LBL’06: Valverde Outjumps The Cricket!

Only special riders pull off special results, and Alejandro Valverde firmly cemented his place at the very top of cycling’s elite rank, nailing the Ardennes double of Fleche-Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The young Spanish talent outgunned two-time Liege winner Paolo Bettini and Kid Cunego. The Ardennes-Double might just beat out his triumph over Big Tex on Courchevel last year.

First Spaniard…Ever
Valverde proved the strongest and smartest rider of the final eleven-man group, coming off Patrick Sinkewitz’s wheel and outlasting Paolo Bettini in the sprint for the line, after Ivan Basso, Frank Schleck, Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero, and Joaquin Rodriguez had all failed to get away late on.

Since this beautiful race was first run in 1892, Valverde is, amazingly, the first Spaniard ever to win ‘La Doyenne’. When you think of his countrymen that have been capable of taking this race, realising what Valverde did today makes him stand out even more.

It was a perfect day for six and a half hours in the saddle – dry, warm and fairly benign northerly breezes – as the peloton rolled out of Liege to face the traditionally comfortable outward leg to Bastogne.

A Break Of 26? Yikes.
The weather relaxed everyone enough to let a huge break motor away early on, knowing the 26-man group (yes, that’s twenty six!!) would run out of patience with each other before they ran out of energy.

The main field climbs early on at a leisurely pace.

Today’s guilty parties were Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom) and Serge Pauwels (Chocolade Jacques), who were chased down by a mob including Voigt, Wesemann, Commesso, Rogers and Flecha. As the peloton downed tools for a while, the lead developed to a shade over 7 minutes. By the turn for home it was just under 6.

CSC Worked In The Break AND In The Field
Despite having Voigt in the break, CSC were acting like a bunch of cycling hoods, slashing away at the time gap – doing anything and everything possible to make the race as hard as possible – with Lampre-Fondital egging them on. The leaders imploded on the first of the major climbs on the homeward leg, the Cote de Wanne, as Wesemann and Luis Perez (Cofidis) jumped away.

Wesemann Does It Hard-Man Style Again
Wesemann tried again, and was soon soloing up the climb, scraping more seconds out of his erstwhile companions. The German clattered up the Stockeu, then the Haute-Levee, with a kaleidoscope of personnel changes behind. When he reached the Rosier, he was alone in front, with the peloton at 60 seconds.

After a rough go of it in the Northern Classics, Steffen Wesemann left his stamp all over the Ardennes.

CSC had the foot to the floor – once Carlos Sastre had done his job, Voigt was pressed into service to keep the speed up. Wesemann was caught on the Vecquйe, 50kms from home.

A Jaunt To La Redoute
PEZ-Man in the Field, Edmond Hood picks up the story from here: We got our first sight of the race on the Cote De La Roche-En-Ardenne climb at 80 kilometres, a big break of some two dozen were seven minutes clear in the sunshine as champagne corks were popped by spectators enjoying picnics.

This part of Belgium is far removed from Flanders, rolling wooded hills and twisting river valleys make it more akin to Germany than the flat-lands we associate with the land of frites and kermesses. We high-tailed over to the legendary ascent that is – La Redoute; narrow, twisting, long and much steeper than it appears on TV. There was a big screen set up and the smell of frites and burgers filled the air – we almost wept with emotion.

This is one picture that does not deceive.

The savage, narrow ramp that is La Redoute did not prove decisive in 2006 though, keeping with the theme of recent editions where La Redoute has been more effective at dispatching the chaff, but nothing decisive.

Boogerd Goes On The March
The big names started attacking on La Redoute – Cunego, Bettini, Horner – but they were together again until Michael Boogerd and Joaquin Rodriguez jumped on the Sprimont. It was a huge effort, and they were 45 seconds clear on the Sart-Tilman after just 6 miles of work.

Michael Boogerd gave it a helluva go and stayed away into the final stages, but was eventually reeled in with 4k to go.

No Luck For Boogie…Down To A Sprint
Bettini made a move, leaving Valverde behind, and clawing the lead down, but he was closed with Jorg Jaksche working like a Trojan.

Boogerd hammered up the Cote de Saint-Nicolas, 8 kms to go – the lead falling from 30 seconds to under 20 with Liberty driving for 2005 champ Vinkourov. Perdiguero stands on the pedals, and the Boogerd/Rodriguez show was over, 4kms from home.

Valverde wins the sprint by a mile.

Schleck had a go first, then Perdiguero and Rodriguez, and finally Sinkewitz on the final drag upwards in Ans, but Valverde was sitting tight, and with no-one able to get away, the Spaniard applied the same finish as in Fleche-Wallonne, and countless other sprints before.

Results: 92nd Liege-Bastogne-Liege
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse D’Epargne-Illes Balears 6.21.32 (41.202 km/h)
2 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step – Innergetic
3 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Fondital
4 Patrik Sinkewitz (Ger) T-Mobile Team
5 Michael Boogerd (Ned) Rabobank
6 Martin Perdiguero M.Angel (Spa) Phonak Hearing Systems
7 Frank Schleck (Lux) Team CSC
8 Christopher Horner (USA) Davitamon – Lotto
9 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 0.04
10 Ivan Basso (Ita) Team CSC 0.07
11 Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz) Liberty Seguros – Wьrth Team 0.12
12 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Caisse D’Epargne-Illes Balears 0.24
13 David Etxebarria (Spa) Liberty Seguros – Wьrth Team 0.28
14 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 0.29
15 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel – Euskadi 0.31
16 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas
17 Andriy Grivko (Ukr) Team Milram
18 Karsten Kroon (Ned) Team CSC
19 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre-Fondital
20 Thomas Dekker (Ned) Rabobank

Overall ProTour Standings
1 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Caisse D’epargne-Illes Balears 136 pts
2 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step – Innergetic 129
3 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre-Fondital 105
4 Frank Schleck (Lux) Team CSC 100
5 Patrik Sinkewitz (Ger) T-Mobile Team 90
6 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel – Euskadi 89
7 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team CSC 84
8 Michael Boogerd (Ned) Rabobank 75
9 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Team Milram 72
10 Antonio Colom Mas (Spa) Caisse D’epargne-Illes Balears 71
11 Filippo Pozzato (Ita) Quick Step – Innergetic 70
12 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step – Innergetic 66
13 Karsten Kroon (Ned) Team CSC 60
14 George Hincapie (USA) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 60
15 Josй Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval – Prodir 53