly loved an edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège? On some level it will always be a beautiful race, winding around the Ardennes, past the farms, on skinny Belgian roads, some of which go uphill for quite a while. The concept of an out-and-back, two vastly different legs connecting the same poles, is brilliance. The history of the race can’t be forgotten. We love it, it’s a monument. But when have we loved the race on race day itself?
That’s a subjective matter — I was fond of the Poels and Gilbert wins of the last decade, and the Hamilton victory in 2003 and Di Luca win in 2007, until I finally accepted the underlying reality. That’s about it. I can describe and rank the enjoyability of the last 13 or 14 Tours of Flanders without looking up a single detail. But I can barely muster more than a few images of the most recent generation of LBL successes.
It seems wrong. A race this lovely and historic, as well as demanding and cherished by the riders and teams, should not be forgettable. But that’s where we are, in my opinion, and in the race’s too. For they have announced the return of La Doyenne to its historic finishing place in the center of old Liège, rather than detouring to Ans over two final, and almost always decisive, climbs. Those finishing climbs have forced the peloton to wait and wait and wait — so the conventional wisdom goes — until the final 6km, when the race hits the foot of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, at which point the attacks, at long last, begin. Alejandro Valverde, the evergreen favorite, said just this week that he is hard to beat in the last 250 meters of this race. So guess where he plans to make his move?
Swept aside is all evidence that this is a long, complex race. It’s more than a peloton chasing a breakaway for five hours and then maybe sort of splitting up in the last five minutes. Or at least it should be.
And so it shall be again.
Next year there will be no Saint-Nicolas or Ans uphill to give Valverde a natural launching pad, but rather a flat-to-rolling run into Liège. Next year the race will revert to what it was before, a long day in the saddle with majestic climbs (for Belgium anyway) and ambiguous strategy choices, leading to people making different strategy choices, leading possibly to a fascinating race. L-B-L will return to a race for all the classics stars, not merely the climbers... which in turn begs the question, what about Benoot? Sagan? Van Avermaet? Sep? Could this be where Wout Van Aert wins his first major road race? Can anyone stop Michael Matthews?
Gone, I hope, will be the catenaccio approach that has taken this venerable Monument out of the must-watch category. Back will be Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Monument of the Ardennes.
This Year’s Race
With such profound changes on the horizon, this year’s race does not come with any big changes.
The first 90km are changed from last year, and the Côte de Mont-le-Soie is added to the slate just before shit starts to get real with the Côte de Pont. After that, if there are any changes, they aren’t apparent to me and certainly wouldn’t fit the description of a major change.
Neither is the favorites list much different. If you want something to be excited about, it would be the return of five of the last six winners, plus all of the top ten from last year, which is the cycling equivalent of rounding up the usual suspects. The same course and the same people are sure to lapse back into the same catenaccio tactics, because that’s the definition of insanity and cycling is nothing if not insane. But we can hope, for a few reasons.
First, the catenaccio has only been good for two Valverde wins in three years, and three in the last ten. Nothing like the Green Bullet’s four-year winning streak that he held coming into La Flèche Wallonne yesterday. Late-race tactics may be all the rage, but at least they don’t seem to always break the same way.
Also, that Flèche streak just ended at the hands of Julian Alaphilippe! He can be beaten! It’s just a matter of whether Quick Step pull it off (sorry, other teams, Valverde isn’t your only crushing headache). Quick Step’s run of brilliance has barely paused, just long enough to let Sagan win Roubaix and Michael Valgren take Amstel Gold.
On Wednesday they were up to their usual thing, putting a guy in the break, Max Schachmann, who was not at all a token presence but rather someone who could have won and still even recovered for eighth after doing so much work. They patrolled the peloton with the shadow of Philippe Gilbert hanging over things, which is no small matter considering Gilbert’s treble success in 2011. Gilbert is the ultimate decoy, returning to the Ardennes after a couple years off, and that sort of history means you can’t let him off the leash. But the real threat was Alaphilippe, and will be again Sunday when surprise or no there may simply be no stopping him.
The list of riders hoping to break the grips of both Valverde and Quick Step is long and glorious. Let’s run through a bunch.
- Romain Bardet, AG2R: Two sixth places here, and a little something going on in 2018, where Bardet is expanding his repertoire in the classics. He won the Classic Sud Ardèche going away and was in full cry at the Strade Bianche, chasing Tiesj Benoot alone to the end. That sort of mentality is what he’ll need Sunday.
- Michael Valgren and Jakob Fuglsang, Astana: Neither Dane has done that much here, which is surprising in Fuglsang’s case given his palmares. Valgren is a hot hand coming off two big classic wins, though he’s done it by launching a late attack from a small group. That’s a great way to win L-B-L too... but it’s a longer day than Amstel or the Omloop.
- Vincenzo Nibali. Bah-Meh: well-supported, and back in the day Nibs made his way onto the podium. It’s been a while, but Nibali identified this as one of his main goals for the season. His attacking ways at La Flèche were perhaps a sign of what’s to come. Exactly five riders have won Milano-Sanremo and L-B-L in the same season: four of them are named Eddy Merckx and one is Fred De Bruyne. N.b., Ion Izagirre was top five last year, making him a very threatening card to play, as a jack or an ace.
- BMC’s Loïc Vliegen won’t win. Not this year. But he was in the finale of the U23 L-B-L several years in a row. File that away.
- Lillian Calmejane, Direct Energie: Hitting his prime and winning some races this year, including a recent Paris-Camembert. He’s coming on and should be close to the front of the race Sunday, though the Monument distance is a stretch for him.
- Jelle Vanendert, Lotto: The last time he finished outside the top 25 was in the Bush administration. Benoot and Wellens will be there as well, and both fall into the “never done it before but why not?” category. But Vanendert looked like their strongest guy this week.
- Michael Albasini & Roman Kreuziger, Michelton Scott: Got to love what you saw of Kreuziger last weekend, and with four top-ten’s he at least knows how to follow the favorites around the Ardennes. But Kreuz had the aggressiveness going too last we saw him (second in Amstel). Albasini made it to the line in Ans for the win just two years ago, getting pipped by Poels. Recent form is bad though (three straight DNFs), so...
- Poels and Michal Kwiatkowski, Sky: Poels and the Pole. The former winner and a guy with two podium places, who can finish off a sprint if need be. If Valverde doesn’t look great, maybe they leave Kwiato around for the finish and let Poels off the leash? But Kwiato can take off when his ever-sharp race instincts take over. Deep team.
- Michael Matthews, Sunweb: Ah, right, the reason we probably won’t have a sprint, unless Sunweb keeps it all together. He’s certainly riding well enough, and broke through on the distance last year, when he was fourth.
- Ilnur Zakarin, Katusha: One start, one top five. Do I like Zak? I think I like Zak. He fights.
- Dan Martin, UAE: I want to say something mean about how terrible he looked Wednesday, but it’s worth remembering that he’s like the only guy who’s focusing solely on the Tour de France, so it kind of makes sense. Ulissi would be next in line, but he’s yet to show himself in LBL.
- Best of the rest: Mollema, Dumoulin, Henao, Rolland, Uran, Majka, Teuns, Visconti. I could go on.
Pick to Win
Heart says Nibali. Head says... Kwiatkowski. I look forward to a crafty race, but if Kwiatkowski is there at the end, he’s too smart, too fast to beat. Valverde will be there but maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t have quite the legs right now.