Thanks to Mark at www.zeitgeistimages.co.uk for allowing me to use the above image.  His cycling/art-deco inspired work is tremendous – click here to buy his Liege-Bastogne-Liege piece.  Follow Mark on Twitter @MrMarkFairhurst

When my 2 picks for Paris-Roubaix arrived in the velodrome in the leading group of 5, you could have forgiven me for whooping and a hollering.  I was imagining spending my winnings on not one but three new Castelli Gabba jackets.

So imagine the deafening silence in my head when they finished 3rd and 5th (Stannard and Bousson Hagen respectively).  I still made a profit but it’ll probably only cover a couple of brake blocks and it takes a lot to stop a big unit like me, so they won’t last long.

Onwards.

Sunday is this year’s fourth and penultimate Monument Classic, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, La Doyenne, the Old Lady.  I love this race, not necessarily because of the route, or the scenery but because it marks the end of the Spring Classics and the beginning of the build up to the year’s first Grand Tour, the Giro D’Italia.  We’ll have a good idea about who is coming into form, who is struggling and what teams are chasing their losses already (Etixx Quickstep, BMC, Cannondale et al).

LBL is a lumpy old route.  The first half of the race is relatively flat compared to the final 60km where a series of climbs whittle the peloton down to the strongest riders.  The first serious shake down will happen after 216 km at the 2 km 9% average Côte de La Redoute followed by the 1.3 km Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons (11% average) at 232 km.  Normally if you’re still in the lead group at 10 km to go you’d think you were in with a chance but after 246 km the riders hit the 1.2 km Côte de Saint-Nicolas (8.6% average).  Finally, with less than 3 km to go there’s the 10.5% 0.6 km Côte de la Rue Naniot and a mad dash for the line.  The riders’ legs will be screaming, full of lactic acid, so if there’s a decent climber who has a sprint, then that’s your winner – simple.

Unfortunately, the winners of the past 20 years LBL read like a rogues gallery of doping.  Here are the facts:

  • 2015 Alejandro Valverde – banned
  • 2014 Simon Gerrans – clean
  • 2013 Dan Martin – clean
  • 2012 Maxim Iglinskiy – banned
  • 2011 Philippe Gilbert – clean (unproven accusation)
  • 2010 Alexander Vinokourov – banned
  • 2009 Andy Schleck – clean
  • 2008 Alejandro Valverde – banned
  • 2007 Danilo Di Luca – banned
  • 2006 Alejandro Valverde – banned
  • 2005 Alexander Vinokourov – banned
  • 2004 Davide Rebillin – banned
  • 2003 Tyler Hamilton – banned
  • 2002 Paulo Bettini – clean
  • 2001 Oscar Cammenzind – retired after positive test
  • 2000 Paulo Bettini – clean
  • 1999 Frank Vandenbroucke – banned
  • 1998 Michele Bartoli clean – connected through Operacion Porto
  • 1997 Michele Bartoli clean – connected through Operacion Porto
  • 1996 Pascal Richard – clean (unproven accusation)

20 editions, 15 winners, 4 clean (27%), 3 clean with caveats and 8 dopers.

But all these incidents occurred back in the day and cycling has moved on, hopefully.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is the clear favourite having won Wednesday’s Flèche-Wallonne for a record-breaking fourth time.  He could also win his fourth LBL on Sunday.  His ability to meticulously plan and enact his attack firstly on the penultimate  Cote de Saint-Nicolas climb and the final Côte de la Rue Naniot is the stuff of legends and a strong Movistar team supporting him and controlling the race does make it very hard to bet against him.  I won’t be backing him but for those of you who are smarter than me, in essence, all of you, you’ll get odds of 7/2 which for a 253 km race comprising the guts of 200 riders is ridiculous.

Simon Gerrans (Orica Greenedge) won LBL in 2014 and was 11th at the Amstel Gold.  He hasn’t really done much since winning the Santos Tour Down Under in January but he remains a competitive rider and offers Orica Greenedge their best chance of a win.  Normally odds of 14/1 would be generous but it’s still a bit of a punt.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) the Grand Tour giant and winner of 2015’s final Monument, Il Lombardia likes LBL.  The push to the Cote de Saint-Nicolas will suit the Astana squad and he’ll be released to blow the remaining contenders apart on the climb.  He can’t be written off and odds of 22/1 are very generous.

Julian Aliphilippe (Etixx Quickstep) delivered a 6th place in Sunday’s Amstel Gold and a 2nd in Wednesday’s Flèche- Wallonne so he’s clearly finding his form at the right time for LBL.  He was 2nd last year and it’s been 36 years since the race was won by a Frenchman, some guy called Bernard Hinault (apparently he was a decent rider) and this is probably their best hope in recent years.  Odds of 14/1 are great value.

But I’m going to suggest just one tip for Sunday, Ireland’s very own Dan Martin (Etixx Quickstep).  He’s won it before in 2013 and he’s on form having placed 3rd at Wednesday’s Flèche-Wallonne.  Etixx Quickstep are crying out for a Monument win this year and with Martin and Aliphilippe strong contenders they will turn themselves inside out to get them to the final climb in good shape.  From there on, Dan Martin, knows the drill and don’t be surprised to see a repeat of the Flèche finale, with Valverde, Aliphilippe and Martin scrapping it out to the line.  Odds of 7/1 will be taken by me on an each-way punt.

So there you have it, my last tipster post until the Giro D’Italia next month and my last Monument post until Il Lombardia in September.

Here’s hoping Dan Martin brings home the bacon.

I’m off to conquer my own Côte, a lovely 2009 Côtes du Rhône.

The Giant