Blazin' Saddles: 10 observations from a pretty standard Liège-Bastogne-Liège
As Jakob Fuglsang took the spoils in the fourth Monument of the season, there were talking points aplenty raining down on the Liège-Bastogne-Liège peloton. Our cycling correspondent Felix Lowe wades in with some observations from a dreary 105th edition of the Old Lady.
Logical win and just rewards for tenacious Fuglsang
The new finish back in the city centre of Liège didn't produce the reduced bunch sprint that many expected. In the end, it was an attack on the final climb – the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons – which made the difference for the man who finally opened up his Monuments account.
Having finished third in Amstel Gold and second in La Flèche Wallonne, it may have seemed a matter of mere gravitational pull that the Dane would progress to the top step of the podium. But that shouldn't take anything away from his canny ride.
Fuglsang entered La Doyenne as one of the main favourites and opted to keep his powder dry until Michael 'Cold Left Leg' Woods lit the torch paper on the final climb. But to ride clear of the Canadian and Italy's Davide Formolo, while holding a strong chase group at bay, took strength and character. Just as staying upright after that heart-in-mouth skid on the final descent took an element of luck.
As the clouds parted, the sun shone on Fuglsang as he rode up the home straight – mirroring the favour of the cycling gods, whom had smiled upon him.
But make no mistake, this win was coming. The 34-year-old's record this season is vintage Valverde-esque: in 25 race days, he's finished outside the top 10 only on eight occasions and has nine top threes as well as one GC win, a further four podiums and one mountains classification jersey.
The Dane also became the eighth rider in history to finish on the podium of all three Ardennes classics in one season.
Running on empty, Alaphilippe gave Fuglsang his blessing
Julian Alaphilippe has locked horns with Sunday's victor throughout the season, most notably at Strade Bianche and La Flèche – where the Frenchman came out on top – and Amstel Gold, where they were both left with egg on their faces.
According to Fuglsang, his usual tormentor gave his winning ride his blessing on Sunday at the business end of the race.
" Before we took the speedy downhill to La Redoute, I was in the wheel of [Astana's] Luis León Sánchez and he [Alaphilippe] was in the wheel of his guys. I looked over at him to see if I could get any sign of how he was feeling, and he looked back and said to me 'I hope you win today'."
"I looked back and said 'thank you and good luck', I think he probably knew then that he wasn't at his best or the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons was going to be too hard for him."
The result was a maiden Monument win for the Dane exactly a decade after he made his first major classic debut in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. As for Alaphilipple, he later said that he had "no regrets" and admitted that he "finished this race totally empty". Who can blame him after the spring he's had?
Rare off-day sees Deceuninck-QuickStep miss out
If you can't win 'em all then you can at least come close. Unfortunately for the Belgian team, they didn't even place a rider in the top 15: Alaphilippe's lowly 16th place their highest on the heavy rain finally put out QuickStep's early season fire.
This was the team's worst performance since Gent-Wevelgem, where their top rider came 19th, and came despite the Wolfpack asserting their authority on the race for large parts of the day.
Indeed, it was the Deceuninck pace-setting behind the break which briefly split the bunch before the key climbs – and when the first counter came, the team had Philippe Gilbert and Enric Mas in the mix.
But despite Gilbert being correct and present, the team missed the key move when Tanel Kangert (EF Education First) zipped clear with Astana's Omar Fraile. And the select group which formed in pursuit contained team-mates of all the other big contenders, forcing QuickStep to lead the chase.
When Astana then took over ahead of the final climb, QuickStep were relying on individuality over a collective effort – but by then their usual trump card to thwart Fuglsang was a busted flush.
Advantage Astana ahead of Giro d'Italia
By contrast to QuickStep, Astana had six riders leading the pack going onto the final climb – a huge show of force for a team whose leader admitted "were a little bit everywhere for most of the race".
"But in the most important moment, they were there, and they did an amazing job," added Fuglsang, diplomatically.
Their power in numbers meant that they didn't feel the absence of Ion Izagirre when the Spaniard overcooked a bend and was forced off the road ahead of the final climb…
Fuglsang's win increased Astana's tally for the season to 23 wins – just two fewer than QuickStep. The rivalry will resume in the Giro d'Italia where sprinter Elia Viviani will carry the torch for the Belgian team, while the Kazakhs will be pushing Colombia's Miguel Angel Lopez for the maglia rosa alongside QuickStep's Bob Jungels.
Bora-Hansgrohe show strength in depth in Sagan's absence
Two spots on the podium and their best classics performance of the season, Bora had a solid day in the office – and all without the help of their team leader Peter Sagan.
As the Slovakian's troubled season continues – he's still without a win since the Tour Down Under – his team-mates continue to shine, with Davide Formolo finishing runner-up in Liège and Max Schachmann winning the sprint for third.
The team's 19 wins this season put them in third place in the team standings behind pace-setters QuickStep and Astana: remarkable for a team many perceived was overly reliant on Sagan.
On Sunday, Patrick Konrad and Jay McCarthy also finished in the top 15. Bora, indeed, look in rude health ahead of the Giro – although it seems crazy to think they may overlook Sam Bennett for La Corsa Rosa. The Irishman has six wins this season and notched a Giro hat-trick last year.
Gaudu closest to ending French hoodoo
If all eyes were on Alaphilippe to end France's barren run in La Doyenne, it was left to youngster David Gaudu to put in the best French performance. The 22-year-old from Groupama-FDJ came home in sixth place amid illustrious company, surrounded as he was by Grand Tour behemoths Vincenzo Nibali, Mikel Landa and Adam Yates.
Frustrating end to disappointing spring for Van Avermaet
His golden helmet and bright orange rain cape ensured that Greg Van Avermaet was very present amid the gloom on Sunday – but when push came to shove, the Belgian didn't so much do the shoving as was pushed about by his rivals.
The 33-year-old was a late entry to the last classic of the spring – perhaps in an 11th hour bid to put some gloss on an otherwise monochrome start to the season – and was one of the main instigators when the first shake-out came during the Wanne-Stockeu-Haute Levee trident of climbs.
But while his CCC Team got Alessandro De Marchi in the 10-man move on La Redoute, Van Avermaet didn't have the legs to make the difference. A spill on the descent of the final climb rubbed salt into the wound, with the Olympic champion limping home in 52nd place.
It's fair to say that an over-reliance on Van Avermaet was detrimental not only to the rider but to his rather thin CCC Team this spring. It's back to the drawing board for them...
Valverde finally showing signs of decline
The world champion's withdrawal with 105km remaining concluded a frustrating spring for the veteran Spaniard, who has only tasted victory once while in the rainbow stripes.
Usually so indomitable in the Ardennes, Valverde failed to finish in the top 10 all week. Could we be finally seeing the 39-year-old feeling the pinch of his advancing years?
Team Sky bow out without a bang
In their last ride with Sky as title sponsor, the British team scraped a top 10 finish through the 2016 winner Wout Poels but largely failed to leave their mark on the race, with the promise of Michal Kwiatkowski fading fast on the final climb.
After victories in six Tours de France, one Giro and one Vuelta in nine years, Team Sky's final race in the pro peloton came in the first of only two Monuments they had managed to bag. With the team's Twitter handle already changed to @TeamINEOS, the new colours will be unveiled at the Tour de Yorkshire, which starts on Thursday.
Before then, there will be a collector's item of a makeshift (and monstrous) Team INEOS jersey which will be worn during the Tour of Romandie, which gets under way on Tuesday.
High time we got to see the finale of the women's races
This mirrored both Amstel Gold and La Flèche, where there were no images from the women's race despite all the infrastructure being there to bring the public pictures.
There's no denying that there's a healthy appetite for women's racing on TV. It's now reached the point where journalists, riders and teams alike are all feeling the frustration.
Surely, it's time this was put right. We live in the 21st Century after all. And if its easy enough for the London Marathon live feed to flick between the men's and women's races, then why can't the same happen in bike races similarly being held over the same course?