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91st Liège-Bastogne-Liège - PT
Belgium, April 24, 2005
By Jeff Jones
Liege-Bastogne-Liege marks the seventh and final ProTour spring classic, with Sunday's edition planned over a more challenging course than in previous years. Prompted by criticism that the course was too easy last year, given that there were still 60 riders in the peloton at the foot of the final climb of St-Nicolas with 6 km to go, the organisers ASO have decided to throw in a few more obstacles. There are 12 climbs in this year's 91st L-B-L, up from 10 last year, and the inclusion of the Côtes de Wanne, Stockeu, and Haute Levée between km 171 and km 186 should make the lead up to the finale harder than before.
In fact, it's the Côte de Wanne that really marks the beginning of the end game, falling as it does with 89 km to go. After the Stockeu and Haute Levée, the riders will tackle the Rosier (km 195), La Vecquee (km 208), La Redoute (km 225), Sprimont (km 231), Sart-Tillman-Tilff (km 246), and St Nicolas (km 255). And of course, the final kilometre and a half to the finish line in Ans is uphill, at a gradient of about 5-6%.
As always, it's the riders who make the race, and in the last week we have seen some biggish bunches at the foot of the final climbs in the Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne. That tactic has been dictated by the favourites' teams, who have been controlling the racing instead of trying to break it open at an earlier stage, so that their captains arrive at the finish as fresh as possible.
It certainly hasn't hurt Danilo Di Luca, who has won both the Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne, and is looking to add Liege-Bastogne-Liege to his already solid palmares this season. Di Luca's green clad Liquigas boys will likely work with defending champion Davide Rebellin's blue Gerolsteiner henchmen to keep their men out of trouble until the final 10 km.
There are a few jokers who will want to spoil the party, however. Rabobank's Michael Boogerd wrote in his column in De Telegraaf that he was sick of getting second, and wants more than anything to win in Liege. Boogerd was second here last year, as well as being second in the Amstel both last year and this year, each time beaten by an Italian with a better sprint. But Boogerd seems to be in better shape this year and is definitely a rider to watch on St Nicolas, or before. Rabobank also has Oscar Freire and Erik Dekker in its lineup, both excellent one day riders, and no doubt Freire will want to make amends for his disastrous sprint on the Cauberg last Sunday, where he couldn't follow Boogerd's leadout.
Last year's third place getter Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile) was not in the mix last Sunday in Amstel, but performed better in Flèche Wallonne where he finished 12th at 11 seconds. Always a danger man, Vino has set his sights on the Tour de France this year, and will likely share the captain's role with Matthias Kessler (13th in Flèche).
The Davitamon-Lotto team will pin its hopes on Cadel Evans (9th in Flèche) and Axel Merckx (29th). The latter has always wanted to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but hasn't managed it so far. Fassa Bortolo's Kim Kirchen is their main man for Sunday, and the Luxembourg champ showed excellent form by finishing second behind Di Luca on Wednesday in Huy. He has a strong team behind him, that will put everything into getting him in the best position in the finale.
CSC hasn't quite managed to hit the jackpot in the classics, although Jens Voigt rode fantastically in Flèche Wallonne to stay away until 4 km to go. He will be back in action on Sunday, as will Kurt-Asle Arvesen (21st in Flèche), and Ivan Basso, who has the Giro as his main goal. Quick.Step's Paolo Bettini is a two time winner in Liege, but the effervescent Italian has been ill for most of the first part of the season, and will probably work for Patrik Sinkewitz and Filippo Pozzato again.
Liberty Seguros' David Etxebarria and Angel Vicioso were fourth and sixth in Flèche Wallonne, and combined with Jörg Jaksche, should be able to make a good impression in Liege. The Spanish team has been fighting hard throughout the classics, and is due for a win. Credit Agricole's Kazakh rider Andrey Kashechkin has been active in just about every finale this year, so we can probably expect to see him again. He may have to hold his horses for a while if he wants to make the winning selection, however.
Lampre's Damiano Cunego doesn't seem to be in top form yet, but that's understandable as he has the Giro and Tour on his plate this year. He was 14th up the Mur de Huy on Wednesday, so he can't be counted out. Cofidis will rely on their attacker Sylvain Chavanel, while Bouygues Telecom has Laurent Brochard up its sleeve.
Finally, Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) should find the uphill finish in Ans to his liking, while Mirko Celestino (Domina Vacanze) is definitely in form, and should be there at the finish.
Cyclingnews will be covering the 91st Liège-Bastogne-Liège live from start to finish. Coverage starts at 10:45 CEST (Europe)/4:45 EDT (USA East)/1:45 PDT (USA West)/18:45 AEST (Australia East).