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93rd Liège-Bastogne-Liège - PT
Belgium, April 29, 2007
By Gregor Brown in Gent
There is a good reason why the Liège-Bastogne-Liège is referred to as La Doyenne ('the old woman' in French). The hilly Ardennes classic is the oldest of cycling's five Monuments, with its first edition dating back to 1894. The subsequent 115 years of racing have made for heroic stories and a race that every rider wants in his palmarès.
Liège is the last of the Spring Classics and a launch board for the Giro d'Italia (starting May 12). Many of the guns that will fire in the Grand Tour will be loading their ammunition on Sunday and even firing some test shots. The parcours is a great primer with its numerous côtes that the riders tackle as they push themselves over the 262 kilometres from Liège, south to Bastogne and back north to Ans (just west of Liège).
It is on this northern journey from Bastogne that the terrain really becomes demanding, with 10 of the total 12 côtes rearing up out of the Ardennes landscape. These are some of the same côtes that have produced legendary performances from riders like Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Moreno Argentin.
La Doyenne usually sees an escape go clear over the first half of the race, where there are only two côtes. The second half of the race is usually dominated by one or two strong teams that work to bring their captains to the front of the race to vie for victory over the concluding and famous climbs; the Côte de la Redoute, Côte de Sprimont, Côte du Sart-Tilman and Côte de Saint-Nicolas.
These côtes are all power climbs up smooth asphalt. Most riders usually hammer over these hills in their big rings. By themselves, these côtes would not be enough to crack the field, but the fact that there are so many climbs in rapid succession is more than enough to weed out all but the absolute strongest riders.
Italian riders have often performed well in La Doyenne, and they are cheered on by the many Belgians of Italian descent who have populated Wallonne since the 1950's. The big favourite for the 93rd edition is team Gerolsteiner with Amstel winner Stefan Schumacher and Flèche Wallonne winner Davide Rebellin. Recent history has shown that the Ardennes Classics favour repeat winners; Rebellin won all three in 2004, while Danilo Di Luca and Alejandro Valverde won two of the three in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
Rebellin stayed with his rivals on Wednesday and then bolted free on the Mur de Huy. This show of strength is proof enough to list him as favourite number one for Sunday's event. His henchmen include Schumacher and Fabian Wegmann, both of whom can vie for victory on their own.
Di Luca of Liquigas has been steadily improving in the Ardennes classics, tenth in Amstel and seventh in Flèche. He missed out on winning La Doyenne in 2005 and would eagerly love to win the 2007 edition. His green-team showed huge amounts of muscle during the last week to put 'The Killer' into position, and this Sunday he could finally follow through on that work.
Returning champion Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) will use his Spanish armada to creep up on his rivals over the final côtes. Last year, he successfully out-sprinted Damiano Cunego and Paolo Bettini on the slight run-up into Ans. Expect to see his key teammate, Joaquím Rodríguez, doing the job of protection in the final 30 kilometres. Last year Rodríguez shepherded Valverde over the closing côtes and he was present again in Wednesday's Flèche, proving he is up to the job.
Michael Boogerd saved himself for a final run in Liege by skipping the Flèche . The Dutchman is retiring at the end of 2007 and would love to turn two second places in Liège into a victory. He will have the help of young and powerful Rabobank teammate Thomas Dekker.
The man with the most winning experience will be Paolo Bettini (Quickstep-Innergetic). Il Grillo is a two-time winner in Liège, marking his debut on the Classics winning scene when he took the 2000 version. He suffered somewhat in Flèche but has experience should see him through to possibly become the first three-time winner since Moreno Argentin.
Damiano Cunego could give his compatriot a hard time. The Lampre-Fondital rider is steadily building for the Giro, with wins in Giro del Trentino, and looks ready to win his first Spring Classic. He beat Boogerd to the line to take the 2004 Giro di Lombardia and has the kick that is required to win on the côtes in Wallonne.
Fränk Schleck (Team CSC) and Matthias Kessler (Astana) should be watched closely. The Luxemburger won Amstel in 2006 and this year he appears to be back to his top form. Kessler has been so close on many occasions and has the support of 2005 Liège winner, Alexander Vinokourov, to see him though.
Other hot favourites for Sunday will be Saunier's Riccardo Riccò and Gilberto Simoni, Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), CSC's Karsten Kroon and Jens Voigt, Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile) and Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux).
This Sunday Cyclingnews will be covering the 93rd Liège-Bastogne-Liège live. Coverage begins around 10:00 local European time (CEST)/ 4:00 (USA East)/ 19:00 Australia (EST) - also on WAP-enabled mobile devices at http://live.cyclingnews.com/wap/