Well, it has been an interesting week to be more or less entirely away from the cycling world. I saw and enjoyed the last few minutes of the men’s Amstel Gold, which was special (and entirely bonkers). I’ve been keeping a bit of an eye on the Tour of the Alps, which has done wonders to maintain my faith in the future stars of Team Sky/Ineos, and in Fausto Masnada. I didn’t see a minute of Fleche Wallone, which is fine by me.
On Sunday, though, I’ll be back to paying attention. With the year’s fourth monument coming up, I’ve picked a good day. Let’s get right into it.
Routes and practical information
Easter weekend was spectacularly warm and sunny across the UK, and clearly across the Netherlands too. The forecast for Sunday is less good, both in Edinburgh (you don’t care) and Liege (you do). Persistent rain is a distinct possibility, whilst some rain is a probability. The riders will be on slippery roads in unseasonably cold conditions, and the men are in particular will be in the saddle for a very long time. Bike-handling skills, stamina and resilience are all going to be under real scrutiny.
Like any good Brit, I’ve opened by talking about the weather, but there’s more practical stuff to consider. Both races can expect decent TV coverage in the usual places and if you want some times to watch, the women’s race is due to finish at 1445 (local time) and the men’s at 1645. Draw your own conclusions about how much you want or need to see, but things should be interesting for the last ninety minutes at least, or more if the weather is truly vile. There is more in the official information for men and women.
The men’s race does what is says on the tin – it starts from Liege, goes to Bastogne, and comes back to Liege. You don’t get that very often in this sport. The basics of the route are unchanged from the traditional pattern of the race, with a relatively flat “out” leg, and as many hills as possible on the return to Liege. The biggies are the Col de la Redoute, summitted with 219km in the legs and 37km to go. It is 2km at almost 9% and the riders will feel every metre of it. The last classified climb is the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons. That translates as “the coast where Nico said, oh, you don’t really have to go forth and multiply.” It also means 11% for about 1300m.
The key difference from previous years is that the run-in from Roche-aux-Faucons is undulating and tough, but without any finishing climbs. Gone is the final climb of the Cote de Saint-Nicolas and the finish in Ans, and we’re back to riding into the middle of Liege. Yes, the finish will be less selective and the finale potentially “easier” as a result, but with the weather, and the return of the Wanne-Stockeau-Haute Levee trio of climbs, the middle of the race will be much tougher. Expect a small group to fight out the finish.
For the women, the race should really be called Bastogne-Liege, but that’s just too much like good sense. This is a hilly 139km run, with the aforementioned Cote de Wanne the first named climb, and the Redoute/Roche-aux-Faucons pairing marking the finale again. Not all the climbs from the men’s return leg are included but this is a tough race. The women have only competed since 2017 and it has proved to be one of the more selective races on the WWT calendar.
The women’s race
Here’s an interesting fact. 100% of women’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege races have been won by Anna van der Breggen. If you’re not interested in sample sizes, that is pretty telling. If you are interested in sample sizes, of course, she’s only won twice. As you’re sick of hearing by now, her Boels team are loaded in support, with Chantal Blaak and mountain-biker turned road race sensation Annika Langvad providing realistic alternative winners. The team’ll be all in for Anna, though, who won Fleche Wallone for the
twenty-third fifth consecutive time on Wednesday and is clearly still on form after a break from the road to win the Cape Epic. She’s the one to beat.
Lining up to lead the challenge against Boels is, as usual, Annemiek van Vleuten. Last year, she was third, with teammate Amanda Spratt in second. Both will be back this year and have chances, though AvV will fear a fourth consecutive second place. Her spring has been frustrating, if consistently excellent, since her win in Strade Bianche back in early March.
Canyon will have been buoyed by Kasia Niewiadoma showing great form recently, capped by a win at last weekend’s Amstel Gold, and she’s one of the very few with a chance of upsetting the Dutch duo as their rivalry continues. Lizzy Deignan was second in this in 2017 and looked on surprisingly good form on her return from maternity leave last week, but this is surely still too much too soon. Her teammate Elisa Longo Borghini has looked a little below her sparkling best this week and the fear is that the course will be too tough for her.
If you’re looking for a team with better form, CCC-Liv bring the ageless Marianne Vos, with a third and fourth from Ardennes week so far, and Ashleigh Moolman, who was fourth last year and looks to be riding into better form. They have the talent to shake up the leading two teams. Speaking of talent, young Demi Vollering is already looking like an Ardennes winner at 22, with a fifth and a seventh to her name this week. She rides alongside the experienced Sofie de Vuyst for Parkhotel and is one to watch.
Whilst there are many others in the race with climbing talent (Eider Moreno) or raw power (Ellen van Dijk, Lucinda Brand) it is hard to see that many more who have the all-round abilities to compete for the win on this course. The last name I’ll throw in is Cecille Uttrup Ludwig, who has been hanging on nicely in the climbs (sixth and eighth this week) and has the power and stamina to make the best of the new run-in to the finish.
The men’s race
If you start a women’s preview with Boels (and you should) it is just as prudent to start a men’s preview with Decueninck. In this year’s Ardennes, that means looking at the chances of Julian Alaphilippe, who somehow lost at Amstel Gold we all thought was wrapped up tight on Sunday, but returned for a comfortable win at Fleche-Wallonne on Wednesday, if any finish on the Mur de Huy can be considered comfortable. He’s the perfect rider for the Ardennes, and he’s proved he knows how to win a race. Great support, the DQS calling card, will be led by Phillipe Gilbert, Enric Mas and Bob Jungels (final team TBC) any of whom could have been potential winners themselves.
Whilst Ala’s dominance this spring hasn’t been a surprise, the company he’s kept has been. If he’s the bride, Jakob Fuglsang is the bridesmaid. I have been told that a fugly bridesmaid is a way of making the bride look good in comparison. That is neither fair nor relevant, but Fuglsang is certainly in cracking form and if there was any justice he’d grab a win. This course is tough enough that he’ll have chances to drop his tormentor. Support (two Izagirres, a Sanchez and a Lutsenko) is good enough.
Up against the Ardennes (and Strade) stars are a whole host of opposition. Tim Wellens has looked a bit below his best but knows how to peak for the biggest races. His Lotto teammate Bjorg Lambrecht has been another emerging star this spring and if he can cope with the distance will be another to watch. Nobody, however, will be surprised to see Vincenzo Nibali involved at the business end of a tough race, and he’s been riding into form in the Alps. Support from Dylan Teuns and Matej Mohoric will help, as will the potentially horrible conditions and tricky descents.
If you’re a believer in horses for courses, Romain Bardet is one who loves this race, with a worst finish of 13th in six visits, and four top tens (he was on the podium last year). He’s looked solid so far this year and is somehow still seeking the highlight win. Of course, the definitive horse for this course is Alejandro Valverde. 13 starts have yielded four wins and three more podiums (plus one that was removed in 2012) to give him a record second only to Eddy in this race. However, his form is not where it has been and the adjusted finish won’t suit him as well as the old uphill drag to the line.
Team Sky bring former winner Wout Poels, as well as a likelier contender in Mikal Kwiatkowski, who has been consitently active this spring without picking up a win. He’s been on the podium twice in this contest and I suspect he’ll enjoy the easier finish. Conditions may remind him of September in Ponferrada, which would be no bad thing. Another former winner struggling for form is Dan Martin, who dropped out of Fleche Wallonne and is likely to be supporting Diego Ulissi and (quietly rounding into form) Rui Costa here.
The list keeps going! Michael Matthews’ calling card is his sprint after a tough race, but so far he’s been gassed after sticking on the climbs. This Liege course will suit if he’s retained his form. The same could be said of Greg van Avermaet, but I’m not convinced the form is there. I’ve been guilty before of underestimating EF-Education First this season, and in Danny Martinez, Michael Woods and Simon Clarke they have three riders with the talent to shine, though Woods’ form has him below the other two in my personal pecking order.
Adam Yates is high on many people’s lists and it is easy to see why. He was 8th two years ago and has been on cracking form this spring, with top fives in GC in Andalucia, Tirenno-Adriatico, Catalunya and the Basque Country. However, a DNF on Wednesday, with some serious road rash, might just be enough to hold him back. I’ll draw a line through the chances of Roman Kreuziger (too old) and David Gaudu (too young) and in doing so, leave myself with just one team that I’m keen to talk about.
Yes, Bora. In Patrick Konrad and Davide Formolo they have two riders with their own experiences of top tens in these parts (Formolo was 7th in this last year, whilst Konrad took that same spot on Wednesday on the Mur) but both will be support or break options, I suspect, for Maximilian Schachmann. Goodness me, the young German has impressed me this summer. I simply didn’t know he had it in him. The win in Industry and Artichokes (similar to LBL in conditions and terrain, if not in length or quality of opposition) was a good start, but stage wins in Cataluya and thrice in the Basque Country were even more startling. Fifth places twice this week have demonstrated that he’s in good form and that he thrives on repeated sharp hills. He was 35th in Liege last year, and I’ve every confidence he’ll better that here.
I’ll get no prizes for originality whatsoever with the women’s winner, but I see Anna van der Breggen winning it. I’ve no reason to think Annemiek van Vleuten won’t be on the podium, so I’ll give her second again, with Cecille Uttrup Ludwig grabbing third to prevent a Dutch clean sweep.
I’ve no real reason to think the men’s race will be more open, but I’m going to respond to the change in finish by suggesting that it may not suit Alaphilippe, who would be my winner if we returned to last year’s course. Instead, I’ll give the victory to one of the year’s emerging stars, Max Schachmann. I see this being a tough edition, and on that basis I’ll have demon descenders and stamina kings filling the podium - Vincenzo Nibali and Romain Bardet.