Prior to Sunday’s race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège looked to be suffering from a case of the ‘Valverdes’. Symptoms include races controlled by a string of navy jerseys, little-to-no meaningful attacks and a measured final sprint propelling Alejandro Valverde away from his less-explosive rivals. The ‘Valverdes’ have well and truly struck down the Monument’s close relative La Flèche Wallonne – the Spaniard’s mastery reducing the last few editions to a formality.
It’s harsh to speak disparagingly of a rider’s obvious ability but the Ardennes had begun to look a little too perfect for the ageless star. Whilst Simon Gerrans and Dan Martin bested Valverde on these roads in 2013 and 2014, form and fortune over the last eighteen months saw him a standout favourite for the 2016 La Doyenne. The form book was thrown aside, however, as wet, blizzardy conditions took hold of the race and a quartet escaped Movistar’s grasps in the closing stages. Michael Albasini towed the group five seconds clear, and the early sprint of Wout Poels saw the Monument go the way of Team Sky. Albasini was left frustrated in second whilst Rui Costa put in another good ride in miserable conditions to take third.
I was in Liège on Sunday afternoon experiencing the laughable weather conditions from a barrier a few metres from the finishing line in Ans. A large screen showed the race coverage in its entirety and whilst the opening 220km looked a procession, things came to life in the closing stages. Twitter suggested the race was a poor showcase for pro cycling, or at the very least inferior to this year’s cobbled Monuments. The breakaway was merely going through the motions as the favourites geared up for the hilly finale. The impressive new climb, Côte de la Rue Naniot, broke up the main bunch and by the time we reached the final drag and famous left-hander the winning move had edged away. Fans expect a certain level of drama from a Monument and whilst Liège did lack in that department it is unfair to draw comparisons to Roubaix. After all, this year’s edition of Paris-Roubaix was absolutely fantastic.
Despite its shortfalls, Liège was brutal. The return journey from Bastogne is packed with climbs and I’m reminded every year that LBL is as every bit a climber’s race as October’s Il Lombardia. The climbs are punchier in Belgium, however, which is music to the ears of the likes of Gerrans, Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez. Movistar were a strong presence at the head of the race for most of the second half even sending a resurgent (perhaps) Carlos Betancur up the road as they started to play their hand.
Ultimately you could accuse Movistar of trying to over-control an unspectacular race. They seemed ready for tactical warfare yet let one of the gentler attacks disappear up the road. Even more disappointing was their lack of a plan b. With the quartet settled on the final uncategorized climb, Giro-hopeful Valverde could well have set off in pursuit. A Movistar lieutenant was more likely to chase but Giovanni Visconti, Ion Izagirre and former Flèche winner Dani Moreno had worked all day and were nowhere to be found. In the end Valverde never threatened – finishing sixteenth in the chasing pack.
Make no mistake, Liège-Bastogne-Liège paled in comparison to Paris-Roubaix but it’s easy to confuse ‘anti-climactic’ with ‘bad’. Milan-San Remo is much nothingness for over 250km before producing a slice of the most unpredictable racing on the cycling calendar. In many ways Liège is the same but we are frustrated because we know it could be so much more than a last-ditch tear-up; the races of ’98 and ’02 saw small groups of riders finish over a minute clear, in ’09 Andy Schleck tore away for a brilliant solo win, two years later Gilbert, the Schlecks and Greg Van Avermaet went clear with 20km to go, roughly the same mark Nibali launched from in 2012. The potential for great races, contested by some of my favourite riders, will always make Liège a must watch.
And what for the winner, Wout Poels? A shock victor but not one short of form and talent. His Liège record is poor but on no previous outing has he been respected as a leader, or even co-leader, as was the case on Sunday. His good results are stacking up now; ninth on Alpe d’Huez, fifth at Milano-Torino plus stage wins at Tirreno and Catalunya. Considered alongside these results a victory at LBL no longer seems out of place. Poels sits behind just Chris Froome, Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas in Sky’s Grand Tour pecking order, now surely alongside Michal Kwiatkowski in their hunt for one-day success. Landing their first Monument – in relatively surprising fashion – the Sky camp would have been jovial on Sunday night. Next up: the Giro.