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By John Wilcockson
Alex Vinokourov’s exciting victory over Jens Voigt in Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège not only ended the T-Mobile’s season-long losing streak, but also laid to rest the assumption that a long-range breakaway couldn’t succeed in this super-hilly classic. Vinokourov was not among the top favorites to win this 10th race of the UCI ProTour, but his rising form and savvy racing brain allowed him to take advantage of a race that was in flux after the trilogy of climbs that were restored to the 260km course.
“I knew there were some changes to the course,” Vinokourov said, “but when I saw them on Friday, it gave me some ideas. I spoke with [team manager] Walter Godefroot and said to him, Why not me?”
What the Kazakhstan rider saw and liked was the juxtaposition of the restored trilogy (Wanne, Stockeu, Haute-Levée) with the following Côte du Rosier. It was through these critical climbs (and descents) that this 91st edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège was won and lost.
On reaching the first of these climbs, the Côte de Wanne, 90km from the finish, the lead of the day’s early, five-man break had been cut to three minutes from a maximum of 8:35. Cleverly, T-Mobile had sent its ever-willing Steffen Wesemann into the move that began only 28km out of Liège. Wesemann and the Discovery Channel’s Benjamin Noval were the strongest of the five and broke clear on the Wanne.
From that point, the race entered very narrow roads, first downhill at a vertiginous 15 percent, followed by a short winding run along a hillside before plunging to the town of Stavelot. Behind the two leaders and their straggling former companions, a chase was started by CSC’s Voigt (already him), Rabobank’s Karsten Kroon and Peter Weening, Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini, Domina Vacanze’s Mirko Celestino and Phonak’s Santiago Botero.Fullresults are posted
A counterattack like this one, containing two-time winner Bettini and one of the top favorites, Celestino, showed just how many of the teams were being inspired by the changed course. Behind the six-man chase, the pack was disintegrating. And once dropped on this new course, few riders had a chance of catching back.
On reaching Stavelot, the course turned sharp right, immediately into the 11.6-percent 1km Stockeu “wall,” which is bumpy and narrow. At the Stockeu summit, the chasers were within two minutes of Wesemann and Noval as they turned sharp left and immediately bombed back to the streets of Stavelot. Here, they crossed a bridge, rode uphill on cobblestones and emerged from the ancient town at the foot of the Haute-Levée.
This hill hasn’t been climbed since 1996 because concrete barriers were erected here after a truck (not during the race) crashed on the downhill and wrecked a house. The barriers are still there, but the roadway is narrowed to 10 feet on the first 12-percent slopes of the 3.4km hill. The final 2.4km of this climb are on a wide, straight road, annoyingly uphill but not steep. It was on this false flat that the gap closed to inside a minute, while the peloton split into several echelons.
Remarkably, many top names were missing from the front selection of about 15 riders. Upcoming Giro d’Italia contenders Ivan Basso (CSC) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Caffita) quickly made up their deficit, but a seven-man group containing defending champion Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), ProTour leader Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi) and other pre-race favorites, David Etxebarria (Liberty Seguros) and Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), were facing a 25km-long pursuit.
Just after the Haute-Levée summit, where the route turns left in the village of Francorchamps (close to where today’s UCI World Cup mountain bike races were taking place), the six chasers had yet to catch the two leaders, while 160 of the 195 starters were completely beaten. The new trilogy of climbs had done its job.
The race then returned to narrow back roads, with a fast, twisting descent to the foot of the Côte du Rosier, which is a mini-alpine pass almost 4km long and climbing at a 6.3-percent average past dark pine woods and grassy meadows. It was here that Wesemann and Noval were finally caught (and passed) first by the six chasers, and soon after by the next 20-strong group.
Wesemann’s presence at the head of the race for almost 170km was a godsend for T-Mobile, particularly for Vinokourov and teammate Matthias Kessler, who’d been able to comfortably follow the wheels in the main chase group through the critical 30km section just completed.
Meanwhile, Di Luca, Rebellin, Etxebarria and Valverde were still chasing, now on the fast and winding Rosier descent. This long downhill, with some off-camber turns can be dangerous in the wet – fortunately the forecast rain held off until after the finish.
The Di Luca group finally made it back on the first slopes of the next climb, the Côte de la Vecquée, 55km from the finish. That was their good news, but bad news came from the front end of the long line of same 35 riders that were now together.
Voigt, who had been in the first chase group, made one of his typical solo attacks. There was no immediate reaction. After all, these final 55km contained five more climbs, including the rugged La Redoute (35km from the finish) and St. Nicolas (5.5km from the line). Most reasoned that it was still too far to go for a successful break. But not Vinokourov.
“When I saw Voigt go, I knew it was my chance,” said the T-Mobile leader. “But I had a hard time to catch him.”
In fact, it was only when CSC team manager Bjarne Riis told Voigt to ease off the gas that Vinokourov caught him. Riis knew that the chances of the break succeeding would be greatly enhanced by a second pair of legs. He was right. Their 23-second gap increased to a minute on the 10km of rolling roads after the Vecquée and before descending to the Amblève valley at the foot of La Redoute.
Voigt and Vinokourov were also helped by a tail wind on this stretch. But few expected that the two would hold on to their lead on this 2.3km climb that has a couple of 20-percent pitches near the top. And they very nearly didn’t make it.Fullresults are posted
After Phonak’s Botero and Rabobank’s Erik Dekker made an initial charge (before sitting up and losing some 13 minutes before the finish), another Phonak man Miguel Martin Perdiguero sprinted flat out, and pulled out the strongest riders from the group. These were Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd, Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini and Davitamon-Lotto’s Cadel Evans. These four were joined over the summit by six others, including Rebellin and his teammate Fabian Wegmann.
All this action cut the gap from a minute, to 20 seconds, and it seemed that the break would soon be over. But once on wider, but not flatter, roads, the gap started to open up again as several riders waited for dropped colleagues, as Boogerd did for Kroon and Weening.
The gap was 1:12 with 25km to go, a minute at the 20km board, and then 56 seconds over the top of the Sart-Tilman climb with 15km left. Then came the 5km-long downhill into the industrial suburbs of Liège.
It was here two years ago that Lance Armstrong had been in a similar breakaway situation with Spaniard Samuel Sanchez. Then, a concerted chase by the CSC team closed the gap to 15 seconds before the crucial St. Nicolas climb. The leaders were caught, and from the ensuing counterattack over St. Nicolas CSC’s Tyler Hamilton broke clear with 3km to go to claim the victory.
This time, CSC’s Basso and Nike Sörensen and T-Mobile’s Kessler were blocking for the teammates in front. These three did enough to disrupt the chasing efforts of Rabobank, Quick Step and Davitamon , mainly because the race had been split apart so decisively that most of the teams had only one or two riders in the 27-strong chase group.
The gap held steady the whole way down the descent because Voigt was flying. Vinokourov said later that he felt like he was following a Boeing . Their gap inched up to 1:12 before they reached the St. Nicolas, where the race has been decided in the past few years.
“I gave it everything in an attack,” Vinokourov revealed, “but Voigt was just too strong. With Godefroot, I decided then to wait for the sprint.”
Behind the two reunited leaders, a fierce solo attack came from Evans. “They say that when I’m climbing I always look as though I’m about to be dropped,” Evans said later. “But this time I was in front so it didn’t matter.”
Indeed, Evans never let up the whole climb including its 13-percent pitch near the top. Only two others kept the Australian in sight: an impressive Bettini (who had recovered from a flat tire suffered on La Redoute) and the always-impressive Boogerd. These two caught Evans on the fast drop into the streets of Liège, where the gap was at 39 second before starting the final, 1.3km, 6.5-percent hill that precedes the finish in Ans.
It was here a year ago that Vinokourov made strong (but fruitless) accelerations against then final opponents Boogerd and Rebellin. This time, he didn’t have to attack. He rode calmly alongside Voigt all the way to the top, and then 100 meters after turning left into the final straightaway sprinted clear for a beautiful win.
“Finally, we have won a race,” said Vinokourov. “I told Godefroot the other day that it’s not important to win small races, only the big ones count. This win has given me big morale for my next goal, the Tour de France.”
The T-Mobile rider then paid Voigt the ultimate compliment – “He deserved to win.” That could also be said for Boogerd, who dropped both Bettini and Evans up the final climb to take third place, his third podium in three years, while Olympic champion Bettini just outkicked an impressive Evans for fourth.
Only 33 riders finished within 15 minutes of the winner, while the 70-strong peloton was at 16:06. Yes, the “new” Liège-Bastogne-Liège certainly had done its job.
A note to our viewers: Some of you may have noticed that this morning’s coverage of Liège-Bastogne-Liège did not appear on our site. Recent technical issues have prompted our support crew to upgrade all of our servers and the operating systems to support increased traffic loads triggered by our live coverage. (For the tech geeks among you, we switched from Apache web server to Zeus web server. Zeus is regarded as one of the premier web servers on the market used by many of the top high traffic web sites). That transition took a little longer to complete than we had expected, interfering with our coverage of Liège. For that we apologize, but with our new system, we don’t expect additional problems as the season progresses.
1. Alexandre Vinokourov (KZK), T-Mobile, 260km in 6:29:09 (40.087kph)
2. Jens Voigt (G), CSC, at 00:00
3. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank, at 00:14
4. Paolo Bettini (I), Quickstep, at 00:24
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 00:24
6. David Etxebarria (Sp), Liberty Seguros, at 00:27
7. Martin Perdiguero M. Angel (Sp), Phonak, at 00:28
8. Mirko Celestino (I), Domina Vacanze, at 00:28
9. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre, at 00:28
10. Angel Vicioso (Sp), Liberty Seguros, at 00:28
11. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, at 00:28
12. Matthias Kessler (G), T-Mobile, at 00:31
13. Jaksche Jörg (G), Liberty Seguros, at 00:54
14. Laurent Brochard (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 00:59
15. Fabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner, at 01:02
16. Christophe Brandt (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 01:04
17. Nicki Sorensen (Dk), CSC, at 01:10
18. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, at 01:10
19. Kim Kirchen (Lux), Fassa Bortolo, at 01:18
20. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Phonak, at 01:33
21. Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz), Credit Agricole, at 01:35
22. Leonardo Bertagnolli (I), Cofidis, at 03:28
23. Didier Rous (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 03:28
24. Wim Van Huffel (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 03:28
25. Joaquin Rodriguez (Sp), Saunier Duval, at 03:28
26. Patrik Sinkewitz (G), Quickstep, at 03:30
27. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, at 03:30
28. Karsten Kroon (Nl), Rabobank, at 03:30
29. Pieter Weening (Nl), Rabobank, at 05:29
30. Johan Van Summeren (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 09:31
31. Marcus Ljungqvist (Swe), Liquigas-Bianchi, at 11:52
32. Serge Baguet (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 11:52
33. Erik Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, at 12:57
34. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Illes Balears, at 13:56
35. Santiago Botero (Col), Phonak, at 15:10
36. Patrice Halgand (F), Credit Agricole, at 16:06
37. Thomas Voeckler (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 16:06
38. Christophe Moreau (F), Credit Agricole, at 16:06
39. Yoann Le Boulanger (F), R.A.G.T. Semences-MG Rover, at 16:06
40. Vasseur Cédric (F), Cofidis, at 16:06
41. Christophe Le Mevel (F), Credit Agricole, at 16:06
42. Pieter Mertens (B), Chocolade Jacques – T Interim, at 16:06
43. Addy Engels (Nl), Quickstep, at 16:06
44. Matej Mugerli (SLO), Liquigas-Bianchi, at 16:06
45. Vicente Reynes (Sp), Illes Balears, at 16:06
46. Johan Coenen (B), Mrbookmaker.Com – Sports Tech, at 16:06
47. Christophe Rinero (F), R.A.G.T. Semences-MG Rover, at 16:06
48. Massimo Codol (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 16:06
49. Sylvain Chavanel (F), Cofidis, at 16:06
50. Laurent Paumier (F), Mrbookmaker.Com – Sports Tech, at 16:06
51. Tadej Valjavec (SLO), Phonak, at 16:06
52. Patrick Calcagni (Swi), Liquigas-Bianchi, at 16:06
53. Fabian Jeker (Swi), Saunier Duval, at 16:06
54. Manuele Mori (I), Saunier Duval, at 16:06
55. Dario Frigo (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 16:06
56. Gorazd Stangelj (SLO), Lampre, at 16:06
57. Renaud Dion (F), R.A.G.T. Semences-MG Rover, at 16:06
58. Juan Manuel Garate (Sp), Saunier Duval, at 16:06
59. David Loosli (Swi), Lampre, at 16:06
60. Maarten Den Bakker (Nl), Rabobank, at 16:06
61. Pietro Caucchioli (I), Credit Agricole, at 16:06
62. Xabier Zandio (Sp), Illes Balears, at 16:06
63. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC, at 16:06
64. Francesco Bellotti (I), Credit Agricole, at 16:06
65. Arvesen Kurt-Asle (Nor), CSC, at 16:06
66. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), CSC, at 16:06
67. Massimo Giunti (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 16:06
68. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 16:06
69. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (B), Discovery Channel, at 16:06
70. Sergio Paulinho (P), Liberty Seguros, at 16:06
71. Thierry Marichal (B), Cofidis, at 16:06
72. Marc Lotz (Nl), Quickstep, at 16:06
73. Andrea Moletta (I), Gerolsteiner, at 16:06
74. Pavel Padrnos (Cz), Discovery Channel, at 16:06
75. Ben Day (Aus), Mrbookmaker.Com – Sports Tech, at 16:06
76. Maxime Monfort (B), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, at 16:06
77. Kurt Van De Wouwer (B), Mrbookmaker.Com – Sports Tech, at 16:06
78. Kjell Carlstrom (FIN), Liquigas-Bianchi, at 16:06
79. Philip Deignan (IRL), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 16:06
80. Bingen Fernandez (Sp), Cofidis, at 16:06
81. Axel Merckx (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 16:06
82. Vila Errandonea Patxi Xabier (Sp), Lampre, at 16:06
83. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 16:06
84. Sylvester Szmyd (Pol), Lampre, at 16:06
85. Inigo Landaluze (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 16:06
86. Leukemans Björn (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 16:06
87. Joost Posthuma (Nl), Rabobank, at 16:06
88. Thomas Lovkvist (Swe), Francaise des Jeux, at 16:06
89. Constantino Zaballa (Sp), Saunier Duval, at 16:06
90. Dmitriy Fofonov (Kaz), Cofidis, at 16:06
91. David Moncoutie (F), Cofidis, at 16:06
92. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Illes Balears, at 16:06
93. Johann Tschopp (Swi), Phonak, at 16:06
94. Preben Van Hecke (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 16:06
95. Mikel Astarloza (Sp), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 16:06
96. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank, at 16:06
97. Thierry De Groote (B), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, at 16:06
98. Andrea Peron (I), CSC, at 16:06
99. Bert De Waele (B), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, at 16:06
100. Alessandro Vanotti (I), Domina Vacanze, at 16:06
101. Peter Luttenberger (A), CSC, at 16:06
102. Marcos Serrano (Sp), Liberty Seguros, at 16:06
103. Inaki Isasi (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 16:06
104. Maryan Hary (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 16:06
105. Nicolas Vogondy (F), Credit Agricole, at 16:06
106. Freddy Bichot (F), Francaise des Jeux, at 16:06
107. Volodymir Gustov (Ukr), Fassa Bortolo, at 16:22
108. Steve Zampieri (Swi), Phonak, at 16:25
109. Iker Camano (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 16:31
110. Juan Carlos Dominguez (Sp), Saunier Duval, at 16:31
111. Benny De Schrooder (B), Chocolade Jacques – T Interim, at 16:34
112. Stijn Devolder (B), Discovery Channel, at 17:10
113. Vincenzo Nibali (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 17:58