The Ardennes Classics season reaches it crescendo on Sunday with the 99th edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
La Doyenne is one of the toughest race on the calender, thanks to a 261.5km course which includes 11 major climbs, including some of the longest and steepest ascents in the Ardennes.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a show delivered in two distinct acts. Of the 11 climbs only two – the Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne (2.8 km at 6.2 per cent) and Côte de Saint-Roch (one kilometre at 11 per cent) – come in the first half of the race. Once the peloton reaches the Côte de Wanne after 160km, however, the climbs come at a leg-sapping frequency.
Eddy Merckx famously used the next climb, the Côte de Stockeu, to turn the screw on his rivals and a statue of the Cannibal at the top of the super-steep one kilometre climb, which average more than 12 per cent, pays tribute to the Belgian’s five victories.
The Côte de la Haute-Levée (3.6km at 5.7 per cent), Col du Rosier (4.4km at 5.9 per cent), Côte du Maquisard (2.5km at 5 per cent) and Mont-Theux (2.7km at 5.9 per cent) follow, all serving to numb the legs ahead of the finale – but it is not until the Côte de La Redoute with a little over 40km to go that the favourites normally show their hand.
La Redoute averages 8.8 per cent over its two kilometre length and, with sections far steeper, provides the perfect opportunity to ramp up the pace and shell out any riders without the form – or will – to contest the finish.
The Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (1.5km at 9.9 per cent) typically follows but road works have forced this year’s race to be temporarily re-routed via the Côte de Colonster climb, which comes with 17km to go, and while longer at nearly three kilometres, a respectable average gradient of 5.9 per cent should see a larger group than normal arrive at the foot of the final climb – the Côte de Saint-Nicolas.
The 11th climb of the day (1.2km at 8.6 per cent) comes just five kilometres from the finish and provides the perfect platform for a last-ditch attack, whether it be a climber trying to ditch a puncheur, or a puncheur using their explosive power to get a gap on a climber.
The race has, by now, been torn to shreds. It’s a war of attrition thanks to the shark’s tooth profile of the the second half of the route and the rider who crosses the finish lined arms aloft is a worthy winner.
If the Amstel Gold Race and La Fleche Wallonne are largely the preserve of the puncheurs of the peloton, Liege-Bastogne-Liege sees the same riders go head-to-head with Grand Tour contenders (including Team Sky’s Chris Froome) for the fourth Monument of the season. Here are five riders who should be at the sharp end of Sunday’s race.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): Valverde has won Liege-Bastogne-Liege twice, in 2006 and 2008, but has not claimed a Classic since returning from a doping ban. However, the Spaniard goes into the 2013 edition of La Doyenne as the bookies favourite thanks to a run of form which has seen him finish second in the Amstel Gold Race and seventh at La Fleche Wallonne. Like many teams, Movistar also have a joker card to play on Sunday should their main option falter, with Tour of the Basque Country winner Nairo Quintana ready and waiting.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing): You can’t accuse Gilbert of a lack of trying. World Championship win aside, Gilbert has failed to recapture the form which saw him win all three Ardennes Classics in 2011, but the Belgian valiantly tried to reeled in Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) on the Cauberg at Amstel Gold, only to swamped on the run-in to the line and finish fifth, while he led the charge up the Mur du Huy at La Fleche Wallonne but could only finish 15th. The Wallonian has a strong emotional attachment to a race which passes through his home town but is under pressure to deliver a first victory in the rainbow jersey. This year’s amended route should help him arrive at the foot of Côte de Saint-Nicolas in the front group.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana): Nibali, riding for Liquigas at the time, finished an agonising second in last year’s race, getting caught by eventual winner Maxim Iglinsky in the final kilometre, but the duo are now team-mates at Astana. Enrico Gasparotto will also line-up for Astana, ensuring the Kazakh team start with all three podium finishers from 2012. The steep climbs of the Ardennes suit Nibali, who also registered a top ten finished in 2008 and 2011, and the Italian will arrive in Belgium on the back of a tough, mountainous workout at the four-day Giro del Trentino.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha): Purito has endured a frustrating Ardennes campaign to date after crashing at Amstel Gold but the Spaniard will have had three full days rest since watching team-mate Daniel Moreno win La Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday. Rodriguez won his first Monument, the Giro di Lombardia, last autumn to end the season as world number one and will start Liege-Bastogne-Liege with eyes on the top step of the podium after finishing second in 2009.
Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp): The Irishman has enjoyed a fine 2012 to date, recording the biggest win of his career with overall victory in the Volta ao Catalunya. The Garmin-Sharp rider has been short of luck in the Ardennes so far, but showed he has the legs to win with a fourth place finish in La Fleche Wallonne despite a puncture on the run-in to the Mur du Huy. Martin will have 2012 Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal for company. The Canadian finished ninth last year after splitting the chasing group.
Sunday April 21 – 13:15-16:00 – LIVE race coverage on British Eurosport
Sunday April 21 – 22:30-23:30 – race highlights on British Eurosport 2