Besides being the oldest existing classic (it was first held as an amateur race in 1892), Liège-Bastogne-Liège has developed into the world’s most challenging single-day race, and also the most competitive. You just have to look at the field for this Sunday’s 96th edition: All top 10 finishers from last year’s Tour de France will be on the start line in Liège’s Place Lambert except for Lance Armstrong — and the Texan was due to race here until a nasty stomach virus forced him to quit this month’s Circuit de la Sarthe and return home.
What’s more, 2009 Tour winner Alberto Contador of Team Astana is among the favorites to challenge Saxo Bank’s defending race champion Andy Schleck, who was second to the Spanish climber at last year’s Tour. Among the other Tour contenders, are Andy’s brother Fränk Schleck, last Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne winner Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, and the Liquigas pair of Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali, who also have good chances of getting onto the podium Sunday.
Why does Liège-Bastogne-Liège attract men who also perform well in three-week grand tours? The reason is a simple one. In politics, they’d say: It’s the course, stupid! Liège and Bastogne are on opposite sides of the Ardennes, a high plateau that tops out at 2,277 feet (694 meters) above sea level and is dissected by steep-sided valleys. Heading south and then north on its round-trip journey, the racecourse hits a succession of gnarly climbs over the many wooded ridges.
This year’s edition contains more than a dozen significant climbs, including 10 that count toward the KoM competition. The highest and longest is the Col du Rosier, which climbs for 6.4km at 4 percent to an elevation of 1,827 feet (557 meters) and comes 72km from the finish; but the most significant difficulties are the five climbs that come in the final 35km.
In order, they are:
34km to go: La Redoute (2.1km at 8.4 percent)
29km to go: Sprimont (1.5km at 5 percent)
19km to go: La Roche-aux-Faucons (1.5km at 9.9 percent)
5km to go: St. Nicolas (1km at 11.1 percent)
400m to go: Ramp to the finish in the Liège suburb of Ans (1.2km at 5 percent)
By the time the race reaches the foot of La Redoute, the peloton will already have completed 220km on a course that has seen a few modifications. After the Stockeu “wall” at Stavelot (166km into the race), the riders do not immediately climb the Haute Levée, which is closed because of roadwork.
On a side note, it’s important to remember that five-time Tour winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault all won this classic with long-distance solo breaks that began on the Haute Levée or the next climb. But don’t expect Contador or 2008 Tour champ Carlos Sastre of Cervélo TestTeam to try something similar this Sunday!
Instead of heading up Haute Levée, the riders circle to the west before climbing the southwest approach to the Col du Rosier (on the road they traditionally descend), before heading north through Spa (where stage 2 of the Tour de France will finish this coming July) to tackle the Maquisard and Mont Theux climbs that haven’t been used in Liège-Bastogne-Liège for a dozen years.
Breakaway groups will hopefully exploit this “new” 50km loop but with today’s tactical policy of waiting until the last possible moment before attacking don’t expect any of the race favorites to budge before La Redoute. One of those favorites, last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race winner Philippe Gilbert of Omega-Lotto, grew up in Remouchamps, the redbrick town at the foot of La Redoute —where fans have already painted “PHIL” all the way up the climb, including its two 19-percent pitches.
With his intimate knowledge of these roads, even though he now lives in Monaco, Gilbert is the rider everyone will be watching on Sunday afternoon. He knew last year that the decisive climb would be the one first inserted into the course by the organizers in 2008, the Roche aux Faucons (“Rock of the Falcons”), named for the raptors that often circle this promontory standing 700 feet above the meandering Ourthe River.
Gilbert knew that 2008 winner Alejandro Valverde had used this climb with three others to make the key break, but he attacked too soon, and he could not hold the wheel of Andy Schleck after the Luxembourg climber broke from the chase group on the steepest (18 percent) pitch and headed to a solo victory. Don’t expect the French-speaking Belgian to make the same mistake this year.
Besides Gilbert, the Schlecks and Valverde, who should all be big players on the Falcons climb, expect strong performances from Evans, Contador, Nibali, Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez, Lampre-Varnese’s Damiano Cunego, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Igor Anton, Rabobank’s Robert Gesink, and Italian veteran Stefano Garzelli of Acqua & Sapone.
Besides Evans, there are half a dozen other Anglos-Saxons who could play some sort of role in the outcome. Canadian Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Transitions showed with his second place to Gilbert last Sunday that he has the legs and distance to play a strong part in the oldest classic. And American Chris Horner of Team RadioShack, the recent winner of the Tour of the Basque Country, used his seventh place at Wednesday’s Flèche as a warm-up to Liège, which is his favorite classic.
Also look for strong rides from Horner’s countrymen Christian Vande Velde, who will be helping Garmin teammate Hesjedal, and neo-pro Tejay Van Garderen, the runner-up at last week’s Tour of Turkey, who will likely be riding for his HTC-Columbia teammates Tony Martin and Maxime Montfort. Also hoping for prominent performances are Team Sky’s Aussie Simon Gerrans and British Tour contender Brad Wiggins.
This marvelous classic, which will be held in warm, sunny conditions on Sunday, is nearly always won by men who have the knowledge and experience of racing this selective course many times. That’s why the Scheck brothers, Gilbert, Evans and Rodriguez are our top favorites. Expect them and a handful of others to fight out the victory on the last two climbs: the vicious Côte de St. Nicolas, 5km from the finish, and that last ramp up to the finish in Ans, a working-class suburb of ancient Liège.
VeloNews favorites for Sunday
***** Evans, Gilbert, Rodriguez, Schleck brothers
**** Contador, Cunego, Horner, Valverde
*** Anton, Garzelli, Hesjedal, Ivanov, Nibali
** Chavanel, Gesink, Klöden, Kolobnev, Kreuziger, Vinokourov
* De Waele, Gerrans, Le Mevel, Martin, Pellizotti, Roche, Wiggins