Liège–Bastogne–Liège Breakdown: Reinforcing the Shift In Cycling's Star Heirachry
A rising star stamped his authority on the race & reminded us that he is now the world's best rider
Tadej Pogacar, at just 22-years-old, cemented his status as the world’s best rider on Sunday when he overcame reigning World Champion Julian Alaphilippe in the final few meters of a thrilling sprint finish at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. David Gaudu rounded out the podium with a surprise third place and Alejandro Valverde, who looked uncharacteristically nervous in the finale and launched his sprint far too early, came in fourth, while Mike Woods, the original architect of the move, finished last in the select front group.
The brutal 260-kilometer course, raced over sharks tooth terrain through the Wallonia region of Belgium, was marked by its usual malaise for the majority of the day before Ineos kicked things off by ripping the peloton apart up and over the famous Côte de La Redoute with 35-kilometers to go. However, their impressive show of force was all for naught and they missed the elite front group that formed after Mike Woods attacked with 13km-to-go.
Despite the presence of two recent World Champions, Valverde and Alaphilippe, Pogacar never appeared rattled and kept his cool in the final few hundred meters, and waited until the last possible second to come around Alaphilippe in the headwind sprint to get poetic revenge after being thwarted by the World champion’s erratic/illegal sprint in last year’s edition. Outside of being a thrilling finale, Pogacar’s victory potentially signals a major changing-of-the-guard in the hilly one-day races, which is impressive considering the defending Tour de France champion is merely moonlighting at, but winning, these prestigious events.
160km: Valverde’s Movistar team is on the front controlling the race. Just like last weekend, they are doing a massive show of force early on, but will burn themselves out here and lead Valverde isolated in the finale.
65km: Pogacar gets a flat tire and has to get a wheel change from his team. It takes seemingly forever due to his disc-wheel setup, but he is able to get back behind a team car and pace back to the front group.
36km: Peloton hits la Redoute, which used to be the decisive climb but has become inconsequential in recent times. The break having a two-minute gap at the base of the climb is decisive proof that the favorites don’t consider this to be a key portion of the race.
35.5km: Ineos on the front on the climb and setting an extremely tough pace.
35.3km: They split up the field but Pogacar is right behind and looks to be on an easy coffee ride. The contrast between how hard Ineos is riding and how easy Pogacar looks is shocking.
34km: They are reeling into the pointless chase group (seriously, why did those teams/rider spend the energy and resources to launch that?) and have a gap to the peloton. Even if the move doesn’t stick here, we know now there is a big fitness delta between Pogacar and the rest.
33km: This is impressive but what is Ineos doing? Why split the race up here? Who are they riding for? They just used an immense amount of energy for seemingly no reason.
32.3km: The peloton has re-grouped but two Ineos riders are driving off the front of the peloton by a few meters and the gap has plunged to 43-seconds. This is impressive, but again, why?
25km: We get a regrouping at the front with a new select peloton. Ineos just put in a ton of work and now the race is back together, which is why teams rarely break the race up on La Redoute anymore. It is too easy for riders to come back after being dropped. Trek is now on the front working to keep the gap from the break in check. This isn’t their responsibility and they should force Alaphilippe’s DQS to work at this point. Also note that Valverde is isolated and Movistar, who was riding the front all day, has no riders left at the front of the race to support him.
(Note: It has been pointed out to me that the Valverde isolation is perhaps why Ineos was driving the pace. But I believe if we look at the overhead shot from 35km, Valverde was already mostly isolated and his Movistar team had mismanaged their resources so much that they would have been dropped on la Redoute with a simple tough tempo pace.)
24.2km: Tao Geoghegan Hart attacks and Jonas Vingegaard follows him.
23.7km: The attack splits up the peloton and an elite group is formed at the front. Adam Yates is on the front driving a hard pace. Jonas Vingegaard is present for Jumbo at the front, but Roglic, Valverde, and Alaphilipee have been caught out sitting too far back and are left behind. But the fundamental problem for Ineos is that Pogacar is still here. He can outsprint and outclimb every rider on their team. They have to get a rider off the front soon and force an isolated Pogacar to chase.
21.5km: And sure enough, Carapaz attacks off-the-front and nobody responds, but we see the riders behind talking into their race radios and likely being told not to panic since there are reinforcements coming right behind.
21km: The move looks great on TV, but a major problem is that the chase group isn’t isolated enough. We can see in this screenshot that the chasing peloton is right behind them, so riders like Pogacar know they know they can simply sit up and wait for their teammates to reel him in.
19km: Carapaz uses the now-banned super tuck position, which means he will probably be DQ’d after the race. I can’t believe the team hasn’t driven it home with the riders that they shouldn’t do this.
14.2km: As expected, the peloton has come together and DQS is setting pace for Alaphilippe, who is sitting in second position. The gap to Carapaz is 20-seconds. He won’t make it over the final climb.
13.5km: UAE is on the front with Formolo who reels in Carapaz. Impressive work, and now they have the numbers in front. Ineos seems to have burned themselves out far too early and this shows why teams don’t try to split the race on La Redoute anymore.
13.4km: Mike Woods attacks and only four other riders can respond. UAE has a massive numbers advantage here and Roglic gets stuck behind two UAE riders, who sit up to allow the gap to form. He is now out of the race and won’t make this elite front group of Gaudu, Pogacar, Valverde, Woods, and Alaphilippe. If Ineos wanted to win the race with Carapaz, this is where they needed to launch their move, not on the previous climb.
13km: UAE has Roglic in a vice grip. They have two riders, Hirschi and Formolo are sitting on Roglic’s wheel, which is forcing him to chase alone while also letting him know that they could attack and drop him if he pushes too hard.
11km: The five elite riders are off the front but they only have 11-seconds with Roglic and Kwiatkowski working hard to pull it back. But notice Hirschi and Formolo lurking on Roglic’s wheel, acting as anchors to the chase and ready to disrupt the chase anytime he asks someone to pull through.
Sidenote: How did Ineos miss this move? Shows that they really miscalculated this. They were the strongest team in the race with 35km-to-go and now have nothing to show for it just a few kms later.
10.7km: Woods gets to the front and drills it to push the gap back out. He has both made the move and is driving the pace to keep it alive. This seems like he is doing a lot of work for the others to outsprint him at the finish. Valverde and Pogacar are slightly falling off the back here. I can’t tell if this is gamesmanship or if they are really struggling.
8.5km: The gap has ballooned to 28-seconds, the winner will come from this group.
3.7km: The gap is now at 33-seconds. Woods is driving hard at the front, maybe doing too much work. Also, he and Gaudu need to attack, they can’t beat Valverde, Alaphilippe and Pogacar in a sprint.
1km: Alaphilippe is on the front, but decides he needs to get off ASAP since it is the worst place to be at this point in the race. He sits up and swings over, and a major stalemate ensues. Valverde eventually gets pushed to the front and picks up the pace. It is shocking to watch one of the savviest riders in the peloton get pushed to the front like this. But with his team working all-out all day for him and Pogacar’s teammate Hirschi chasing behind, he likely feels pressure to not let them get caught here.
400m: Alaphilippe and Pogacar have gotten to the two best positions on the road. At the back, they can keep eyes on the riders in front of them to watch for any long-range sprints, while having a clear sight-line to the chasers behind (being led by Pogacar’s teammate Hirschi). Notice the eventual podium comes from the last three riders here, and in the reverse order they are positioned, which shows how much of an advantage it is to sprint from the back in a group into a headwind.
Finish: Valverde is on the front in the final few hundred meters and opens up the sprint from 275meters from the finish, which is way too long. He is also in a really poor position to try to win from. Alaphilippe and Pogacar are in the back and Ala just blows by the rest. But Pogacar knows exactly what he is doing and who he needs to watch here. Sits patiently on Alaphilippe and then toasts him in the final 50 meters. Really impressive. Gaudu gets a really impressive third place, I didn’t see that coming.
Wow, I thought Pogacar was too far behind when Alaphilippe wound up his sprint, but he knew Alaphilippe was the only rider that mattered. He simply sat on his wheel and then straight-up beat him in that sprint. No silly moves, early celebrating, etc. from Alaphilippe this time, he was just toasted by Pogacar.
Pogacar being able to win flat sprints against legitimately fast riders is even worse news for any rider who is hoping to beat him anytime soon in any race. He is the best climber in the world, is proving he can time trial with the best, and now, can win flat sprint finishes. His window of weakness seems to be closing incredibly fast.
The 22-year-old just continues to find ways to impress. His physical skills are unmatched in the current peloton, but you could argue that his in-race savvy and tactical knowledge is even more impressive. He had the presence of mind to dump out his water with 3km-to-go to lighten his load for that sprint and was careful not to do too much in the final group, just enough to keep the peace. He raced like a rider who could afford to lose and isn’t under pressure to deliver anything, which is absurd and impressive from a rider of his age. He made Valverde and Alaphilippe, both very recent World Road Race Champions, look like over-eager juniors in the final few kilometers.
Pogacar gets his first professional one-day win, but really, he should have won this race last year if not for Alaphilippe chopping his wheel. He also becomes the first Tour de France reigning Champion to win a monument since Bernard Hinault in 1980.
UAE has struggled to support Pogacar in the past, most recently at the Tour of the Basque Country, but on Sunday, they played the finale to perfection.
Davide Formolo and Marc Hirschi marked Roglic after he was distanced after missing the final move and Hirschi was able to drive his chasing group towards the front group at the end of the race. While it was odd to see a rider chasing his own teammate down in the final few hundred meters, in theory, this put pressure on the others forced them to the front, and let Pogacar sit on the back.
Slovenia continues its dominance at Liege for the second straight year. This is impressive when you consider France, the home of cycling’s biggest race, hasn’t had a winner in 40 years. Also, Matej Mohorič, the forgotten Slovenian, gets 10th place on Sunday after getting 4th last year.
Speaking of the French, David Gaudu gets his best-ever one-day result. I was surprised he was willing to let the race come down to a sprint finish, but he shocked me by getting third place. He clearly felt confident in his chances in that sprint and showed there is more to his skill set than hunting grand tour mountain stages.
Woods’ fifth place bags him his fifth consecutive top-ten at Liege (and possibly his best-ever result when you consider its no longer an uphill finish). His new team has to be happy with a result that ties their best-ever Monument finish. Meanwhile, his former team, EF, might now be starting to regret letting him out of his contract a year early after failing to get a single rider in the top 30.
The Not So Good
The defending champion, Roglic was distanced two in the final 30-kilometers and just simply wasn’t strong enough to make that front group. His form has clearly faded since his impressive ride at the recent Tour of the Basque Country, and the fact that he is now taking a two-month break from racing prior to the Tour de France tells us he must know he is running out of gas this Spring. Obviously, this isn’t the best final impression to leave before the Tour, especially when his main rival for the title won the race with an impressive display of versatility and strength.
Ineos should be raked over the coals for their tactics. They had numbers, the strongest team, and a few legitimate potential winners in Carapaz, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Kwiatkowski, but threw it all away flexing their muscles way too far out. Despite looking so strong with 35km-to-go, they fail to get a rider in the top ten.
Making matters worse is that they went all-in on a solo attack from 22km-out into a headwind. If they were racing in Movistar jerseys, they would have been relentlessly mocked for this.
If they wanted to use their numbers to their advantage, they needed to shift their move forward by about 15kms. If they could have made the race hard where Carapaz was caught and had Carapaz attack from a select group towards the top of the final climb, he could have had a chance to stay away with a small group. Even just working to get Carapaz into the final group and letting him try his chance in the sprint would have been a better option.
Their long-range attack strategy reeked of either hubris, lack of course knowledge or both. Kwiatkowski was previously a rider who could hang on these difficult courses and win a sprint from a small group, but they apparently lost all confidence in him in recent years.
The race showed how much they will have to rely on the pure talent Tom Pidcock in these difficult one-day races going forward. It almost seemed like they were racing for him despite him missing due to an injury sustained at Fleche Wallone.
Topping off their bad day was that Carapaz was disqualified for using an illegal super tuck position on a descent while off-the-front. So even if would have stayed away and won the race, the effort would have been for nothing.
Mike Woods made the final move and drove it multiple times to make sure it stayed away, but why exactly? What was his end game there? Sure, getting to the line with fewer riders gives you a higher chance of victory on paper, but he was never going to win a straight-up five rider sprint. If he really wanted to win, he either needed to sit towards the back in the final few kilometers to rest up for the sprint and gain as favorable a position as possible or not break the race up in the first place and try to attack from a larger group and use the conflicting dynamics in it to his advantage in the final run-in to the finish.
It is interesting that Pogacar was the only rider in the lead group to not race Fleche Wallone on Wednesday. He was forced to miss it due to COVID protocols, but I wonder if there is anything to be learned from this.
Once again, we are reminded that this youth movement isn’t going away and wasn’t due to a quirky 2020 season. The established (old) stars have consistently failed to put up results this season, while the young riders have dominated. The ages of the monument winners so far this year are MSR: 29, Flanders: 26, Liege: 22. In fact, no rider over 30 has won a one-day WorldTour race this year, and Roglic (31) is the only rider over 30 to win a WorldTour stage race this year.
The race might have been a total snoozer in general, but that final 30km was great, and it served up a thrilling sprint finish between stars of the punchy one-day races (Woods, Alaphilippe, Valverde) and the reigning Tour de France champion (Pogacar). Mix in an up-and-coming French star trying to become the first French rider to win the race in 40 years and it was about as good as finish as you could ask for. The new finish is clearly paving major dividends.
Nobody has won Liege and the Tour in the same year since Eddy Merckx in 1972. This is likely due to the fact that peaking for a one-day race in April and then re-peaking in July for a grand tour is incredibly difficult, and also because so few riders in the history of the sport possess the talent to win races that favor such different skillsets. Pogacar is proving to us that he is the best rider in the world, and if not for Alaphilippe’s errant sprint last year, could be coming off two consecutive Liege victories.
Something to note regarding this and other past results, like Valverde winning the race four times throughout his career, is that the finish was recently moved from an uphill finish to a flat finish in the center of Liege. This uphill finish meant the race was mainly limited to uphill sprint specialists like Dan Martin and Valverde, and these riders are rarely able to compete at a grand tour like the Tour de France.
Pogacar’s win re-opens up the debate of if he could become only the third rider of all-time to win every Monument. Obviously, Paris-Roubaix is a big challenge for a 66-kilogram rider, he the young rider is systematically destroying every assumption I hold about the limitations of a modern Tour de France champion.