I probably don’t have anything truly profound to add to the collective discussion of “OMG who is gonna beat Pogačar?” previews of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It’s a very lovely race, as I have said every year at this time for like 16 years, and you should for sure watch it. And enjoy Wout Van Aert’s victory.
#LBL@WoutvanAert has just confirmed his participation in @LiegeBastogneL.— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) April 17, 2022
“We would wait and see how it would go today. If it went well, I would start next Sunday. If you became second, you shouldn't worry anymore.”
This. If Wout is at all uncertain he is going to win a race, Jumbo tweet something like what we saw before Paris-Roubaix, where “he couldn’t manage the recon” and “he’s just going to hand a few bottles up to Christophe.” That’s the tone when he’s only capable of finishing... checks notes... SECOND place. So if he’s projecting confidence ahead of LBL, then I guess he’s preparing to move up. And there’s only one place up from First Loser — Not a Loser At All.
Obviously defending winner Tadej Pogačar is the rider of greatest interest, and if he can force a selection on the Côte de la Roche Aux Faucons without Wout, then he can run back his 2021 triumph. And if not... then he’s got big problems. Jumbo-Visma took Primož Roglič off the startlist thanks to a sore knee he picked up in the Basque Tour. That leaves the team largely at Van Aert’s disposal, apart from maybe Jonas Vingegaard getting up the road (the Dane has two starts and was 28th last year), or Tiesj Benoot trying to better his two top ten finishes here. Wout is the sprinter, so if they can get him back to Liège with the leaders, you can bet on Jumbo settling for that chance.
UAE are stacked too though, with Marc Hirschi (second two years ago, 6th last year) back to form this spring and plenty of other guys capable of being around in the end and causing trouble for anyone trying to attack Pogačar or — worse — trying to chase the Slovenian if he gets off the leash entirely.
There are dozens of other exciting scenarios you could imagine here, probably next being Matej Mohorič and Dylan Teuns staying red-hot and doing something like what they’ve been doing here and there all spring. The dream scenario here would be Vincenzo Nibali coming in off his Giro di Sicilia performance ready to mix it up, but that’s not very likely. Finally, we will see Remco Evenepoel Sunday, and where Remco goes, some amount of commotion usually follows, good or bad. Sunday’s weather is a mixed bag with some winds around, so maybe things will get extra interesting.
A lot of the press right now is focused on the final ascent of the Côte de La Redoute by one Philippe Gilbert, whose name is usually painted all over that road surface, and who actually won the race once in part by accelerating on this most famous climb. That is understandable — Gilbert hails from Verviers, a short 20km ride from the famous Cote, and if you’re going to celebrate a local rider, you could do a lot worse than a former World Champion and all-time classics superstar.
Momentary aside... La Redoute is a famous name within cycling. But did you know... that the team of the same name has nothing to do with this climb? The team existed from 1979 to 1985 and was centered in Roubaix, France. Among its highlights was Stephen Roche’s assault on the 1985 Tour de France, where he finished third and won a stage to the Col d’Aubisque in a powerful fashion, daring LeMond to come with him and possibly take the overall lead away from LeMond’s teammate Bernard Hinault? The chances of your reading this article and not remembering that stage vividly are slim, but just in case, LeMond was ordered to wait and work with Hinault, allowing Roche to get away and move up to third but still four minutes adrift of Hinault’s overall lead. Much bitterness ensued inside Team La Vie Claire, etc. etc. Anyway, that’s why you still see knockoff La Redoute jerseys around.
But it has nothing to do with the Cote, which is 200km west of here. The team was named for the fashion brand La Redoute, a company that originated on the Rue de la Redoute in Roubaix. Redoute just means fortification, and there are lots of them in this part of the world, so it’s no shock I guess that Cycling has room for two distinct uses of the word. Anyway...
While it’s nice that the cycling world would like to celebrate the local guy upon his pending retirement, I wonder how much appetite they will have for another retirement tour, that of four-time winner Alejandro Valverde? Not much, I don’t sense, given his shady past and generally cool reception from fans who lived through the bad old days. Valverde, the only Spanish winner in the race’s history, will celebrate his 41st birthday on race day, and has been going well enough to take second at La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, and a fifth victory, tying Eddy Merckx’s all time LBL record, can’t be ruled out. Nor can Belgians throwing themselves into the road if it looks like this is about to happen. So stay tuned there. Anyway, Valverde dropped a hint this week that he might not even be done with racing after this season, taking a page out of the Tom Brady Book on Retirement Planning.
Five other former winners will be on hand, and not for the last time, no matter what anything thinks. Two, Rogs and Pogs, are in their primes (performance-wise at least), while a third, Wout Poels, is 34 and going reasonably well at Bahrain, so he can be expected to make at least a few more appearance in Liège. Also Jakob Fuglsang is picking up the pace again, taking 16th in Amstel Gold and recovering his form after a weird year leading to his departure (along with sponsor Premier Tech) to Israel this winter. His tank may be running low, but the Swiss insists he plans to keep going until the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Finally, back in business is the 2018 winner, Bob Jungels, who has recovered his basic ability (if not his tip-top shape, yet) following a couple lackluster years that were finally traced to arterial blockages in his legs. Jungels, still just 29, could have several more years in this race if he is satisfied with his ability going forward, but for a while it was looking like we might have seen the last of Jungle Bob.
A few FSA DS Notes
- Pavel Sivakov ate his donut! For those of you who are new around here, that means he scored point and no longer has a 0 by his name. Sivakov saw his scoring fall off a cliff in 2020, suffering through illness and injury which dogged him for much of the last two seasons. But his donut in 2022 belied a recovered form, coming in ninth in the Volta Valenciana back in February before yet another illness took him out in Catalunya. This week he was on the attack at the Tour of the Alps, and ended up tenth on GC as he prepares for a Giro d’Italia attempt for INEOS along with Richard Carapaz. Sivakov, who has switched his nationality to French from Russian in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is on 60 FSA DS teams, thanks to the talent hidden behind the price-dropping results of the last two years.
- Who, then, is this year’s biggest remaining donut? There are just under 900 of them, plenty to choose from. Setting aside Egan Bernal, recovering from his offseason training injuries, the most expensive donuts out there are David Gaudu, Mikkel Honoré, Max Schachmann, Bauke Mollema, Ben Hermans and Alexey Lutsenko. Gaudu, Honoré and Schachmann all scored significantly in spring last year, so the lack of results is baked into their 2022 to some degree now. You could also bemoan the lack of results from spring-oriented riders like Sep Vanmarcke, Gianni Moscon and Florian Vermeersch, all of whom were expecting points on the cobbles. Those donuts might get pretty stale before they are eaten.
- With the cobbles done, the top two scorers in those events were... surprise... Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. Both of whom gave their owners a good scare, particularly the Dutchman, who at least got his bad luck out of the way before FSA DS rosters were due. Van der Poel now sits at 1210 points, just a shade off the nearly 1300 he scored in the spring classics (and Tirreno-Adriatico) last year, including the relocated Paris-Roubaix. For him to have any points at this stage is gravy; for him to be just about who he was last year is incredible. Van Aert too was sensational this year, to the point where you could be forgiven someday if you don’t remember how he got COVID in the middle of it all and missed De Ronde. Van Aert, meanwhile is at 1,236 points, a pretty big drop from last spring when he got to over 1800 points by the end of Amstel Gold, and added another 175 in Paris-Roubaix in October. But a high finish in LBL would give his relieved owners plenty to be thankful for, especially when you think of all the places left on the calendar where the Belgian Champion can extend his brilliance.
Giro d’Italia Season is slowly getting underway, with the Tour de Romandie coming this week, for the bold riders who either love the Ardennes classics or prefer to take their prep right to the final day, while many more of the Giro’s protagonists were in action this week at the Tour of the Alps instead. The headline was the victory of Romain Bardet, who is a Giro veteran coming in on solid form, and Pello Bilbao, in fourth, making a similar case. But in the mix were the kids taking up the rest of the top five: FDJ’s Michael Storer (age 25) , DSM’s Thymen Arensman (22), Attilla Valter (23) also of FDJ, and Felix Gall (24) of AG2R. Other than Storer, they will all be at the Giro, along with some other young hopefuls like Jai Hindley, Alessandro Covi, and Sivakov all 25 and under and ready to make some noise. The main favorites are from the slightly older set of guys like Carapaz (28), Carthy and Geoghegan Hart (both 27), along with Bardet (31). It’s not a loaded field but there should be more than enough talented climbers to make it fun. I will be starting on my Viewers’ Guide to the 2022 Giro any moment now.