Touchpaper: under the weather

Let’s face it: the 2016 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liege was a damp squib. We waited in vain for meaningful moves from the favourites. The weather was far more changeable than the race itself, shifting between sun, rain and snow flurries.
In the finale, the big names seemed statue-esque, frozen by the foul conditions and inertia. Take nothing away from eventual winner, Team Sky’s Wout Poels: he played it perfectly, pouncing on the Rue Naniot.
However, it underlined what has been better disguised by past Classics like the 2013 Milan-Sanremo. It was won by the surprise package, Gerald Ciolek, after the race was neutralised by snowfall and frozen riders gathered on team buses. The race became as much about survival as tactical intrigue, partly a matter of which riders could handle the “epic” conditions better than others.
Bad weather can often put the dampener on genuine exciting racing. It’s difficult to blame the riders for that; the fact that 154 of them finished Liège-Bastogne-Liège yesterday was a feather in their casquette.
Undeniably, “epic” weather conditions in big races are far more – perhaps solely – enjoyable for fans, witnessing their heroes flecked in mud or shivering with snow-dotted helmets. Sure, competing in a blizzard looks great on TV, but how does it improve the quality of the racing? And where’s the empathy for the poor sods who have to soldier through it?

History creates impossible expectations too. Social media’s hurried comparisons to 1980 – the snowy edition where a victorious Bernard Hinault ended with frostbite in two fingers and 21 men finished – on Sunday morning were ludicrous. Happily, cycling has moved on and the riders’ union, the CPA, rightly cut 30 kilometres out of the course early on.
This snip to the parcours arguably opened it up to more riders too. Liège-Bastogne-Liège’s usual 253-kilometre distance, as well as all those Ardennes ascents, is what lends to the attrition. There are men in the WorldTour peloton who are adept at 200-kilometre races but run out of gas over the longest distances.
In comparison, this year’s editions of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – raced with sunshine and blue skies – were arguably the most compelling in years, lit up unexpectedly early by the stars, away from the eye-catching places where you would usually expect action. You don’t need mud and rain to be riveted.
All that said, perhaps there’s something unfair in pitting apples against oranges, the cobbled Classics against the Ardennes races. It depends on your reading of Liège-Bastogne-Liège too. Movistar gambled on the strength of their pre-race favourite Alejandro Valverde by setting the pace for hours, and ultimately lost. While there was not a great deal of aggression in “La Doyenne”, there was a lot of action at the back. At times, it was more akin to devil take the hindmost, with a bedraggled bunch dwindling and reforming after every climb, plus numerous crashes.
So, be careful what you wish for when it comes to doing rain dances before important spring Classics. As the sport smartens up weather-wise, severe conditions might see more cancellations in the future.
One thing is certain: there will not be a Liège-Bastogne-Liège like that snowy 1980 edition again. This is not something to bemoan; we should be celebrating a professional sport moving out of the dark ages and into common sense territory. The professional peloton has deserved better rights for a long time.

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