This Sunday rounds off Ardennes Week and the Spring Classics season with the fourth Monument of cycling for 2016, the 102nd edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
At 253 kilometres, the route takes the riders through the hills of the Ardennes in Belgium to Bastogne in Luxembourg (the province, not the country) before returning to the finish at Ans, a suburb of Liège.
There’s precious little you’d describe as flat on a course with a profile resembling the tooth pattern of a pruning saw. The ten categorised hills will test the staying power of the best climbers.
The race has a history dating back to 1892 and has earned the nickname ‘La Doyenne’. This is variously interpreted as ‘The Oldest’ or ‘The Old Lady’ which evokes the image of a nineteenth century caricature of a wealthy, eccentric widow clutching an ear trumpet with a habit of saying ‘quoi?’
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
The champion of the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España has had a good start this year winning the Tour of Oman. The ‘shark of Messina’ failed in his bid for a second Tour de France last year and was disqualified from the Vuelta a España for hanging on to a team car.
He made a great comeback to win the final Monument of 2015, Il Lombardia.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE)
Aussie Simon Gerrans won the 100th edition of La Doyenne in 2014 but an injury-riddled 2015 put paid to back-to-back wins.
So far so good this season for Gerro who won a record fourth Tour Down Under back in January.
He finished fifth in our own one day classic, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, had two top three places in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco early this month and finished in eleventh place in last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race.
After Gerro’s Tour Down Under stage win at Victor Harbor, cycling commentator Phil Liggett noted that, “Simon Gerrans is not from South Australia, he is from Victoria, which is not part of South Australia, he’s from Mansfield, South Australia”.
Phil might have been confused where he’s from but Gerro certainly knows where he’s going and that’s first across the line in Ans, Belgium.
Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick Step)
Young French rider Julian Alaphilippe finished second in Wednesday’s Ardennes Classic La Flèche Wallonne, and was runner up to Alejandro Valverde in last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
It’s very likely he’ll be on the podium again on Sunday but will it be for first?
Daniel Martin (Etixx-Quick Step)
Irish rider Dan Martin has had a relatively quiet start to 2016 with four appearances in stage races but expect him to make some noise at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He tasted victory here in 2013 but the ‘luck of the Irish’ cruelled his bid for another in 2014.
Martin was sitting in second place chasing Simon Gerrans but crashed on the final bend to finish in 39th place. He failed to finish last year after a big crash at 41 kilometres to go.
In Wednesday’s La Flèche Wallonne Martin finished third and if he wins on Sunday it’ll be ‘Irish eyes are smiling’ at the top of the podium.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Three-time winner and defending champion of La Doyenne Alejandro Valverde has had a good build-up this season with second in the Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia and the general classification in the Vuelta a Andalucia. He cleaned up in last week’s Vuelta a Castilla y Leon with two stage wins, the GC and points classifications.
In Wednesday’s La Flèche Wallonne, Valverde’s Movistar team grabbed the race by the scruff of the neck to drive the peloton on to reel in the breakaway and with the help of his team mates, he perfectly executed an attack on the brutally steep Mur de Huy to win his fourth Flèche Wallonne.
‘Balaverde’ (the green bullet) is riding on the eve of his 36th birthday and a fourth victory would be the best present of all.
Former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC) might have made it on this list if it weren’t for a bothersome broken middle finger he sustained in an altercation with a driver during a training ride near Liège early this month.
The driver alleges Gilbert squirted him with pepper spray. That’s one way of dealing with unruly motorists but he could be in a spot of legal bother – apparently carrying pepper spray is illegal in Belgium.
Hopefully Phil Gil has learnt his lesson and will carry a rocket launcher next time.
After Sunday it’s nearly a sixth-month wait for the final Monument of the year, ‘the race of the leaves’, Il Lombardia in Italy.
With the Giro d’Italia just around the corner, between now and October there is a feast of cycling (and many late nights for Aussie fans) with the Tour de France in July and Vuelta a España in late August.
I can hardly wait.