Liège > Liège 258km
The classics draw to a close with the 109th edition of the old lady of cycling monuments. It’s a race that’s rarely won by an outsider, the distance and difficulty of the day ensures the winner is a brilliant cyclist. Evenepoel is the defending champion, and he’s back from altitude camp to see if he can defend the title and stop Tadej Pogačar from being the first man to win all three Ardennes races since Philippe Gilbert in 2011. The race is being set up as a battle between the two of them, and I’m not going to disagree.
There’s a threat of rain throughout the day. The wind will be around 15-20km/h, so it’s not going to cause any problems.
The famous La Redoute, which is where Remco launched his blistering attack last year. There’s 34km to go from the crest, which doesn’t seem to be a problem for anyone wanting to go solo these days.
Côte des Forges is the next proper climb, it’s a horrible drag up a main road. Don’t underestimate this one, it can do some damage to tired legs.
Roche aux Faucons is where we normally see the race winning move go, but not last year. It is a little devil of a climb, and the elastic snaps in the final 500m, which is where the best make their move. Just over the crest the road dips down (Jungels won attacking here), before ramping up again soon after. Hopefully, we see a battle here this year, I don’t want another long solo win.
How do you stop Tadej Pogačar? You can hope he has a bad day, pray he’s getting tired or prepare a human sacrifice, I don’t see another option. He won Amstel by going long, he won Flèche by waiting until the end, it’s just very hard to beat someone who’s so strong, but teams have to try.
If you wait until Roche aux Faucons, it’s too late, he’ll win, teams need to engineer something before this point, and it’s all about trying to isolate him. I’ll take you back to Amstel Gold for a minute, there was a chance to work him over, but the riders in the front group all decided to pull through and it seemed simply wait for Pogačar to drop them on the Keutenberg. He was alone, without teammates, and no one tried to attack him, this was a huge mistake. I don’t know if riders are simply scared to attack, or just don’t believe it would be successful, but there’s no point waiting for him to drop you. I think this is the only way he can be beaten, and even then, this move has a low chance of success.
This section starts with 80km to go, and in quick succession the riders climb Côte de Stockeu (1.2km at 10.4%), Côte de la Haute (3km at 6.3%) and Col du Rosier (4.5km at 5.7%), this is where teams need to attack. UAE have a solid team to support Pogačar, but I get the sense they are a little vulnerable, that’s why he follows moves himself. I want to see teams attacking this part of the race, forcing a strong group off the front, which will contain all the big names. If Pogačar is alone, then it’s game on. Attacks then need to come, forcing him to use energy covering them, but you cannot guarantee that self-interest won’t kick in and other teams will chase down moves for him. As I say, the chances of success aren’t high, but waiting for La Redoute/Roche aux Faucons would be a huge mistake in my book, he’s simply too strong to lose from that position. If you want to win this race, you need to think creatively and rip up the instruction manual.
Tadej Pogačar – the man of the moment, can he do the near impossible and win all three Ardennes races? Of course, he can. There’s no sign of fatigue setting in yet, and this is a race that suits him very well. He won here in 2021 and we’ll never know if he would have also won in 2020. He’s now got four monument wins; he’s going to need a bigger mantlepiece at this rate. He can win this race in many ways, he’ll be hoping it’s controlled, and everyone waits until La Redoute, then he can have some fun. His current level is incredibly high, he seems to have found an extra 10% compared to last year, beating him is so damn hard.
Remco Evenepoel – he’ll be flying, fresh from altitude camp and ready for a crack at the pink jersey. We’ve not seen many battles between Remco and Tadej, but Remco did beat him in last year’s worlds, without too much bother. I think we’d all be happy to see these two go head-to-head on Roche aux Faucons, it would make for excellent viewing. Soudal – Quick Step have had a disappointing classics campaign, but I think they arrive in Liège with the strongest team. Vervaeke, Bagioli, Schmid and Van Wilder are all riders who can last deep into this race, I want to see them attack early and try to get as many as they can in the front group, they have the team to put Pogačar under pressure.
Tiesj Benoot – 7th in Flèche was an outstanding result when you consider the type of rider he is, the legs are clearly good. He was frustrated in Amstel, I’m not sure how the group got off the front, but it was a move he needed to be in. The length of this race is good for Tiesj, the harder the better for him. Roche aux Faucons is the big moment for him, he’s struggled to follow the best there in the past, just losing ground in the closing metres, but I think this year could well be different. Winning will obviously be hard, but the podium is a realistic goal.
Aleksandr Vlasov – was pulled from the final stage of the Tour of the Alps, which was an “interesting” decision. He wasn’t at his best at the start of the race, but seemed to grow in form, but is he ready to challenge here? Last year, he looked on course to finish 2nd, but spectacularly blew up in the closing kilometres. That was when he was riding at a very high level, this year he’s not. I don’t think he’s a realistic contender.
Alexey Lutsenko – some love his style, others scratch their heads. Basically, he rides as hard as he possible can in the hope of dropping everyone. If it happens, he wins, but more often than not he uses vital energy and gets dropped himself. Like it or loathe it, I enjoy watching it! His current form is good, he should be a certain top 10 finisher in this race.
Tom Pidcock – he continues to baffle me. There’s no doubt about his talent, but I don’t think I can remember someone as good who blows up in the big moments, it happens far too often. He’s 23, due to turn 24 at the end of July, and he has four wins to his name. This is not the expected return for someone as good as he is, he is under-performing at the highest level. This year he’s struggled with distance, not exactly ideal when racing here. The issue I have is due to his ability, I cannot rule him out, you just never know when it’s going to click for him.
Mattias Skjelmose – 2nd in Flèche was a huge result, he’s enjoying a fine season. His contract might not be up until the end of 2024, but Trek-Segafredo need to start thinking about an extension as the big teams are circling. Despite his age, I don’t think the distance will be a problem, he coped well at the Worlds, and he can approach this race with confidence. Trek-Segafredo have a good team, both Mattias and Ciccone could challenge for the win.
Ben Healy – what a season he’s having. His performance in Amstel Gold was incredible, can he follow it up here? This will be just his second monument, he was a DNF here last year, he’ll be expecting better this time round. His recent results will fill him with confidence, I don’t think he needs to think about going early, he knows he can follow the best in the key moments.
Mikel Landa – 3rd in Flèche despite picking up a cold after Itzulia. This isn’t an ideal finish for him, but the climbs of La Redoute and Roche aux Faucons are right up his street, so he should be finishing top 10.
Maxim Van Gils – the more I see of him, the more I like. He was 7th in Amstel Gold and 8th in Flèche, the legs are clearly good just now. He’s one of those guys who can do it all, he loves steep gradients and has a very fast sprint, which makes him a dangerous rider. I think another top 10 is on the cards, he’ll be hoping to break into the top 5.
Just how adventurous will teams be in the pursuit of the win? Probably, not very.
It’s going to be another win for Tadej Pogačar, I can’t see a scenario where he doesn’t win.
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