Almost as soon as the Classics started, the final one-day of the spring campaign is upon us. Perhaps it feels like the season has flown by because the races have been so enthralling, and it’s likely Liège-Bastogne-Liège will offer yet another tactical throw-down that will leave us speechless on Sunday.
Prior to Demi Vollering’s victory in 2021, Liège-Bastogne-Liège had been won only via solo attacks. The list of riders who have ridden to victory in Liège includes Vollering and three former world champions; Annemiek van Vleuten in 2019, Lizzie Deignan in 2020, and Anna van der Breggen in both 2017 and 2018.
Vollering’s win last year was from a selection of five pre-race favourites. The Dutchwoman sprinted ahead of Van Vleuten and Elisa Longo Borghini to win but was helped along by her former-SD Worx teammate and now Director Sportif Van der Breggen. It was a turning point in Vollering’s career, a moment where she went from rookie professional to WorldTour contender.
Other riders have also raised their profiles at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Grace Brown spent the latter part of the 2020 edition chasing down Deignan alone and eventually finished only nine seconds behind the Trek-Segafredo rider.
This year there is one young talent who could cement her name in the history books by winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Marta Cavalli, already a legend of the Spring for her wins at the Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne, is poised on the precipice of being the second rider in (a short) history to win all three Ardennes Classics. The only other rider to have accomplished this feat is Van der Breggen, who won the three races back to back in 2017.
The long list of potential winners also includes the likes of Vollering and Van Vleuten. The course poses some delicious challenges for those riders and others who will be hoping to end the spring on a high, so let’s get into it.
Of the two changes to the 2021 route, one could dramatically impact the final run into Liège. The women will start in Bastogne and race over seven climbs before they finally arrive in Liège 142.1 km later.
The ASO has added a climb at the beginning of the race, the Côte de Mont-le-Soie, that wasn’t there in 2021, and has taken away last year’s penultimate climb, the Côte de Forges. The 2021 course went out of its way to get to the Côte de Forges, so the distance between the final two climbs in the 2022 edition thankfully doesn’t change much.
The seven significant climbs range from the 4.5 km long Col du Rosier to the 1.3 km but incredibly steep Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons. While the peloton will likely take significant damage before the Côte de Desnié, the big names will be eyeing the penultimate Côte de la Redoute and the final Côte de la Roche-Aux-Faucons.
In the past, the Côte de la Redoute has been a launching pad for the winning moves of both Van Vleuten and Deignan. With only 30 km to go at the base and under 14 km between it and Côte de la Rouche-Aux-Faucons, La Redoute poses an opportunity for the likes of Van Vleuten, Brown, or even Ellen van Dijk to try for a long-range attack.
Although there was a strong move that went on La Redoute in 2021, Trek-Segafredo and SD Worx brought the escapees back before the final ascent, so while the climb is a dangerous one, the race isn’t over if something gets away there. The same can’t be said for the Côte de la Roche-Aux-Faucons. Once the front of the race has reached the top of the final climb there is just over 12 km to go to the finish.
It would be kind of easy to narrow down the list of potential winners to three riders; Marta Cavalli, Van Vleuten, and the 2021 champ Vollering. But what’s the fun in that? The racing this spring has been relatively unpredictable, especially at the previous two Ardenne Classics, with Cavalli unexpectedly stealing the win from arguably bigger named riders.
Some races that have been selective in the past came down to sprints, some were pretty chaotic but ended with a predictable name on the top step. For the sake of keeping it interesting, there are a few other women worth mentioning here that may not fall into the standard list of top-tier favorites.
Before we get to them, however, let’s talk about the “Big Three”.
Marta Cavalli grabbed a sharpie and drew a giant X on her back when she out-climbed and out-timed Van Vleuten atop the Mur de Huy on Wednesday. Cavalli has been a great climber for a few years and is open about her love for the Spring Classics but up to three weeks ago, she wasn’t everyone’s favourite to win any of the big one-days (I’d like it on the record here that I did call her many times last year, I was just one year early).
While the Amstel Gold Race could have been written off as a fantastic attack that worked because the rest of the leaders underestimated her ability, La Flèche Wallonne was won in completely different style and Cavalli is now a marked woman for the final Spring one-day.
Cavalli’s teammate Brodie Chapman, who rode exceptionally well at the Tour of Flanders, is the team’s outside chance in case things turn pear-shaped. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, who finished eighth in 2021, is coming back from COVID-19, so it’s unclear how the Danish rider will factor within FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope.
Last year’s winner Demi Vollering won Brabantse Pijl with a fantastic solo attack after being part of a late-race move. The repetitions of the Mur de Huy weren’t Vollering’s cup of tea on Wednesday, and after the race the Dutch rider said that she simply couldn’t keep up with Cavalli and Van Vleuten on the brutal climb. “The redesigned final with three times the Mur de Huy makes it really tough,” Vollering said after La Flèche Wallonne. “I was completely empty. I don’t think the new final makes the race more spectacular.”
The parcours on Sunday is better suited to the Dutchwoman, with more gradual climbs and a bit of road between the two major ascents of the day. As always, Vollering’s SD Worx team will show up with a few other top-notch riders, but it would be hard to see them riding for anyone but her on the day.
Annemiek van Vleuten hasn’t won a WorldTour race yet this year, and as a former world champion who loves winning, that’s probably not sitting too well with her at the moment. She’s been runner-up at La Flèche Wallonne, the Tour of Flanders, and Strade Bianche, but has yet to take to the top step. At the end of both Flanders and the Amstel Gold Race, Van Vleuten said the races weren’t hard enough for her to get rid of some of the other favourites, so maybe the climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège will make for a challenging enough parcours for the Movistar rider.
Trek-Segafredo will enter the race with three second-tier favourites. Elisa Longo Borghini, having just won Paris-Roubaix Femmes, needs to be on people’s radars, but she claimed she wasn’t feeling great at La Flèche Wallonne. As is the case for Vollering, the Liège course suits the Italian national champion better than repeats of the Mur de Huy. Longo Borghini’s teammate Lucinda Brand is working her way back from a post-cyclocross season break and is already looking fierce. Brand was fantastic at Paris-Roubaix where she finished third.
The final potential option for the American team is Ellen van Dijk, who has been climbing well all season.
Kasia Niewiadoma was part of the winning move at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2021 and finished fourth, but she was on flying form, having finished second behind Van der Breggen on the Mur de Huy just a few days before. This year, the Canyon-SRAM rider is coming back from having COVID-19 in March and although she had a great result at Brabantse Pijl, she struggled at La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday. Niewiadoma has two teammates who could challenge the Polish rider for leadership: Elise Chabbey and Pauliena Rooijakkers. Both are looking strong at the moment.
Marianne Vos is another rider fresh off a forced COVID-19 break. The current cyclocross world champion tested positive the morning of Paris-Roubaix Femmes, a race she was targeting. Only a week later, it’s unclear how the Dutchwoman is riding or if she will even take to the start for Jumbo-Visma, but if she was at the top of her game for the Hell of the North and if she doesn’t have COVID-19 symptoms she will be a weapon on Sunday.
The duo of Floortje Mackaij and Liane Lippert from Team DSM has been a fascinating one for a few seasons. Lippert finished third at the Amstel Gold Race and will likely go good at Liège-Bastogne-Liège while Mackaij has been active in a bunch of races this year, her best finishes being third at both Omloop van het Hageland and Drentse Acht van Westerveld. She was recently sixth at Paris-Roubaix Femmes, and while the climbs will be harder for Mackaij than her teammate, she’s pretty scrappy and can find herself in some critical moves.
At last making her way back from illiac artery endofibrosis, Amanda Spratt looked a bit like her old self in La Flèche Wallonne and the Amstel Gold Race. She isn’t a favourite to win, but boy is it good to see her at the front of a race again for BikeExchange-Jayco.
Finally, Yara Kastelijn, the 24-year old who rides for Planta-Pura, was on fire at La Flèche Wallonne. She was also up there at the Amstel Gold Race. Really, she just keeps getting better and better and it wouldn’t be surprising to see her either in a crucial move or fighting to stay in it for the finale.
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To be updated when the official start list has been released.
How to watch
Just like they did for La Flèche Wallonne the ASO is providing the bare minumim of live coverage for Liège-Bastogne-Liège. For viewers in Europe and the USA live pictures will be available from 11:30 local time (5:30 EDT). In Australia the race can be found on SBS starting at 19:30 AEDT.