The 103rd Liege-Bastogne-Liege
(http://40.media.tumblr.com/d76837bce4dd27671e4711edf655a10a/tumblr_n245znpwwY1qkbpdro1_1280.jpg)They don't call this race "La Doyenne" - The Oldest - without good reason. It was 1892 when Liege-Bastogne-Liege was first raced, by amateurs, before turning pro in 1894. For comparison, it's ASO stablemate, the Tour de France, didn't run for the first time for another 9 years. It was another 6 years, in 1909, that we saw the first Giro, while the Tour of Flanders took until 1913 to enter the public consciousness.
The history of Liege-Bastogne-Liege can almost be read as a history of cycling, and the list of winners as a Who's Who. Anquetil, Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Hinault feature prominently - Hinault's 1980 victory was one of the most famous; the race started just minutes after a heavy snowfall and many riders didn't make it past the first hour. Hinault did finish, at the expense of needing three weeks to regain full movement of all his fingers.
Originally run the day after la Fleche Wallonne, and still closely related, only 7 men have taken both titles in the same year. Alejandro Valverde #movistar, of course, did this for the second time in 2015 as he won this race for the third time and cemented his claim to being the most successful rider in the Ardennes in recent years. He was outgunned last year, eventually ending in the main group 12 seconds behind the podium finishers. Winner Wout Pouls and 3rd place-finisher Rui Costa were the only two strong enough to chase Michael Albasini down when he attacked under the kite, the trio catching and passing Samuel Sanchez on the uphill run to the finish.
258 km of Ardennaise roads await this year's riders. And while they will meet familiar friends among the 10 climbs along the way - as ever, they get more frequent and more difficult the closer we get to the finish - ASO have not been afraid to shuffle the pack. Rue Naniot - last year's surprise addition, throwing cobbles less than 3km from the finish, misses out this time around. Gone, too, are the traditional pairing of Côte de Wanne and Côte de la Haute-Levée, replaced by a trio even closer together - about 12 km covers the three - in an attempt to force an earlier selection. It worked for Muur-Kapelmuur in Flanders, so perhaps something equally audacious could happen here..? The difficult finishing trio of La Redoute, Roche-aux-Faucons and Saint-Nicolas remain, and will be sure to add vim and verve to an already extremely difficult challenge.
|Km 70.0||Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne||2.8 kilometre-long climb at 6.2%|
|Km 116.0||Côte de Saint-Roch||1 kilometre-long climb at 11.2%|
|Km 168.0||Côte de Pont||1 kilometre-long climb at 10.5%|
|Km 172.0||Côte de Bellevaux||1.1 kilometre-long climb at 6.8%|
|Km 180.0||Côte de la Ferme Libert||1.2 kilometrelong climb at 12.1%|
|Km 198.0||Col du Rosier||4.4 kilometre-long climb at 5.9%|
|Km 211.0||Col du Maquisard||2.5 kilometre-long climb at 5%|
|Km 222.5||Côte de La Redoute||2 kilometre-long climb at 8.9%|
|Km 239.0||Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons||1.3 kilometre-long climb at 11%|
|Km 252.5||Côte de Saint-Nicolas||1.2 kilometre-long climb at 8.6%|
Runners and Riders
As ever, the final startlist is still a work in progress, but the main protagonists in the Ardennes tend to appear consistently throughout the mini-season. But this year, the list of absences is almost as significant. Philippe Gilbert - winner of the Tour of Flanders and in a form not seen in years - has had to pull out with a kidney injury sustained last weekend in Amstel Gold and misses out on possibly his best recent chance to get a second win in this race. Defending champion Wout Pouls will also not be on the start line as he recovers from a knee injury.
Despite my poor effort last year - I gave Rui Costa and "a Sky rider" 2 stars each - I'm going to try again with star ratings for the main contenders.
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Alejandro Valverde #movistar
Does this man not age? He is in the form of his life, an eternal peak that has seen him rack up 10 wins already - more than any other rider - as well as another 10 Top-10 placings. Among those wins, of course, was his 5th Fleche Wallone. The Spaniard has always gone well in this race - 3 wins and 4 other podium finishes - despite missing out last year. As always, and as I said last year, he is more likely to take advantage of the race falling into place for him than driving it in his direction.
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Michal Kwiatkowski #sky
Already a Monument winner this year, taking Milan-San Remo as well as Strade Bianche, the former World Champion was 2nd to Gilbert in Amstel Gold and has been consistently strong all season. 7th in Fleche Wallonne is no poor performance, either, so it is clear he has the legs and - with a big of luck - will be near the front on the run into Ans.
Dan Martin #quickstep
One of a number of strong QuickStep riders, Martin is a proven force at this race and will likely lead the line in Gilbert's absence. A relatively quiet start to the season, with only one win in the Algarve to his name, you can be sure that the Irishman will have been building to this weekend. 2nd place at the top of the Muur de Huy proves he is heading in the right direction.
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Rui Costa #uae
Another former world champion with a taste for the Ardennes, Costa enjoyed an excellent start to the season, including the GC at the Abu Dhabi Tour - to the pleasure, no doubt, of his new employers - his classics season has been less eventful. Nevertheless, his experience and record in this race suggest that, if his legs hold out, he can't be ignored by those around him.
Greg van Avermaet #bmc
Olympic Champion. Monument Winner. And that's just in the last 9 months. His late call-up to the BMC's roster for LBL is being viewed with surprise in some quarters, but really shouldn't be. He will be fresher than many of his rivals - he has only raced at Amstel Gold since crossing the line at the Roubaix velodrome - and BMC will send a strong squad in support.
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As with all the Monuments, the sheer scale of the task means that a long list of riders can find themselves in the mix. Look out for Sergio Henao #sky, Tom Dumoulin and Warren Barguil #giant, Romain Bardet #ag2r and Rigoberto Uran #cannondale.