Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the fourth Monument of the year, signals the end of the spring Classics and the imminent start of Grand Tour season. For many, it means the final chance to obtain some one-day glory ahead of a long wait until the Italian autumn Classics, as well as the chance of fulfilling the dream of adding one of cycling’s oldest and most prestigious races to their palmarès.
That, of course, is no easy feat. Liège is one of the most arduous of the Classics; the men’s race is over 258km with 4,500m of climbing, most of which is crammed into the second half of the route. The start list is also almost always one of the most stacked of the hilly Classics, as rouleurs, puncheurs, and even Grand Tour contenders all take time out of their schedules to race La Doyenne.
For much of its recent history Liège has been a remarkably open race, and it’s rare for a rider to finish victorious in two consecutive editions. In fact, no-one has defended their title here since Michele Bartoli did it in 1998. Accomplishing that will be the target of the current world champion Remco Evenepoel (Soudal - Quick-Step), who is breaking from his Giro d’Italia preparations to try and take a second Monument victory.
His main obstacle in accomplishing that will almost certainly be the rampaging Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who has dominated the spring in a (dare we say it) Merckx-like fashion.
But who else could be in contention for victory this Sunday, April 23? We take a look at the top contenders for Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2023.
It’ll be no surprise that Tadej Pogačar enters the final spring Classic as the outright favourite. He has had a jaw-droppingly remarkable year so far, beginning with victories in Spain before claiming three stages and the general classification at Paris-Nice. Turning his attention then to the Classics, his lowest finishing position of fourth came first at Milan-San Remo, before a third place at the E3 Saxo Classic was followed by three huge consecutive wins at the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race, and La Flèche Wallonne.
Pogačar scored his second win of the Ardennes Classics so far at Flèche Wallonne (Zac Williams/SWPix)
Now positioned to take a rare Ardennes hattrick, the 24-year-old will almost certainly revert back to his tactic of attacking early and soloing to the finish at Liège, having played it cool to win from the bunch at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.
The route suits him perhaps more than any other so far in the Classics, a worry for anyone hoping to try and hold his wheel when he makes one of his trademark attacks. But Pogačar will find himself up against a more diverse roster of riders than he potentially has previously, though remains well equipped with a powerful sprint should he make it to the finish amongst a small group.
The way Remco Evenepoel won Liège last year has left cycling fans with the tantalising prospect of watching him battle Pogačar for victory this year. For many, he may also represent the best chance of ending the Slovenian’s current domination of the Classics.
Evenepoel, like Pogačar, also loves an early attack and solo win, and his explosive acceleration on La Redoute in 2022 was too much for anyone to handle. But the world champion has had a very different build-up to Liège compared to this time last year when he’d raced more days. That included two one-day races at De Brabantse Pijl and La Flèche Wallonne.
He’s been working very specifically for the Giro d’Italia at a team training camp in Tenerife, having last raced at the Volta a Catalunya in March. Though he rode head and shoulders above everyone but Primož Roglič there, it remains unclear how he’ll currently fare with the demands of Liège.
Unlike last year, he will certainly be Soudal - Quick-Step’s outright leader, and the Belgian team will hope he can once again save their spring. He’ll boast support from a two-time runner-up in Julian Alaphilippe, who is likely to be too undercooked to launch a challenge of his own.
Things haven’t quite gone Tom Pidcock’s way since he won Strade Bianche back in March. A crash at Tirreno-Adriatico meant he missed Milan-Sanremo, and he struggled to make an impact in the remaining cobbled Classics he raced, suffering hunger knock at the Tour of Flanders.
The Ineos Grenadiers rider rallied to narrowly claim a third place at Amstel Gold Race after attempting to follow Pogačar’s attack, subsequently paying for the effort. That fatigue carried over to Flèche Wallonne too, where he fell short of challenging for podium despite being well positioned on the final ascent of the Mur de Huy.
Pidcock just held on to a third place at Amstel Gold Race (Zac Williams/SWPix)
Clearly, Pidock has the talent and ability to be a Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner, but has thus far struggled to make a serious impact on many of the longer and harder races outside of last week’s Amstel Gold.
Nevertheless, he possesses a final turn of speed that could serve him well should he make it to the finish in a leading group and has the potential to claim a first Monument podium should everything go his way.
Three weeks ago even Ben Healy is unlikely to have imagined he would have been spoken in the same breath as the aforementioned names as a favourite for Liège. But such is the form the Irishman has had, he’s perhaps surpassed his own teammate Nielson Powless as a potential winner. A second place at Brabantse Pijl was swiftly followed up by an exceptional performance at Amstel Gold Race, where Healy lost out only to Pogačar having managed his effort more conservatively than Pidcock.
The 22-year-old was again active at Flèche Wallonne, but his capabilities are possibly not best suited to the fast finish on the Mur de Huy. Likewise, Healy’s best chance of victory in Liège would be to arrive alone, lacking a sprint to challenge the likes of Pogačar or Evenepoel. It would be a tall order to break clear alone from those riders, but he has the ability to ride onto the podium judging by his efforts so far in the Ardennes.
Still, Healy’s team EF Education-EasyPost boast an enviable set of options. Despite dropping below his remarkable Tour of Flanders form in the last two races, American Nielson Powless is an outside bet for victory if he can recapture some of the magic that helped him to fifth at De Ronde.
Meanwhile, Olympic champion Richard Carapaz has the ability to contest a top result on Liège when he’s at his best, though he would need to display some better form that has been lacking at the start of this year.
For all their domination of the cobbled Classics, Jumbo-Visma have paled in comparison in the Ardennes. They’ve lent heavily on Tiesj Benoot to deliver a result, who has not benefited from the tactical plays the team were able to execute earlier in the season with an exceptionally strong line-up, including when he won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Benoot has shouldered the weight for Jumbo-Visma at the Ardennes so far (Zac Williams/SWPix)
The Belgian nevertheless will be hopeful he can improve on his 15th place at Amstel Gold and his seventh at Flèche in the final spring Classic on Sunday. His best ever result at Liège (seventh) came in 2021 when he finished strongly in the chasing group. Benoot is unlikely to be able to match the climbing prowess of Pogačar and Evenepoel, so will need a better tactical play to get rid of them if he’s to stand a chance of winning.
Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech) has a remarkable record at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Since his debut in 2016 when he didn’t finish, the Canadian has ridden the race six times and has incredibly never finished outside of the top-10. The lone escapee Bob Jungels was the only rider able to prevent him winning it in 2018, which was potentially his best chance of adding this Monument to his palmarès.
For all of his impressive consistency though, the 36-year-old has struggled to regularly convert high placings into wins. His fourth place finish at Flèche Wallonne this week demonstrates he still has a lot to offer in the Ardennes Classics, but it’s difficult to envisage him triumphing above the stronger favourites this year. Don’t be surprised to see him in the top-five though.
There are a wealth of contenders lining up for a shot at Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year. Though known better for his stage racing exploits, Dani Martínez will provide a second option for Ineos Grenadiers should Tom Pidcock falter, having claimed fourth place in last year’s edition.
Bora-Hansgrohe enjoy a strong line-up that includes Giro d'Italia winner Jai Hindley as well as Aleksandr Vlasov, who abandoned the Tour of the Alps to race in Liège.
Bahrain-Victorious start with four strong riders in Mikel Landa, Matej Mohorič, Pello Bilbao, and Wout Poels, but all of their strengths lie in areas possibly not best suited to the current Liège course, even if Poels is a former winner. Mohorič looks like their leading candidate if he can go long and escape the clutches of the superior climbers.
Mikel Landa (right) took a best ever result in the Ardennes with third at Flèche Wallonne (Zac Williams/SWPix)
Enric Mas leads Movistar in lieu of the now retired Alejandro Valverde, but the Spaniard certainly lacks the punch that’s needed in a race like Liège, particularly with its flat finish. The same can be said for Romain Bardet, who, despite finishing on the podium here in 2018, has struggled to make an impact since the race moved from its uphill finish in Ans.
Danish rider Mattias Skjelmose has been in sensational from this week with an eighth in Amstel and second place in Flèche, and looks like Trek-Segafredo’s strongest card even in a team with Giulio Ciccone and former Il Lombardia winner Bauke Mollema.
Elsewhere, the likes of Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Qazaqstan), Benoît Cosnefroy (Ag2r Citroën), Andrea Kron (Lotto-Dstny), Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ), and Rui Costa (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), are all capable of placing highly and contesting for a top-10.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2023 predictions
There’s no other choice but to expect Tadej Pogačar to reign supreme at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. Even with the presence of Remco Evenepoel, the 2021 winner is riding with such power, poise, and confidence, that we predict he’ll be the first man to complete the Ardennes hattrick since Philippe Gilbert in 2011.