Everything you ever needed to know about Sunday’s big Classic, courtesy of the brains behind Cycle Sport.


Lionel Birnie
Writer, Cycle Sport

LA DOYENNE IS THE OLDEST OF THE CLASSICS, ONE OF THE FIVE MONUMENTS. RANK THEM IN ORDER OF PRESTIGE.
Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Milan-San Remo, Tour of Lombardy.

WHY HAVE YOU PUT LIEGE IN THIRD PLACE?

Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders have a dash of anarchy that is lacking from the other three. In contrast, watching Liège-Bastogne-Liège is like watching a pan of water start to boil. For ages it seems as if nothing is going to happen, despite the heat, then the surface starts to flicker, then the water is rolling before finally it’s boiling fiercely. The process is seamless, you almost don’t notice it happening. It’s just a constant ramping up of pressure that eventually brings the very strongest to the fore. The race’s reputation has suffered in the last decade or so. Whatever your views on doping, it’s hard to enthuse about a race where so many of the winners have an asterisk. That’s not to say the cobbled Classics are virtuous but the problem is more pronounced here.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
It’s a Classic. It’s an extremely hard course. The climbs are very difficult. They are long, or steep, or long and steep. But it’s not just the hills and the distance that make it a hard race. The way the riders race makes it a day of suffering. The pace in the final third of the race is relentless, which does make the tactics very subtle. Having ridden stretches of the route, some of it is beautiful, some of it is indescribably ugly but it’s unmistakable.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE CLIMB?
La Redoute is absolutely horrible to ride. A difficult turn onto it at the bottom, hideously steep and then a cruel false flat over the top. There’s just no chance to rest, which is why the smart riders go hard once the gradient relents, to find out those who have reached their maximum on the climb.

UPHILL FINISH IN ANS, OR TAKE IT BACK TO THE CENTRE OF LIEGE FOR THE OLD FINISH ON THE BOULEVARD DE LA SAUVENIERE?
I am warming to the idea of mixing things up a bit. The Tour of Flanders may well change its running order significantly next year. Paris-Roubaix is rarely identical two years running. A week of uphill finishes is getting a bit samey. Yes, it gives us a potentially brilliant story to focus on but really we’re watching the same thing served three ways. Let’s see some variety. Take Liège-Bastogne-Liège back into the city centre again. We may see some real tactical jiggery-pokery then.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTSTANDING MEMORY OF LIÈGE-BASTOGNE-LIÈGE?
Reading about Stephen Roche and Claude Criquielion getting caught in the finishing straight by Moreno Argentin in 1987 was probably my earliest memory. Then reading, retrospectively, about Bernard Hinault’s win in the snow in 1980. It was a day that made cycling sound epic, brilliant, heroic and I was hooked. After seven hours in the freezing cold, Hinault beat second-placed Hennie Kuiper by more than nine minutes. Only 21 riders finished, with Jostein Wilmann in last place, 27 minutes behind Hinault. In modern times, seeing Frank Vandenbroucke go past me on one of the climbs in the big ring in 1999 made me question what I was seeing. Hearing the scoffs in the press room but reading none of their comments reflected in the reports was an eye-opener. In recent years, though, Liège has been spoiled by so many of the people who have won it – from Vandenbroucke to Camenzind, Hamilton, Rebellin, Vinokourov, Valverde and Di Luca. That’s nine winners in the last 12 years to have served a doping ban at some time.

ONLY SIX RIDERS HAVE WON FLÈCHE AND LIÈGE IN THE SAME YEAR – KUBLER, OCKERS, MERCKX, ARGENTIN, REBELLIN AND VALVERDE. ONLY REBELLIN HAS EVER WON THE TRIPLE CROWN – WINNING AMSTEL GOLD IN THE SAME YEAR. CAN GILBERT BECOME THE SECOND?
I must admit, I didn’t pick Gilbert as the winner of Flèche Wallonne. I didn’t doubt his form or his strength but I wasn’t sure the climb would suit him. Well, not to that extent. I also thought he might save himself for Sunday. He has to be seen as the man to beat. Tactically he’s smart. His team has been excellent. He’s gutsy and he will take a lot of shaking off.

WHO CAN STOP GILBERT?
Joaquim Rodriguez and his Katusha team-mates could be dangerous if they are smart enough to gang up. Leopard have Frank and Andy Schleck, as well as Jakob Fuglsang. The other Spaniards will come to the fore – Samuel Sanchez, Igor Anton, Alberto Contador, perhaps. NB. Contador has decided not to ride, preferring instead to prepare for the Giro. Vinokourov was an ominous fourth on the Mur.

TACTICALLY-SPEAKING, WHAT SHOULD WE LOOK OUT FOR ON SUNDAY?
Teamwork is going to be important. The onus will be on Katusha and Omega Pharma. The Russian team has several potential winners, Omega Pharma have the hot favourite and have shown they can support him. Saxo Bank and Leopard did a lot of work at Flèche Wallonne and ended up with nothing so it might be worth their while sitting in the shadows a bit. The other riders, those who will likely be alone in the final 25 kilometres, will hide for as long as possible. If, as likely, it’s a warm, windless day, there could be a big group arriving together at the finish.

WHO’S YOUR TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE?
1 Philippe Gilbert
2 Joaquim Rodriguez
3 Alexandre Vinokourov.

Ellis Bacon
Writer, Cycle Sport

LA DOYENNE IS THE OLDEST OF THE CLASSICS, ONE OF THE FIVE MONUMENTS. RANK THEM IN ORDER OF PRESTIGE.
Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tour of Lombardy

WHY HAVE YOU PUT LIEGE IN FOURTH PLACE?
Err – it’s the fourth best race in the list, in my opinion! Of course, being the oldest monument means it commands respect, and it’s a great race, but does anyone really prefer it as a spectacle ahead of Roubaix, Flanders or San Remo? [Ed – Lionel does!]

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
It’s basically a single moyennes montagne stage of a grand tour, and so invites a similar mix of riders – the kind of peloton you’d see at the Tour de France, Giro or Vuelta. The difference is, they’re all giving it everything for the win; no one’s holding back. It’s tough, and so always has a deserving winner.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE CLIMB?
Sans doute, La Redoute – for its steepness and narrowness. It’s just a tough, iconic climb, which has this degree of intimacy for both the spectators and the riders.

UPHILL FINISH IN ANS, OR TAKE IT BACK TO THE CENTRE OF LIEGE FOR THE OLD FINISH ON THE BOULEVARD DE LA SAUVENIERE?
Going by this year’s Amstel and Flèche, I’m all about the uphill finish right now.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTSTANDING MEMORY OF LIÈGE-BASTOGNE-LIÈGE?
The late Frank Vandenbroucke’s win in 1999. First there was his attack on La Redoute, and later he got rid of Michael Boogerd on the final climb of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas. We were then free to watch an unobstructed view of arguably the most impressive riding style of any pro who has ever lived as he time-trialled to victory.

ONLY SIX RIDERS HAVE WON FLÈCHE AND LIÈGE IN THE SAME YEAR – KUBLER, OCKERS, MERCKX, ARGENTIN, REBELLIN AND VALVERDE. ONLY REBELLIN HAS EVER WON THE TRIPLE CROWN – WINNING AMSTEL GOLD IN THE SAME YEAR. CAN GILBERT BECOME THE SECOND?
Of course. It’s well within the realms of possibility, and may well happen. But few people enjoy watching such domination, and there’ll be extra kudos for anyone who’s able to stop him.

WHO CAN STOP GILBERT?
Leopard-Trek, Liquigas… Strong teams with multiple contenders, who will hope to gang up on a potentially exposed Gilbert, who may only have Jurgen Van Den Broeck for company by the end.

TACTICALLY-SPEAKING, WHAT SHOULD WE LOOK OUT FOR ON SUNDAY?
Chaos, as lesser riders try to win from a long breakaway, while stronger teams fancy their chances of keeping everything together and giving their leaders an armchair ride all the way to the final climb in the hopes of overhauling Gilbert there.

WHO’S YOUR TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE?
1 Andy Schleck

2 Ivan Basso

3 John Gadret

Edward Pickering
Deputy Editor, Cycle Sport

LA DOYENNE IS THE OLDEST OF THE CLASSICS, ONE OF THE FIVE MONUMENTS. RANK THEM IN ORDER OF PRESTIGE.
Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tour of Lombardy

WHY HAVE YOU PUT LIEGE IN FOURTH PLACE?
Although Flanders is my favourite of the Monuments, for reasons explained here, there’s something about the reverence riders have for Roubaix that elevates it above all other races. I also think that Milan-San Remo has the edge over Liège because it’s the first really big race of the year – it’s got a unique character, and a whole culture about the event. Just as Flanders is totally site-specific, so is Milan-San Remo. There’s no Liège equivalent of a roadside Leffe Brune at Flanders or cappuccino in San Remo.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
It’s not exactly subtle, but the Liège route is the best of all the hilly classics. The climbs are longer, steeper and more gravelly than Amstel’s, but less mountainous than Lombardy’s or San Sebastian’s which means a very specific skillset is needed to win.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE CLIMB?
I like La Redoute, which reminds me a little of the Dartmoor climbs of my youth, although the road surface is somewhat better, and there’s less chance of being knocked off on the descent by a sheep. It’s horribly steep, a perfect amphitheatre for fans, and it has the added complication that it’s flat and exposed over the top. There might just as well be a sign saying, “attack here”.

Some industrious local has painted “Phil Phil Phil Phil Phil” in big white letters almost the whole way up the climb, just in case anyone was in any doubt over who the favourite is.

UPHILL FINISH IN ANS, OR TAKE IT BACK TO THE CENTRE OF LIEGE FOR THE OLD FINISH ON THE BOULEVARD DE LA SAUVENIERE?
I’m warming to the idea that a flat finish would be an interesting addition to the race. There’s no chance that any sprinters would make it over the hills, so we’d be treated to the spectacle of a small group of skinny climbers trying to resolve the extra challenge of a sprint.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTSTANDING MEMORY OF LIÈGE-BASTOGNE-LIÈGE?
Sean Kelly’s 1989 win, in a small group sprint ahead of Fabrice Philipot, Phil Anderson and Pedro Delgado remains the most entertaining Liège I can remember. The much-reduced bunch was on their heels into the finish, and the fifth-placed rider was given the same time as Kelly.

I’ve also got a soft spot for 1992 winner Dirk De Wolf, whose unique approach to training led him to ride up to 350 kilometres a day.

ONLY SIX RIDERS HAVE WON FLÈCHE AND LIÈGE IN THE SAME YEAR – KUBLER, OCKERS, MERCKX, ARGENTIN, REBELLIN AND VALVERDE. ONLY REBELLIN HAS EVER WON THE TRIPLE CROWN – WINNING AMSTEL GOLD IN THE SAME YEAR. CAN GILBERT BECOME THE SECOND?
He can, but in spite of how much better he looks than everybody else at the moment, it won’t be easy. He’ll be tired, and the pressure and attention are going to be intense (remember he’s local).

WHO CAN STOP GILBERT?
Remember how Cancellara’s challenge in the cobbled classics was snuffed out by less well-known riders from teams with strength in depth? I suspect that if Gilbert is to be defeated, it won’t be Rodriguez, Sanchez or Andy Schleck who does it. The stronger teams have to keep chucking people up the road in the hope that Omega Pharma are unable to control them (and even then, Gilbert’s proved himself quite capable of dealing with a chase, followed by a winning sprint). For that reason, if it’s not Gilbert who wins, I’d look at riders like Fuglsang – strong enough to climb at the front, but obscure enough to get a little leeway while Gilbert watches the Schlecks.

TACTICALLY-SPEAKING, WHAT SHOULD WE LOOK OUT FOR ON SUNDAY?
It’s going to be everybody versus Omega Pharma. Gilbert has to be isolated as soon as possible if he’s to be beaten. It’s not pretty when favourites get ganged up on, but I’m afraid it’s going to be necessary. Sorry.

WHO’S YOUR TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE?
1 Philippe Gilbert
2 Samuel Sanchez
3 Joaquim Rodriguez

Andy McGrath
Writer, Cycle Sport

LA DOYENNE IE THE OLDEST OF THE CLASSICS, ONE OF THE FIVE MONUMENTS. RANK THEM IN ORDER OF PRESTIGE.
Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tour of Lombardy

WHY HAVE YOU PUT LIEGE IN FOURTH PLACE?
Sorry Liège, but you’re not my doyenne. The first three occupy their positions because of their special culture and stirring evocativeness: they represent something special. Certainly Roubaix and Flanders still offer a hint of untameability that this race can’t match.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
Very hard. It’s often seen as the Tour de France rider’s Classic, rewarding stamina, timing and that bit of luck. 

Having ridden the sportive, I can report that the area is beautiful in places. Get away from the grime and industrial backdrop of Liège and you’re soon in glorious, sweeping Ardennes forest.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE CLIMB?
La Redoute. The climb seems to find the essence of Liège-Bastogne-Liège scenery: industry and countryside idyll. At the start, you seem to be climbing a motorway off-ramp, but by the nasty false flat at the top, you’re into quiet woodland. Only it won’t be quiet on Sunday. Phil Gilbert has told his fans “to be there on Redoute”, which should make for even more of a special cacophany than usual.

UPHILL FINISH IN ANS, OR TAKE IT BACK TO THE CENTRE OF LIEGE FOR THE OLD FINISH ON THE BOULEVARD DE LA SAUVENIERE?
There doesn’t seem to be an antidote to the waiting tactics employed in the Ardennes Classics: stick a big hill at the end and the riders are going to tailor their tactics accordingly. The idea of a sprint among climbers doesn’t excite me; if anything, it would produce a more unworthy winner after 270 kilometres of punchy hills.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTSTANDING MEMORY OF LIÈGE-BASTOGNE-LIÈGE?
Andy Schleck’s devastating attack in 2009. Making his decisive move up the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, he was a picture of grace and easy power. It didn’t even look like he was trying when he got away. Moreover, soloing away for 20 kilometres, it was a joyful raspberry blown in the face of cagey tactics.

ONLY SIX RIDERS HAVE WON FLÈCHE AND LIÈGE IN THE SAME YEAR – KUBLER, OCKERS, MERCKX, ARGENTIN, REBELLIN AND VALVERDE. ONLY REBELLIN HAS EVER WON THE TRIPLE CROWN – WINNING AMSTEL GOLD IN THE SAME YEAR. CAN GILBERT BECOME THE SECOND?
He can, but I get the sense the bunch will gang up against him like never before.

WHO CAN STOP GILBERT?
The teams with a couple of options hold the key, like Leopard-Trek with the Schleck brothers, Euskaltel with Sanchez and Anton, Katusha with Rodriguez and Kolobnev. I also feel that Gilbert is occasionally prone to headstrong tactics, and he could make an inept move that the other favourites gratefully exploit.

TACTICALLY-SPEAKING, WHAT SHOULD WE LOOK OUT FOR ON SUNDAY?
Versatile teams sending B-string men in the attack to force Omega Pharma to chase. It could be another Classic with an unexpected winner. Better start putting money on that 100-1 shot.

It is vital to attack and isolate Gilbert. If the Belgian is still with the leaders coming into Ans, it’s as good as game over.

WHO’S YOUR TOP THREE FOR SUNDAY’S RACE?
1 Philippe Gilbert
2 Frank Schleck
3 Samuel Sanchez