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The route does like it says on the tin; south out of Liege (main town of the province which bears it’s name) to Bastogne (rather confusingly situated in the Belgian province of Luxembourg) and back again to finish at a disappointing and drab retail park in the Liege suburb of Ans – which happens to be at the top of an endless climb past defunct factories, mine workers’ houses, shops and garages.
Simple, just an out and back, right?
Just in case the first time competitor has any doubts about what the race is like, the first climb of the day – Sprimont, comes within 10 kilometres of the start.
The race profile looks like an advert for high quality timber saws; if there’s a ‘flat bit’ on this course, then its hiding somewhere in the 261 kilometres of ascents and descents that make up the 95th edition of the last classic of the Spring season. The names of the climbs are familiar Stavelot, Haute Levee, Rosier to name but three (there are 11 classified) and, of course – La Redoute.
La Redoute used to be where the winner would make his move; but in these days of riders peaking for just one racea it’s no longer decisive; albeit that it’s still a great place top watch the race with it’s huge crowds, giant screen TV, bars and barbecues.
‘Back in the day’ L-B-L used to run back to back with the Fleche, the two races were known as the Weekend Ardennais.
Only the best riders of their respective generations have won both races in the same season; Ferdi Kubler (Switzerland) twice ’51 & ‘52, Stan Ockers (Belgium) ‘55, Eddy Merckx (Belgium) ‘72, Moreno Argentin (Italy) ’91, Davide Rebellin (Italy) ’04 and Alejandro Valverde ’06. Unsurprisingly, ‘Big Ted’ – as we named him back then – is the ‘record man’ on five wins with the classy Argentin on four.
The fact that two of the ‘doubles’ were completed in the last few years says much about the changes in pro cycling.
Merckx would charge through the early season from Milan – San Remo (which he won seven times) to the Amstel (which closed the Classics season back then and which the Belgian won twice) without missing a beat.
In this millennium, such a thing would be out of the question as riders specialise in cobbled, sprinters’ or Ardennes Classics.
The final trio from 2008 could look pretty similar this year as well – except we’ll swap Schlecks for the younger one.
If we’re being pragmatic about it, the list of real potential winners at Liege is short; Alejandro Valverde (Caisse D’Epargne & Spain) is defending champion, was second to Di Luca in 2007 and won in 2006. The reigning Spanish champion burst on the scene for Kelme back in 2003 with 10 wins, last year he topped the podium 16 times, he’s a winner and this is his race. Placings of 21st at the Amstel and 7th at the Fleche indicate that the macro management of his form is right on course for Sunday.
Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni & Italy) has been in the paid ranks since 1992 when a top ten in his first Tour of Lombardy served warning that the man they call ‘Tin Tin’ was going to be a good pro. This will be his 17th season; there’s little that anyone can tell this man about reading a race – a vital quality in La Doyenne. He’s won here before, in 2004 when he pulled off an unequalled treble of Amstel, Fleche and Liege – not even Big Ted could manage that one! Last year only Valverde could keep him of the top of the podium; at his year’s Amstel he kept his powder dry, not troubling the judges at all, but atop the Mur de Huy on Wednesday he reminded us that in a race with this type of parcours, he’s one of the very best.
Valverde and Rebellin fall into the technical category of ‘small and skinny,’ the only other category who can win are, ‘tall and very skinny’ – enter Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank & Luxembourg). Brother Frank may have fallen in the Amstel but “young ‘un” Andy is upholding family honour just fine, 10th in the Amstel and 2nd in the Fleche. This could be his break through victory; despite huge promise and great places of honour, he hasn’t actually stood atop many podiums – perhaps on Sunday he’ll see what it’s like to enjoy the best view?
Thomas Dekker and Cadel Evans were well up the placings last year. They’re teammates along with Philippe Gilbert in 2009.
The last serious contender is the man I wrongly tipped for Amstel and Fleche victory; he was close with 5th and 3rd respectively, but no cigars – Damiano Cunego (Lampre & Italy). He was 3rd here in Liege in 2006; this year he’s even lighter and focussed on Giro glory – a win here would be a huge boost to his confidence.
If the winner comes from any rider other than the four named above then it will be a big surprise.
The best of the supporting cast should include the Silence duo of Evans (Australia) and Gilbert (Belgium) 5th at Fleche and 4th at Amstel respectively; however Philippe’s critical words about Cadel’s leadership abilities in the Fleche won’t have helped team unity.
Another dynamic duo to watch is the Columbia pair of Eroica winner Thomas Lovkvist (Sweden) and Michael Albasini (Switzerland) – if they’re both there in the finale and get their tactics right then one of them could be on the podium.
Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel & Spain) will revel in the climbs and descents of the Ardennes and that Ans finish straight isn’t too unlike the one in Beijing.
Any Classics preview has to include the word, ‘Cervelo’ – the pro continental outfit has been the revelation of the season, making their presence felt where ever they go; Aussie Simon Gerrans was 7th in the Amstel and 8th in the Fleche – Sunday could be a good day for him.
If I have to name one – Valverde, but well, Rebellin was amazing at the Fleche and Cunego . . . . .