Pogačar. Need you read more? This blog doesn’t sell clicks so that’s up to you but he’s not invincible and the prospect of the best rider in the world right now versus the world champion this Sunday is enticing.
Also this year’s route has an added “hidden” climb, plus there’s all the usual information like weather and the TV timings below too.
The Course: 258km from Liège to Bastogne and back with more than 4,000 vertical metres, as much as an Alpine stage of the Tour de France. There’s plenty that’s familiar on the course but this year’s edition has some subtle differences and one might be crucial.
The early phase is the ride south to Bastogne but this year’s route heads for more hills than last, nothing savage to split the field, just added vertical gain. It means the first marked climb of La Roche-en-Ardenne is approached via a descent rather than the flat as normal.
The route becomes familiar with the unrelenting procession of climbs it’s one every few kilometres. Most of these are 1-2km at 10% but they’re irregular and make riders pay for being in a bad position. This in turn makes the descents risky, most are not too technical but riders jostle for position ahead of the next climb making for little recovery time.
The big difference this year is La Redoute which keeps the same approach and the steep open climb as usual, 2km at close to 9%. But unlike past years were there was a left turn at the top, a false flat – where Evenepoel launched last year – and the descent to Sprimont, now the race turns right. It goes over to Hotchamps and there’s more climbing, 1km at 5.5% with a middle section at 7%. If you’re familiar with the later climb of the Roche-aux-Faucons, it’s a similar thing with the marked ascent that’s chased with a “hidden” climb and this could be the place to do plenty of damage. Then comes an exposed section and the Côte des Forges which is a steady climb on a wide road and then a fast descent to the Ourthe valley.
The Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons is next, it’s not a classic climb, first used in 2008 but very selective. Listed as 1.5km at 10%, this is hard enough but after a brief descent of a few seconds it starts rising again to the village of Boncelles and this second section is 1.6km long with a gradient of 5.5% which isn’t steep but with all the climbing before, both cumulatively in the day and the sharp effort just before, it’s a difficult moment and where the winning move often forms and those beaten can’t or won’t chase. You can see this second part of the climb on the profile below. As the final climb it’s the make-or-break moment for many.
The Finish: it’s hard to close any gaps over the top of the climb and down the tricky descent into Liège, arguably the most scenic way to town as the woodland avoids views of the dilapidated steel works. The comes the flat quay road beside the river Meuse.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE) fits the bill. He’s good on the climbs, he’s got a fast sprint to win from a group and his team are looking increasingly effective. Of course the kicker is that he’s on a level above the rest, not invincible but almost this season. He’s still in form with this as his last race before a long break so it’s all in for the Ardennes triplé. When Mattias Skjelmose and Mikel Landa finished the Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday neither was seen theatrically banging their handlebars in frustration, they knew their podium spots were as good as it gets. In turn Pogačar’s victory on Wednesday sets things up for Sunday because while he could have tried a long range attack there, he let his team do the work instead so he’s relatively fresher for Sunday.
The rest…It’s not easy for the field to beat Pogačar to put it mildly, the course suits him and each time you think of a world class contender the next thought is he’d roll them in the sprint. So how to beat him? Either move before he does, anticiper, or just fire some team mates forward to fatigue his team so he’s not sitting in a Sedan chair all the way to the foot of the Roche-aux-Faucons. Also if he attacks early then don’t collaborate with him; in last week’s Amstel some riders in the breakaway with 80km to go were pulling on the front like pallbearers at their own funeral, although this work was also giving them an option on the podium, a top-10 or just a sackload of UCI points.
Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quick-Step) is said to be flying at the moment and if he’s stopped posting his training rides on Strava, the word is he’s been rustling climbing records on Teide. So far so good but how to win on home roads? He went solo last year with a searing attack over the top of La Redoute but will be marked closely this time. If he’s away in a group his chances of winning are going to be reduced, even his boss Patrick Lefevere was critical of the way he lost the Volta a Catalunya last month, “erreurs de jeunesse” he said. Still there’s a lot of power under the hood and the finish line is nothing technical. Julian Alaphilippe starts but the question is whether he finishes. He’s over injuries and illness but brings experience having crossed the line here first only to get disqualified so knows the race well which is an asset for Evenepoel, but he can sprint well if by miracle he’s still there.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos) doesn’t have the win rate but he’s knocking on the door of superstar status in the sport. He’s been playing catch-up this spring since crashing out of Tirreno-Adriatico but things seem to be coming together. Tired in the Flèche, if he’s recovered he’ll find a course to suit including some descents where he can take time and pressure rivals. If there’s a sprint remember he’s pushed the likes of Wout van Aert to a photofinish in the Amstel before.
EF Education-Easypost have the spring revelation in Ben Healy and he’s a form pick but in L’Equipe today he says he is “nul au sprint” and regardless of the exact adjective he used in English during the interview, he’ll want to arrive solo but easier said than done. Neilson Powless and Esteban Chaves give them more depth and it’ll be interesting to see their plan.
Trek-Segafredo bring an interesting team with Mathias Skjelmose, Giulio Ciccone and Bauke Mollema. Do they sit tight and hope for the first two to give them a numerical advantage later as they’re clearly in form, or play riskier cards?
Jumbo-Visma aren’t the same force in the Ardennes but Tiesj Benoot and Attila Valter have a shot.
Quinten Hermans was on the podium last year but hasn’t looked as incisive this season for Alpecin-Deceuninck, Søren Kragh Andersen is always a good card to play.
Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-hansgrohe) wants to be a grand tour contender but can still be punchy on the climbs, but enough to go solo? That’s hard and he’s not an obvious sprinter. Andreas Kron (Lotto-Dstny) is a strong rider but an infrequent winner but the form is there for a top-5, Maxim Van Gils keeps getting solid results too. Romain Bardet (DSM) looked lively on the Mur de Huy and if anyone can launch a move on the climb, he had the staying power to finish in the top-10 and Liège is a race he’s enjoyed over the years. Mikel Landa (Bahrain) is having a good season so far but converting visibility into a one-day Monument win is another. Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) is versatile but will probably find his climbing limit here, likewise Matej Mohorič (Bahrain).
Skjelmose, Benoot, Mas, Powless, Healy
Kron, Bardet, Valter, Ciccone, Lutsenko
Weather: mostly cloudy and with rain showers, a top temperature of 15°C. A pesky wind of about 20-30km/h from the south is forecast meaning a tailwind for the return but as the route snakes around the countryside it’ll mean parts of the course are exposed to crosswinds, especially atop the climbs.
TV: host channel RTBF lists coverage of “Liège-Bastogne-Liège à bicyclette” from 10.55am CEST and the men’s race live video should begin around 1.00pm on Eurosport/GCN or the channel you watch the Tour de France on. The series of climbs begins around 2.30pm, tune in from here on to see if Pogačar attacks from afar… although it’s more likely he lets his team soften up the field first. The finish is forecast for 4.55pm CEST.
Women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Demi Vollering can do the Ardennes triplé before Pogačar and SD Worx have a stranglehold over the spring classics. The race starts at 8.30am and finishes at 12.30pm CEST. As you’ve probably worked out by now, ProCyclingUK.com does a knowledgeable preview of women’s races so click here for Liège.