How Grace Brown capitalised on a lack of control to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège

The Australian committed herself to an early breakaway, but was able to still dig deep to beat the favourites in a final sprint

It could be argued that there isn't a single rider in cycling who loves to attack more than Grace Brown (FDJ Suez). Her trademark move is to go early and go big, committing to risky long-range moves rather than keeping her powder dry for the endgame of races. It’s an all-or-nothing strategy that often leaves her with nothing, but sometimes pays off handsomely, and all of the major results of her career have been achieved this way — she won the 2021 Brugge-De Panne Classic by breaking clear from a select escape group 10km from the finish, and did the same from even further out to triumph at De Brabantse Pijl the year before, while both her runner-up finishes at the 2022 and 2020 editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège came whens he caught the top favourites by surprise by attacking early.

On Sunday, her aggressive strategy paid off better than it ever has done before, as she reaped the rewards of escaping into an early break to take a Monument victory, becoming the only the third rider from a team other than SD Worx or Lidl-Trek to win a Monument since 2019. It was the biggest result of her career by high, and a fitting prize for a rider so talented.

It’s quite telling that Brown’s best results come most consistently in time trials, the discipline in which she has been crowned world silver medalist in each of the last two seasons; as a rider she gives the impression that she’s happiest when out alone riding her own tempo, and not having to worry about riding with others around her. Yet there’s also clearly something about Liège-Bastogne-Liège that plays perfectly to her attributes as a rider, as evidenced by her two podium finishes, and now one victory, she has had here these past five years. With its relentlessly hilly parcours, which always makes for a war of attrition, there’s not an awful lot of subtlety to the race, which seems to suit the Australian's reliance of pure power and love for attacking early.

One of the few riders who might rival Brown for that status as most willing attacker is Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM). The Swiss rider has built a reputation as someone who loves chasing Queen of the Mountains titles in stage races, as if the conventional tactics of sticking in the peloton and preserving energy is simply too boring for her. And like Brown, she has the engine to make riders hurt when she makes long-range moves, as was so thrillingly clear in Glasgow last year during the World Championships road race, when she caused panic by spending four laps alone out front, before finally being reeled in at the bell.

So it was indicative of the kind of race today’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège was that both these riders, together with Kim Cadzow (EF Education-Cannondale), found themselves leading the race with a substantial lead of 2:45 over the group of favourites, and with just 30km left to ride. They had all been a part of an early breakaway group that had formed halfway into the race, and that, with all of the big teams represented, had been allowed a large gap. It was an open race, and Brown and Chabbey’s attacking instincts were being rewarded.

On the Côte de la Redoute, 35km from the finish, Chabbey and Brown laid the hammer down. First Chabbey and then Brown upped the pace on the key climb’s viscous gradients, and only Cadzow was able to stay with them. Having dropped, among others, SD Worx’s Mischa Bredewold and Lidl-Trek’s Lucinda Brand, they knew that a chase behind led by those two teams was about to begin in earnest, and, ever the willing workers, set about working together to try and hold them off. The gap was about two minutes at the top, but they capitalised on some hesitation to quickly grow it back up to a dangerous 2:45 a few kilometres later.

In usual circumstances you wouldn’t have expected SD Worx and Lidl-Trek to have allowed such threatening riders so far up the road with only their weaker riders marking them, and let alone for them to have built such a gap. But neither team has been as strong as usual this Ardennes Classics campaign, and end the week with the unlikely and unexpected result of winning neither Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège. While it was clear earlier SD Worx’s powers were on the wane early this spring, now it’s become apparent that Lidl-Trek aren’t ready to fill the void. Instead, no team has been able to take control in recent weeks, and so races have become something of a thrilling free for all.

The two teams did manage to combine to bring their respective leaders Demi Vollering and Elisa Longo Borghini back into contention, but even then they remained on the backfoot. Both successfully used the final classified climb of the day, Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, to attack out of the peloton 14km from the finish, but were accompanied by a determined Kasia Niewiadoma, who just about managed to cling on to their wheels. Having enjoyed a rare taste of victory at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, the Pole now found herself in a role reversal of the position she usually finds herself in — rather than being ganged up against by other teams with superior numbers, this time, with her Canyon-SRAM team-mate Chabbey up the road, she had the luxury of sitting on Vollering and Borghini’s wheels and not obliged to take any turns, while they did all the work to bring them back.

With 9km, the catch was made, and Canyon-SRAM set about trying to make the most of their numerical advantage over the isolated Vollering, Longo Borghini, Brown and Cadzow. They played it by the textbook, attacking in tandem over and over again in the final kilometres to try and get a gap, but didn’t quite seem to pick their moment. Only with 1km to go, in a lull after an especially stinging attack from Chabbey, did Niewiadoma get a gap of a few bike lengths, prompting her to fully commit. But unfortunately for her Borghini had the strength to drag her back, and use her as a lead out for her own sprint.

Victory seemed inevitable for the Italian, but there was to be a late twist. In a finish that drew a great gasp of breath, Brown unexpectedly and thrillingly found some reserves of strength in the final few metres, and lunged to the line to pip Borghini in the sprint.

Nobody expected that from Brown, especially considering that she had A, spent so much more time at the front of the race, and B, had, only a few kilometres earlier, had to dig deep to rejoin the group after overshooting a corner. Yet for all the times she has spent avoiding such scenarios, it turns out she does have a quick finishing kick after all; and for all her love of a long-range attack, it was in a small group sprint that the definitive result of her career was earned.

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