Improving form, other factors, could help Gilbert defend at Liège

Philippe Gilbert is counting on his recently improving form - and some help from friends and bad weather - to get him the win at Liège

LIÈGE, Belgium (AFP) – The form of Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), after his podium finish at Wednesday’s Flèche Wallone, seems to be improving just in time for the Belgian to defend his title at Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège – the oldest classic race on the calendar, dating back to 1892.

Gilbert admitted Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) deserved that win, but hinted that his own third-place finish could be a sign of better things to come.

“I’ve come from a long ways down, so I am satisfied to be back at this level,” he said. “Being on the podium is nice, but most important is a victory.”

Gilbert is still looking for his first win of the season, and hopes the challenging course – 257.5km with 11 short but punishing climbs – is a perfect opportunity. In 2011 Gilbert claimed his maiden Liège victory to seal a hat-trick of Ardennes classics wins along with the Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne.

Challengers meanwhile are hoping to capitalize on the fact Gilbert will be racing without key helper Cadel Evans, the Australian and Tour de France champion who pulled out earlier this week with a sinus problem.

Those challengers should include two-time Liège champion, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who returned to the peloton in January following a doping suspension. Valverde finished 51 seconds off the pace at Flèche but the lure of a third victory and a hilly course could inspire the Spanish climbing specialist.

Czech rider Roman Kreuziger (Astana), reigning Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD), Australian Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) and Luxembourg’s Andy and Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) will all have their eyes fixed on the Belgian as well.

Aside from his improving fitness however, Gilbert welcomes anything else that may help him Sunday – and that includes the weather and his hometown support.

The forecast calls for cold, rainy weather, and he the feels that should help. “I think that the weather plays into my favor. I can stand the cold, maybe more than the Italian or Spanish riders. So that can be an advantage for me,” he said.

Gilbert grew up in the nearby village of Remouchamps, and despite that weather, thousands of his fans will line the two-kilometer long Redoute climb, considered by some as the most strategic. Many have already arrived at the site.

And the proximity of his hometown gives his older brother Christian and his parents an easier job of organizing a big party to support Gilbert’s efforts.

“We’ll have 120 kegs of beer, hundreds of bottles of special brew, 120 liters of (local alcohol) peket, 350 liters of strawberry vodka and 150 liters of wine,” Christian told local newspaper La Derniere Heure. The proceeds will go to local cycling clubs in the hope that the next Gilbert is on the way.

A hilly route

Andy Schleck recently said Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with its longer climbs, suits Tour riders better than the typical spring classics. Here’s a list of the 11 climbs over the 257.5 kilometers of Sunday’s race:

La Roche-en-Ardenne (Km 70): 2.8km long at 6.2-percent gradient
Saint-Roch (Km 116.5): 1km at 11 %
Wanne (Km 160): 2.7km at 7.3 %
Stockeu (Km 166.5): 1km at 12.2 %
Haute-Lev⁄e (Km 172): 3.6km at 5.7 %
Rosier (Km 186): 4.4km at 5.9 %
Maquisard (Km 198): 2.5km at 5 %
Mont-Theux (Km 208): 2.7km at 5.9 %
La Redoute (Km 223): 2km at 8.8 %
La Roche aux Faucons (Km 238): 1.5km at 9.3 %
Saint-Nicolas (Km 252): 1.2km at 8.6 %