Liège-Bastogne-Liège is such an unfair race, at least in the name. Think of all the races named after places: Paris-Tours, Milano-Sanremo and the like — everyone in the title either gets to host the pre-race mingling session, a big crowd-pleaser, or the end of the race action. Does any city whose name appears in a race name get the shaft as bad as Bastogne? I think probably not.
Think I am exaggerating? OK, well you probably know that LBL is an ASO race. If you have looked at the Tour de France website, you probably know that for each stage the site features the start and finishing towns. So how do they handle LBL? Look at this bullshit:
Don’t go clicking for the hidden Bastogne page. It’s not there, I promise you.
Probably the reason Bastogne gets the cold shoulder is that it’s a city of 16,000 inhabitants, making it the fourth-largest municipality in the Province of Luxembourg (Belgium, not the country, but you are right to feel confused). Bastogne’s population is below that of such economic and cultural powerhouses as Aubange and Marche-en-Famenne.
Ha ha... but really, until the Germans blew up the rail lines in WWI, Bastogne was something of an economic hub, and has probably more historical relevance than about 10 US states put together (don’t make me name them). It existed in pre-Roman times, was a walled city in the 14th-17th centuries back when that was a pretty huge deal, and has a cultural identity that persists. Unfortunately, the symbol of that cultural relevance is the Piche-Cacaye, an utterly terrifying giant smiling baby mask-wearing adult, or troupe of adults, who will inhabit your nightmares from this point forward, or maybe knock off a bank.
There’s a long history of the Piche-Cacaye, whose origin is unknown but whose name was invoked during the torture of Jacque-de-Mollays, Grand Master of the Templars, who admitted to be the leader of the Society of Piche Cacayes. Middle Ages intrigue. They are assigned strange music and deeds, the town elders apparently tell lots of mythical stories about them, and if you really want you can hear their song below:
Is that a lot to go on? I dunno, for a small city, sure. I grew up in a town of similar size and all we had to distinguish ourselves from our neighborhoods was a state-run insane asylum. I don’t see how the piche cacayes are worse than that.
Anyway, Liège-Bastogne-Liège meanders through the Bastogne city center at km 97, long before it’s time to really get down to business, so in that sense it’s like numerous other places that crop up — La Roche-en-Ardennes, Houffalize, Stavelot and so on. They go through, we get some heli shots, and then we wait for the climbs. Should it get more attention? Well, although being in the name suggests it should... I have to be honest and admit that its historical inclusion isn’t so awesome. The reason it’s in the name dates back to the first runnings in 1892, when the race started in Spa and turned around at the Bastogne train station. They chose Bastogne because it was convenient for both riders who wanted to abandon the race, and for other people working with the race who needed a way to beat the peloton back to Liège. It’s a cool concept in its historic simplicity — let’s race to that town and back — but its real contribution was a train depot. That has now been blown up by the Germans lord knows how many times. I guess it’s the “E3” of the Ardennes. Maybe we keep it in the race title because it’s just a cool-sounding name, especially in French. Way better than the Flemish Bastenaken.
Wait, What About the Cobbles?
Before we turn to the last of the major spring classics, let’s circle back to the Power Poll which was last updated during Paris-Roubaix week. These are in the form of final rankings with a brief discussion of what’s new since the last time.
1. Alpecin Deceuninck
What Changed: They took the top two spots at Paris-Roubaix, giving them one of the two cobbled monuments, second in the other monument, and crucially a great team performance culminating in a brilliant result for Jasper Philipsen in France. It’s one thing to say that Mathieu van der Poel accomplished his most important goal — and I will go to the mats for the concept that P-R was his highest priority, even if I haven’t heard him say that — but it’s another thing entirely for them to be on the business end of the Hell of the North with two cards to play. Philipsen would be our Paris-Roubaix champ if the final group had stayed together after the Carrefour de l’Arbe. That was not just “hey we have two guys,” that was checkmate. Incredible rise for a team that just a few years back looked like they might not be strong enough to support a guy of van der Poel’s stature.
2. Jumbo Visma
What Changed: They got owned in Paris-Roubaix, which didn’t exactly flip the script away from getting owned in the Tour of Flanders. For all of their early success, they weren’t able to replicate it in the biggest races, where the power shifted away from their flood-the-field approach and toward teams that could put at least one extra rider in a prime position. That’s not to say that Jumbo lacked the quality to continue throwing its weight around as it had so convincingly to start the cobbled classics. It’s just that other teams had strategies to push back on Jumbo with, and Jumbo’s luck went south in the end as well. There is a good argument that they should have been the #1 team, but it didn’t work out that way.
3. Trek Segafredo
What Changed: Mads Pedersen just never quit. After beating Van Aert for the sprint for third in Flanders, he clawed his way back into contention after Arenberg and made the finale-ish, until things blew up in Cdel’A. As to the total team performance, Jasper Stuyven seemed limited after his crash in Flanders and Daan Hoole was the only other Trekkie in sight in France, but Pedersen’s outstanding campaign is enough to bump them up a spot.
What Changed: Just took a pass on Paris-Roubaix. Arguably winning Flanders alone should move them up to 3, and if you want to debate that, feel free. But if I wanted a ranking of teams that have Tadej Pogačar just going around being awesome all the time, I would have done that instead. And they would for sure be #1 in that ranking.
5. Groupama FDJ
What Changed: Küng confirmed what we thought of him. Lewis Askey was the youngest rider to crack the top 25 in France, just 21 years old.
6. EF Education
What Changed: Nothing, but I am running out of teams to move up from the previous ranking. I was motivated to do a longer post about their spring campaign but will pick that up next week probably.
7. Quick Step
What Changed: Also nothing. Their only riders to not have their bikes explode in some fashion early on in Paris-Roubaix were Lampaert and Merlier, but they proceeded to get gapped in the Secteur Bernard Hinault and then stuck behind more crashes in Arenberg. Pretty miserable from start to finish. And I mean all of the cobbled classics.
8. Lotto DSTNY
What Changed: Not a lot, except for Florian Vermeersch reminding us that he’s going to be heard from again. He finished in a Vermeersch dead heat with his unrelated namesake Gianni, but don’t look for the elder Vermeersch to keep up with young Florian for long.
9. Team DSM
What Changed: John Degenkolb pulled them up from relative obscurity (on the season) to a position of power, not with a ton of assistance, but again, the top teams dominated the team strategies, so your ninth-best team is probably just a guy.
10. INEOS Grenadiers
What Changed: Ganna showed up looking like a future P-R winner. Pidcock, unfortunately, struggled to get to the top of his game on the cobbles (though he’s got a nice fallback with the Ardennes), but Ganna’s performance was as advertised.
This final ranking leaves out Movistar, who did not make an impression in Paris-Roubaix, and Bahrain, equally undistinguished in the final event. That’s not to discard their accomplishments, or the nice riding by teams like Israel-Premier Tech, Intermarché, or Uno-X. It’s just a crowded field.
OK, This Weekend... Will History Be Made?
Everybody is writing off 99% of this weekend’s LBL startlist as irrelevant and assuming that one of the previous two winners, Pogačar or Remco Evenepoel, will deliver again on Sunday. Personally, I think that’s a little disrespectful. And 100% true.
If Pogačar wins Sunday, he will join a few rather elite clubs. He’s already a member of the lifetime Belgian Monument Double, adding the Ronde van Vlaanderen to his 2021 LBL win, but he could become the only rider besides Eddy Merckx to win both in the same year. Merckx did this twice in 1969 and 1975, and while the record books are loaded with classics stars who won both, particularly in the 20th century, nobody else did it back-to-back.
This speaks to the calendar, I think? The two races have recently been three weeks apart, with Paris-Roubaix and multiple other races in between, a sequence of events that is hard for any rider to navigate and keep his best form over, to say nothing of the multitude of other riders gearing up to take them out. It’s a bit like riding the Giro and the Tour, peaking for both, but without the control a champion can exert over a grand tour. As late as the 1980s the races were as little as two weeks apart — but nobody took advantage. And before that LBL was in early May or very late April, an even taller task than now. Anyway, it’s Merckx alone... for now.
Next, there is the Ardennes Triple, which is in play now that Pogačar has won Amstel and Flèche Wallonne. It’s only since the mid-80s that there was even an Ardennes trio lined up the way they are, given that Amstel Gold is a new-ish race and needed time to find its calendar spot, but in that time only Philippe Gilbert swept them all, in his magical 2011 spring campaign.
Then there is how he would have two of the four monuments, with his easiest target, Lombardia, still in play. Winning Sunday and in October would make Pogačar the second-ever three-Monuments-in-a-year rider after Eddy Merckx... WHO DID THIS FOUR TIMES. Nobody else managed this feat, although Rik Van Looy seems to have been forever on the verge, and three Coppi wins in 1949 is only undermined by the Paris-Roubaix leg going to Serse, not Fausto.
Evenepoel, for his part, would become the youngest ever double-winner if he succeeds Sunday. He is currently the ninth-youngest winner of all time and the third-youngest post-war winner after two guys from the 1960s, Valère Van Sweevelt and Carmine Preziosi. A potential second win this weekend would make Remco the 16th youngest winner as well. I’m sure you can start pairing up his accomplishments and come up with some other fun trivia, but that’s enough for now.
So Who Wins?
Sigh... the case for Evenepoel is that when he’s been unstoppable... he has truly been unstoppable. But the only time that applied to Pogačar was in the World Championships last fall, on a not terribly selective course in Australia. There are a lot of explanations for that result that don’t quite line up with LBL, starting with the trip across the globe. Evenepoel had a superior team behind him in the national squad format, something that won’t be the case Sunday with Bennett, Hirschi and Ulissi working on Pogi’s behalf. Oh, and they were lined up for a showdown a year ago when Pogačar passed on the race after his partner’s mom suddenly passed away, leaving Evenepoel to feast on the leftovers.
Does that mean we should assume Pogačar will put Evenepoel away? Not so fast. You would have to rewind to 2021 Lombardia for a race where Pogs won and smoked Remco in the process. That was a few weeks after Remco, then just 21 and not at his current level, took second in a sprint for the Euro Championships, well ahead of Pogs. National teams again... but if Quick Step can muster up some teamwork Sunday (Alaphilippe’s magic form?), I don’t think we know what will happen. The better guess is Pogs, but it’s still just a guess.
Others to watch... Quinten Hermans was second last year, while Ben Healy and Mattias Skjellmose Jensen have runners-ups this week to suggest they are likely to show their faces. Skjellmose has Giulio Ciccone to work with. Mikel Landa has been on excellent form all spring, and with Bah-mates Poels, Bilbao and Mohorič, that’s a squad. Jumbo have Valter and Benoot. INEOS have Pidcock and Kwiatkowski and Sheffield. There are guys everywhere you look.
But there probably isn’t anyone who can defeat both Tadej and Remco. There’s a lot of great side dishes to this meal, but one of those dudes is the main course. Can’t wait.