It was the second victory here for Vinokourov, who first won in 2005. He and Kolobnev escaped an elite lead group with some 15km to race, and the two rolled under the red kite together with more than a minute’s advantage on a disorganized chase. It was an uphill finish, and in the final 500 meters the Kazakh attacked up the right side of the road and opened an insurmountable gap.
“It is a beautiful victory for me,” he told Belgian TV afterward.
Amstel Gold champion Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) launched a desperate solo bid in the final kilometers, but fell short, being swept up under the red kite by world champion Cadel Evans (BMC) and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne). They in turn were swamped by what remained of the peloton, and Valverde took a chaotic bunch sprint for the final place on the podium. Gilbert had to settle for fourth.
Chris Horner (Team RadioShack) was the top American, crossing in eighth spot.
A tough day in the saddle
The 96th edition of La Doyenne des Classiques covered 258km and included 10 climbs that count toward the King of the Mountains classification:
• Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne, km 69.0 — 2.8km, averaging 4.9 percent.
• Côte de Saint Roch, km 116.0 — 0.8km, averaging 12 percent.
• Côte de Wanne, Km 159.0 — 2.7km, averaging 7 percent.
• Côte de Stockeu (Stèle Eddy Merckx), km 166.0 — 1.1km, averaging 10.5 percent.
• Col du Rosier, km 186.0 — 6.4km, averaging 4 percent.
• Col du Maquisard, km 198.0 — 2.8km, averaging 4.5 percent.
• Mont-Theux, km 209.0 — 2.7km, averaging 5.2 percent.
• Côte de la Redoute, km 223.0 — 2.1km, averaging 8.4 percent.
• Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, km 238.0 — 1.5km, averaging 9.9 percent.
• Côte de Saint-Nicolas, km 252.0 — 1.0km, averaging 11.1 percent.
It was a sunny, warm day, with temperatures in the 70s and light winds from the south. Defending champion Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) was ready to race and expecting a tough day in the saddle.
“It will be an honor to race as defending champion, but that only means my rivals will be watching me even more. You need to be strong at Roche aux Falcon. There are no secrets in Liège,” he said.
“There will be a big group arriving at La Redoute, so it will be important to be at the front there. La Roche will be decisive again. It’s the hardest climb in the race. If we try to wait for a sprint against Gilbert, I would lose. That would be stupid. Finishing alone is always the best way to win.”
Gilbert fancied his chances, too.
“My win at Amstel makes me even more motivated for Liège,” Gilbert said. “I have nothing to lose. My dream one day is to win in Ans, and I hope it’s this year. But if it isn’t, there will be other occasions. I will race a little more defensively and wait for the moves. I am very strong in a sprint after 260km. I am not even worried about (Alejandro) Valverde.”
The break du jour
There were a few early unsuccessful attacks before Thomas de Gendt (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Maxime Bouet (Ag2r) got off the front at the 13km mark. Mauro Finetto (Liquigas), Jussi Veikkanen (Française des Jeux), Dries Devenyns (Quick Step), Niki Terpstra (Milram) and Alan Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) latched on, and the seven-man break extended its lead to more than eight minutes before the gap started coming back down; after more than two hours of racing they enjoyed an advantage of about 5:15 at the 92km mark.
Dirk Bellemakers (Landboukrediet) launched a solo chase and made it across the gap and it was eight men in the lead with an advantage of about six minutes.
With 103km to go, the peloton set about whittling away at the deficit, led by Saxo Bank, Astana, Caisse d’Epargne and Sky. The break took an advantage of just four minutes onto the slopes of the Côte de Wanne. Finetto was dropped, and with 100km to go, the gap was down a further 30 seconds.
As the peloton hit the Côte de Wanne Saxo’s Jens Voigt raced away, quickly taking a handful of seconds on the bunch. With 85km remaining, the leaders were 1:55 ahead of Voigt and 2:46 ahead of the peloton. Ten kilometers further down the road the break had two minutes on the bunch and just one on Voigt, who was closing fast.
He caught Bouet, another casualty of the break’s pace, and soldiered on. The Ag2r rider briefly held his wheel, then popped entirely. Next up was Veikkanen, who had a bit more in the tank and stuck with the Saxo man.
With 70km to go the break was down to five riders — de Gendt, Devenyns, Terpstra, Perez and Bellemakers — and had just a half-minute on Voigt and Veikkanen, with the peloton 1:42 back.
The steam appeared to go out of Voigt’s chase on the Col du Maquisard. With 65km to go he and Veikkanen were a minute short of the break and only 30 seconds ahead of the bunch, being driven by Quick Step, Sky and Katusha, whose manager Andrei Tchmil said he had “three cards to play” — Kolobnev, Sergei Ivanov and Joaquin Rodriguez.
“Joaquin can win Liège,” said Tchmil, himself a classics specialist in the 1990s. “He’s on great form right now and his second place at Flèche proved it. My big favorite to win is Philippe Gilbert. After you saw what he did in Amstel you realize how strong he is right now. But in cycling, you never know what’s going to happen. That’s what makes this sport so beautiful.”
A few kilometers later Voigt and Veikkanen were back in the peloton, with the Mont-Theux just ahead. As the catch came, Maxime Monfort (HTC-Columbia) took off, replacing Voigt in the gap between hare and hounds.
“We don’t have a big favorite to win Liège, so we can try to get someone into an early move,” said HTC-Columbia director Valerio Piva. “Monfort is strong; so is Albasini and Tony Martin. It would be better to have someone up the road and then maybe they can hang on when the attacks come from behind. It would be hard to stay with riders like Evans, Valverde and the Schlecks, so it’s better to be up in a move.”
With 56km to go the break had 42 seconds on Monfort and 1:05 on the peloton. As the break hit the Mont-Theux, Omega Pharma’s Mario Aerts was setting pace in the peloton with a pair of Quick Steps on his wheel.
Quick Step director Rik Verbrugghe had Devenyns in the break, but he also kept a joker up his sleeve. “(Sylvain) Chavanel is strong, and so is (Carlos) Barredo, but don’t forget (Stijn) Devolder. Normally, he would be in a resting period right now, but since he crashed at Roubaix, he’s extended his classics run. He could be a surprise.”
Fränk Schleck was having a bit of difficulty, visiting first the Mavic neutral support car and then his own Saxo team car. Ahead, Terpstra had cracked and fallen away from the crumbling break just as Devenyns short forward out of it, taking his chances alone with 49km to race.
Some in the peloton were getting antsy as the decisive Côte de la Redoute loomed ahead, just 2.1km but averaging a stiff 8.4 percent grade. Perrick Fedrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) tried a dig that came to nothing. Bert Scheirlinckx (Landbouwkrediet) tried his luck, too, the latest candidate for a stint in no-man’s land. Up front, Devenyns just kept cranking out the revs, clinging to a gap of just 30 seconds with 40km to race.
Led by RadioShack, the peloton reclaimed Scheirlinckx with 38km to go, leaving Devenyns alone at the head of affairs. And then he, too, was retrieved. Gruppo compatto, with the Redoute just ahead.
La Redoute and Roche aux Faucons
It was Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas) who first laid down the law. Barredo countered, followed by Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) and Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone).
Barredo was soon off on his own, 20 seconds ahead of Ten Dam, Garzelli, Agnoli and Martin. The four-man chase quickly latched onto the Quick Step rider’s wheel and it was a five-man break bound for the finish line, 31km ahead.
But not for long. As the chase closed in, Ten Dam attacked his break-mates, but he was only prolonging the inevitable — first they were swept up, then he was, and next teammate Bram Tankink tried his luck, taking a smallish gap with 28km to go.
Astana was setting tempo, but it wasn’t brisk enough for Katusha’s Ivanov, who launched a solo pursuit of Tankink. With 25km to go he was 15 seconds behind the Rabobank man, with the disintegrating peloton coming up fast.
Two steep climbs remained — the 1.5km Côte de la Roche aux Faucons at 238km, averaging 9.9 percent, and the Côte de Saint-Nicolas at 252km, only a kilometer but averaging 11.1 percent.
Tankink fairly blazed the descent leading to the Roche aux Falcons, padding his lead to 37 seconds with 21km to race. Behind, Ivanov was retrieved — and then Andy Schleck took off, with Gilbert on his wheel.
Tankink finally cracked and Schleck and Gilbert swept past. Alberto Contador (Astana) was next to make his move — he bridged to the leading duo and off they raced toward the final obstacle.
But their advantage was not nearly enough. The trio was soon a 10-man lead group, augmented by the likes of Evans, Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Valverde and Vinokourov.
Then Vino’ went off on his own, chased by Kolobnev, and the two soon hooked up, pursued by Valverde and Gilbert with 15km to go.
The final kilometers
Evans latched onto Valverde and Gilbert and with 12km to go the chase was just 14 seconds behind the two leaders, with the peloton at 38 seconds. The Côte de Saint-Nicolas was just 4km up the road.
Kolobnev and Vinokourov extended their lead to 28 seconds with 8km to go. The peloton had fallen to 1:17, wracked by attacks and counters that went precisely nowhere.
The Evans-Valverde-Gilbert chase was not making up any time, either. Valverde punched it on the Saint-Nicolas, distancing Evans, and as he looked over his shoulder to see what damage he’d done Gilbert countered, taking a sizable gap over his erstwhile companions.
Behind, Andy Schleck had attacked from the peloton and was charging up with Contador and Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi). But he and they were too late, as was Gilbert. With 5km to go he was 20 seconds behind the leaders and 15 ahead of Valverde and Evans. That was as close as he would get — the fire went out and so did the gap, to 42 seconds with 2km to race.
Kolobnev led the way into the final kilometer, then Vino’ briefly took the front. It was an uphill finish, and once Kolobnev to the lead again the Kazakh went early and hard, taking an insurmountable lead and crossing the line alone, with plenty of time to zip up, sit up and celebrate before a less-than-enthusiastic crowd. Kolobnev held on for second.
Gilbert was pulled back by the Evans chase just under the red kite and what looked like it would be a three-up sprint for the final spot on the podium turned into a bunch dash for the line as the remains of the peloton nearly gobbled them up, but Valverde hung on to claim third just ahead of Gilbert.
Vinokourov, who earlier this week won the Giro del Trentino, proclaimed that he had “turned the page” after having been expelled from the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping and serving a two-year suspension.
“I’ve returned stronger than before and I’ve shown everybody that ‘Vino’ is back,” he said. “This team was created for and also thanks to me. I’ve completed my punishment so I don’t see why I shouldn’t come back.”
- 1. VINOKOUROV Alexandre Astana in 6:37:48
- 2. KOLOBNEV Alexandr Katusha Team
- 3. VALVERDE Alejandro Caisse d’Epargne at 01:04
- 4. GILBERT Philippe Omega Pharma – Lotto at 01:04
- 5. EVANS Cadel Bmc Racing Team at 01:04
- 6. SCHLECK Andy Team Saxo Bank at 01:07
- 7. ANTON Igor Euskaltel – Euskadi at 01:07
- 8. HORNER Christopher Team RadioShack at 01:07
- 9. SCHLECK Frank Team Saxo Bank at 01:07
- 10. CONTADOR Alberto Astana at 01:07