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Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2006: The PEZ Preview

Liege-Bastogne-Liege closes out the Spring Classics, opening up a new part of the season with the Giro d’Italia only a short week away. La Doyenne, as she is reverently called, is the toughest and oldest of the Ardennes Week races – the oldest race of all in fact. This year’s race looks to be a true classic in the making, PEZ takes a look at the course and the players.

The Spring’s final Classic is also the oldest of them all. La Doyenne was run for the first time WAY back in 1892 – further proof that Belgium has been cycling mad for longer than anyone cares to remember. The race is essentially an out and back affair, leaving the suburbs of Liege and heading south to the World War I epicenter of the Battle of the Bulge: Bastogne. The out part of the loop is not too terrible difficult, a few climbs pop up, but nothing like the evilness that will come in the latter half of the race.

The outward bound journey to Bastogne is normally a long warm-up for all except for the early break. The easy ride ends on the return flight to Liege though…

Stretching The Legs
An early break will gallop away sometime in the first hour, either painlessly in the first couple of minutes, or after some kind of struggle to make sure the breakaway artists have to work hard and earn their spot at the whipping post for what will most likely be at least 100 miles out front. Like nearly all of the Classics, the festivities are reserved for the final segment of the race – 10 significant climbs in the final 90 km of the race.

Um yeah, lumpy to the max.

Gettin The Party Started
The climb that usually initiates the business part of the race comes after 173 km – the Cote de Wanne. From there they follow in rapid succession, with such luminous ball-breakers as: the Stockeu, Haute-Levee, Rosier, Stoumont, Vecquee, La Redoute, Sprimont, Sart-Tilman, Seraing, St. Nicholas, and the final uphill drag in Ans.

The Belgian Ardennes is some of the most beautiful countryside in all of Europe.

Climbers Come To The Fore
The undulating countryside of the Ardennes presents the final evolution of the climbs of the Spring Classics – they went from the short, race-deciding capi of Milano-Sanremo, to the short, super steep, cobbled climbs of Flanders, to the slightly longer, steep climbs of Amstel Gold. Fleche Wallonne provided a preview of the Liege climbs, but Liege culminates the progression with longer climbs topping out at around 4 km, but the toughies are still short and steep: La Redoute is only 2k, but it’s ridiculous – with one section topping out around a bajillion percent.

Some pictures aren’t deceiving – the Cote de la Redoute is STEEP.

La Redoute is one of the most feared climbs in bike racing.

Survival Of The Fittest
The very hard parcourse of Liege-Bastogne-Liege causes a slow, agonizing whittling-down process, where eventually only the strong remain, and only the real bad ass can make the race-winning move. Most of the time it’s a small group that does the deed. Last year, Jens Voigt and Alexandre Vinokourov pulled off the impossible when they held off the field. Before that, it was Davide Rebellin, Vino, and Boogie. The year before, Tyler Hamilton wrested himself away from an elite group and held them off all the way to the finish. In 2002 it was a group consisting of, well, two Mapei boys: Bettini and Garzelli.

As Barry Hoban remarked – LBL is a wearing down process, the field, seen here is still large – it won’t look like this when they finish in Ans.

Make Your Move Late
It used to be that the decisive moves were made around the Stockeu or the Wanne, but the deciding point has moved ever-further back. Some years it hasn’t been until the penultimate climb of the St. Nicholas. If the race is driven hard and aggressively, hopefully the selection will come earlier and carnage will reign supreme. If it comes earlier, the climb of La Redoute would be a lovely place to make the difference.

Last year, two of the most aggressive riders in the professional peloton: Jens Voigt and Alexandre Vinokourov managed to hold off the field for countless kilometers.

Alexandre Vinokourov triumphed in the end in the sprint in Ans over not-such-a-fast-sprinter Jens Voigt. Vino has been fairly quiet this year, except for a dominating performance in Catalunya about a month ago. Vinokourov is pretty much a threat in any race he starts, and as the defending champion, he should be decently motivated to ride like hell.

Ivan Basso sits one week away from the Giro where he is the outright favorite, but he wouldn’t mind getting hold of a win at La Doyenne. Basso has managed a podium spot in the past, and if his riding so far in 2006 is any indicator, he can rip the race apart singlehandedly, or, as will more likely be the case: his team sure as hell can.

Frank Schleck is just one of the armory of bad asses that CSC will be fielding over the weekend.

The CSC team had a shaky start, but has gotten to rolling over the past few weeks. Fabian Cancellara and Frank Schleck have made it a Spring to remember. Schleck will be a man to watch, but then there’s more: Karsten Kroon (3rd at Fleche), Carlos Sastre (winner of the recent Klasika Primavera), last year’s runner-up Jens Voigt, the list goes on and on. CSC will have some big time responsibility, but of late, this has been anything but a worry for Bjarne Riis’ well-oiled machine.

Paolo Bettini has not downplayed his chances on Sunday whilst chatting with the press of late – he’ll be a man to watch on Sunday. Speaking with La Deurniere Heure Il Grillo could barely keep his feet on the ground: “It’s as if I’ve already won it. No really, I’m not joking…It’s very promising for Liиge-Bastogne-Liиge. And that one, I love it!”

Bettini conceded that he does not love the finish of Fleche Wallonne on the ridiculous Mur De Huy, but has repeated over and over that the sensations are great, and if the man that has already won La Doyenne on two occasions thinks he’s the man for 2006, one has to lean in his direction.

Alejandro Valverde took his first Classic win at La Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday – can he take the next step to his first Monument this weekend? If the race comes down to some small bunch finish, Valverde will be a hot favorite, as there are very few racers that can top Valverde in a sprint…though a few of this year’s contenders could go toe to toe with him: Di Luca, Bettini, and Cunego.

Damiano Cunego romped all over the Giro del Trentino and looks to be in fantastic form. Cunego already has a Classic under his belt: the Giro di Lombardia, so he has proved that he can be there when it counts after over 250 km of hard racing. Cunego will also have Spring 2006 revelation Alessandro Ballan to head the Lampre charge. It does not appear that there is any terrain that Ballan is not comfortable over, surely there must be a weakness in the impressive young rider who currently sits 2nd in the ProTour overall standings.

Michael Boogerd WILL be there when the race gets blown to hell, the only question is whether he’ll find his way to the top step of the podium. Boogerd has an uncanny knack for always being there when the decisive moves are made, but he has an even uncannier knack of not being able to pull off the win. Odds are that at some point, Boogerd will get a good roll of the dice.

Sammy Sanchez continues to impress, if the cards fall right, he could surprise. Sanchez took 15th at Amstel Gold and 2nd at Fleche Wallonne – there’s no question that he’s on form. Sanchez also looks to have at least one teammate who might just finally be returning from his time in the wilderness: Iban Mayo.

Mayo showed a spark of brilliance, as he attacked with 1k to go at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday. Sure he was swallowed right back up and basically spat out straightaway thereafter, but still – an attacking Mayo is a good thing to see.

Danilo Di Luca will try and take the win he couldn’t quite manage last year when he nearly pulled off the Ardennes Triple. Di Luca should be either in top form or nearly there, as he has stated openly that the Giro is his goal for 2006.

Di Luca will have a strong squad behind him in former 2nd Place at La Doyenne: Stefano Garzelli. Garzelli is a perennial contender in tough one-day races (as well as Italian Grand Tours). Di Luca will also have Luca Paolini, Paolo Bettini’s former teammate, who only has a 3rd Place at Milano-Sanremo to show for his Spring Classics campaign, but there’s no question that Paolini is a man to watch if he can distance himself from the bad luck that has plagued him for most of 06.

Three riders to watch: Basso, Grivko, and Dekker the Elder. Criterium International, at the end of March, was a tough test, and mirrors in some ways the tough contest that is LBL. Ivan Basso was no surprise at the front of the race, but Milram’s underrated Andriy Grivko raised some eyebrows, and he has remained steady since then – could he pull off something special? He’ll have the Milram team at his disposal.

Then there’s Erik Dekker. He’s in his last season, and could definitely contend at Liege. He would be a definite Dark Horse, but if there’s anyone to root for, why not the uber-aggressive Dutchman riding his swan song?

Francisco Mancebo will be making one of his first appearances in his new AG2R kit in 2006. He could be a man to watch, but he’ll need some luck, as he can’t sprint out of a paper bag. Paco Mancebo will be the definite team leader, but it’s not really known just how well he’s going at the moment. One would expect a solid ride from the ever-consistent Spaniard, which might also be his greatest weakness in a One-Day race – he’s rarely spectacular. Still – a man to watch for sure.

Cadel Evans had a horrible Fleche Wallonne, but Liege should better suit his strengths. If not Cadel, Davitamon-Lotto has a number of other possibilities in Mario Aerts and Chris Horner. Horner appears to be going the best of the D-L boys by far – Horner could definitely find his way to a huge finish, as LBL should better suit his characteristics over Amstel or Fleche.

Others to watch? Don’t forget about Davide Rebellin either – the former winner of LBL is backed by a super-strong team, but he still seems to be searching for that magic he found in 2004. T-Mobile will have a strong team that can definitely contend with Steffen Wesemman, Kim Kirchen, and Patrik Sinkewitz. Of course, there’s also Igor Astarloa, he made a fantastic move at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday, but it was a bit too early.

Keep it tuned to PEZ for all the latest updates over the weekend!

Unibet.com Picks
Bettini – 6.00
Valverde – 8.00
Basso – 8.50
Boogerd – 12.00
Sammy – 12.00
Cunego – 14.00
Di Luca – 14.00
Vino – 15.00
Schleck – 16.00
Astarloa – 18.00
Etxebarria – 22.00
Rebellin – 22.00

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