The men’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège doesn’t tend to be a race that repeats itself. No rider has successfully defended their title here since Michele Bartoli in 1998, in which time five riders have won back-to-back Tour of Lombardy editions, for perspective’s sake. Even Alejandro Valverde, who was the master of this race during his career, didn’t win any of his four titles successively.
But the 2023 edition bucked the trend with a finale that was uncannily similar to last year, and with the same victor in Remco Evenepoel (Soudal - Quick-Step). Just as he did last year, the Belgian launched an attack on the Côte de La Redoute around 30km from the finish, and once again he soloed to the finish for victory without another rider in sight.
If there were any differences, they were mostly superficial. This time he didn’t quite manage to drop everyone with his initial burst on the climb, with Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) latching onto his wheel on the descent, before being dropped for good a few kilometres later. And whereas last year he still had to pick off a few of the original break after his attack, on this occasion he had a clear run for home. His margin of victory of 1-06 was even bigger than the 48 seconds from last year, and was the first time Liège–Bastogne–Liège has been won by over a minute since Andy Schleck in 2009.
One thing that was different between twelve months ago and now was the context in which the win came. Back then, there were still doubts about Evenepoel’s ability to perform in the longer, harder Classics like Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and, for all his obvious talent, he’d yet to win a race of such prestige. The attack he made benefited from the surprise factor, as he launched it during a lull in the pace, when such a move did not appear forthcoming. By attacking so early, and attacking so hard, Evenepoel caught his rivals out, and instantly dropped everyone off his wheel.
Donning a white kit, Remco Evenepoel stood out against the grey skies in Liège as he crossed the finish line
By contrast, he went into this year’s race as both defending champion and world champion, impossible to miss standing out in the gleaming rainbow jersey. All eyes were drawn to him and everyone was alert to the likelihood of another long-range attack, especially as such a move was so clearly signposted by the way his Soudal - Quick-Step team rode, setting a hard pace from early in the race and using up their domestiques at such a rate that only Ilan van Wilder was left by the Redoute. He appeared at ease with his status as favourite, even choosing to don white shorts along with his rainbow jersey, making him an even more visible presence in the peloton. And it certainly didn’t hamper his chances of winning, as when he did, as expected, attack on the Redoute, the outcome was the same as last year.
Of course, such a similar repeat of last year’s edition was not expected to happen. Rather, this was billed as being an epic duel between Evenepoel and the sport’s other young superstar, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). In winning the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne, Pogačar had looked just about as invincible this spring as Evenepoel did winning Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the World Championships last year. The prospect of them facing off against each other for the first time all year had anticipating with bated breath.
To the disappointment of cycling fans everywhere, we were denied that showdown when Pogačar had to exit the race following a crash less than 100km into the race. It was a heavy fall, too, with the Slovenian requiring surgery to treat his fractured wrist. A return day is uncertain, but thankfully the next major aim of his season, the Tour de France, is still several months away.
The news came as a shock, especially considering just how rare it is for Pogačar to hit the deck — in fact, this was the first-ever time in over four years as a pro that he has had to withdraw from a race due to a crash. And with him out of the race, the entire complexion of the race suddenly changed, with teams having to rapidly recalibrate their tactics. In particular, Soudal - Quick-Step now found themselves with the undisputed favourite for victory, and therefore the responsibility of controlling the race.
Emptying the tanks of the team's riders was Soudal - Quick-Step's plan of action to get Remco Evenepoel to the line
They set about doing so by setting a hard pace, using up their line-up of quality domestiques early rather than saving them for the finale. With 100km still to go, Mauro Schmid’s work was done, leaving Pieter Serry to take over at a similarly fierce pace, and Andrea Bagioli dropped off shortly after. Rather than assign Julian Alaphilippe a free role, they decided he would be better utilised setting a hard pace on the climbs leading up the Redoute, and he ran out of gas on Col de Rosier, over 60km from the finish.
Louis Vervaeke was dropped on Côte de Desnie, the climb before the Redoute, leaving just Ilan van Wilder left with Evenepoel. But that was all Evenepoel needed — Van Wilder’s searing pace up most of that climb was enough to stretch the peloton to breaking point, setting Evenepoel up perfectly for his explosive, race-winning attack. It maybe an exaggeration to say the result totally rescued their spring given just how much worse their results have been compared to previous seasons (before today, Yves Lampaert’s third-place at Brugge-De Panne was their only podium finish at a WorldTour Classic, but this certainly did resemble Quick-Step in their pomp.
Other teams might reflect that they could have done more to disrupt Soudal - Quick-Step. Jan Tratnik tried to disrupt things on behalf of Jumbo-Visma with an attack on the Côte de Stockeu almost 100km from the finish and did have a handy lead of over a minute for a while before losing ground on the wet descents. But he really needed Magnus Sheffield (Ineos Grenadiers) and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) to keep up with his pace when the attack was made to provide some assistance.
It was a young podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with 23-year-old Tom Pidock being the oldest
Virtually everyone else waited for Evenepoel to make the first move, and when he did, only Pidcock was able to follow. You really needed to be out ahead already to stand a chance against Evenepoel, and the moment the Belgian made a seated acceleration on an uncategorised uphill after the Redoute, turned around to see Pidcock had been distanced, and then launched a proper attack out of the saddle to finish him off for good, it was clear everyone else was riding for second-place.
Despite paying for his efforts and being dropped by the chasing group on Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, Pidcock later recovered to win the battle for second, in a three-up sprint against Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain-Victorious) and Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost). It was a refreshingly youthful top four, with 23-year-old Pidcock the oldest rider of them all. But young and talented as they are, they still have much to do if they are to reach Evenepoel’s level.