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  • Writer's pictureTom Thewlis

Looking Ahead to Liège-Bastogne-Liège

As La Doyenne or The Old Lady fast approaches us this weekend, every puncheur due to be at the start will be dreaming of victory. None more so than Julian Alaphilippe. The current World Champion will be on a mission to save face after his controversial antics at the rearranged 2020 edition of the race last October. Last time round, as the final group containing Alaphilippe sprinted for the line, the World Champion swerved to his left and in the process blocked off both Hirschi and Tadej Pogacar, almost causing Hirschi to crash in the process. Alaphilippe was subsequently demoted to the back of the final group for this, but only after he had thrown his arms into the air in celebration, believing he had won. However, the Frenchman hadn’t accounted for Primož Roglič, who had sprinted past Alaphilippe narrowly beating him to the line. An embarrassing day for Julian Alaphilippe and one to forget, but a day to remember for Primož Roglič, who took the first Monument victory of his career.

Alaphilippe threw his arms into the air in celebration, forgetting that Roglic was just behind him. © Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Both Alaphilippe and Roglič will return as strong favourites again this Sunday 25th April, but we will get to the favourites later.

The Route

At nearly 260km in length, the race on Sunday promises to be absolutely brutal for all due to take part. The route is scattered with hilly and difficult terrain, with over 4200 metres of climbing on the way to the finish, meaning that the winner will need to be more than capable when things start to get steep.

It’s most likely that the overall contenders will be comfortably in the main pack for the first 150km or so of the course. If we see any action at this point, it will be teams looking to make a tactical move by positioning riders in the early breakaway, that may be of use to their team leaders in the latter stages of the race.

At 100km to go, the riders reach the first difficult climb, the Côte de la Mont-le-Soie. It is still incredibly unlikely we will see the favourites make a move at this point with such a long way back to Liège. The following climbs are far more challenging and are the points where the action may begin to unfold, with team leaders beginning to move to the front.

Later on the race will reach the Côte de Stockeu. The small climb at only 1km is short, but nasty, with a gradient of 12.8% which many may struggle with. Further on, the riders will get to the longest climb in the race, the Col du Rosier. At this point in the parcours, with a lot of tired legs, we may well see a final selection beginning to be made. As the riders get closer to the finish they will encounter the Côte de la Redoute, a climb made famous by Liège-Bastogne-Liège and is a race staple. The Côte de la Redoute is 2.3km in length, and with 35km left to race, is where the likes of Julian Alaphilippe may be expected to make an attack.

As the riders get closer to Liège, the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons will stand in their way. If we still have a small group of riders together, we will undoubtedly see some last-ditch attacks to try and create a small gap that a solo rider can then hold down to the finish. The descent back into Liège is 9km in length, and riders like last year’s winner, Roglič, are more than capable of holding off any rivals to the line, if it does indeed come to that.

The Challengers

Primož Roglič has been in impressive form so far in 2021. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat - Pool/Getty Images

The current reigning champion, Primož Roglič, is expected to return to defend his title. Roglič has been in his usual impressive form so far this season, and if he hadn’t suffered a crash at Paris-Nice, would have almost certainly wrapped up overall victory there too. It was Roglič’s first appearance at Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year, so he will arrive at the start line with a 100% record to date at the Monument. Roglič already has the overall victory at the Itzulia Basque Country Tour to his name this season, and will no doubt add to that in the weeks and months ahead. Roglič has the power and strength to go the distance in a race like this, and not many of the favourites will fancy challenging him in a final sprint at the end of a long and gruelling day in the saddle.

The final podium at last year’s La Doyenne. © Bettini Photo

After Alaphilippe’s theatrics and subsequent demotion last year, Tadej Pogačar and Marc Hirschi made up the rest of the podium. However, following on from the news this week that due to positive COVID-19 tests in their camp, UAE Team Emirates were forced to pull out from La Flèche Wallone, both Hirschi and Pogačar’s appearance at La Doyenne will be in doubt.

Should Pogačar get the all clear to participate, he will almost certainly contest the win. Pogačar has already won the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico this year and looked strong against Roglic at the Itzulia Basque Country Tour. So far this year, his preparation for defending his Tour de France title is going exactly to plan and if he was to win in Liège, his confidence would develop even further.

Julian Alaphilippe silences his doubters winning atop the Mur de Huy. © Getty Images

The World Champion has had doubt cast his way in recent weeks, but Julian Alaphilippe won La Flèche Wallone in style on Wednesday and proved that he’s in great form. On the devilishly steep Mur de Huy, Alaphilippe reeled in Primož Roglič before kicking past him in the final few metres to take his third Flèche Wallone title. Watching Alaphilippe when he’s in that kind of form is breathtaking, and the most exciting rider in the sport proved he’s back to his best when it matters.

After his premature celebrations last year, he will be itching to make amends and take the win this time around. The Liege-Bastogne-Liege parcours suits Alaphilippe to perfection, and with the wide selection of hills to choose from, he will have plenty of opportunities to make a race-winning move.

The rest of the peloton on Sunday will be full of talent, with a wide selection of riders who are more than capable of a surprise. Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens has the power and strength to go the distance here. Wellens is a solid puncheur, and should he find himself in the winning breakaway, is capable of attacking on any of the final climbs and holding it to the finish. Alejandro Valverde has four wins at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in his palmarès; Sunday is the Spaniard’s 41st birthday and Valverde can tie the overall record of five with Eddy Merckx should he take another famous victory in the Ardennes. Valverde took an impressive third place at La Flèche Wallone on Wednesday and will be right in contention at the Monument on Sunday.

After his win at GP Miguel Induráin, Alejandro Valverde has looked back to his best. With a third place at La Flèche Wallonne, Valverde will be a marked man on Sunday. © Getty Images Sport

Other outside bets include the likes of Israel Start-Up Nation's Michael Woods. Woods looked very strong in the closing stages of La Flèche Wallone, and has consistently ridden well at La Doyenne. Woods is yet to win a Monument title, but if he finds himself in the right place at the right time on Sunday, then anything can happen.

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