Alejandro Valverde will be looking to take another step towards Ardennes Classics immortality when he lines up for Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday.
The 35-year-old Spaniard will be the man to beat in Belgium during ‘La
Doyenne’ (the oldest) having claimed a record fourth victory in the midweek
Fleche Wallonne, the second of the three Ardennes Classics.
Last year Movistar’s Valverde followed up his Fleche victory with a third success at Liege — two behind Belgian great Eddy Merckx — as well and few would bet against another double, even if the man himself is less confident.
Valverde’s main aim this season is to finish in the top three at next
month’s Giro d’Italia and he is wary of putting his participation in that
event at risk during the Liege slog.
“I’ll be at the start of Liege-Bastogne-Liege with real hopes of winning
but without putting my Giro participation at risk,” said Valverde. “They say the weather will get worse, it will be tough for everyone. But I’ll start with the advantage of having won the Fleche. I hope it doesn’t rain.”
Rain would make the road surfaces slippery and increase the risk of
crashes, not least in a hectic finale that has been changed slightly this year.
Ahead of the final grind up to the finish in Ans, near Liege, the final
categorised ascent on the 253km course is no longer the Cote de San Nicolas
6.5km from the finish.
Instead there will be a brutal 600m cobbled climb just 2.5km from the
finish with an average gradient of 10.5 percent, the Rue Naniot. With a fast descent both into and off Rue Naniot the potential for calamity is greatly increased, but so too are the opportunities to make a solo attack stick, something that has only happened once in recent years when Kazakh Maxim
Iglinsky — since banned for testing positive for drugs — chased down and
left for dead Italian Vincenzo Nibali.
Nibali will be in the field as he too prepares for the Giro, although he
was far from his best form in the Giro del Trentino this week, finishing down
in 21st overall, more than six minutes behind Spanish winner Mikel Landa.
Lo Squalo (the shark) will be expected to challenge Valverde, though.
THE BATTLE AHEAD
So too will the pair that finished just behind him at Fleche, Etixx
team-mates Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin.
Frenchman Alaphilippe was second to Valerde at both Fleche and Liege last
year and second again in Huy on Wednesday. At just 23 years of age, Alaphilippe is a star in the making and sure to enjoy great success in the Ardennes and may be El Imbatido’s biggest rival. And Alaphilippe, who says his legs are feeling good after a tough start to the season, is already focused on Liege.
“The weather will be difficult, we’ve been told. You have to remain
well-placed and think about saving energy,” he said.
Martin is another playing down his chances in Liege, which he won in 2013,
saying that Valverde was too strong at Fleche despite he and Alaphilippe
“Every year, we hope that Valverde is less good, but he’s just a great
rider,” said Martin. “Every year he remains the favourite. But it gives us more motivation to beat him. Julian and I are in top shape so it’s promising for Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It’s good to have two strong riders for Liege. It’ll also depend on the weather, however, because I tend to suffer when it’s cold.”
It’s expected to be not only cold but there may also be snow. Outside of those, Australian Simon Gerrans, winner in 2014, and the likes of Spanish veteran Joaquim Rodriguez, Frenchman Romain Bardet and Italian
Domenico Pozzovivo, the latter pair both impressive in Trentino, could all
have their say.
But one rider unlikely to be mixing it with the potential winners is Tour
de France champion Chris Froome, whose best previous result in Liege was 36th and who will be helping Polish team-mate Michal Kwiatkowski.