Liege-Bastogne-Liege preview: the spring classics curtain falls

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April 26th, ’14.  The spring classics are nearly done.  In just a few days attention will cease to be on racing in Belgium, the cobbled classics of Wevelgem and Flanders, the Ardennes classics of Amstel Gold and Wallonne; and eyes will shift to three weeks in Italy, three weeks in France and the stage races between.

April 26th, ’14.  The spring classics are nearly done.  In just a few days attention will cease to be on racing in Belgium and the Netherlands, the cobbled classics of Wevelgem and Flanders, the Ardennes classics of Amstel Gold and Wallonne; and eyes will shift to three weeks in Italy, three weeks in France and the stage races in between.  Before the spring is done for the one-day crew however there is one more major spring classic to be tackled.  It is the monument that is Liege-Bastogne-Liege, cycling’s oldest race.

 

263km and ten graded climbs have been the catalysts for many a memorable performance in the race known as the ‘old lady’.  It is a truly monumental event that draws one-day maestros and grand tour contenders by the masses.  It is a race that, more than its counterparts in Amstel or the Fleche, sees both genres of riders truly clash.  And the victors over the past few years have differed in speciality, there is no consistent winner type.  Daniel Martin goes into the race as defending champion, a promising grand tour rider, but before him were both Maxim Iglinskiy and Philippe Gilbert, definite one-day men.  Then it’s back to the grand tour good guys until 2004 when Davide Rebellin won.  

 

Form this year suggests anything could happen.  The roads to the finish line are not anywhere near as narrow as they are on the Mur de Huy, Philippe Gilbert was one of the many to be unlucky enough to be boxed in behind a number of riders, and therefore boxed out of contention for the win.  But his triumphs in Flèche Brabanconne and Amstel Gold make him by no means a rider to be ruled out.  Alejandro Valverde showed just why he has notched up a handy collage of race wins this season already, showing immaculate timing to take Flèche Wallonne in style.  And Daniel Martin showed the good form that led to his win in Liege last year taking second behind Valverde.  Not since 1998 has a rider done a back-to-back repeat win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Martin will be hard pressed to achieve such a feat.  

 

But we know all about the favourites.  We know about Michal Kwiatkowski and his phenomenal talent and his first classic podium in Wallonne.  We know about Simon Gerrans and his third third-place on Amstel.  There are a number of riders who are the obvious ones, in this preview we want to take a look at a few riders who have either quietly been getting on with things or have only just showed up this year to the world of Ardennes classics.  Starting with Team Sky.

 

It’s been a year of pondering for spectators over the form of Team Sky and whether this year has seen chinks in their armour.  Their grand tour aspirations in Italy took a dive with Richie Porte getting sick, and Tour de France defending champion Chris Froome has not been completely injury free either.  But both are lining up for Liege-Bastogne-Liege and this is most certainly exciting news.  The stats don’t suggest too much in the way of expectations.  Their collective best is 36th by Froome, Porte’s never finished the race, not exactly inspiring so far.  But what singles the two out is that for most of the year they have really flown under the radar.  No one knows just how good the two of them are, although if word of their training is to be believed things are going well.  They could be the secret weapons to redeem an otherwise floundering Ardennes classics season for the Sky boys.

 

GIANT-Shimano have established themselves as the team with a bit of a monopoly when it comes to fast men, with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb ruling the roost for the most part in a good portion of races they’ve entered.  But the name Simon Geschke has been much quieter, although no less dangerous when it comes to the hilly business.  The 28-year old has silently just gotten on with things, building together a portfolio of good results this season from Roma Maxima and Strade Bianche to Flèche Brabanconne and Amstel Gold.  The German is certainly capable of a big win, but it will come down to the presence of his teammates to support him as much as anything else.  

 

Then there is the darling of French cycling, the man who has won hearts on his Tour de France appearaces, and left us in awe of his ability to hang on for stage wins or hang on to yellow jerseys by the skin of his teeth.  I refer of course to Team Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler.  Voeckler on his day is the ideal combination for a win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he can climb efficiently, accelerate well from a small group, or break away solo.  On his day he is a winner.  His last two visits to Liege-Bastogne-Liege confirm this.  10th in 2010 and 4th in 2012, he was sidelined from racing here last year due to injury.  Oh how wonderful it would be to see Voeckler win!  Take France’s first win since 1980, and you know who won that year?  In truly treacherous conditions the legend of the Badger was further cemented; Bernard Hinault taking one of the most epic wins of his career.  

 

Who will come out on top is hard to say, but here is our guess.  As the curtain falls on the spring classics this is our top 10 prediction:

 

1st:  Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) Omega Pharma-Quick Step

2nd:  Daniel Martin (IRE) Garmin-Sharp

3rd:  Philippe Gilbert (BEL) BMC Racing

4th: Alejandro Valverde (SPA) Movistar Team

5th:  Bauke Mollema (NED) Belkin Pro Cycling

6th:  Simon Geschke (GER) GIANT-Shimano

7th:  Chris Froome (GBR) Team Sky

8th:  Thomas Voeckler (FRA) Team europcar

9th:  Simon Gerrans (AUS) Orica GreenEDGE

10th:  Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) Astana

 

By:  Ed Wright

 

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