Yesterdayâ€™s LiÃ¨ge-Bastogne-LiÃ¨ge brought the first major portion of the season to a bittersweet close with a win for Alexandre Vinokourov. Vinoâ€™s win begs several questions, the answers to which depend upon your perspective. Was yesterdayâ€™s result a victory for redemptionâ€”proof that even the most tarnished riders can earn a chance for atonement in the sportâ€™s biggest races? Or, was the race nothing more than confirmation that cheaters really do rule the sportâ€”more spit in the eyes of those naive enough to think progress really has been made?
Controversy aside, it will be interesting to see how many of yesterdayâ€™s top-10 finishers do the same in this yearâ€™s Tour de France. With at least 6 riders capable of high finishes in Paris, itâ€™s easy to see the effects that LiÃ¨ge-Bastogne-LiÃ¨geâ€™s new place on the calendar has had on the early season programs of Grand Tour riders.
Hereâ€™s what we noticed:
1. We begin with the yesterdayâ€™s winner, Alexandre Vinokourov. A last-minute starter, Vino must have caught a quick flight from the Tour of Trentino, a race he won in semi-convincing fashion. A cunning rider, Vinokourov took advantage of a lull in the action following the CÃ´te de la Roche aux Faucons, a smart move considering Contadorâ€™s presence in the group behind. Were it Iglinsky, Grivko, or any other rider from Astana, we would call the move a textbook example of team tactics: send your second-best rider off the front to set things up for your best rider should the break get caught. Unfortunately for the fans, Astanaâ€™s second-best rider just so happens to be one of the sportâ€™s most detested.
Like it or not, Vino deserves credit for the winâ€”he won the race fair and square, so to speak. As for his past, he doped, he was caught, and he was suspended. Now heâ€™s back, and like it or not, we have to grant him the right to win races under the assumption that heâ€™s doing it cleanly. That said, I still think heâ€™s a jerkâ€”and thereâ€™s no suspension for that. Just because he wins doesnâ€™t mean we have to like him.
2. As soon as Vino starting missing pulls yesterday, you I knew Katushaâ€™s Alexandr Kolobnev was doomed. I wonder if Vino had convinced him that he had nothing left, or that Gilbert, Valverde, and Evans were closer than they actually were. Whatever the case, Vinoâ€™s final attack was perhaps the most obvious race-winning move of the Classicsâ€”aside from Cancellaraâ€™s Paris-Roubaix pocket angel, that is.
Despite the loss, Kolobnev had fantastic week with aggressive rides in all 3 races from Amstel to LiÃ¨ge. Kolobnev now has top-10 finishes in 3 World Road Races, 2 Olympic Road Races, 2 LiÃ¨ge-Bastogne-LiÃ¨geâ€™s, 1 Amstel Gold Race, and 1 Tour of Lombardy to go with the win he took in the first edition of Lâ€™Eroica in 2007. Clearly, this guyâ€™s due for a major win sometime soonâ€”and heâ€™s only 28.
3. As for Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert, and Cadel Evans, they did everything they could once they realized they had let the cat in with the pigeons (my favorite Ligget-ism).
Gilbert tried his best to make the race with Andy Schleck on the Roche aux Faucons and attacked valiantly on the Saint-Nicolas hoping for one last miracle. Luckily for Gilbert, he took the win last Sunday in Amstel, otherwise he might have found himself lumped-in with Tom Boonen, the victim of yet another series of near-misses. His consolation prize for the day is the World #1 ranking. Now he heads to the Tour of Romandieâ€”a race he could very well winâ€”before enjoying a well-deserved rest before the Belgian Championships.
Valverde rode solidly but never really seemed in it to win itâ€”as if his head werenâ€™t in the game. He too heads to Switzerland for Romandieâ€”will he finally get his seasonâ€™s first important win?
And Evans? His rode impressively yesterday, at one time bridging-up solo to Valverde and Gilbert. He now heads to the Giro as one of the top favorites for the overall victoryâ€”can he take the first Grand Tour win of his lengthy career?
4. As for Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, I had hoped that Contadorâ€™s acceleration to join Schleck and Gilbert on the CÃ´te de la Roche aux Faucons was going to be the move of the race. Unfortunately, negative racing and a lack of any real impetus from the trio doomed the move, paving the way for Vinokourovâ€™s attack moments later. I was a bit surprised to have seen less of a Saxo Bank presence earlier in the day, perhaps thatâ€™s the result of an over-taxed team in major need of a rest before summer.
5. Credit Euskaltelâ€™s Igor Anton for quietly taking top-10 finishes in both FlÃ¨che and LiÃ¨ge. Antonâ€™s only 27 and has top-10 finishes in both Romandie and the Vuelta on his resume. Could a breakthrough be in the cards for the young Basque? And speaking of Euskaltel, whereâ€™s Samuel Sanchez been hiding?
6. As for the North American contingent, while many had their hopes up for something more, Chris Horner (8th) and Ryder Hesjedal (13th) finished just about where they should have given the competition. Great job, guys.
7. Thomas Voeckler seems to be beginning his summer crescendo for BBox while Team Skyâ€™s Simon Gerrans finally decided to pop his head into the top-15 of a major race this season. Does another solid summer beckon for the Australian?
8. As for Rabobank, the German Paul Martens was the squadâ€™s best finisher following ten days of solid riding going all the way back to the Brabantse Pijl. And Robert Gesink? 16th is a good result for the young Dutchman, but itâ€™s far from where his potential and talent dictate he could be.
9. And what about Italy? Remember the days when the Italians used to rule La Doyenne? Stefano Garzelli was his nationâ€™s top finisher in 18th, while perennial Ardennes contender Damiano Cunego could manage no better than 21st. The Giro begins in less than 2 weeks, the tifosi are becoming anxious.
10. Speaking of Italy, Liquigas underwhelmed me yesterday. Vincenzo Nibali was the teamâ€™s top finisher in 29th, while pre-race favorite Roman Kreuziger came home in 51st. Maybe Romandie and the Giro will begin turning the teamâ€™s season around.
11. And last but not least, JÃ©rÃ´me Baugnies was Belgiumâ€™s second-best rider following an impressive 23rd-place finish. It might not be worth writing home about, but itâ€™s nice to see young riders from smaller teams performing well in the worldâ€™s biggest races.
And just like that, the classics are behind us. Iâ€™ll be spending the next two weeks wrapping things up while still trying to find some time to take a look at whatâ€™s ahead. Iâ€™ll also be giving some awards and taking a look back at the effects the various calendar changes had on the racing we witnessed (as well as some suggestions for 2011).
To everyone, thanks for your support and comments over the past several weeksâ€”keep it coming!
As always, share your comments and feedback below!