What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Previews: Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Race Preview: ‘La Doyenne’ – The Old Lady. But don’t let Liege-Bastogne-Liege’s quaint name fool you. This is a brutal race – the longest, hilliest and toughest of the Ardennes races. There have been, shall we say, ‘unexpected’ winners of Milan-Sanremo – Marc Gomez, and the Tour of Flanders – Jackie Durand, for example. But not in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it’s simply too arduous – there’s no way a break could survive from far out.

The run down to Bastogne is the ‘easy’ part, it’s the longer, more tortuous return leg, which is the killer – and where the most savage of the climbs are.

There are 11 categorised climbs, but that’s just part of the story.

There’s little flat or straight road in this race which winds around the deeply incised river valleys of this beautifully wooded part of the world.

The ‘cotes’ include Wanne, Stockeu, Haut-Levee, Rosier, the famous La Redoute – where many a race winning move was launched – and many more.

But in an era where the differences between riders on form can be measured in percentage points, it’s not hard enough and too far from the finish.

The real killer is the final five kilometre grind of the Cote de Saint-Nicolas, up past old steel works, rows of miner’s houses and through grim grey streets to finish at a retail park.

I always think that there must be a more glamorous spot to finish this famous race?

The race was first held in 1892, but editions were lost to two world wars, so 2012 will be the 98th running of the event.

In World War Two the parcours was the scene of the savage, ‘Battle of the Bulge’ when a desperate German counter offensive was repulsed by the Allies as they forced onwards towards the Rhine.

As with all of the five Monuments the palmares are dignified by some of the best riders in the history of the sport.

Ferdi Kubler, Jacques Anquetil, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, Sean Kelly, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx have all won Luik-Bastanaken-Luik, as it is in Flemish.

Unsurprisingly, Eddy is ‘recordman’ with five wins.

Parcours as tough as this were made for a man who only knew one way to race – attack, then attack some more.

In the last two decades, a question mark has to appear against some of the winners – Google some of the names and you’ll get the idea – but only hard men and/or gifted climbers can win here.

Philippe Gilbert pays playful homage to the legend, Eddy Merckx.

Philippe Gilbert (Belgium and now BMC) was in a class of his own last year, and in 2010 it was ‘Vino’ (Kazakhstan & Astana) repeating his 2005 win – say what you like about the man, they don’t come much harder.

Slender climber Andy Schleck (Luxembourg and now Radio Shack) won in 2009 but he’s simply not showing the form that’s required, this year.

The Schlecks are always in contention at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Brother Frank was beginning to look like something on Wednesday but suffered a rear wheel puncture late in the day.

Can the brothers whom the young ladies swoon over produce the goods on Sunday? – you can bet that Johan Bruyneel hopes so.

Alejandro Valverde (Spain and now Movistar) won in 2008 and 2006, but again, despite some excellent early season results, he’s not been sparkling in the Ardennes thus far.

To say that Gilbert feels extra pressure at his home race is an understatement.

Gilbert has been ‘flat’ for much of this year, but the fermentation of his form has been going well and there were lots of bubbles and a podium in the Fleche – he could win it.

Mention of the Fleche reminds us that some of the heavy artillery kept their powder dry (copyright Dave Duffield) and skipped the mid-week race.

Damiano Cunego.

Some like little Italian; Damiano Cunego (Lampre) kept his hand in with a stage win in the Giro del Trentino whilst others went home to train – and plot.

But those who rode well in the Fleche have to be considered.

Joaquim Rodriguez.

Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain and Katusha) scored a fine win and has already talked about ‘the double’ – it seems like a tall order for the tiny man Catalan, but his head will be good, of that there’s no doubt.

In second spot on Wednesday was Michael Albasini (Switzerland & GreenEdge) he’ll probably be in support of Primavera winner team mate, Aussie champion Simon Gerrans – but they’re definitely both worth watching.

Gilbert was third – we’ve already said that he can win, especially with tough Belgian Greg Van Avermaet breaking the Ardennes breezes for him.

Fourth was Jelle Vanendert (Belgium & Lotto), stung by missing the podium after making it up there in the Amstel.

Samuel Sanchez.

Olympic champion, Samuel Sanchez (Spain & Euskaltel) missed the Fleche but is back for Sunday – he was well placed in the Amstel, despite a ‘mechanical’ – watch for him.

Mention of the Amstel means we have to talk about the man who won – Enrico Gasparotto (Italy & Astana); he had surprise on his side in the Amstel but will be well marked on Sunday.

Enrico Gasparotto.

That said, you can either go on Saint-Nicolas, or you can’t, irrespective of marking or how many team mates you have left alive.

Also back is ‘never say die’ French darling, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), he’s been riding well in the second half of the Classics season and is another man who could well make the podium.

Ryder Hesjedal.

Garmin have the brute strength of Canadian Ryder Hesjedal – strong in the Fleche finale – and the willowy climbing skills of Ireland’s Dan Martin; with both men very keen to get a big result on the board.

Daniel Martin.

And maybe Brabantse Pijl and Amstel revelation, Alex Howes (USA) will cause our eyes to go wide, again.

Vuelta winner Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) will be hoping it’s ‘third time lucky’ in the Ardennes and that his legs will find race rhythm after all those training camp kilometres – eighth in the Fleche was a warning to his opposition that his form is close.

Vincenzo Nibali.

Rabobank and Vacansoleil? – it’s sad to say but it’s unlikely.

And an outside tip for a podium? – Diego Ulissi (Italy & Lampre).

Diego Ulissi.

We tipped the winners of the Primavera, Flanders and Roubaix, got five of the first seven in Amstel and the first four in the Fleche – it’ll be a major surprise then if the winner hasn’t been named above.

But then, we said Menchov couldn’t win the Giro and Cav would never amount to a good pro . . .

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