By David Hunter
Liege – Ans 253km
The best race in the Ardennes week, due to the level of difficulty. It’s the only monument of the three races and it certainly deserves to be. This is an extreme test of climbing, endurance and toughness.
It is no surprise that Alejandro Valverde has finished on the podium in the last three years. He finally won it for a second time, last year, after a stunning performance. Just like last year, Valverde is the man they all have to beat.
I’m sure we all know the route well, with the great climbs of Redoute, Roche-aux-Faucons and Saint-Nicolas again included. The organisers have been devilish though, by introducing a terrific little climb just before the long drag up to the finishing line.
Cote de la Rue Naniot might just be 600m long, but it’s on cobbles and averages 10.5%. This seriously changes the end of the race, making it much harder to control. I love it!
Snow. Yes, snow! Despite the race taking place at the end of April, we do have a high chance of the white stuff. The day will be wet and cold, so even if they snow doesn’t arrive, it’s going to be one hell of a race. The terrible weather will make it survival of the fittest and will significantly reduce the size of the peloton, long before the end of the race.
Alejandro Valverde – fresh from a terrific win in Fleche Wallonne, the Spaniard is looking to do another double. His team were outstanding on Wednesday, marking the moves and allowing Valverde to stay fresh. Again, the pressure will be on them to control the race. With horrible weather forecast, teammates are even more important. A lot of pressure will be on the shoulders of Visconti, Moreno and Izagirre.
Dan Martin – performed well in Fleche Wallonne but just lacked a real big kick to make Valverde suffer. Third place was a good reward for his performance. We all know he loves this race, winning in 2013 and crashing when in a great position in 2014. The introduction of the new climb at the end, should be good news for the Irishman.
Julian Alaphilippe – safe to say that the youngster is now back on form. He just couldn’t follow the kick of Valverde, on Wednesday, but LBL is a different race all together. Last year, he started his sprint a bit too late and couldn’t make up the ground to Valverde. I would say that he is a faster sprinter than Valverde, but 250km of hard racing can change this. You have to think that Etixx will try and work over Valverde, with Alaphilippe reserved for the sprint.
Rui Costa – his strong period continues. Fleche Wallonne is never a race that suits him, but his 10th place was impressive. The bad weather is great news for him, remember the horrible conditions when he won his World Championship. He was 4th last season and he seems certain to finish in the top 5 again.
Tim Wellens – another rider that thrives in bad weather. Tried another early attack on Wednesday and it failed. As the peloton should be nice and small as we near the end of this race, an attack on the penultimate climb might just stick. That should be his launching pad.
Simon Gerrans – after the shambles of Amstel, the pressure is on Gerrans. He won here in 2014 but crashed out last year, in fact he hit the deck on two occasions. Gerro dominated in the Tour Down Under, but hasn’t won yet in Europe. That will be a concern for him and it is a huge ask to make this his opening European win of 2016.
The Trentino Crew
Vino was the last rider to win LBL, coming from Trentino, back in 2010. Despite that we always see Nibali and Pozzovivo trying to win coming via Italy. The bad weather is certainly to the liking of Nibali, he is no stranger to winning races in the snow. You might be thinking that he wasn’t very good in Trentino, you’d be right, but he was just down from a period at altitude and it can take a while for the body to adjust. I think that Nibali won’t be far off top form.
Pozzovivo has gone close here in the past but he does lack that little bit extra required to win a huge race like this. AG2R will also hope that Bardet shows some good form, but I think he only has a chance of a top 10 result.
Teammates will be worth their weight in gold. Time to look at who could be left deep into the race:-
AG2R – Bardet, Bakelants, Pozzovivo.
Astana – Nibali, Fuglsang, Rosa.
BMC – Sanchez, Teuns.
Etixx – Martin, Alaphilippe, Brambilla.
Lampre – Ulissi, Rui Costa.
Lotto – Gallopin, Vanendert, Wellens.
Movistar – Valverde, Moreno, Visconti.
Orica – Gerrans, Impey, Albasini.
Giant – Barguil.
Katusha – Rodriguez, Zakarin.
Jumbo – Gesink.
Sky – Poels, Kwiatkowski.
Tinkoff – Kreuziger.
Trek – Mollema.
Dimension Data – Pauwels, Cummings.
Wanty – Gasparotto.
Cofidis – Jeannesson.
The strength seems to lie with Etixx, Movistar, Lotto and Astana. Despite having numbers in the previous races, Lotto have disappointed. Etixx will no doubt try to eliminate all of Valverde’s helpers and attack with Dan Martin. If Valverde covers the move, they will look for Alaphilippe to attack next. That particular tactic proved too hard to do on the Mur de Huy, but it should be easier here. Astana have two good options in Nibali and Fuglsang, the Dane did impress during Trentino. However strong they might be, their chances of success are not big, thanks to a lack of sprinting ability.
I picked him for Flèche and I will pick him again! I stick with Dan Martin. Etixx’s strength in numbers should isolate Valverde, despite his strength.
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