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Valverde wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Alejandro Valverde, whose fans sometimes call him Balaverde, the Green Bullet, added a second notch to his list of classics victories on Sunday in a riveting 92nd edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, raced on a splendidly sunny spring day. The verdict was always in doubt after repeated attacks in the finale failed to break up a 12-strong group that eventually contested a ragged sprint, which Valverde of Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears clearly won from the Italians Paolo Bettini of Quick Step-Innergetic and Damiano Cunego of Lampre-Fondital.

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Balaverde takes over ProTour lead

By John Wilcockson

Valverde celebrates

Valverde celebrates

Photo: AFP

Alejandro Valverde, whose fans sometimes call him Balaverde, the Green Bullet, added a second notch to his list of classics victories on Sunday in a riveting 92nd edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, raced on a splendidly sunny spring day.

The verdict was always in doubt after repeated attacks in the finale failed to break up a 12-strong group that eventually contested a ragged sprint, which Valverde of Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears clearly won from the Italians Paolo Bettini of Quick Step-Innergetic and Damiano Cunego of Lampre-Fondital.

92ND LIÈGE-BASTOGNE-LIÈGE
BELGIUM, APRIL 23

1. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears, 262km in 6:21:32 (41.202 kph)
2. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step-Innergetic
3. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre-Fondital
4. Patrik Sinkewitz (G), T-Mobile
5. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank
6. Miguel Martin Perdiguero (Sp), Phonak
7. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC
8. Chris Horner (USA), Davitamon, all s.t.
9. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, at 0:04
10. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, at 0:07.

Complete results

Valverde thus became the first Spanish rider to win this oldest classic, founded in 1894, and he also took over the leader’s jersey on the UCI ProTour.

“I knew I was one of the fastest in the group,” said Valverde, “but I was particularly concerned about Bettini and Miguel Martin Perdiguero [who came in sixth]. In the last kilometer it was just one after the other making attacks. I waited and when [Patrik] Sinkewitz attacked in the last corner I got on his wheel and took it from there.”

Horner scored an eighth-place finish

Horner scored an eighth-place finish

Photo: Graham Watson

Crossing in eighth place was a magnificent Chris Horner, who matched the best riders in the world and finished just ahead of Italian superstars Danilo Di Luca of Liquigas and Ivan Basso of CSC. It was the American’s best-ever performance in a European classic.

Horner, who’s no slouch in tough sprints like this, had complimentary words for Valverde. “I’ve never seen so much speed out of a guy so small like that, so thin. It’s unbelievable.”

Valverde’s finish was indeed unbelievable, but the foundation for his victory was built by his teammate Joaquin Rodriguez, who set the aggressive finale in action by attacking a 23-strong lead group on the short Sprimont climb, 30km from the finish. After the attacking Spaniard was joined by an impressive Michael Boogerd of Rabobank at the summit, the pair moved to a 40-second lead in the next 10km.

Boogerd and Rodriguez on the march

Boogerd and Rodriguez on the march

Photo: Graham Watson

Despite several chases, particularly one from the aggressive Bettini on the Sart-Tilman climb, Boogerd and Rodriguez stayed clear until the summit of the penultimate hill, the 1.2km, 12-percent St. Nicolas, just 6km from the finish.

Throughout that time, Valverde was able to sit in and follow the chasers, and so retained the energy that came in so useful at the end.

“Joaquin did an enormous amount of work,” Valverde said. “It was his effort that really helped me to win. I was in a good position.”

Valverde said that taking his first classic win at the Flèche Wallonne last Wednesday also helped him take Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

“I was very calm after wins at the Tour of the Basque Country [where he out-sprinted Oscar Freire to win the opening stage] and the Flèche.”

Early 26-rider breakaway
The race didn’t really get underway until three-and-a-half hours into the contest when seven CSC riders went to the front of the pack and upped the pace from 40 to 50 kph. The immediate effect was to halve the lead of a 26-strong break that had a seven-minute gap for most of the outward trip to the turnaround point in Bastogne.

Jens Voigt, last year’s runner-up, was the lone CSC rider in the front group, while other potentially dangerous riders in the move, which started after 35km, were T-Mobile’s Michael Rogers and Steffen Wesemann, Rabobank’s Juan Antonio Flecha, Davitamon-Lotto’s Christophe Brandt and Liquigas’s Vincenzo Nibali.

It was an accidental break in some ways because an initial gap of 35 seconds widened to five minutes when many in the peloton stopped for a natural break. And even when the gap pushed past six minutes the 26 men in the front never fully committed to more than a steady 41-kph tempo.

CSC, with three or four potential winners in its ranks, couldn’t allow riders like Rogers and Wesemann to reach the crucial stretch of climbs — starting with the Côte de Wanne 90km from the finish — with a lead north of five minutes. CSC closed the gap to 2:15 before reaching the Wanne climb, where more than 100 of the 195 starters were still in contention.

The Bettini group on La Redoute

The Bettini group on La Redoute

Photo: Graham Watson

Determined to make CSC work even harder, Wesemann took off from the break halfway up the Wanne, pushing ahead to a solo lead that reached 1:25 by the summit of the Haute-Levée. While all the others in the early move were overtaken by the CSC-led pack, Wesemann stayed ahead all the way to the summit of the Côte de la Vecquée after a solo effort of 38km.

Wesemann continued to ride hard for the three T-Mobile riders still at the front, as did CSC’s Voigt, who took over the head of the race single-handedly all the way to the foot of the critical La Redoute climb. After Voigt pulled over, his CSC team leaders Basso, Fränk Schleck (the winner of last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race) and Karsten Kroon were ready to play their cards.

“The race was tough for my team,” said Basso, “but it wasn’t hard enough for the other teams because the wind was not a crosswind, but from the front.” The Italian was saying, in effect, that Voigt and his hard-working teammates couldn’t make the other teams work hard enough because their same efforts in a crosswind would have broken things up; but the day’s cool breeze was mainly blowing in their faces.

By the base of La Redoute, 36km from the finish, there were still about 40 riders in the lead group — but an explosion of attacks on the 2km, 8.5-percent climb was the prelude to a thrilling finale. Basso, Bettini and Cunego made blazing accelerations on the toughest, near-20-percent part of La Redoute. But seeing those Italian superstars giving their best didn’t deter Horner — even though he was the only rider from his Davitamon-Lotto squad still in the front group.

Remarkably, a few hundred meters before the top of La Redoute, Horner pulled away from the leaders in a solo effort that strung out the line along the ridge preceding the KoM banner. “I jumped hard,” Horner told VeloNews, “but after that I was looking back to see if anyone was chasing, Well, Frank [Schleck] from CSC was chasing me, so I backed off a little.”

Valverde wins

Valverde wins

Photo: Graham Watson

Horner was third at the KoM line, just behind T-Mobile’s Sinkewitz and Phonak’s Martin Perdiguero. The American stayed at the head of the 27-strong group that had emerged over La Redoute, trading pulls with Europe’s top champions. But like most of the others with him, Horner missed the pivotal move made by Rodriguez and Boogerd on the next climb.

“I wasn’t intending to attack from so far out,” said Boogerd, “but when I heard we had a 20second lead I had to keep it going. I thought we would get passed on St. Nicolas but I was able to stay with Perdiguero, Sinkewitz and Valverde when they caught us over the top.”

Boogerd, who eventually placed fifth, to go with the four podium spots he’s earned over the past six years, added, “I think I was the strongest today.”

The lanky Dutchman was one of the strongest, as was Horner, But no one could match the uncanny finishing speed of the Green Bullet. With the white ProTour leader’s jersey on his back, Valverde said he would try to add to his lead at this coming week’s Tour de Romandie.

92ND LIÈGE-BASTOGNE-LIÈGE
BELGIUM, APRIL 23

1. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears, 262km in 6:21:32 (41.202 kph)
2. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step-Innergetic
3. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre-Fondital
4. Patrik Sinkewitz (G), T-Mobile
5. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank
6. Miguel Martin Perdiguero (Sp), Phonak
7. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC
8. Chris Horner (USA), Davitamon-Lotto, all s.t.
9. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, at 0:04
10. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, at 0:07.

Complete results2006 UCI PROTOUR (after 10 races)
1. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears -136
2. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic– 129 pts
3. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre-Fondital-105
4. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC – 100
5. Patrik Sinkewitz (G), T-Mobile-90
6. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi-89
7. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), CSC – 84
8. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank – 75
9. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Milram – 72
10. Antonio Colom (Sp), Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears-71
TEAMS
1. CSC (Dk)-152 pts
2. Rabobank (Nl) – 134
3. T-Mobile (G) – 131
4. Lampre-Fondital (I) – 126
5. Quick Step-Innergetic (B)-121
Complete results

Photo Gallery

Results

Results

1. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears

2. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step-Innergetic, 00:00

3. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre, 00:00

4. Patrik Sinkewitz (G), T-Mobile, 00:00

5. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank, 00:00

6. Martin Perdiguero M.angel (Sp), Phonak, 00:00

7. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC, 00:00

8. Christopher Horner (USA), Davitamon-Lotto, 00:00

9. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, 00:04

10. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, 00:07

11. Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz), Liberty Seguros, 00:12

12. Joaquim Rodriguez (Sp), Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears, 00:24

13. David Etxebarria (Sp), Liberty Seguros, 00:28

14. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank, 00:29

15. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 00:31

16. Franco Pellizotti (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, 00:31

17. Andriy Grivko (Ukr), Milram, 00:31

18. Karsten Kroon (Nl), CSC, 00:31

19. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre, 00:31

20. Thomas Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, 00:31

21. Igor Astarloa (Sp), BAR, 00:31

22. Gilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval, 00:45

23. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 00:47

24. Matthias Kessler (G), T-Mobile, 00:51

25. Pedro Arreitunandia (Sp), BAR, 00:57

26. Giuliano Figueras (I), Lampre, 01:18

27. Francesco Bellotti (I), Credit Agricole, 01:21

28. Fabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner, 01:21

29. Gorazd Stangelj (SLO), Lampre, 01:21

30. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), Liberty Seguros, 01:31

31. Leonardo Bertagnolli (I), Cofidis, 01:31

32. Stefano Garzelli (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, 02:13

33. Axel Merckx (B), Phonak, 04:29

34. Didier Rous (F), Bouygues Telecom, 04:33

35. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Ag2r Prevoyance, 04:33

36. Ruben Lobato (Sp), Saunier Duval, 04:33

37. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), Discovery Channel Pro Cycling, 04:33

38. Philippe Gilbert (B), Francaise des Jeux, 04:33

39. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), T-Mobile, 04:33

40. Iker Camano (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 04:33

41. Bjorn Leukemans (B), Davitamon-Lotto, 04:33

42. Serge Baguet (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 04:33

43. Bram Tankink (Nl), Quick Step-Innergetic, 04:33

44. Jorg Jaksche (G), Liberty Seguros, 04:33

45. Cobo Acebo Juan Jose (Sp), Saunier Duval, 05:26

46. Sylvain Chavanel (F), Cofidis, 06:58

47. Pietro Caucchioli (I), Credit Agricole, 07:31

48. Gianpaolo Cheula (I), BAR, 07:31

49. Dmitriy Fofonov (Kaz), Credit Agricole, 09:53

50. Manuel Juan Manuel (Sp), Quick Step-Innergetic, 10:51

51. Jens Voigt (G), CSC, 10:51

52. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 11:00

53. Beat Zberg (Swi), Gerolsteiner, 11:00

54. Constantino Zaballa (Sp), Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears, 11:00

55. David De La Fuente (Sp), Saunier Duval, 11:00

56. Erik Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, 11:00

57. Luis Jose Luis (Sp), Ag2r Prevoyance, 11:00

58. Christophe Laurent (F), Agritubel, 11:00

59. Walter Beneteau (F), Bouygues Telecom, 11:00

60. Alexandr Kolobnev (Rus), Rabobank, 11:00

61. Johan Vansummeren (B), Davitamon-Lotto, 11:00

62. Steve Zampieri (Swi), Phonak, 11:00

63. Maxim Iglinskiy (Kaz), Milram, 11:00

64. Joost Posthuma (Nl), Rabobank, 11:00

65. Vasseur Cédric (F), Quick Step-Innergetic, 11:00

66. Christophe Brandt (B), Davitamon-Lotto, 11:00

67. Lövkvist Thomas (Swe), Francaise des Jeux, 11:00

68. Mario Aerts (B), Davitamon-Lotto, 11:00

69. Rik Verbrugghe (B), Cofidis, 11:00

70. Pierrick Fedrigo (F), Bouygues Telecom, 11:00

71. Laurens Ten Dam (Nl), UNI, 11:00

72. Stephane Goubert (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 11:00

73. Matej Mugerli (SLO), Liquigas-Bianchi, 11:00

74. Azevedo José (P), Discovery Channel Pro Cycling, 11:00

75. Pauriol Rémi (F), Credit Agricole, 11:00

76. Tadej Valjavec (SLO), Lampre, 11:00

77. Thierry Marichal (B), Cofidis, 11:00

78. Bert De Waele (B), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 11:00

79. Salvatore Commesso (I), Lampre, 11:00

80. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, 11:00

81. Alberto Contador (Sp), Liberty Seguros, 11:00

82. Angel Vicioso (Sp), Liberty Seguros, 11:00

83. Uros Murn (SLO), Phonak, 11:00

84. Evgeni Petrov (Rus), Lampre, 11:00

85. Antonio Juan Antonio (Sp), Rabobank, 11:00

86. Benoit Salmon (F), Agritubel, 11:00

87. Steve Morabito (Swi), Phonak, 16:36

88. Benoit Joachim (Lux), Discovery Channel Pro Cycling, 17:25

89. Maarten Den Bakker (Nl), Milram, 17:25

90. Johan Coenen (B), UNI, 17:25

91. Serge Pauwels (B), Chocolade Jacques – T Interim, 17:25

92. Christophe Le Mevel (F), Credit Agricole, 17:25

93. Josep Jufre Pou (Sp), Davitamon-Lotto, 17:25

94. Antonio Colom (Sp), Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears, 17:25

95. Pineau Jérôme (F), Bouygues Telecom, 17:25

96. Patrick Calcagni (Swi), Liquigas-Bianchi, 17:25

97. Ryan Cox (RSA), BAR, 17:25

98. Steven Kleynen (B), Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, 17:25

99. Inaki Isasi (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 17:25

100. Michael Rogers (Aus), T-Mobile, 17:25

101. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, 17:25

102. Marcos Serrano (Sp), Liberty Seguros, 17:25

103. Addy Engels (Nl), Quick Step-Innergetic, 17:25

104. Matej Jurco (SVK), Milram, 17:25

105. Finot Frédéric (F), Francaise des Jeux, 17:25