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Remco Evenepoel won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, arguably the season’s hardest race, with a perfectly-timed attack that allowed him to leverage his substantial natural talents into a career-defining victory over the seemingly endless climbs of the Belgian Ardennes. The race, which produced a devastating mid-race pile-up that took out major contenders and saw Julian Alaphilippe’s season put in jeopardy due to multiple injuries, was sparked to life by a brutal attack from Evenepoel at the top of the infamous La Redoute climb with roughly 30-kilometers remaining. Nobody, including the Bahrain-Victorious team of Dylan Teuns who was extremely active prior to the climb, could put up enough resistance to reel in Evenepoel before the finish line, where he crossed with a substantial 48-second cushion over surprise second-place Quinten Hermans and Wout van Aert, who continued to showcase his stunning versatility by becoming the first rider in the modern history of the race to grab podium finishes at both Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same season.
1) Remco Evenepoel +0
2) Quinten Hermans +48
3) Wout van Aert +48
4) Dani Martínez +48
5) Sergio Higuita +48
6) Dylan Teuns +48
7) Alejandro Valverde +48
8) Neilson Powless +48
9) Marc Hirschi +48
10) Mike Woods +48
59km: There was a massive high-speed crash in the peloton on a straight descent where riders were jockeying for position heading into a climb. It takes out major contenders like Julian Alaphilippe and Romain Bardet and sees QuickStep, who had been controlling the peloton, leave the front.
57.6km: With QuickStep on the back foot due to the crash, Bahrain almost immediately gets to the front to set pace at the front.
43.1km: Bahrain tries to turn the screws by having riders (in this case Mikel Landa) launch a series of attacks, but he is marked by QuickStep and frankly doesn’t put anyone but domestiques (including his own teammates) under difficulty.
37km: Wout Poels eventually gets clear, but we can see QuickStep riders responding by lifting the pace in the peloton behind, and again, don’t look particularly troubled by the increase in pace.
29.5km: But oddly, once they get to the slopes of the extremely steep and difficult La Redoute climb, Bahrain is no longer at the front, and instead, has allowed QuickStep to get to the front to ride a steady pace, which is a major advantage for Evenepoel (who is at the very front). Even more odd is that outside of Martinez, almost no favorites seem to be marking Evenepoel, with favorites like Van Aert, Valverde, and Woods sitting a few places down in the bunch. Even Teuns, who has two teammates with him near the front, is out of position since if Evenepoel were to accelerate at the front, he would have to either rely on his teammates to respond or waste energy by whipping around them to get even.
29km: And sure enough, once they crest the steepest portion of the climb, Evenepoel uses his position, a teammate’s wheel, and the flattening road to launch an extremely fast attack while his rivals are all caught in the group behind. Only Neilson Powless on EF is in a position to respond.
28.8km: Powless, partly due to an inability to get a decent draft off the extremely small and aero Evenepoel, is distanced. Back in the chase group, Teuns is forced to sprint around the stalling peloton (including a teammate). While the gap might look small, it is too late for him to successfully bridge to Evenepoel and his chance to follow is already past due to poor positioning and only now realizes he needed to be where Powless was to have a chance at matching Evenepoel’s pace.
28.1km: We can see chasers behind Evenepoel, but we can also see them starting to look around at each other. Evenepoel’s extremely low-profile frontal position on the bike, his time trialing ability, and not having to strike a deal with any other escapees give him a massive advantage over the chasers. The gap might look small now, but if you give a rider like Evenepoel a meter, he can pull it out into a kilometer in no time.
27.9km: Landa eventually comes to the front to take over pacemaking from Teuns, but a 1v1 time trial battle between depleted Landa and rested Evenepoel is exactly what QuickStep will want here.
14.1km: While Evenepoel motors up the final climb at a high and steady pace, the peloton hits the slope at what appears to be an orderly and glacial pace despite being 34-seconds behind Evenepoel and having less than a km of steep climbing left before the terrain will swing back to Evenepoel’s advantage.
10.4km: Teuns finally attacks over the top of the climb and the gap gets down to as close as 18-seconds, but as soon as he is reeled in, the pace comes off due to nobody wanting to work for the others. This stop-start racing will only help Evenepoel and at this point, with a 20-second gap with no significant climbing left, he has already won the race.
8.6km: This point is proven when we get to a long, flat section and we can see that due to a complete lack of cooperation, Evenepoel is traveling at 55km/h while the chase group is at 47km/h. The pace is so slow that Vlasov, in green on the far right, attacks to attempt to reel Evenepoel in alone.
7.9km: Wout van Aert, who was dropped on the last climb, catches back on to the chase group, which further dooms the chase since nobody will want to pull with him present.
2.7km: With nearly 3kms left to race, Evenepoel, who holds a 33-second advantage, shows immense confidence by celebrating earlier than I’ve ever seen anyone celebrate a solo win. Also, note that his ability to get aero and keep his legs ticking over at the end of an extremely hard race has allowed him to outpace the 12-rider chase group over terrain that should favor the chasers.
Finish: Evenepoel rides in for the win with a massive 48-second advantage while Quinten Hermans beats Wout van Aert in the sprint for second place.
*An odd note from the finish is that Israel Premier Tech, despite being the only team with two riders in the front group and desperately needing WT points to avoid relegation, was content to roll into the sprint and end up 10th and 13th with Mike Woods and Jakob Fuglsang instead of trying a late escape.
1) Remco Evenepoel finally gets a result befitting his superstar status
- Despite being one of the biggest names in professional cycling, the 22-year-old’s major Palmares had been slightly bare before Sunday (the 2019 San Sebastián was his biggest win before this).
- But, after this performance, he becomes the youngest Monument winner in the last decade (127 days younger than Tadej Pogačar when he won last year’s Liege), and announces his arrival as a serious big-race winner. Something to consider is that had this happened just a few years ago, we’d be blown away by the sight of a 22-year-old winner, but with this surge of youth talent, this almost feels like table stakes.
- This win feels like a breakthrough for Evenepoel and bigger than the result itself since unlike past races like the 2021 World Championships where he attempted to ride clear for a solo win from a speculatory long distance without success, he played the waiting game perfectly on Sunday at Liège and showed a maturity and feel for the race we haven’t seen from him in the past.
- After the race, Wout van Aert proclaimed Evenepoel to be the strongest rider in the race, and while that might be true, he won the race with patience and timing just as much as he did with his raw strength.
2) The other favorites seriously dropped the ball on La Redoute
- Evenepoel is unable to win a sprint and is vulnerable to accelerations on steep climbs, so how exactly did he win this race?
- It is partly due to the fact that while everyone certainly knew Evenepoel has struggled to hang with lead groups on steep, sustained climbs throughout his career, the teams’ of the other favorites didn’t save enough firepower to put him under pressure on the last two climbs.
- The steady tempo everyone let QuickStep set up La Redoute allowed Evenepoel to stay with the lead group and have enough energy left to launch his winning move at the top.
- Also, the fact that he was solo for the final climb of Côte de la Roche aux Faucons meant that he could simply ride his own tempo on a portion of the course where he was most in danger of being dropped.
- And most importantly is that Neilson Powless was the only rider in a position to respond to Evenepoel’s attack, which raises the question of why the other favorites weren’t marking his wheel since the top of the climb was the only moment that would have worked for him to get clear.
3) Evenepoel used his aero advantage to perfection
- While it remains a mystery why the top favorites were caught off guard by Evenepoel’s attack, the spot he chose to go eliminated almost any margin of error for the chasers.
- The flatter, and eventually, downhill section of road allowed him to attack at a high speed, which meant his low CDA (aerodynamic resistant) made it difficult for the others to match his pace and/or get a decent draft off of him (see: Powless unable to hold the wheel) and meant they only had a few moments to respond before the gap was pushed out to a point that was unbridgeable for a single rider.
4) This was a Quick-Step tactical masterclass & a Spring-saving win
- This attack and the subsequent chase were carefully set up by Evenepoel’s QuickStep team to be a 1v1 time trial between Evenepoel, one of the best time trialists in the world, against Mikel Landa, one of the worst, as well as someone who had just attacked roughly six times in the last half hour.
- While their horrible cobbled season showed deep issues within the team, this performance will paper over those cracks. Interestingly, the attribute profile of their top riders makes them look like a better Ardennes than Cobbled classics squad, which makes one wonders if this could signal a future priority shift at the team.
- Something else to consider is if Alaphilippe crashing out of the race and QuickStep’s brief retreat from the front actually helped Evenepoel’s race by simplifying the team’s strategy and allowing them to just follow wheels and ride a pedestrian pace up La Redoute.
5) Intermarché once again overachieves
- Hermans, the unknown 26-year-old on Intermarché got second place at the hardest one-day race of the year without rarely being seen by the TV cameras during the race.
- This shows us that 1) there is an extreme depth of top talent hidden in the peloton that teams on a budget can tap to yield top results and 2) attacking riders have the advantage at races of this caliber due to the fact that riders like Hermans are happy to sit on the chase group and snatch a career-changing podium place.
- It is extremely impressive that Intermarché has been able to sign so many of these diamonds in the rough while also getting them in position to rack up a number of notable Spring results.
6) Wout Van Aert shaped the final kilometers of the race
- Many will be disappointed with Van Aert’s race, especially considering his steep pre-race odds, but this was a great maiden voyage for a bigger rider, and he became the first rider since Eddy Merckx in 1975 to get a podium finish at both Paris-Roubaix and Liège (according to my count).
- Due to being dropped and being forced to chase on after Dylan Teuns attack with 10km-to-go, we know he wasn’t bluffing and was simply hanging on for dear life in the finale. Many cited this weakness to his extremely long Spring season and his recent bout of COVID, but when we look at the big picture, perhaps this was always his ceiling here due to the fact that the race favors smaller climbers over bigger, more powerful riders.
- The fact that a rider competing for cobbled classics could finish one of the hardest races of the year in the lead chase group is mind-blowing and in retrospect, it was likely a mistake for the others to expect him to be able to hang with a seriously motivated lead group over the two final climbs.
- But, this belief meant that in the end, he massively altered the race, since the other favorites were paralyzed after Evenepoel’s attack due to not wanting to close down the gap and then being outsprinted by Van Aert at the finish line.
7) Once again, a chase group failed to reel in a lone escapee
- Just like last week at Roubaix (and countless times in the past two seasons) the chase group was shockingly disorganized in the initial moments when it would have been possible to get on terms with the lone attacker.
- This finale played out eerily similar to last year’s Olympic road race, which was won by a solo Richard Carapaz, and gives us ammo to the theory that if a rider feels good, the best place they can be in the finale of a tough race is off the front.
- But, before we start calling for every rider to take advantage of this disorganization of the chase groups, let’s remember just how hard this is. Landa and Sepp Kuss, very strong riders, attacked earlier but didn’t get anywhere.
8) Bahrain-Victorious accidentally set up Evenepoel’s attack perfectly
- Bahrain-Victorious spent a ton of precious energy setting pace and with unsuccessful attacks before Evenepoel’s attack on La Redoute and in retrospect, this was all a massive mistake.
- Did they not see the Evenepoel attack coming? Attacking at the top of La Redoute was one of the few ways he could win the race, but they seemed completely caught off guard by it. Their pacesetting and attacks before the climb meant they lacked the energy to set a hard pace once they actually hit the slopes where they could have put Evenepoel in serious trouble, and also meant they no longer had the firepower to reel Evenepoel back in on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons.
- Prior to La Redoute, the pace-setting duties should have fallen to QuickStep and Bahrain should have had a single goal of ripping up that climb as quickly as possible to get Teuns, who was one of the strongest riders in the race, over the top with a small group without Evenepoel and Van Aert.
- And even if Evenepoel would have hung on and attacked, it wouldn’t have been as vicious and Bahrain potentially could have closed him down and either had Teuns sit on Evenepoel (a la Colbrelli at the 2021 European Championships) or counter attacked him on the steep slopes of La Roche.
9) Ineos went MIA after a dominant run over the last few weeks,
- Judging by their trio of wins at Amstel Gold, De Brabantse Pijl, and Paris-Roubaix, I expected to see Ineos get multiple riders in the front group, but outside of Dani Martínez getting some pace-making help from Geraint Thomas, the team was shockingly absent from the final key set pieces.
- I heard rumors of a stomach bug at the team, but their absence at the front after dominating performances at Amstel and Roubaix was still surprising and left a power vacuum that Evenepoel perfectly exploited.
10) Jumbo entered the Spring with a new-and-improved squad but leave looking a lot like years past
- After bolstering their Classics squad with off-season additions like Christophe Laporte and Tiesj Benoot and a show of force on the opening stage at Paris-Nice, many expected the Dutch team to take the mantle of the top Spring one-day squad, but despite a few semi-Classic wins and Monument podiums, the team fell far short of their high expectations.
- And while they got two Monument podiums and wins at Omloop and E3, these were all results generated by Wout van Aert, which means that even after their off-season additions, they are still leaning on Van Aert for results as well as leaving him isolated at key points in the race.