The oldest of the monuments, La Doyenne is arguably the most tactical. The leisurely ride down from Liège to Bastogne is interrupted by only a minor climb or two, but the race back up to Liège dishes out 13 climbs. Each forces a selection, and whittles down teammates and hopefuls. Liège rewards the tactical rider with staying power and a nous for attacking at the right time. It also amply rewards riders who can recover fast. Alejandro Valverde’s two victories in 2006 and 2008 owe much to his ability and inimitable domestiques Joachin Rodriguez and David Arroyo dragging him back to contention after faltering slightly behind.
To quote Philippe Gilbert, “I understand that everybody was riding on his wheel even though I’m not racing that way. Flanders is relatively flat and that allows some to take profit of another rider. Defensive tactics are easier and it pays off in cash. In this race the best riders are in front and everybody has to go flat out. In Liège[-Bastogne-Liège] it’s even harder,” Gilbert said. His convincing – nay, crushing – wins in both Amstel Gold Race and la Fleche Wallonne earned him top favorite for this race. Le Soir was sufficiently confident that they had a little word play to suggest his dominance. How can Gilbert be beaten? Attack too early and he wins Amstel. Mark too late and he goes away with la Fleche. Menacingly, Gilbert offered that since he wasn’t a favorite for FL, his entire team didn’t ride that much and he himself raced for only 60 km.
Who will win this year’s LBL? Will Gilbert be Cancellara’ed, or will he win four for four – completing an indomitable Ardennes sweep of Brabantse Pijl / Flèche Brabançonne, Amstel Gold, la Flèche Wallonne, and Liège – a feat never done before? In fact, we have only seen a back-to-back win in both Flèche races once, by Eddy Merckx in 1972! Without further ado, let’s look at the favorites:
Given his stellar Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne, Philippe Gilbert and his strong OmegaPharma-Lotto team – including an impressive Jelle Vanendert, who worked hard for Gilbert all week and was rewarded with two top tens – is the bang-up favorite for LBL. We had doubted his team after the loss of some key helpers but the Ardennes squad has proven themselves to be the team to beat.
Nipping on Gilbert’s heels is Joachim Rodriguez, who puts two 2nd place finishes this past week into his hat and brings a strong Katusha contingent with Sergei Ivanov, Alexander Kolobnev, and Danilo Di Luca – and a tactical race like LBL might be the place where having these threats in the group behind can make the difference. Rodriguez has shown in AGR and FW that he has the legs, he just needs to
keep his cool an extra 300 meters longer keep up with Gilbert. Katusha certainly had the numbers both in AGR and FW, if not the luck, but arguably numbers play a bigger role on Cote de St. Nicolas than on the Mur de Huy. Andrei Tchmil hasn’t been shy about delivering unveiled threats to star Pippo Pozzato for his non-performance. Given the investment the squad has made in their spring classics squad, the riders are definitely expected to deliver or else have to suffer through a Spetsnaz shooting range exercise (and the riders won’t be the ones doing the shooting…). Rodriguez is all but a lock for a podium position – can Katusha deliver him to the win?
Mishaps in the Amstel Gold Race may have dampened enthusiasm a bit for Leopard-Trek and their duo of Fränk and Andy Schleck. Even if not all their helpers made the move to LT, and new recruit Fabian Wegmann still not making much noise yet, the presence of two brothers-teammates plus Jacob Fuglsang in the finale means they should not be discounted yet. Andy conceded that he had a bad day in FW, thus much depends on his recovery come Sunday. While Fränk’s performance this spring has been consistent, his explosiveness seems to have waned a bit. This is not a problem for defensive riding, but an aggressive ride is usually better-rewarded in Liège.
Another team with a strong contingent is Astana, with defending champion Alexandre Vinokourov having enrolled new helpers Remy Di Gregorio and Enrico Gasparotto. Vino has won Liege twice: he overpowered Jens Voigt after a breakaway in the first one, and slipped away to take advantage of then-teammate Alberto Contador marking of Andy Schleck last year. Vino’s 4th place at FW suggests he’s got the legs to be a part of the finale.
On paper, Rabobank has many favorable cards, including Luis Leon Sanchez, Carlos Barredo, and Robert Gesink. Team chemistry might still be missing, but having 4 riders including Oscar Freire in the finale of AGR means they at least have individual potential. LL Sanchez can be a winner, even if he seems most comfortable only in small selection groups. Barredo might be the ticket to riding himself into exactly that situation, being an aggressive puncher with significant staying power in a long breakaway.
Another similar team is Euskaltel-Euskadi, whose Samuel Sanchez and Igor Anton appear to be just off of their top form this year.
Team Sky’s Simon Gerrans impressed many with his confident ride and 3rd place finish at AGR. His team didn’t shy from riding at the front in AGR. Mixed with impressive staying power, Gerrans is a good outside bet for a podium position in LBL.
A strong Lampre team and seemingly resurgent Damiano Cunego and Michele Scarponi made a great early bet this year. Cunego appears to still be missing that top-end sharpness that made him unbeatable only a few seasons ago, and the team has a cloud of new doping allegations hanging over their heads. Scarponi is notably absent from the team’s starting list despite his strong showing in MSR.
Garmin-Cervelo suffered a setback in AGR as Ryder Hesjedal fell to stomach illness, but he seems on the rebound with a 13th place finish in FW. Although Christophe Le Mevel finished slightly higher, the squad didn’t have much presence so far. Will Garmin-Cervelo’s breakthrough spring continue or did they lose their top contender to illness?
Johnny Hoegerland and his Vacansoeil team were a (small) factor in AGR, and Bjorn Leukemans placed 2nd behind Gilbert at Brabantse Pijl; they, along with young up-and-comer Thomas de Gendt, ought not be written off. Meanwhile, RadioShack’s evergreen Chris Horner and youngster Ben Hermans appear to be on rising form, with the latter netting impressive top-15 rides in the Ardennes. Support from Janez Brajkovic will be valuable if they are to affect the endgame.
QuickStep may be looking for revenge in the Ardennes, which they haven’t strongly contested since the departure of Paolo Bettini. It is a big question if Sylvain Chavanel has kept his strong form well into late in the spring classics season. I think that he will be in contention in the last 20 km, but doubtful to last longer than that. Dries Devenyns and Jerome Pineau appear to be in very good form, and surprised many with their presence in the run-down to the foot of the Mur de Huy, but may not have the finishing endurance to contend in Liege.
As of the time of writing, Alberto Contador is not on Saxo Bank’s start list. Although Contador would have been a strong contender, he is unfortunately claiming illness and skipping Liege in favor of preparing for the Giro d’Italia.
Who do you think will be the King of Côte d’Ans? And can Gilbert pull off an historic Ardennes Quadruple?