Blazin' Saddles: An old timer for the Old Lady?
Ardennes week comes to an end this Sunday with a Liege-Bastogne-Liege that the evergreen Alejandro Valverde could seemingly win in a pair of slippers and with a pipe in his mouth.
[Tune in to watch the 103rd edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege from 13:10 BST on Eurosport and the Eurosport Player]
After cycling's Benjamin Button beat Dan Martin on Wednesday to secure a record fourth consecutive Fleche Wallonne – and a fifth win in total – the Irishman mused that perhaps he'd have to wait until his Spanish rival had retired before he could finally taste his own success on the Mur de Huy.
Who's to say Valverde will hang up his cycling shoes before Martin?
Movistar's Spanish veteran may be approaching his 37th birthday but Quick-Step Floors climber Martin is only one year shy of the age that Bernard Hinault, 31, called it a day. And while Martin hasn't picked up a major classics win since Il Lombardia in 2014, Valverde seems to be stacking them up at the same rate that Team Sky dish out TUEs.
Just what kind of elixir of life have they been putting in the old boys' bidons in 2017? With three out of five done, the average age of Monument winners so far this season is 30.33. Last year it was 29.33 but that was somewhat skewed when the 38-year-old Mat Hayman won Paris-Roubaix; the year before it was as low as 26.33 – largely thanks to John Degenkolb's Sanremo-Roubaix double.
These stats are even more pointed when narrowing things down to the Ardennes trinity of Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. As it stands – following wins for the kidney-devilled Gilbert and Valverde – the average is 35, up a shade from last year when Enrico Gasparotto and Valverde won the first two races before spoilsport Wout Poels brought the average down with a first-ever Monument win for Team Sky at Liege, the oldest of cycling's five Monuments.
With no Poels to defend his crown this year – and vintage Valverde riding like a man entering the zenith of his career – few would bet against the Spaniard joining Moreno Argentin with four Liege-Bastogne-Liege wins in joint second place in the hall of fame behind the great Eddy Merckx.
Heck, the way things are going – and 2017 is on course to be 2014 all over again – it would be hardly surprising to see 36-year-old Simon Gerrans come out of his virtual retirement with a win for Orica-Scott.
The 103rd edition of the race is a gruelling 258km schlep over a typically undulating parcours in Wallonia, heading south out of Liege to Bastogne before making a sweeping loop back to the finish in the post-industrial town of Ans in the suburbs of Liege.
It's not exactly the prettiest course in the cycling calendar but the 10 climbs that pepper the route does make Liege-Bastogne-Ans one of the spikiest. This year three new climbs feature before the traditional closing triptych of the Cote de La Redoute, Cote de La Roche-aux-Faucons and Cote de Saint-Nicolas.
Intriguingly, two of the three new climbs are steeper than all of the final decisive trio of ascents, so perhaps we will see the wheat being separated from the chaff – that's to say, Valverde pulling away from the younger bucks – a little earlier than expected.
Can anyone cause an upset?
For those who think Liege-Bastogne-Liege may prove as predictable as an ageing Spaniard firing an arrow over the summit of the Mur de Huy – usually with a grimacing Irishman caught behind – think again.
Sure, Valverde is in stellar form but Gilbert, his fellow Indian Summer pension-dodger, has been ruled out following the ruptured kidney he sustained en route to winning – yes, winning – the Amstel Gold Race. That opens the door to the man Gilbert denied in Limburg: Michal Kwiatkowski.
Michal Kwiatkowski Imago
The Pole has experienced something of a resurgence this season, hitting the kind of purple patch you'd associate with gorillas on the drums after a few too many Cadbury chocolate bars. Indeed, all talk was of Kwiatkowski when he notched early wins in both Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo – and if he's since been eclipsed by the likes of Tour of Flanders winner Gilbert or Paris-Roubaix victor Greg van Avermaet, that's primarily because the 26-year-old has been keeping his powder dry for the Ardennes.
A podium in Amstel and seventh in the Fleche shows that Kwiatkowski will be a more than capable stand-in for the injured Poels for Sky over this lumpy terrain. And let's not forget that he finished on the 2014 podium behind Gerrans and Valverde, so knows what it takes to (almost) win here in Belgium.
Crucially, Kwiatkowski also has two functioning kidneys – something that, while overrated on race days, can come back and haunt you in the following days, eh, Philippe?
BMC's van Avermaet has never bettered the seventh place he posted in his Liege debut back in 2011 but he has the engine, climbing ability and form to be a factor. A better prospect, though, is that man Martin. With both Gilbert and 2015 runner-up Julian Alaphilippe ruled out for Quick-Step, the Irish 2013 winner will assume a leadership role for the Belgian team.
Greg van AvermaetImago
If Quick-Step's flaws were apparent when Valverde won once again on the Mur de Huy, Martin has what it takes to cap an otherwise extremely strong classics campaign for Patrick Lefevere's squad.
Also worth considering are the likes of Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates), Sergio Henao (Team Sky), Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), not to forget Orica-Scott, who have multiple matches to burn in Roman Kreuziger and the Yates twins, Simon and Adam.
Of course, given the current trend, we shouldn't rule out the resurgent Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) holding his rivals at bay for the first Monument win of his career – aged 36.
And finally, it's worth noting that the Old Lady will be opening her doors to young ladies for the very first time with a 184km women's edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege scheduled to take place on Sunday before the men's event.
Rider's star ratings for Liege-Bastogne-Liege
Daniel Martin, Michal Kwiatkowski
Second-placed Ireland's Daniel Martin of the Quick-Step Floors team celebrates on the podium during the trophy ceremony in Mur de Huy after competing in the Fleche Wallonne cycling race on April 19, 2017Getty Images
Greg van Avermaet, Sergio Henao, Rui Costa, Romain Bardet, Warren Barguil