Preview: Anything can, and does, happen at Liege–Bastogne–Liege

With an historic route for its 100th edition, Sunday's Liège–Bastogne–Liège promises an explosive finale to the Ardennes classics

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LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) — And then, there was the Oldest. And maybe the hardest.

It’s finally time for Liège-Bastogne-Liège after the two starter races, the Amstel Gold and La Flèche Wallonne. While those are important lines on a rider’s palmares, there is but one monument race in this hilly season of classics, and that’s La Doyenne, or “the Oldest,” as Liège is in its 100th running this season and is the eldest monument of them all.

Sunday’s parcours is something special, too. Tour de France owner ASO has included all the favorite climbs of Liège for its centenary and what promises to be a very hard day for all, and a very special one for a few.

Organizers have re-arranged the sequence of the Wanne, Stockeu, and Haute-Levée climbs this year. Drawing closer to the finish, the Côte des Forges and Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons will make a re-appearance in the race. ASO also brought back the Côte des Forges, first used in 1960, and very important in the 1980s, when it was the last climb before Liège, and will use Haute-Levée, which was part of a trio inserted in 1952 with Cote de Wanne and Rosier. And naturally, there is the Stockeu, which, though far from the finish, is deeply entwined with the history of the race.

Like many of the great old races, Liège was started to publicize a newspaper. This just happened to be in 1892. The race has told many great tales in its 99 runnings, and there is more to come this year, as the field here in Liège is as versatile and explosive as ever.

Defending champion Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) showed he had impeccable form earlier this week, finishing second at La Flèche Wallonne. After the race, Martin said he thought he had it made for a win — and it looked like he may have — if not for a fierce, late move by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who was tucked in his rear wheel as Martin labored to bring back a fading Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

Martin, while the champ and certainly with good legs, won’t be stared at the entire race, and it’s hard to imagine his Garmin team sitting on the front of the main field all day. More likely is the offensive plan the team used last year: Slipping a man into a late move, or attacking the race itself. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) abandoned Flèche Wednesday on the second lap up the Mur de Huy, perhaps saving himself for another Liège tear. The Canadian, a winner of the Giro d’Italia, featured prominently in the last running of Liège, setting Martin up for his race-winning attack on the final ramp to the finish in Ans. Garmin also has Tom-Jelte Slagter, fifth at Flèche, in the wings, too. If Slagter is with the leaders near the line, he knows how to finish well.

Chris Froome (Sky) is confirmed to race La Doyenne, and is something of an unknown here. When he is on form, Froome is one of the best climbers in the world, if not the best outright. His Sky team has been a non-factor in the Ardennes thus far, though the Tour winner’s presence is a tide that will lift all boats. Sky posted a picture of Froome just before the race, touting Froome’s leanness. But if he’s trying to win, well, that much will have to wait.

Valverde has to be in the books as a top favorite after his mean surge up the Mur, and he’s won Liège twice before, so the Spaniard certainly knows how to get results here. The real question is how he and Martin play things late if they’re both near the finish together. Will Martin attack or wait and mark, as to not repeat the boost he gave “Balaverde” on Wednesday up the Mur?

Katusha remains a mystery. Will Joaquim Rodríguez be able to shake off the bad luck he’s had thus far with crashes and holdups that took out of contention in the week’s earlier races?

“I feel much better than I did in the last few days,” Rodríguez said Friday in a press release. “I still have pain in my chest because of my crash in the Amstel Gold Race last Sunday, but the pain is less than on Wednesday. The second crash, at four kilometers from the finish of the Flèche Wallonne, had no additional consequences. I was almost at a stand still when it happened. For the moment I don’t know what to think of my ambitions for Sunday because today I did not dare to go full gas on the climbs as I still felt the pain. Our osteopath Hans Friedl treats me very well and he is convinced I can be good on Sunday. I hope so as well. If I can do a pain free Liège, I can show how hard I’ve worked for the last months. I won’t give up. I never do.”

But will it be Daniel Moreno who leads the team up the last climb? Right now there are more questions than answers for the Russian team, but that’s a bit of a theme here in these hilly classics. The love of the unknown.

The unknown brings us to Vincenzo Nibali, Astana’s danger man and one-day enigma. Nibali is an electrifying bike racer and probably the best descender in the peloton. He loves to shake the race up and is not afraid to attack from distance, as he did here on the descent of the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons in 2012, though he was caught late and finished second. He’s said this week winning is all that matters and he’s not here to race for points, meaning Nibali can and will try anything he wants. Teamed up with Jakob Fuglsang, 2012 Liège champion Maxim Iglinsky and former Amstel Gold Race winner Enrico Gasparotto, Nibali and Astana present a real threat for Italy’s first win at La Doyenne since 2007.

Philippe Gilbert is another name that has to be mentioned, as he’s won this week (Amstel Gold Race) and won here before (2011). Gilbert broke his own record up the Cauberg last weekend (with a tailwind), showing he’s good this season and he finished 10th at Flèche after being caught out of position at the base of the Mur de Huy. BMC will have a strong team and will likely get its man to the Côte de Saint-Nicolas in the right position.

And finally, Kwiatkowski has proven he has good tactical sense — in spite of the early move on the Mur de Huy — and swift finishing kick. As for a Liège win, that’s a tall order for a rider as young as the 23-year-old Polish champion, and he may need a few more seasons of pepper in the legs before he’s ready to win La Doyenne.

But this is the Ardennes. Anything can, and does, happen.

The climbs of the 2014 Liège–Bastogne–Liège

Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne, 70km (2.8km, 6.2%)
Côte de Saint-Roch, 123km (1km, 11.1%)
Côte de Wanne, 167km (2.8km, 7.2%)
Côte de Stockeu, 173.5km (1km, 12.4%)
Côte de la Haute-Levée, 179km (3.6km, 5.6%)
Col de la Vecquée, 201km (3.1km, 6.4%)
Côte de La Redoute, 218.5km (2km, 8.9%)
Côte des Forges, 231.5km (1.9km, 5.9%)
Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, 243.5km (1.5km, 9.3%)
Côte de Saint-Nicolas, 257.5km (1.2km, 8.6%)

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