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94th Liège-Bastogne-Liège - 1.HC

Belgium, April 27, 2008

Liège-Bastogne-Liège – the cream of the crop

By Gregor Brown in Belgium

Italy's Damiano Cunego, 26 years-old of Team Lampre, should be heading the winning charge in Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the cream of the Ardennes Classics and the 261-kilometre race will be the final battle for supremacy amongst the likes of Damiano Cunego, Kim Kirchen and Davide Rebellin when held this Sunday in Belgium's Walloon Region. No holds will be barred in this oldest of Monuments as riders grapple for the right to have their name listed in the race's annals, which began in 1892 and include the likes of Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Moreno Argentin.

This year's 94th edition of La Doyenne ('The Grand Old Lady') will tackle 12 côtes (small climbs) on its way from Liège to Bastogne and back north, finishing on the climb to Ans. It was hallowed ground for Italy's Danilo Di Luca 12 months ago, when he served up pain pudding to Spain's Alejandro Valverde and Luxembourg's Fränk Schleck. However, the plate has gone cold for Di Luca as he and his LPR Brakes team have not been invited this year, leaving other warriors to fight for the victory.

Starting at 10:00 outside Place Saint-Lambert, the loudest battle cries are typically heard on the final climbs of La Redoute and Saint-Nicolas, but the first 110-kilometre romp to Bastogne and two côtes – Ny and Roche-en-Ardenne – will provide room for escapes and sub-plots.

The côtes:
km 57.5, Côte de Ny (1.8km, 5.7%)
km 82.0, Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne (2.8km, 4.9%)
km 128.0, Côte de Saint Roch (0.8km, 12%)
km 172.0, Côte de Wanne (2.7km, 7%)
km 178.5, Côte de Stockeu (1.1km, 10.5%)
km 184.0, Côte de la Haute-Levée (3.4km, 6%)
km 196.5, Côte du Rosier (4.0km, 5.9%)
km 209.0, Côte de la Vecquée (3.1km, 5.9%)
km 226.5, Côte de la Redoute (2.1km, 8.4%)
km 232.0, Côte de Sprimont (1.4km, 4.7%)
km 241.5, Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (1.5km, 9.9%)
km 255.5, Côte de Saint-Nicolas (1.0km, 11.1%)

On the northbound journey to Ans, expect the favourites' henchmen to move to the fore and command the group and any advantage gained by escapees. One of the toughest battles will be waged on the 2.1-kilometre La Redoute, coming at kilometre 226 and 35 kilometres from the finish. So often a pivotal point in years past, La Redoute will be an indicator of how the race will continue to unfold over the three following côtes of Sprimont (-29km), Roche aux Faucons (-19.5km) and Saint-Nicolas (-5.5km).

The Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (9.9% average gradient, 18% maximum) is new this year, inserted by organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) in place of the Côte du Sart-Tilman. Race director Christian Prudhomme stated that he sought to refine the race and offer the opportunity for different scenarios. The race will continue to close with the Saint-Nicolas and the unofficial côte to Ans; it was precisely in between these two summits that the race winning shot was fired in 2007.

The favourites

Italy's Davide Rebellin, 36, has the know-how to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège number two.
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Il Piccolo Principe, Damiano Cunego of Team Lampre is Cyclingnews' top pick based on his race-winning smarts in Amstel Gold and staying power in the finale of the Flèche Wallonne. The Italian is closing out the first a successful period of his season before recharging in view of the Tour de France. "I feel I can express myself better on the longer races, like Liège-Bastogne-Liège," noted the 26 year-old after finishing third on Wednesday at Flèche Wallonne.

Davide Rebellin of Team Gerolsteiner will be firing loudly on the roads to Ans, if not conquering on the home straight of Rue Jean-Jaurès. Fourth in Amstel Gold and sixth in Flèche Wallonne, not to mention being the 2004 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner, the Italian can't be overlooked. "Liège is maybe the most important and the hardest of the three... It is long and the race evolves via natural selection," said Rebellin, who can count on team support from Stefan Schumacher and Fabian Wegmann.

Luxembourg's Fränk Schleck will lead Team CSC's charge
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Team CSC's Fränk Schleck will be seeking to counter Cunego's final blast up the Cauberg in Amstel Gold. The 28 year-old Luxemburger had to settle for second that day in The Netherlands, but revenge would be sweeter in the more prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He will have support from brother Andy, Karsten Kroon and Carlos Sastre.

Caisse d'Epargne will have two options to play, despite officially saying that its horsepower is solely reserved for Alejandro Valverde who came second last year. Look for the Spaniard's close companion, Spanish champion Joaquím Rodríguez, to be an option in the finale. The duo will look to redeem the Spainish squad after missing the top spots in Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne. 2006 Tour de France winner Oscar Pereiro will also lend support to the team's cause.

The winner of Flèche Wallonne, Luxemburger Kim Kirchen, will lead the US-based Team High Road. It is likely he will play a part in the finale, but may lack the freshness and hunger after already taking his biggest ever victory on Wednesday.

Australia's Cadel Evans is proving that 2008 may be his golden year. The Silence-Lotto rider is firing at just the right moments this season and could well have strong showing after narrowly losing out to Kirchen at Flèche Wallonne. He will be counting on protection from Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych.

Two-time Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner – not to mention two-time world champion – Paolo Bettini will have a hard ride Sunday as he is fighting back following a crash in Spain's País Vasco stage race. He could prove his champion status and lend a hand to his younger Quick Step team-mates, Spaniard Carlos Barredo and Italian champion Giovanni Visconti.

Other names to watch will be Thomas Dekker and Robert Gesink (both Rabobank), Maxime Monfort (Cofidis) and Leonardo Bertagnolli (Liquigas).

The weather for Sunday is expected to be perfect for racing: partly cloudy and a high of 20°C. It will be a day to lock your browser to Cyclingnews and watch the battles unfold.

(Liège-Bastogne-Liège is one of cycling's five Monuments along with Milano-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix and Giro di Lombardia. - ed.)