27 April 2014

It has been a great spring season so far. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. This is no exception. It’s time for the last Spring Classic this year: the 100th edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The route
There have been numerous of minor route changes for this special edition of the race. Most notable is the return of Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons. Due to closed roads, the climb wasn’t on the menu last year. Now it’s back and its average gradient of 9.3 % will be of huge importance for the final outcome. Côte de la Vecquée (3.1 km / avg. 6.4 %) and Côte des Forges (1.9 km / avg. 5.9 %) are also new compared to last year’s edition.

Usually, Liège-Bastogne-Liège doesn’t open up until the peloton starts on Côte de la Redoute with about 40 km to go. The 2 km towards the top have an average gradient of 8.9 %. This is where we will see which riders don’t have what it takes to win today. Côte des Forges comes just 10 km after the top of Côte de la Redoute. This climb serves as an excellent place to attack. The big favorites won’t waste any energy before Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons (1.5 km / avg. 9.3 %), meaning a small group of strong outsiders might be able to get a gap over the top of Côte des Forges. However, I’m sure that BMC, Katusha, Movistar and Garmin will do whatever they can to control this race.

The most likely scenario will be for the favorites to start attacking each other on Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons as we have seen in the past. This is where Vinokourov and Kolobnev went away in 2010 and where Gilbert and the Schleck brothers attacked in 2011. In 2012, Nibali went solo on the descent of the climb, only to be caught on the last kilometer of the race. In case you haven’t been able to drop your rivals on Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons, you’ll have another chance on Côte de Saint-Nicolas. This 1.2 km climb has an average gradient of 8.6 % and there are only 5.4 km to go from the top.  Last year - without Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons - a big group of riders arrived at the bottom of Côte de Saint-Nicolas. I doubt this will happen this year. However, it’s not unlikely that we’ll get the same scenario, having a handful of riders reaching the top.

The last 1.5 km of Liège-Bastogne-Liège are uphill with an average gradient of 5 %. In 2013, Purito Rodriguez attacked with 1.2 km to go. The Spaniard seemed to have timed it perfectly but with 500 meters left of the race, Daniel Martin caught Purito and soloed away. This 100th edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège is one of the toughest in a long time. It will be very important not to waste any energy early on and still have something left in the legs for these final 1.5 km.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2014 profile

The favorites
In my book, the two big favorites are two former winners of the race. First up is Daniel Martin. He proved to be in great shape in Flèche Wallonne. Despite sitting in the back of the peloton with less than 10 km to go, Martin suddenly appeared in the front on the final couple of hundred meters. He withdrew from Amstel Gold Race last Sunday due to knee pain but Wednesday’s performance showed that he has no problems anymore. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a big goal for Daniel Martin before taking on the Giro d’Italia and Garmin sends a very strong team to support him. I’m confident we will see the Irishman in the front group on Côte de Saint-Nicolas.

Last year, Martin dropped Alejandro Valverde on the final kilometer before catching Purito Rodriguez. I doubt he will be able to that again this time. Despite missing out in Amstel Gold Race, Valverde dropped everybody in one go when he won Flèche Wallonne. The Movistar captain is obviously still in great condition. He won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2006 and 2008 and has finished in top3 on two other occasions. To me, it will be a huge surprise not to see Alejandro Valverde on the podium again this year. These kind of climbs suit him perfectly and few are able to beat him in an uphill sprint like this one. If you want to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2014, you need to drop Alejandro Valverde. I simply can’t see anyone is this field outsprinting him on the line.

Two years ago, I named Vincenzo Nibali as one of my top favorites for this race. I will do the same thing this year. In 2012, Nibali was aiming at the Tour de France (3rd place overall) and had Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2nd place) as his big goal of the first part of the season. Last year, the Giro d’Italia was the target and Nibali used Liège-Bastogne-Liège as a warm-up race, working hard for Enrico Gasparotto. Now, Nibali is once again targeting the Tour de France, meaning this Sunday is an important day on the calendar for him. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a fundamental goal for Astana (having won 2 of the last 4 editions) and I think Nibali will be up for the task. He has had a very low profile so far this season but he showed to be in good shape in Flèche Wallonne, finishing 14th. Nibali knows he can’t outsprint Valverde and Martin, so he has to attack from afar. This year, I think the best place to attack is over the top of Côte de Saint-Nicolas. Everybody will be on the limit here and the pace may slow down a bit. If you don’t have a strong kick for the final, this is the place to attack.

Before Amstel Gold Race, I had no doubts about naming Joaquim Purito Rodriguez as one of the top favorites for this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This is a race Purito has always wanted to win. He helped Alejandro Valverde (teammate back then) to win in 2008 and finished 2nd himself in 2009. In 2012, he seemed to have another podium spot in the bag. However, he couldn’t keep up with Maxime Iglinskiy who won after catching Nibali on the final kilometer. Last year, despite crashing in Amstel Gold Race one week prior, Purito did everything right in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He waited and waited and with 1.2 km to go, he attacked. For a while it looked to be the winning move, but once again he ended up with second place. On 100 %, Purito would be my winner pick this Sunday. However, he doesn’t seem to be doing very well after his recent crashes. Still, when he sets a goal, he almost always delivers. This is a big goal of his and personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2014 climbs

The outsiders
I’m having a hard time deciding whether Philippe Gilbert should be named as a favorite or as an outsider this year. Last year’s edition wasn’t as tough as this one, and in the rainbow jersey, Gilbert didn’t manage to do better than 7th. This year, La Roche-aux-Faucons is back on the menu, which definitely favors the pure climbers. It’s true that Gilbert didn’t have any problems on this climb when he won in 2011. However, Gilbert will never reach that level again. Despite a strong performance in Amstel Gold Race, Gilbert wasn’t even close to achieving a big result in Flèche Wallonne. Whereas, in 2011, he destroyed everybody on Mur de Huy. I’m not saying that Gilbert won’t play an important role in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I just doubt he can drop the top favorites

Michal Kwiatkowski continues to impress. On paper, the steep gradients on Mur de Huy didn’t really suit the young Pole, who’s not as explosive as riders like Valverde. However, this fact didn’t seem to bother Kwiatkowski much. He went to the front early and managed to make podium. Still, I think it will be hard for him to continue his streak this Sunday. Last year, after a good performance in Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, Kwiatkowski was too tired to do well in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With about 40 km to go, the youngster ran out of legs. He’s much stronger this year, but 262.9 km with 10 categorized climbs are no walk in park. I wouldn’t bet against Michal Kwiatkowski, but I wouldn’t back him either.

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what Chris Froome can do in this race. On paper, he should be able to fight for the win. Last year, he had a couple of mechanical problems, which ruined his chances. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a race he wants to do well in. Froome has only done Tour of Oman (overall winner) and Volta a Catalunya (6th overall) this season. Therefore, it’s difficult to predict what kind of shape he’s in right now. Personally, I think he will be in the mix. Team Sky hasn’t had much to cheer for lately but it may come this Sunday.

UPDATE: Due to a "mild chest infection", Chris Froome won't start Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This means Richie Porte and David Lopez will lead Team Sky in the race.

Two other very interesting outsiders for this race are Bauke Mollema and Rui Costa. Mollema has been doing better and better the last couple of weeks. He finished off Vuelta al Pais Vasco in good shape and did very well in the first two Ardennes Classics; seventh in Amstel Gold Race and fourth in Flèche Wallonne. Don’t be surprised if the tendency continues and he finishes on the podium this Sunday. The Belkin captain is fast in an uphill sprint and not afraid of attacking if he sees an opportunity. The same thing can be said about Rui Costa. He may not be as fast as Bauke Mollema, but he’s definitely not too shy to try his luck from afar. The world champion is still without a win this season and he’s very eager to change that fact. Like Mollema, he finished Vuelta al Pais Vasco with good feelings and he now hopes to shine in the last one of the Spring Classics. We could easily get a rematch from Florence last year with Nibali, Valverde, Purito and Rui Costa fighting for the win.

For other strong outsiders look to Roman Kreuziger, Carlos Betancur, Jelle Vanendert and Rui Costa’s teammate Diego Ulissi. Cunego’s crash in Flèche Wallonne saw Ulissi lose a lot of positions in the peloton. He started on Mur de Huy far from the front but managed to pass many riders on his way towards the top. The young Italian is very fast in an uphill sprint and I wouldn’t bet against him if he’s near the front in the final.

For live coverage of Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2014, go to steephill.tv. Join the conversation on Twitter using the official hashtag #LBL