Just like last weekend’s U23 Tour of Flanders, this weekend sees another Monument of cycling host their U23 race: Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Unlike Flanders, this race is not part of the Nations Cup, so riders race for their trade teams rather than for their country, meaning the rosters are not quite as strong as those assembled by the national federation. Add to the equation that the ZLM Tour, another Nations Cup race, takes place on the same day (albeit attracting sprinters rather than puncheurs and climbers), and there is almost a detracting effect in play it seems.
Another similarity between last week’s race and U23 LBL is that both courses use the same climbs as the pro race, but not necessarily in the same order and not every climb is used. For this race, a lot of the famous climbs appear, but the final is not the same, as there is no final drag up to the Cote d’Ans, as the riders finish, rather awesomely we might add, in Liege’s outdoor velodrome. You thought a track sprint at the end of Paris-Roubaix was cool? Try watching a track sprint amongst climbers for real entertainment.
The key thing to remember about this race is that the climbs here are significantly longer. Whilst the cobbles saw the Oude Kwaremont as the longest climb, at close to 3km top to bottom, four of the 9 categorised climbs in Liege are at least 2.5km long. Over the distance the riders race, that will really sap the legs and reduce the bunch in a way the racing in Flanders does not.
By no means is the startlist for this race bad either. It is still one of the most desirable races in U23 cycling, right up there with U23 Flanders, l’Avenir, the Baby Giro and the Worlds. As a result, top teams have come out in force for this event. Of the 29 teams expected to start the race, 10 are local Belgian teams and another 7 come from across the border in France. However, these teams still provide some high calibre riders, like soon-to-be pro rider Harm Vanhoucke of Lotto-Soudal and on-form teammate Julian Mertens, as well as his teammate Stan Dewulf. Home Solution Soenens have U23 Belgian RR champ Jordi Van Dinegen, whilst AGO-Aqua Service take a two-pronged attack in the shape of Kenny Molly and Tom Wirtgen. On the French side, Cotes d’Amor start Nico Roche’s younger brother Alexis, whilst CC Etupes start Alexys Brunel and C4RC Roanne start Simon Guglielmi. The nation’s top U23 team, AG2R feeder squad Chambery CCF start a young team led by Clement Champoussin and Jeremy Montauban.
On the foreign side of things, the UCI’s World Cycling Centre has an intriguing duo of Tiago Antunes and Banabas Peak, whilst Tobias Foss lines up for the Uno-X Norwegian Devo Team. Wiggins bring young team headlined by 19-year-old sensation Mark Donovan, whilst Sunweb call on Marc Hirschi and Felix Gall. SEG Racing Academy are led by Jan Maas and Stevie Williams. Colpack and Riwal have three big names each, as the Italian squad bring Marco Negrente, Francesco Romano and Filippo Rocchetti, whilst it’s Mathias Norsgaard, Andreas Kron and Jonas Gregaard Wilsly for the Danes.
Pro Continental outfit Hagens Berman Axeon are the last team to mention, and they bring a strong squad, including Will Barta (4th here last season), Joao Almeida and Jasper Philipsen, the Classics star making his first attempt at Liege.
While there are a lot of strong riders here, some teams have, rather disappointingly left out some big names. Chambery CCF are the guiltiest party here, sending Aurelien Paret-Peintre to the Tour de Loir et Cher despite finishing 10th last year. The future AG2R rider is joined by promising teammates Kevin Geniets and Reto Muller in the French race. Riwal have also left Andreas Stokbro at home, and although this race isn’t perfect for him, he has great form, as showcased by his 5th place in Flanders.
Last year, Lotto-Soudal U23’s Bjorg Lambrecht won a four-man sprint against James Knox (Wiggins), Lucas Hamilton (Mitchelton-BikeExchange) and Barta, with a large group of 22 coming home 34 seconds later. All three podium finishers now race on WorldTour teams.
At 171.5km long, this will be a long race by U23 standards and, rather ironically, the race starts in Bastogne, rather than Liege. The riders go on a 21m loop around Bastogne before heading back across the start line to start the race properly. 42km in sees the first climb of the day, the 3.3km long Cote de Houffalize, which averages 4.2%. there are a few short uncategorised lumps after, but the next real climb comes with 95km to go, the Cote de Wanne. The hill is 2.5km long and averages 7.2%. The feed zone follows 10km later, before the Cote de Rosier is tackled with 72km to go (3.9km at 5.8%). 12m later sees the arrival of the 3.1km long Cote de la Vecquee, which averages 5.9%.
46.1km to go sees the arrival of the most famous climb on the route, the famous ascent up La Redoute. 2.1km long at 8.5%, the climb has a 500m section at 13% and has grades touching 20%. This is the climb that announces that play time is over the final of the race has begun. 34km from home means the Cote des Forges, the shortest climb so far at just 1.3km long, but averages 7.7% and has a double-digit maximum gradient. 10km later sees another famous climb from the men’s race appear, the Roche aux Faucons. The climb is just 1.2km long, so more like a Flandrian hill, but it averages a savage 9.8% and guarantees attacks every year.
The riders have a slight breather after that climb (which they will definitely need!) before tackling the penultimate hill, the Cote de Saint Nicholas, another fan favourite from the elite men. 1.2km long at 8.3%, this hill in the suburbs of Liege is steep at the start, with 500m at 10%, but does get easier all the way to the top. There is no recovery, as just 5km later, so 6.5km to go, the riders go over the shortest climb of the day, the 900m long Cote de Rue Haute, which averages 7.2%. This offers the final chance to get free or make a selection, as the final 6.5km are flat as the riders make their way into the Ans Velodrome, where the successor to Lambrecht will be found.
Winner Candidates: Harm Vanhoucke (Lotto-Soudal U23), Will Barta (Hagens Berman Axeon), Marc Hirschi (Sunweb)
Podium Contenders: Stan Dewulf (Lotto-Soudal U23), James Fouche (Wiggins), Jonas Wisly Gregaard (Riwal CeramicSpeed)
Outsiders: Tom Wirtgen (AGO-Aqua Service), Mark Donovan (Wiggins), Filippo Rocchetti (Colpack)
Joker: Jasper Philipsen (Hagens Berman Axeon)
You get the feeling that the reason Harm Vanhoucke isn’t going pro until July with Lotto-Soudal is because he wanted one last crack at winning this race. The Belgian was last in the chase group as his teammate Lambrecht won last year, and the 2016 Piccolo Lombardia winner leads the team outright this year. He has been quiet so far, riding a few one-day races and the Circuit des Ardennes to prepare for this race, but he will be ready. As you will discover later in this preview, he has a plan B to help him, like he was last season to Lambrecht, which also helps, and 20-year-old Julian Mertens has had a strong season, which adds another on-form teammate to support Harm in the final.
Will Barta was fourth last season, and, in his last year as an U23, he made it clear to U23 Cycling Zone in an offseason interview that he really wants this race on his palmares. The American was flying in the Triptyque two weeks ago and was 3rd on GC in a race where the climbs are slightly too short for him. He skipped Flanders to build more form in the Circuit des Ardennes, to make sure he is ready. He was solid in the Ardennes, and has Joao Almeida and Ivo Oliveira to support him, with Oliveira looking great after winning a stage in the Ardennes. Barta, like a few of the climbers on this list, needs to attack, as he lacks a sprint, but he looks so strong just now that he looks capable of making the winning move on any climb in the final.
Marc Hirschi has been slightly disappointing on the cobbles, but he should be even better on the hills, which reflects in Sunweb’s call to make him the team’s sole leader here. He has proven pretty consistently over the last two seasons that he handles the climbs well, winning both the 1.2 Tour de Jura last season and a hilltop finish at the Istrian Spring Trophy earlier this year. His cobbled results indicate he is just coming into form, so expect to see Hirschi, who is no slouch in a sprint, up near the front of this event after taking 16th last year.
Despite his form, Stan Dewulf wasn’t really able to make his mark in Flanders one week ago. The Belgian knows he is not plan A this weekend with Vanhoucke’s presence, but his form cannot be ignored. He was so impressive in the Triptyque, and he suits these hilly races rather well. He is a rider who would possible have preferred the race to finish on the same final as the pro, as opposed to the flatter few kilometres at the end, but his shape is definitely good enough to score at least a podium here.
James Fouche has been a revelation at Wiggins this year, starting well in Portugal before racing well in Flanders and the Kattekoers. However, he showed his real class in the Triptyque, where he rode an aggressive opening few stages to steal bonus seconds, and he ended the race 7th on GC with the KOM jersey to boot. He is a good one-day racer who has a fast finish and is aggressive enough to win this race solo. It is unknown how he will fare on these longer climbs, but with riders like Logan Owen having won here, it is feasible Fouche can at least get a podium here.
Jonas Gregaard Wilsly has been kept away from the U23 racing scene so far this year, but the final year U23 makes an appearance here. He is a great climber and knows this race well, having finished 11th last year. For a climber, he is surprisingly good at one-day races and showed a few weeks ago at Volta a Limburg that he is in good shape. In Andreas Kron and Mathias Norsgaard, he has two teammates who are in very good form and should be able to support him late into the race. The Danes put five riders on the podium in this race between 2009 and 2013, but have no podiums since. Can the Riwal CeramicSpeed rider end that streak?
Tom Wirtgen has said all spring that this is the race he is targeting in his early season, which is somewhat surprising as he has never raced here before. The powerful time triallist is a good candidate to attack and he has the power to hold everyone off. In Kenny Molly, AGO-Aqua Service have a legitimate backup card to play, although Wirtgen looks in the best form after taking 5th overall at the Triptyque. Given all three riders are in their last season at this level, it would be a special way for the Luxembourger to go out, taking a medal at this race for his country, which they have not done in any edition of Liege since Luxembourg’s favourite sons Andy, 2009 winner, and Franck were 2nd and 3rd in 2011 in the pro race.
Fouche isn’t Wiggins only card to play here, as Mark Donvan arrives at this race as a legitimate on-form outsider. The 19-year-old Brit has climbed well all season in the Italian races, and a few of those events didn’t really suit him that well. Again, the flat finish here is not helpful for him, but he has the talent to go clear on a climb and solo to a win. 6th overall in Alentejo and 13th and 15th in Belvedere and Palio del Recioto respectively showcase the youngster’s brilliant form, and a top ten is the east his shape suggests he can do here.
Colpack arrive with four strong riders here, but Andrea Bagioli is probably too young to lead here and Marco Negrente doesn’t have the shape he had last year. That means it is up to Francesco Romano and Filippo Rocchetti. Romano has been quieter this year, but 7th in last week’s Trofeo Edil C shows he is coming into form, but Rocchetti, in his last year at the level, leads the famous Italian team. He was aggressive in Flanders last week and took home a 9th place finish, proving he is also rounding into form. Furthermore, the flat finish suits him better, as he is by far the fastest between himself and Romano. Italy have never even put a rider on the podium here, and had no starters in last year’s race. Can Romano take another result that makes his country proud?
After failing to win the Kattekoers and having bad luck rule him out of Flanders, Triptyque GC winner Jasper Philipsen must be feeling a little angry. He arrives here a little in the unknown, as he has not raced here before and will not be sure if these climbs suit him. However, he has handled everything thrown at him in the past with ease, so it would not be surprising to see him go well here. The flat final few kilometres really suit him and he will beat anyone in a sprint in the velodrome. The big question is can he get over the hills? For another weekend in Belgium, all eyes will once again be on Jasper Philipsen.