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PEZ Previews: Liege-Bastogne-Liege
La Doyenne – ‘a woman who is the eldest or senior member of a group.’ The group in question being the Classics; and in particular the five ‘Monuments,’ specifically Milan–Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris–Roubaix, the Tour of Lombardy and Liege– Bastogne–Liege, the oldest of them all. In Flemish that’s ‘Luik–Bastenaken–Luik,’ but whichever language you chose this race was first held as a professional event in 1894; and that’s a long time ago.

Man hadn’t yet mastered powered flight, the Great War was two decades away and Leon Houa’s average speed for the 223 kilometres was 25.15 kph.

There were two amateur editions even before that, in ’92 and ’93 – both of which Houa also won.

But she’s not a forgiving old girl; much more of a strict matriarch than benign grandma.

Within her 257.5 kilometres lay 11 killing climbs – not big geared Flemish ‘ramps’ - and very little flat or straight in the way of parcours for the entire day.

Liege is a sprawling city with the start in the Place Saint-Lambert.

The race wiggles south to ‘turn’ near Bastogne in the heart of the Ardennes area - where the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ raged in late 1944 when the Germans launched their last great, but ultimately futile offensive of World War Two.

After Bastogne it heads north again to a dour finale at the top of the Cote De Saint-Nicolas through endless grey housing to finish outside a retail park.

The critical climb in the race used to be the legendary Cote De La Redoute with 35 kilometres to go.

But in recent years as the overall standard of racing has risen and the gaps between the top protagonists has narrowed, the race tends to be decided on the utterly horrible Saint Nicholas – an endless grind which keeps changing gradient and direction making sure only the strongest can win.

A look at the ‘bible,’ Velo 2011 tells us that the race was won at 39.216 kph last year and as recently as 1997 was won at a pedestrian 36.649 – this is no ‘walk in the park.’

Many of the all time greats have won this race – Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Sean Kelly among them.

But the Classics specialists have left their mark – Fred Debruyne, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, Moreno Argentin and Paolo Bettini have all ‘done the business.’

Philippe Gilbert pays homage to the record man and greatest racer of all-time, Eddy Merckx, at the top of the Cote du Stockeu.

‘Recordman’ – as you might expect – is Eddy Merckx with five wins between ’69 and ’75; but the dapper Venetian with the power to weight ratio that meant uphill sprints were a formality - Moreno Argentin, took four editions between ’85 and ’91.

As with the Amstel Gold race the event had an ‘unfortunate’ run of winners between 2003 and 2008 – Tyler Hamilton, Davide Rebellin, Alexandre Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde and Danilo Di Luca.

Alexandre Vinokourov is the defending champion.

Of those, ‘Killer’ Di Luca (Katusha) and ‘Vino’ (Astana) return – albeit the Italian is a little less lethal than he used to be.

The Kazakh however, is back to his old ways (racing-wise, that is) with a fine stage win in the Pais Vasco and a near miss of the podium in the Fleche Wallonne.

Philippe Gilbert gets some major love on the roads of the Ardennes. He's everywhere.

The man from Petropavlovsk won here last year and if anyone is to prevent Philippe Gilbert (Lotto & Belgium) from a fabulous ‘triple’ then it’s the man in baby blue and yellow.

It’s easy to forget that it’s a long time since a Belgian won this race – the late, great Frank Vandenbroucke in 1999.

Rounding out the podium in 2011 were Russian champion Alexandre Kolobnev (Katusha) and ‘disparu’ Spaniard Alejandro Valverde.

But hard man Kolobnev may have to play a supporting role to diminutive Spanish team mate Joaquin Rodriguez who was second here in 2008 and occupied the same position in the recent Amstel and Fleche – a man on form.

The Schlecks have played a major role at Liege-Bastogne-Liege over the past few years...including taking a win in 2009.

In 2009 it was Andy Schleck (Leopard) who gave Luxembourg her first win since Marcel Ernzer in 1954 – Andy showed strongly in the recent Amstel with brother and team mate, Frank doing the same in the Fleche, just days ago.

On the course yesterday.

Big bruv Schleck was third here in ’07 and ’08 and if he and junior can avoid crashes and mechanicals they could be two to challenge the Lotto machine which has been so efficient this last week.

Olympic champion Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel & Spain) is another with the form and pedigree to do a ride; as is Sky’s Aussie, Simon Gerrans who showed strongly on the Cauberg last Sunday.

If it’s a long time since a Belgian topped the podium, it’s even longer since a Frenchman stood on any of the steps – Laurent Jalabert in 1998; but Tommy Voeckler (Europcar) was 10th here last year and is enjoying excellent form – the podium beckons.

It’s unlikely that anyone whom we haven’t mentioned above will make the podium – and even more unlikely that anyone other than Philippe Gilbert will top said flight of steps.

The forecast is good, Jered is out there (somewhere); the boss will up be getting up before he goes to bed; and Ivan will be assisting me with the race report – don’t touch that dial!


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