The Road Book presents “The Red Line” An alternative to a simple race report, bringing you regular impressions and musings to complement the racing calendar. This week Jonny Long looks back at Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2021.

 

There are still 61 days until our attention will be entirely devoted to the Tour de France, but somehow, still, all roads lead to the start in Brittany. Even the one leading from Liège to Bastogne, and then back to Liège once more.

Yes, the Giro d’Italia looms closer, and promises to be an intriguing prospect, the riders who’ve dominated the headlines and races of spring almost entirely absent from that first flag drop in Turin. But let’s leave May to everything Giro. For now, as the spring Classics are laid to rest save for October’s Paris-Roubaix, a plate leftovers we’ll be glad to have saved, it’s all about the Tour de France.

Alaphilippe, gracious in defeat after Liège, said it’s no bad thing to lose to a Tour de France winner. The world champion may call Liège the big one he wants to win, but surely a competitor as ravenous as the Frenchman will soon run out of other things to win other than the really big yellow one. On this specific evidence it seems to be not that far from the front of his mind.

Pogacar then detailed the three things on his to-do list following his first-ever Monument victory: 1 – rest, 2 – spend some time with his family, 3 – prepare for the Tour de France.

Roglic, who for once didn’t have the legs after an early season more entertaining than his detractors would ever give him credit for, said a small goodbye as he won’t race again until Brest, planning to spend so much time at altitude that he’ll likely be sitting alongside Tim Peake on The One Show sofa before too long.

Liège was the final showdown of the opening act. The second sees a raft of other characters take centre stage in Italy before the third sees the fight for the yellow jersey resume. So intriguing the storylines that even one of those tiny ice creams with the fiddly pieces of plastic masquerading as spoons won’t come close to keeping you occupied during these interluding periods.

Back to Liège, for a moment at least. We wouldn’t want to disrespect the oldest Monument, which this year featured the oldest bike racer who’d ever lived judging by how nearly every mention of Alejandro Valverde these days comes coupled with his age. Forty. One. Just in case you somehow missed that.

The Spaniard was back at the business end, alongside Pog and Alapilippe, the Canadian Michael Woods having kicked off the decisive move while David Gaudu also snuck himself in there. His talents can hopefully begin to take some of the load off of Thibaut Pinot’s burdened back.

The sprint finish made up for what had been a fairly lacklustre race, the thrill of the the other meets we’ve had so far this year seeping into the legs perhaps. At least that’s what looked to have happened with Loic Vliegen, the Belgian having got himself up the road in all three of the Ardennes races and being the last man left out front at both the Amstel Gold and Liège. When his legs finally gave up, boy did they give up. Coming almost to a complete stop on his home roads. Cramping up, his hand dropped to his right thigh, trying to turn the pedals for his battered legs. Of course, this is only how we outside the bike race understand it, in overly pretentious sentiments.

“Those cramps? I could feel them coming, yes. But after two minutes they were gone again, after I pushed them a bit. After that I helped Quinten Hermans, after that my day was over,” Vliegen said after the finish, in the most uncomplicatedly Belgian way possible.

Maybe it’s the weather. The sun is out, spring seems to be about to give way to full-frontal summer, and just in time for the world beginning to open up again. Hope is in the air.

And hope is all Grand Tours are really. Locating the folded page corner and getting reacquainted with the stories of last time around.

Pogacar, Roglic, Alaphilippe. Like us, they are all already waiting for the Tour de France. Those hours spent running out of things to do while hidden away at preparatory training camps except for dream of what’s maybe to come.

They can never admit it, but that is what they must do, right? You saw when Pogacar realised he’d crossed the Liège finish line ahead of Alaphilippe his hands shot to his head. That the Tour de France champion can possess that disbelief says a lot about what makes Tadej Pogacar great. Roll on July June.

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