Roglič v Alaphilippe
Two riders clearly stand out as the favourites to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, and, fittingly for the third Monument of the season, they are two of the biggest stars in the contemporary peloton — Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).
They were the pair who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the field at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, where the former pipped the latter to victory while the rest of the field languished further down the Mur de Huy. They now look set to continue their rivalry at La Doyenne, where Roglič famously sneaked up on Alaphilippe in the final of last year’s race to claim victory after Alaphilippe had prematurely celebrated.
Alaphilippe is more accustomed to the Classics, and has already ridden Liège-Bastogne-Liège five times (finishing in the top-five on three occasions), but since winning the race on debut last year, Roglič appears to have acquired a taste for the Ardennes Classics. He might not be as familiar with these roads as Alaphilippe is, but the Frenchman has sometimes cracked in the race’s brutal finale, while the extra difficulty in comparison to the other Ardennes Classics ought to suit the purer climber Roglič.
Their expected showdown will also be a renewal of the Deceuninck-Quick-Step/Jumbo-Visma rivalry that has raged all spring. Deceuninck-Quick-Step have so far had the edge, with their collective talents sharing four of the WorldTour-ranked cobbled Classics of the season between them, while limiting Jumbo-Visma’s star Wout van Aert to just the one.
So far it’s been one each in the Ardennes Classics, with Van Aert taking Amstel Gold and Alaphilippe taking Flèche Wallonne, making Liège-Bastogne-Liège something of a tie-breaker and, as the only Monument in the Ardennes, the biggest scalp of them all.
Legends of the Ardennes bid farewell
This year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège could be the last time we see not one but two of the greatest puncheurs in the sport’s history ride an Ardennes Classic.
Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) has already confirmed that this will be her last season before retiring, having won two of the four women’s editions since the race’s inception in 2017, she is currently the record holder for the most number of wins at this young race; having won Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, she’s a hot favourite to add a third title this year.
Although she’s appeared very matter-of-fact about her imminent retirement so far, completing another Ardennes double with victory on Sunday would surely mean a lot to this legend of the sport.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has been less clear about his plans for retirement, but has said before that this will be his last season. If so, this will be his last chance to add a fifth Liège-Bastogne-Liège title that would see him equal Moreno Argentin as the joint-record holder for the most number of victories here — a title he already holds outright for the other Ardennes Classic, Flèche Wallonne.
That might have seemed far-fetched this time a year ago, but the Spaniard — who will be celebrating his 41st birthday on race day — has come roaring back into form this spring, so could well do it.
Grand Tour specialists make an appearance
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is not like the other spring Classics. As well as being longer than most (at 259km, this year only Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders exceed its length), the climbs are also comparatively longer and less punchy, making La Doyenne a very different challenge to everything that’s come before it.
Consequently, there is crossover here between the familiar puncheurs who have competed in the earlier Classics, particularly the Ardennes, and Grand Tour specialists who don’t generally ride one-day races.
The most intriguing of the Grand Tour specialists down to ride this year is Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). The Slovenian rode last year’s rearranged race, and managed to make the final selection to finish third, carrying the form that saw him win the Tour de France just two weeks earlier.
His UAE Team Emirates team are anxiously waiting to be given the go-ahead to ride after a Covid positive in their camp prevented them from riding Flèche Wallonne, but if they are present and Pogačar does ride, it will be fascinating to see if he can launch the kind of attacks we’re used to seeing him make in the high mountains over the hills of the Ardennes.
Ineos Grenadiers have also tailored their roster to include more climbing specialists. Their star of the Ardennes so far, Tom Pidcock, has chosen not to ride, so instead the climbers will take precedence; that includes Adam Yates, who has been on fire this year and has a good track record at La Doyenne having finished fourth and eighth in two of his last three appearances here; and former Giro winner Richard Carapaz, who impressed at both Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne, and could even be an outside bet for victory now if he’s given more freedom to ride for himself.
The usual suspects go for victory in the women’s race
All the best riders in women’s cycling will be present at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and will be plotting a way to beat Anna van der Breggen following her return to fitness at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.
Trek-Segafredo succeeded in doing so masterfully last year, when they instigated an early break that caught their rivals off guard, allowing Lizzie Deignan to take victory. Deignan doesn’t appear to have the legs to do something like that this year, but the team will be hoping they can engineer a similar situation for the on-form Elisa Longo Borghini and Ruth Winder.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) will, as ever, be one of the top favourites, and will prefer the parcours of Liège-Bastogne-Liège after she was hindered by the climbs of both Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne not being hard enough.
Her former Mitchelton-Scott team-mate Grace Brown was one of the star performers of last year’s race, where she threatened to catch Deignan with a superb counter-attack, and has gone from strength-to-strength this season. Based on last year’s ride, this is a race that suits her, so she could be poised to take what would be the biggest win of her career so far.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) has been one of the peloton’s top performers in recent weeks, and should thrive in the selective course; less so Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), who missed the selection at Flèche Wallonne and would prefer the less likely scenario of a sprint finish, but it would be foolish to ever write off such a legend of the sport.
And should Van der Breggen be on an off-day, or SD Worx chose an alternative strategy, both Demi Vollering (who has finished second twice these past two weeks) and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio will be waiting in the wings.
A strong field of diverse contenders for the men’s race
As well as Roglič, Alaphilippe, and Pogačar, the other two riders who made the final selection in last year’s race, Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates) and Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) are also expected to ride this year. Hirschi’s presence is, like Pogačar’s, dependent on whether UAE Team Emirates are able to ride, and even if they are, the young Swiss rider has not shown his best form so far this year. Mohorič, by contrast, is in decent shape, and has a tendency to perform well in these longer Classics — but he’ll need to pull-off a surprise attack if he’s to actually win the race.
Flèche Wallonne is usually a good indication of who will go well at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, so look out for fourth-place finisher Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) and fifth-place finisher Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic), both of whom have good records at Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Woods, in fact, has never finished outside of the top ten in any of his previous four appearances).
Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) certainly cannot be discounted, and is due a big Classics victory having podiumed previously at Amstel Gold Race and Strade Bianche, as well as Liège-Bastogne-Liège two years ago.
The 2019 winner Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech) could yet be a contender, but will need to improve drastically on his performances at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne, where he finished far down in 38th and 17th respectively. Perhaps we should instead look out for younger riders like David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), who carried his stage-winning form from Tour of the Basque Country to finish seventh at Flèche Wallonne.