Sunday is the 103rd edition of Monument Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the first women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes, both of which are the last of the Ardennes Week trio of races. The Belgian races also bring the Spring Classics season to a close.

The essential questions before Sunday are: can Alejandro Valverde win his third career La Fleche Wallonne-Liège-Bastogne-Liège double, how far can Michael Woods go after the best La Fleche Wallonne result for a North American since Chris Horner’s seventh in 2010, and can Anna van der Breggen sweep the first ever full women’s Ardennes Week?

The Men’s Course

A strong field faces a punishing 258-km containing 11-climbs counting the steep ascent to the finish in Ans.

Course Changes
For this edition organizers replaced two early climbs, Cote de Wanne and Cote de la Haute-Levee, with three of new uphill obstacles – Cote de Pont, Cote de Bellevaux and the nasty Cote de Ferme Libert, 1.2-km or 12.1%. They also removed the Cote de la Rue Naniot, a short cobbled climb between the traditional final climb of the Cote Saint-Nicolas (1.2-km of 8.6%) and the finish line. Included only one season, it was where Poels made his winning move.

The most famous climb is La Redoute (2-km of 8.9%) at the 35-km to go mark. However, it’s a little far out for most riders to attempt a winning move. Winners Dan Martin in 2013, Simon Gerrans in 2014, Valverde in 2015 and Wout Poels last season all powered away on the grinding rise to the finish in Ans.

The Contenders
The odds-on favourite is Valverde, who is having a superb season. His fourth La Fleche Wallonne victory in a row on Wednesday makes him only the third rider to have won a classic race four consecutive times. Fausto Coppi took four Giro di Lombardias and Jan Raas won four Amstel Gold Races.

Just check out his numbers.

Valverde’s main rival will be Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski, the Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo champion. Sky would love to win two consecutive LBL’s. Title holder Poels, like Amstel Gold and Tour of Flanders champ Philippe Gilbert and 2015 runner-up Julian Alaphillipe, is out through injury.

Wout Poels' knee injury prevents him from defending his title.

Wout Poels’ knee injury prevents him from defending his title.

Last year’s runner-up Michael Albasini (Switzerland/Orica-GreenEdge) placed third in Amstel Gold and fifth in the Walloon Arrow. Dan Martin (Ireland/Quick Step), famously chased by someone dressed as a panda as he battled Joaquim Rodriguez for the 2013 title, was runner up to Valverde on Wednesday.

Everyone should keep wary of Rui Costa (Portugal/UAE-Emirates), Romain Bardet (France/AG2R) and Greg Van Avermaet, this year’s cobbles king.

A crash in last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège derailed Woods‘ 2016 campaign, taking him out of what would have been his first Giro d’Italia. Woods wouldn’t race again for two more months. On Wednesday, he was able to stay with Valverde and the other favourites until a surge from FDJ’s diminutive David Gadju unhitched him. He’s got a strong team to deliver him and Rigoberto Uran to the foot of the Ans climb.

The Women’s Course

The ladies have the same course as the men from La Redoute onwards. They’ll start in Bastogne and roll 135.5-km and four climbs, the first, a 6.7-km affair, coming at the 75-kilometre mark.

The Contenders

Boels-Dolmans is rolling again. Last season, they were firmly in control of the inaugural Women’s WorldTour, never relinquishing the leader’s jersey and winning all of the first five events.

Anna van der Breggen
(The Netherlands) and Brit Lizzie Deignan have gone one-two in the first two races of Ardennes Week. Van der Breggen’s compatriot Chantal Blaak was third in the Tour of Flanders. The squad is also bringing reigning WorldTour champ Megan Guarnier (USA) and Canadian Karol-Ann Canuel.

There’s an engaging scrap going on at the top of the WorldTour leader’s board, where Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Tour of Flanders winner Coryn Rivera (USA/Sunweb) is holding off Orica-Scott’s Annemiek van Vleuten. The Dutch rider hasn’t finished lower than 14th in the seven WorldTour races and placed third and fourth in the first two Ardennes Week contests respectively. As of Thursday evening, van Vleuten has been named on the provisional start list, while Rivera has not.

After three WorldTour podiums this year, WM3’s Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland) deserves a win.

Strade Bianche champion Elisa Longo Borghini will find this course’s final climb to her liking. The breathing problems that kept her out of Fleche Wallonne after fifth in Amstel Gold have subsided.

Leah Kirchmann will see out a spring campaign in which she has ridden every WorldTour race so far. Alison Jackson will start for Bepink-Cogeas.


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