Pogačar gets his revenge
It can be easily forgotten that Primož Roglič was victorious in the 2020 edition of the men’s race, given how the memory is of Julian Alaphilippe celebrating a supposed victory too early and then being demoted to fifth for a dangerous sprint that halted Marc Hirschi and in turn thwarted Tadej Pogačar’s momentum, too.
So perhaps it was fitting that this year’s staging of Liège – back in its traditional April slot – saw Pogačar get one over Alaphilippe in the sprint to the line.
When the group of five clipped off the front on the day’s final climb, the expectation was that Alaphilippe would be a tough man to beat in the heart of the city, but one thing we should all remember is that Pogačar likes to win bike races every time he signs on – and he’s usually pretty good at doing so.
It was even more special for Pogačar, who cut a frustrated figure during the week at not being allowed to start La Flèche Wallonne due to two false Covid-19 positives within the UAE-Team Emirates camp.
He now goes into a period of rest and can look back at a very successful spring campaign, in which he has won two stage races, finished third in another, taken three stage victories, and now can add a maiden Monument to his tally of victory.
And, he is still just 22.
A star is born?
In the last two years, ever since an unexpected third-place at the 2019 edition of this very race, Demi Vollering has been threatening to not just be a footnote but the headline, and Sunday marked the day when she finally became the story.
At 24, the Dutchwoman has scored a remarkable 30 top-10 finishes in just 64 professional race days, but prior to her third outing in Liège she had only scored two wins.
She has been a major player this season and, in particular, the past few weeks, finishing fifth at the Tour of Flanders and then second at both Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold.
Aided spectacularly by her older, more experienced and world champion team-mate Anna van der Breggen, the sprint that Vollering unleashed in the finishing straight was too strong for Annemiek van Vleuten and Elisa Longo Borghini.
Vollering’s skillset appears perfectly suited towards the Ardennes Classics, with an ability to thrive over punchy parcours and a knack to finish strongly with a sharp turn of speed surely setting her up for more success.
But it would be unfair to only categorise her as a rider for this small collection of races at the end of April, with her performances in the past few weeks indicating that the women’s peloton could very well have a new dominant figure on the scene.
The older stars also shine bright
Annemiek van Vleuten won’t be celebrating her second-place tonight – perennial winners view such a position as the first loser – but it’s important to address just how impressive the 38-year-old has been during this spring campaign.
Just shy of 18 months before her 40th birthday, Van Vleuten has won the Tour of Flanders and Dwars door Vlaanderen in the past few weeks, and only just missed out at Liège, Amstel Gold and La Flèche Wallonne, finishing second, third and fourth in each race, respectively.
The Movistar rider has given her new team the attention and results they desperately wanted upon signing her, and even as new sensations like Vollering emerge as potential constant rivals, Van Vleuten is in no mood to fade away quietly.
Her Dutch companion Anna van der Breggen was equally impressive at Liège, pulling the breakaway group of five for the entire final 13 kilometres, setting a searing speed that not only demotivated a peloton behind, but prevented the other riders in the group from being able to counter-attack.
Vollering couldn’t have wished for a better ally in the final break, and just a few days after winning La Flèche Wallonne for a seventh successive time, it seemed somewhat poetic that the reigning world champion who is set to retire aged 31 at the end of the season set up her successor for her first major victory.
Birthday boy Valverde almost wins
On the day he turned 41, Alejandro Valverde was hoping to match the great Eddy Merckx in scoring a record-equalling fifth victory in the Monument.
And the Murcian almost celebrated his cumpleaños in style. Attentive throughout the latter stages of the race, he worked his way into the final group of five and led them into the final kilometre as they all prepared for a sprint.
He perhaps reluctantly took up the position on the front of the group and was forced to begin his sprint first, most probably hindering his chances, but he kept Alaphilippe, Pogačar and David Gaudu at bay for a sustained period of time before settling for fourth, denied an eighth visit to the race’s podium in his 15th start.
Following a quiet 2020 by his standards, this April has seen Valverde return to the levels we have become accustomed to despite his advancing years, finishing third at La Flèche Wallone in midweek, fourth at Amstel Gold last week, third in the toughest two stages at the Tour of the Basque Country and winning the GP Miguel Indurain.
His dream is to end his career with an Olympic gold medal around his neck, and based on his most recent form, Tokyo could well provide a golden ending to a man who turned professional when Pogačar was just three-years-old.
The curious case of Richard Carapaz’s attacks
Take a look at Richard Carapaz’s results this season since returning to action at the Volta a Catalunya and you’ll see a definitive plan of slowly building condition and form ahead of bigger goals, namely the Tour de France.
But scratch beneath the results and Carapaz has been very active – but to absolutely no success – and in Liège he even got himself disqualified.
The Ecuadorian attacked in the final 20km of the race and quickly built a large gap, the leading group he was part of very content and not concerned to see the Ineos Grenadier rider go away solo.
As he rapidly descended, the 2019 Giro d’Italia rider seemed to forget that just 25 days earlier the UCI introduced a ban on the so-called super-tuck position, Carapaz adopting the aerodynamic style that would see a ‘DQ’ applied next to his name on the results sheet.
It needn’t have mattered anyway for Carapaz was eventually reeled back in, and that’s been the story of his spring.
To his credit, and to the delight of all fans who revel in attacking and daring moves, Carapaz has attacked multiple times in the past month – once in Catalonia, twice at the Tour of the Basque Country, last weekend at Amstel Gold and also during the week at La Flèche Wallonne.
We’re not one to want to limit attacks and instead would encourage more riders to be as proactive as Carapaz, but the shrug-of-the-shoulders response to his attack in Liège, and the predictable eventuality in that he was once again caught means that the 27-year-old might want to re-think how exactly he is attacking. Because right now it’s not getting him anyway, and descending illegally won’t help too.