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Preview: Last chance for Ardennes glory in Liege

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.”

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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.

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