Liege Bastogne Liege: La Doyenne, the old lady of the classics. The oldest of the classics, the 258km race starts in Liege, heading south to Bastogne, and looping back to Ans, a suburb on the outskirts of Liege. Despite having only ten classified climbs, there is hardly a piece of flat road all day, with a final total of 4,000 vertical metres of climbing.
Of the three Ardennes classics, this one truly is where the punchers meet the grand tour riders in a showdown, due to the sheer amount of climbing and the difficulty of the race. Liege suits a rider like Chris Froome far more that the twisty, fast-paced Amstel Gold or punchy Flèche Wallonne. There are few days harder than one spent in the peloton at Liege Bastogne Liege. Grand tour riders such as the Schlecks, Nibali, Rodriguez, and Valverde have all had success here in the past
The race truly is a contest to outlast all competitors, and the finale is punctuated by a trimester of climbs: Cote de La Redoute, Cote de La Roche aux Faucons, and Cote de Saint-Nicolas, as well as and the uphill drag to the finish line in Ans. The small cobbled climb of Cote de la Rue Naniot is not included after last year being introduced in between Saint-Nicolas and the finish.
La Redoute kicks off the finale, topping out with 36km to go in the race. The climb is 2.0km and averages 8.9%, with sections nearing 25% near the top. The climb is also the birthplace Philippe Gilbert, but he won't be in the race this year due to his kidney injury, sustained at Amstel Gold.
Next up is the Cote de La Roche aux Faucons, a 1.3km climb at 11% coming 19km from the finish. This climb was the site of Andy Schleck's 2009 breakaway win, but the race has been less active on this climb in recent years.
The final climb is the Cote de Saint-Nicolas, which is 1.2km at 8.6% and is far from being the hardest climb on the route, but after 250km of rolling hills, it's enough to be used as a launchpad while breaking the hearts of those on their limit. It tops out 5km from the finish, a quick technical descent on cobbled roads through the suburbs leads directly onto the drag to the finish.
This finish consists of a 1.8km drag at 5% that evens out at 400m before the finish, rounding a corner (which Dan Martin crashed on in 2014 when Simon Gerrans won the race) 200m out.
How will the race play out? So often we see a sprint from a reduced bunch or a small group, which usually forms on the last few climbs. The small group that contested the finish last year formed on the Rue Nainot, which won't be included last year. In the two years before that, we saw no main break get to the finish, only a whittling down of the group of favourites.
One of the downsides of a race so hard is that we often see a war of attrition, rather than a gunfight.
If Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) needed any bolstering of his resume to be considered the prime favourite for Liege, he provided it with a dominant performance on Wednesday at Flèche Wallonne. He showed that he had the strongest kick by far, however, Liege is an entirely different kettle of fish, being more of a test of endurance. The fact that his spring preparation has been entirely stage races (which he won, of course), as opposed to one-day races, will help that, and if he's there at the end, nobody is betting against him in a sprint. As always, he has a strong squad. Dani Moreno is capable of winning this race himself, so look for Moreno to be used as a decoy on the final climbs to take the pressure off of the team.
Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors) seemed to become the champion here three years ago, leading by 100m into the final corner, but it wasn't to be. His wheels slipped out so the Irishman is still searching for his maiden win in La Doyenne. His Flèche Wallonne showing was strong in form, albeit tactically poor. Maybe Liege will suit him more in its slugfest style? He will, once again, have his team's full backing, with Alaphilippe and Gilbert out injured, though the understrength squad will need to keep him near the front, where the action is.
Bora-Hansgrohe will bring a well-rounded squad to the race, featuring Rafael Majka, who was on the attack at Flèche Wallonne on the penultimate climb but slipped to 29th towards the finish, Australian Jay McCarthy, who netted 19th on the Mur de Huy, and Patrick Konrad, who was the team's highest finisher in 16th. With so many options, the team will likely be active all day.
Sky will be licking its wounds after Fleche Wallonne, where they missed an opportunity to get a podium place with both Michal Kwiatkowski and Sergio Henao finishing in the top ten. Kwiatkowski seems to be made for Liege, his Palmares already has him netting wins in Strade Bianchi and Milan-San Remo, equally tough one-day races, and the form he's been in this spring makes him one of the key riders to watch.
OricaSCOTT have options for the race, but none of them look any better than Michael Albasini right now. After being in the break at Amstel and landing on the podium, then placing fifth at Flèche, he seems to be in the right form to avenge his second place from last year. They will also take 2014 winner Simon Gerrans into the race, however, Gerrans didn't finish Amstel or take part in Fleche, so he doesn't look to be in the form to compete. Both Simon and Adam Yates are also taking part in the race, the young British twins are always aggressive, so look for them to be on the attack (if you can pick them apart).
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) has been consistent here, finishing 13th last year and sixth two years ago. Bardet was active at Flèche Wallonne and could feature in the finale. Another very active rider, his youthful enthusiasm could see him attacking on the final climbs.
The rider of the spring, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), is also taking part here. The last time he took part in the race was in 2013, when he finished 63rd, but the man obviously knows to make hay while the sun shines, and not waste his good form. Those doubting he can contend on such a difficult climb need look no further than the Belgian hardman's performance in the Olympic Road Race last year - the boy can climb.
Valverde looks unbeatable at the moment, so it's hard to pick anyone else after his showing on Wednesday, but Kwiatkowski is clearly in good form as well, so a showdown between the two could be imminent. If it did come down to a sprint then I'd pick Kwiatkowski on a flattish road. One of the Yates brothers could be a good option for a breakaway that succeeds.
Who do you think will win this race? Let us know in the comments section below.