The Spring Classics are ready to draw the curtain on the 2015 season, but not before “La Doyenne” – the last race of the Ardennes triumvirate – gets its time in the spotlight. Created in 1892, which makes it the oldest of the Monuments, Liège–Bastogne–Liège was a race for amateuers until 1894, when Leon Houa got his third win in a row. The next two decades were on and off, with the Classics not being run for 13 years after which it was sometimes open only to amateurs and semi-professionals. World War l was another reason for Liège–Bastogne–Liège being put on hold, before finally resuming in 1919.
Throughout the years, Belgium established itself as the dominant nation of the race, thanks to the victories nabbed by the likes of Fred De Bruyne, Alfons Schepers and Eddy Merckx, who holds the record for the most wins. But in the past four decades, “La Doyenne” became a more open affair to riders outside of Belgium, a consequence of the emergence of some huge cyclists in other countries, all this while the host struggled to find a new star to lay his mark on the race.
Also, thanks to its hilly parcours, the race became one of the Grand Tour contenders’ favorite, alongside the Giro di Lombardia, so the line-up always saw a nice mix of climbers and puncheurs who battled it out on the tough, long, double-digit climbs of Wallonie. This year, they will all fight to join the illustrious roll-call of the race, where we can find the names of such riders as Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Bernard Hinault, Moreno Argentin, Michele Bartoli or Paolo Bettini.
The forecast for Sunday says heavy rain, so although the race is 10 kilometers shorther than the 2014 one, it should be much more difficult. The opening half of the Classic isn’t very hard, with just one categorized climb along the way – Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne (2,8 kilometer-long, 6,8% average gradient). After 107 kilometers, the peloton will reach Bastogne and will prepare to turn back to Liège, and this change of roads will signal the real start of the race. Côte de Saint-Roch, Côte de Wanne and Côte de Stockeu should lead to a selection, with the top favorites keen to send their teams at the front and up the rhythm before the decisive part.
After a leg-sapping 216, 5 kilometers of racing (which will include seven climbs), the pack will hit Côte de La Redoute (2 kilometers, 8,9% average gradient), where is impossible not to have any attacks, considering its strategic importance. A change from last year’s edition comes from the fact that Côte des Forges – which used to play a decisive part in the race’s outcome more than three decades ago – isn’t on the parcourse anymore – and this should give the cyclists some time to catch their breath before they hit the penultimate obstacle of the day, which comes after 16 kilometers from La Redoute.
First introduced in 2008, Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons – the climb where the race can be won or lost – has played a big role in the outcome of the race, with the contenders choosing it to launch what often ended up being the decisive attack. In the past, Andy Schleck (2009) and Alexandr Vinokourov (2010) made their move on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons (1,5 kilometers, 9,4% average gradient), while Vincenzo Nibali (2012) waited for the descent to attack and build a good gap, before getting caught with 1,2 kilometers before the finish.
If the last 10 kilometers will see a group at the front, then the riders will have one last opportunity to go clear and take a solo win on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas (1,2 kilometers, 8,6% average gradient), the “Italian hill”. After a short descent, the road will rise again in the last 1,5 kilometers, where the average gradient is of 5,5%. There are two scenarios here: either a cyclist has enough power for one more attack, as Daniel Martin did in 2013, catching Joaquim Rodriguez and nabbing the win, or a small group will go together to the line, where the winner will emerge after a sprint, as was the case last year, when Simon Gerrans brought Australia its first success here.
On Wednesday, Alejandro Valverde made it back-to-back victories in Flèche Wallonne, controlling the finale and powering away from his opponents. Just like last year, the Spaniard has entered the Ardennes week in top shape and will start Liège–Bastogne–Liège as the outstanding favorite, a win putting him on par with Fred De Bruyne, Leon Houa and Alfred Schepers, the other riders who scored three victories. Valverde has it all: he can climb, accelerate and sprint from the peloton, but there’s one thing he is missing – the willingness to go at the front and be aggressive, thus shaping the race to his own liking. In too many occasions, he lost big wins because he decided to stay in the defensive, and this scenario could repeat on Sunday, if the winner of the 2006 and 2008 “La Doyenne” will not change his tactics.
Katusha was left empty handed after Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, two of the team’s most important goals this Spring, and the Russian squad will be keen on making amends for those disappointments in Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In Giampaolo Caruso, Daniel Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez, Katusha has a strong team, with the latter being the absolute leader, as the parcours suits him and he has a good record here, with two second places, in 2009 and 2013. Although he was below par in the past days, “Purito” Rodriguez shouldn’t be ruled out by this rivals, because he is capable of a big move that can land him the win.
Vincenzo Nibali is aiming at the Tour de France, but his form over the past days has been improving significantly and the rider they nickname “Il Squalo” will start the race as a top favorite, hoping to get a first Monument under his belt after years and years of being in the hunt for one. A very likely scenario for Nibali is to send a teammate at the front somewhere in the last 50 kilometers, before finally attacking from afar, on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons or on the subsequent descent, and then flying solo, as he has to avoid a sprint finish.
For four years now, Philippe Gilbert is dreaming of another “La Doyenne” win, especially as this is his home race and he knows the route as the back of his hand. Unfortunately for the former world champion, he crashed heavily in Flèche Wallonne and was left out of contention, so there’s a big question mark concerning his fitness. Another problem for Gilbert is that he’ll be heavily marked by the other contenders, but on the other hand, this could play into BMC’s advantage, which can try to send Ben Hermans or Samuel Sanchez on to the attack and thus give the slip to the other riders.
Michal Kwiatkowski saved Etixx-Quick Step’s Spring by winning Amstel Gold Race, but things didn’t go as planned a couple of days later, on the Mur de Huy, where he struggled and was off pace, although it is true that the finish didn’t quite suit him. It should be a different affair in Liège–Bastogne–Liège, where the world champion will look to become Poland’s first Monument winner. What works in his favor is that he has many options for the finale, which include an attack on one of the last climbs, as well as waiting for the sprint, the Pole being one of the fastest riders in the race. Another thing worth mentioning is that Michal Kwiatkowski will have a very strong team alongside, which includes Julian Alaphilippe, Maxime Bouet and Zdenek Stybar.
Who else can be in the mix at the 101st edition of Liège–Bastogne–Liège? One name that comes to mind is Sky’s Sergio Henao – 2nd in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and 7th in Flèche Wallonne – who has a strong chance of notching Colombia’s first win here. Also Lotto-Soudal should be among the protagonists, as it lines up three powerful cyclists – Tony Gallopin, Jelle Vanendert and Tim Wellens – capable of attacking and lighting up the race, and also very dangerous if given some rope, especially as they aren’t the top contenders and have nothing to lose.
On Wednesday, Daniel Martin hit the deck and sustained some injuries which will make his life tough on the arduous climbs of the Ardennes. Because of this, he’ll start as an outsider, just as his Cannondale-Garmin teammate Tom-Jelte Slagter, who can provide an important option to the US squad, which is in desperate need of results after a poor start to the season. In the Giro del Trentino, Domenico Pozzovivo took an impressing win in stage three, that ended in Fierozzo, and this makes him a dangerous cyclist for Liège–Bastogne–Liège, a race he came close to winning last year. Finally, other riders to be watched are Roman Kreuziger, Romain Bardet, Jakob Fuglsang, Bauke Mollema (who has improved on this type of climbs in the past year), Julian Alaphilippe, Rui Costa and Enrico Gasparotto, although they all need a little bit of luck and also to be underestimate by the peloton in order to succeed.
– The first edition took place in 1892 and was won by Leon Houa
– Eddy Merckx holds the record for the most wins: 5, between 1969 and 1975
– The same Merckx has the most podiums: 7
– Belgium leads the nations standings, with 59 victories, followed by Italy (12) and Switzerland (10)
– Seven riders have won both Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège in the same season: Moreno Argentin, Philippe Gilbert Ferdi Kubler, Eddy Merckx, Stan Ockers, Davide Rebellin and Alejandro Valverde
– No U23 winner went on to take the victory as a pro
– Four cyclists from outside of Europe nabbed the win: Simon Gerrans (Australia), Tyler Hamilton (U.S.A.), Maxim Iglinskiy (Kazahstan) and Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazahstan)
– Since Bernard Hinault (1980), no other reigning Tour de France champion has won the Belgian Monument
– Moreno Argentin, in 1987, was the last rainbow jersey wearer to finish first
– Biggest winning margin was recorded in 1893, when Leon Houa came home half an hour ahead of his fellow countryman, Michel Borisowski
– The inaugural edition had 33 riders at the start, with only 17 of them getting to the finish
– Besides Belgium, only Italy got to place three cyclists on the podium, at the 2005 edition of Liège–Bastogne–Liège
– The race has been affected by snow in 1919, 1957 and 1980
– Until 1973, ten editions have finished on the Stade Vélodrome de Rocourt, a 40 000-seat arena
– Since 1992, the race ends in Ans, a suburb of Liège
– Longest dry spell without a Belgian victory was between 2000 and 2011
– In 1957, the win was awarded to two riders: Germain Derycke and Frans Schoubben
– Youngest ever winner is Victor Fastre (18 years and 362 days); oldest one is Alexandr Vinokourov (36 years and 221 days)
– 25 teams (17 World Tour and 8 Pro Continental) will line-up for the 101st edition
– Three of these teams haven’t scored a win this season: Cult Energy, LottoNL-Jumbo and UnitedHealthcare
– Four former winners are at the start of the 2015 race: Philippe Gilbert, Simon Gerrans, Daniel Martin and Alejandro Valverde
– The cyclists who will ride the 2015 edition have won a combined total of 6 Monuments, 3 world titles, 6 Grand Tours and almost 90 Grand Tour stages
– France is the country with the most riders in the race – 31 – followed by Belgium (26) and the Netherlands (21)
– Matej Mohoric (20 years) is the youngest rider who will line-up in Liège, while Bjorn Leukemans is the oldest one (37 years)
– Liège–Bastogne–Liège marks 2381 days since the last Italian win in a Monument
– Five winners of the U23 race will ride the 101st edition: Jan Bakelants, Rasmus Guldhammer, Anthony Turgis, Michael Valgren and Tosh Van der Sande
– 12 neo-pros will make their debut in “La Doyenne”: Simone Antonini, Emanuel Buchmann, Clement Chevrier, Floris De Tier, Huub Duyn, Alex Kirsch, Patrick Konrad, Christian Mager, Dylan Teuns, Anthony Turgis, Sjoerd van Ginneken and Louis Vervaeke