Key information:
 On the eve of the 108th edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the reigning champion Tadej Pogacar announced he wouldn’t defend his victory at the helm of UAE Team Emirates. In his absence, and with a reshuffled finale, the tactics open up.
 While Philippe Gilbert bids farewell to his home Monument, Belgian fans will also turn their attention to the first participation of Remco Evenepoel, teaming up with two-time world champion Julian Alaphilippe, and Wout van Aert, lining-up in Liège a week after a strong return on the roads of Paris-Roubaix.

In its 108th edition, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is experiencing a route change in its finale, for reasons directly linked to the floods that affected the region in July 2021. “When we did the recons, the road leading to Côte des Forges was impracticable”, says Jean-Michel Monin, in charge of the route of the Doyenne. “And we did not want to ask the road services to restore it for the race when there were more important priorities on the human level. Removing the passage via the Côte des Forges was therefore not a sporting choice, but it could have consequences for the race scenario.” There are no difficulties listed between the Côte de la Redoute (km 227.7) and the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons (km 243.8), where the key attacks were launched since the finish returned to the city center of Liège, in 2019. But, although it’s not listed as one of the climbs of the day, “passing through Sprimont, Côte du Hornay can’t be disregarded”, Monin explains. “I have a feeling some teams will try to make things hard and they’ll climb La Redoute at a very high pace. And with Tadej Pogacar’s unfortunate absence, it may be a more open race, with the decisive attack going much before La Roche-aux-Faucons.”

The Belgian fervour may very well reach new highs on Sunday. It will be the last Liège-Bastogne-Liège of “Phil Gil”, only a few days after Dylan Teuns won La Flèche. The 108th edition will also mark the first participation of Remco Evenepoel (22 years old) … And the same goes with the national champion Wout van Aert, who could very well claim victory in his first attempt. Although his classics campaign was disrupted by illness, as he contracted Covid-19 ahead of Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Belgian star had a strong performance in Paris-Roubaix (2nd). “It was difficult to know what to expect but luckily everything turned out pretty good. It was a big surprise for me to be on the podium. For the first two days after Roubaix, the legs felt quite terrible but from Wednesday on I tried to change my mind and focus on this race with some good training. For me, it may be the easiest classic to ride. I just have to try and follow. It will be hard of course, but there isn’t much tactic about it. I try to follow the best climbers, and if possible I’ll be there in the finale. We try to be with Jonas [Vingegaard], Tiesj [Benoot] and myself in the finale. If we can survive the last climb and end up in the front group, hopefully we will have one more rider than some of the other teams.”

Tomorrow morning, Philippe Gilbert will start Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the 17th and last time in his career. He brings one step further the record number of participations he already held in a race very dear to him, not only due to his victory in 2011. The former world champion grew up in Remouchamps, at the bottom of the Côte de La Redoute. His fans have already painted the road to celebrate “Phil” and they’re ready to cheer for him. His last top 10 in Liège dates back to 2014 (8th) but the Walloon is eager to race his home Monument in front of his home crowds: “It’s a pleasure to be here, to feel the warmth of the fans. At the beginning of my career, I thought it would be complicated for me but I still managed to win it once in my life, and it means a lot to me.”

For each and every Belgian team, the Spring Classics are one of the key points of the season. For a successful one like Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, coming out of it without a single victory and having recorded just a podium place on their books (Kasper Asgreen, 3rd on Strade Bianche) in those one-day races on the top-tier of this sport makes for a below-par campaign. “The team is not in a good situation,” accepted Remco Evenepoel on a press conference held on Friday via Zoom. “But we have been closer to victory on these last races, and we are hungry for this last Classic.” The phenomenon from Aalst will have Julian Alaphilippe’s wealth of experience by his side. “It’s easier to do a first Liège along with Julian,” says the youngster. “I’d like to win this race at some point in my career, yet it takes some experience to manage it… and I have a perfect teammate to learn from on Sunday.” As for the current rainbow jersey holder, who has finished second twice in La Doyenne, on top of his relegation from 2nd to 5th in 2020, he points how winning here is “a dream” for him. “It’s easy to understand: it’s a Monument – one of the most beautiful races of every season. I’ve been a player here many times – but I’ve never won! It’s a hard race to win.”

Defending Liège-Bastogne-Liège champion Tadej Pogacar won’t be able to take the start tomorrow as he had to go back to Slovenia to support his partner, whose mother passed away this week. His manager at UAE Team Emirates, Mauro Gianetti, pleads the team’s full support to Pogacar in these difficult moments: “For us, the human side is the most important. This was the last goal of Tadej’s spring campaign, but the season is long and right now he needs to take a break and devote his energy to this situation his family is going through.” In any case, UAE Team Emirates is still bidding for victory tomorrow at La Doyenne. “The race changes a bit for us, but the focus remains the same as we will try to win the race. We have very strong riders in our line-up, such as Marc Hirschi, Brandon McNulty or Marc Soler, who will be able to play their own chances.”

It’s the final Ardennes campaign for Alejandro Valverde, he who holds the record for most podiums at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he who bears the perfect skillset to shine in these hilly races of attrition often resolved on a sprint, he who keeps racing at age 41 with the same spirit and devotion as when he first pinned a back number on as a professional rider twenty years ago. “It’s my last time in Liège and I feel good. Hopefully my feeling tomorrow will be great, and my rivals’ will not!”, he tells us jokingly, aware that his 2nd position atop the Mur de Huy on Wednesday extends and enhances his credentials as a rider to follow. “I believe he is the main favorite for tomorrow,” asserts his teammate Enric Mas wholeheartedly. “Liège-Bastogne-Liège means a lot to me. It’s the sole Monument I’ve won, and in fact I’m the only Spanish rider to have won this race,” says the rider from Murcia, who doesn’t hesitate before the prospect of passing on Movistar Team’s leadership baton to the aforementioned Mas. “He can also do well in this race as it suits him. The final kilometres we had on previous years were better for him, and for me as well, as they featured more climbs and an uphill finish – but it’s still a hard race on which Enric can excel.”

The Côte des Forges will not feature on this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and this brings back the discussion on the fruitfulness of long-range attacks. The Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons has been the launching pad for the winning riders to fly off the rest of contenders in the last four editions of the race. Look no further than to Jakob Fuglsang, current Israel-PremierTech rider and winner of the 2019 edition, the first one to finish in the city center of Liège in this modern era. “It is of course a bit more difficult to make it solo to the finish. But it is not impossible. With this years’ route, with no climbs between La Redoute and La Roche-aux-Faucons, the chance for the race to open up earlier is bigger. It’s good for the race. We don’t know exactly how we will play our cards tomorrow, but we hope to have two guys battling for victory – Michael Woods and me.” One year before Fuglsang it was Bob Jungels who triumphed by attacking on La Roche-aux-Faucons to go solo all the way to the finish line of Ans. Yet he is not confident this scenario will be reenacted tomorrow. “Back in the day, there were many climbs to make a difference after La Roche-aux-Faucons. Right now, it is no longer the case as it’s the very last climb. It’s more difficult for a lone escapee to win the race. I think the current profile favors riders who can sprint fast.” A chance to break this pattern is attacking further out, as Jens Voigt and Alexandre Vinokourov did in 2005 with their successful attack in the Col du Rosier, with 55 kilometres to go. A style of racing that suits Tim Wellens. “I’m going to try and attack for the win tomorrow – that’s for sure. I hope the moves will start early because I think it would be difficult for me to fight with the best in La Roche-aux-Faucons. Hopefully it will be full gas from the Col du Rosier.”