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Preview: Last chance for Ardennes glory in Liege

The Ardennes' big dogs come out to close the spring classics on Sunday and we run down the favorites, the course and the underlying stories

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LIEGE, Belgium (VN) — Spring classics season concludes in appropriate fashion Sunday with the drama and intensity that come with a battle between the sport’s top climbers.

The oldest and one of the most prestigious of the classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège consistently serves up a dogfight worthy of closing out the spring calendar. This year should be no exception, with what should be another wide-open, hard-to-predict race that’s affectionately known as “La Doyenne,” or “the old one.”

Preliminary Startlist >>

Course Map >>

Course Profile >>

Previous Winners >>

Complete Liege Coverage >>

Dating back to 1892, LBL is the oldest major one-day race on the books. The winners are always quality, with GC-type riders stepping to the fore ahead of the brawnier, more explosive style of athletes who typically dominate the classics format. The list of champions includes names like Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx (five times) and Bernard Hinault, as well as recent winners such as Alejandro Valverde, Paolo Bettini and Michele Bartoli, each winners twice. In 2011, Philippe Gilbert stormed to a win to close out an historic sweep of the Ardennes classics just a few kilometers from his childhood home.

The pedigree of the LBL winners has only increased since organizers moved the finish line in 1992 to Ans, just after the final climb of the Côte de Saint-Nicholas above Liège. And at 257 kilometers, with longer, steeper climbs than the Amstel Gold Race or Flèche Wallonne, an action-packed final hour of racing separates the wheat from the chafe.

Forecasters are calling for temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit on Sunday, with a 70-percent chance of rain and brisk southwesterly winds, which will mean cross-tailwinds (and more free-flying attacks) on the way home from Bastogne: the elements are all lining up for an epic finale to what’s been a very interesting spring classics season.

Looking for salvation

While Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) dominated the northern classics, no single rider has been able to control the racing across the Ardennes this week.

Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) won Brabantse Pijl from a solo breakaway, Enrico Gasparatto (Astana) upset the favorites, such as Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) at Amstel Gold Race, and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) landed his first classics victory Wednesday at Flèche Wallonne.

If anyone looks to be the top favorite for Sunday, it has to be Rodríguez, especially with how he powered away from everyone on the Mur de Huy.

“This win means a lot to me,” Rodríguez said Wednesday. “I would have swapped all my second-places, all those runner-up positions, for one win in the Ardennes because they are so important to me.”

If “Purito” has the same kind of legs on Sunday, he could drop everyone on the Saint-Nicholas and make the final 5km a race for second place. That said, Flèche is the classic the Spaniard cherished most and Rodríguez will have to put aside the hangover from his first classics win in time for the start in Liège’s city center.

Behind Rodríguez, there are a dozen candidates who will be looking to take something out of the spring classics.

First and foremost are the Schleck brothers. Andy has come into the classics short of form and looks to be riding for his RadioShack-Nissan teammates. He certainly was Wednesday, but that may change for Liège, which he won in 2009.

Fränk is on better form, but lacked any sort of punch on the Cauberg and punctured late ahead of the Mur. But with less punch and more long, grinding ascents, Liège is better suited for his style of climbing.

“Our form in the team isn’t that bad. There’s nothing you can do about a puncture so close to the finish is there? It’s just bad luck and, since the start of this season, bad luck is all we have had,” said Andy Schleck. “The main thing is, though, that we know we’ll be there in the finale of Liège this Sunday. We’ll be there.”

The Schleck brothers have an open account against Gilbert, who beat them when he was outnumbered on the Saint-Nicolas a year ago. Of the three, however, the Belgian has looked strongest in recent days. That said, RadioShack pushed the pace hard over the first half of Flèche Wallonne, no doubt softening the peloton’s legs ahead of Sunday’s showdown. If they make it to the finale, watch for the Schlecks to play the tactic differently than in 2011.

Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will both be looking to step up Sunday. Both have been rather discreet this week, despite having strong spring campaigns and high expectations for the Ardennes. Sánchez popped for a top-10 at Amstel Gold, but Valverde has not been a factor in either of the opening two races. Both have vowed that Sunday is the race they’re truly targeting, so we shall see. Valverde has gone so far as to point to Liège as his number-one early-season target from the dais following a number of stage wins from Australia to France this year.

Several riders who skipped Flèche, including Sánchez, Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) and Milan-San Remo champ Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge), will be back with the hopes of fresh legs for Sunday. Cunego, who crashed at Amstel Gold Race, won a stage at the Giro del Trentino in Italy this week and will fly back to Belgium in time to take the start.

But the one rider with the weight of the world on his shoulders is Gilbert.

Admittedly nowhere near his winning form of last year when he swept the Ardennes, Gilbert has not thrown in the towel. He’s been fighting tooth-and-nail each race, steadily improving his form and results, capped by a third-place podium Wednesday at Flèche.

“I have been working hard and I am hopeful that the form can arrive just in time for Sunday,” said Gilbert. “Liège is the race that I really want to win if I had to choose.”

Cadel Evans will not start, due to sinus problems, but Gilbert will be counting on strong support from the likes of Brent Bookwalter and Tejay van Garderen, as well as Greg van Avermaet, who finished in the top-10 in Ans last year. Gilbert is also counting on the foul weather to play to his advantage.

“I think that the weather will play to my advantage,” said Gilbert. “The Italian or Spanish riders do not like the cold while I can stand it. Perhaps that can be an advantage for me.”

Ever the optimist, Gilbert said this week he would be firing on all cylinders just in time for the one day that truly counts. That one day is the final day of the 2012 classics season. Time to put up or shut up.

The Route

There are no major alterations to the route for 2012. Starting in Liège, the course rolls south for 95 mild kilometers to the turn-around point at Bastogne, site of heavy fighting during World War II.

Breakaways inevitably form early, but rarely hold out for victory in Ans. Teams will be looking to have riders in a move, however, simply to force rivals to lead the chase.

Course Map >>

Course Profile >>

The real fun begins on the loop back toward Liège, with things heating up on the Stockeau climb with about 80km to go. From there, ever-increasingly difficult climbs come in ever-frequent succession.

The Redoute was long Liège’s signature climb, but race organizers added the steep and narrow Roche aux Faucons to spice things up before the Saint-Nicholas, and it has quickly become the point of reference of the race. Andy Schleck used it to catapult to victory in 2009 and attacked there again to free his brother, Gilbert and himself in 2011.

The summit of the Saint-Nicolas lies 5.5km, much of it a long false flat, from the finish in Ans. It was here that Gilbert powered away from the Schlecks a year ago, just as Alexander Vinokourov did to Alexander Kolobnev in 2010 and Gilbert’s former mentor Dirk De Wolf did from a four-man breakaway in 1992. If Gilbert arrives with Rodríguez, Gerrans and/or Valverde to this final ramp, look for major fireworks from four somewhat-even favorites.

Five-star favorites

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha)
“Purito” finally got his big win Wednesday after jetting away from everyone 350m from the top of the Mur de Huy on Wednesday. Flat at Amstel Gold due to cold, Rodríguez could suffer again Sunday under similar conditions. If he can stay warm, and has the same legs he used Wednesday, there could be no stopping him.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing):
“Phil-Gil” keeps getting closer: 12th at Brabantse Pijl, 6th at Amstel Gold, 3rd at Flèche. There is no one-and-a-half in cycling, so it’s all or nothing for Gilbert. A huge win Sunday, a few kilometers from his childhood home, would salvage his entire spring campaign. Ever confident, Gilbert should never be counted out.

Four-star favorites

Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge):
“Gerro” surprised everyone, even himself, with a crafty win at Milan-San Remo last month. He sat out Flèche Wallonne after a disappointing Amstel Gold Race. Gerrans is no stranger to poor weather and with a solid uphill kick, is better-suited to Liège than the Italian monument he notched in March. The big question is whether his midweek racing break freshened the Aussie’s legs or cooled them off too much.

Fränk and Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan):
Take your pick. Either one of these two could step up Sunday big-time in the classic that is ideal for their spindly climber legs. Andy won in 2009 and Fränk’s been on the podium, so they know how to perform. Neither has been on top of their game of late, but both are proud and fierce competitors. Either way, they will be in the thick of things.

Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol):
Consistency pays off in the Ardennes, and with a podium at Amstel Gold and a run at the front at Flèche, the Belgian climber should not be overlooked by the field.

Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi):
A winner at the Basque Country tour and top-10 at Amstel Gold, Sánchez will be looking to score his first major classics victory. The Olympic champion has the depth to go the distance and still pack a strong finishing punch. On great form, perhaps Sánchez peaked too early with his win in the Basque Country.

Three-star favorites

Rinaldo Nocentini, Nicholas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD)
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan)
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Ryder Hesjedal, Daniel Martin (Garmin-Barracuda)
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Bauke Mollema (Rabobank)
Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi)

Two-star favorites

Michael Albasini (GreenEdge)
Jerome Coppel (Saur-Sojasun)
Nicki Sorensen (Saxo Bank)
Chris-Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank)
Julien El Fares (Team Type 1)

Notable absentees

Alexander Vinokourov, Astana: Not selected
Cadel Evans, BMC Racing: Sinus infection
Peter Sagan, Liquigas-Cannondale: Ended classics season Sunday

North Americans

Brent Bookwalter (USA), BMC Racing
Tejay van Garderen (USA), BMC Racing
Chris Horner (USA), RadioShack-Nissan
Christian Meier (Can), GreenEdge
Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Garmin-Barracuda
Alex Howes (USA), Garmin-Barracuda

Race Notes

Weather Forecast: Light rain with high of 51 degrees Fahrenheit and 70-percent chance of showers

U.S. Youngsters: Ian Boswell (Bontrager-LiveStrong) and Josh Berry (U.S. National Team) led the Americans in last weekend’s U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in second and third, respectively. It was the first time an American has finished on the podium in the espoirs version of “La Doyenne.”