Saturday, April 25, 2009

Liège-Bastogne-Liège - Preview

Tomorrow’s “La Doyenne” closes the Spring Classics season with 261km of côtes (11 are officially listed, but several more populate the route) through Belgium’s French-speaking Ardennes. The race has just a bit of history—it started in 1892—but since I’m posting this preview at the last minute, I won’t inundate you with too many other details. So let’s get to the favorites:

The overwhelming favorite has to be Alejandro Valverde. A win tomorrow and Valverde enters the club of riders who have won the race three times. However, as Cyclingnews points-out, he’ll still be 2-behind Merckx and 1-behind Argentin in the race’s overall record books. Valverde’s clearly been guarding his form in advance of Sunday’s event. Present at the front of the Amstel and Flèche finales, but seemingly unwilling to give it full-gas, he’s obviously hoping that his measured efforts will pay-off big-time down the finishing straight in the Liège suburb of Ans.

Just behind Valverde lies Davide Rebellin, another former winner. Rebellin won Flèche Wednesday with a perfect display of power and calm up the Mur de Huy. Rebellin knows this race well, the question will be how his team will fare in keeping him where he needs to be as the race enters it’s final phase.

Damiano Cunego has been a bit of a disappointment to some. He promised to attack all week, seemingly giving little thought to riding conservatively in the hopes of winning the week’s biggest prize in Liège. Tomorrow we’ll have to see: is he really a step below where he said he would be, or has he just been bluffing? He certainly has the talent—when he’s on top form—to win easily.

After these three top favorites, it’s anybody’s guess. For me, Andy Schleck presents the greatest challenge to the men above. He has a strong team of support riders at his beck and call—in fact, he might even have his brother Frank back after his scary crash in Amstel. Together with Karsten Kroon, Andy and his team might have the firepower to bring the home the win for Saxo Bank and Bjarne Riis.

Samuel Sanchez has been knocking on the door all week with a 14th at Amstel and 4th at Flèche. But can he make the final step to the top of the podium? Tomorrow would be a great time to show his big win in Beijing was no fluke.

Cadel Evans and Silence-Lotto are setting themselves up for a lot of pressure this summer, with a list of near-misses as long and tall as the Mur de Huy (the latest scene of their collective self-implosion). Evans clearly doesn’t have the top-end fitness of some of his competitors (can you blame him though?) and I think Philipe Gilbert won’t have enough left in the tank to be there when it counts. Not that they are to be completely discounted, but if they can’t deliver the goods between now and July, look for the team to do some major house-cleaning before next season.

Rabobank’s Robert Gesink proved me wrong and put in a terrific showing in Amstel. Then he justified my lack of faith by promptly pulling-out of Flèche with a bum knee. I want to take him seriously, believe me I do, but I can’t help but feel he is yet another in a long line of Dutch favorites who can’t handle the pressure in the biggest races. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong?

I’m officially off my Fabian Wegman bandwagon. (Can you call it a bandwagon if you were the driver and the only passenger?) Nevertheless, this probably means that he’ll deliver the goods. And I’ll look like a genius with no patience.

And finally, there’s Liquigas. Basso’s on the preliminary start list, but will he start following his win in Trentino? Regardless, I’m eager to see what Roman Kreuzinger can do. He’s been active on the front of races all week and he has a strong team to support him. No matter how he fares, he's shown he’s a talent for the future. Mark him down now for the win in Romandie.

From there, you’re on your own. If you insist on a true dark horse, I still say Nocentini has something big in his legs—he showed it at Flèche--especially if there's a Valverde-Rebellin-Cunego stalemate.

And my two final random thoughts?
1. Bert De Waele and Thomas Voeckler will finish in the top ten.
2. Christophe Moreau and/or Frank Vandenbroucke will appear in the day’s suicide break.

And you? Who do you think will close the Spring with a big win in La Doyenne?

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