Race Breakdown: The ‘new guard’ has definitely taken over as Tour winner Tadej Pogačar showed how to finish off a monument on Sunday. World champion Julian Alaphilippe and fellow Frenchman, and recent revelation, David Gaudu joined the Slovenian on the podium, leaving the ‘old men’ off the top steps. Spencer Martin Breaks-down 2021 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Tadej Pogačar 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 finalé and launched his sprint far too early, came in fourth, while Mike Woods, the architect of the move, finished last in the select front group.
Mike Woods made the race in the finalé
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.
A class final group
Despite the presence of two recent World Champions, Valverde and Alaphilippe, Pogačar 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 sprint in last year’s edition. Outside of being a thrilling finale, Pogačar’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.
What can I do to win Liège?
- Wow, I thought Pogačar 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 Pogačar.
- Pogačar 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.
- Pogačar 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 Champions 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 Roglič 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 Pogačar 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. His new team ISN 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.
Woods was maybe the strongest man
The Not So Good
- The defending champion, Roglič 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 sprint from a small group, but they have appeared to lost all confidence in him.
- The day 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 Flèche Wallonne.
- 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.
Roglič didn’t have the legs
It was looking good for Carapaz…
- It is interesting that Pogačar was the only rider in the lead group to not race Flèche Wallonne 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 (Pogačar). 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. Pogačar 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 Liège 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 Liège. 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.
- Pogačar’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.
Ineos were very strong and then…
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #
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