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Liege a bellwether of growing U.S. talent pool

Eleven Americans are slated to start Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, the most Yanks at the Ardennes monument since 2001.

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Alexey Vermeulen was merely six years old when Oscar Camenzind won the 2001 trip to Bastogne and back. Fifteen years later, the LottoNL – Jumbo youngster is one of 11 Americans taking the start at Liège-Bastogne-Liège Sunday. Though none of this year’s Americans are outright favorites in cycling’s oldest monument race, they indicate the growing strength of U.S. men in cycling’s upper echelon.

You have to go back to that year when the Swiss won his second and final monument to best 2016’s turnout. Then, 12 Americans raced “La Doyenne” — Livingston, Hamilton, Leipheimer, Vande Velde, Zabriskie, Horner, Landis, McRae, Wherry, Julich, Clinger, and Louder. Christian Vande Velde was the top finisher, 31st. Only one is still racing professionally today — yep, Chris Horner.

Of course, that was in the heart of cycling’s sordid doping era, but like it or not, there were a ton of Americans racing abroad in the early aughts. It’s certainly a new era now. This season, every American starting Liège is in his 20s. Don’t trust anyone over 30 indeed.

It has been 12 years since a U.S. rider found the podium in Liège — Tyler Hamilton won in 2003, about one year before his doping scandal began after the Olympics.

Today’s young Americans have yet to match the dubious accomplishments of their predecessors (Lance Armstrong was second in 1996 and 1994 as well). Results aside, the Americans have been active participants in Ardennes week, with Kiel Reijnen (Trek – Segafredo) making the break at Flèche, and both Alex Howes (Cannondale) and Larry Warbasse (IAM) on the attack at Amstel Gold Race.

Those three will be joined in Liège by BMC’s Joey Rosskopf; Lawson Craddock, King, and Brown of Cannondale; Giant – Alpecin’s Caleb Fairly and Chad Haga; Peter Stetina with Trek, and LottoNL – Jumbo’s Vermeulen.

With 11 riders, the U.S. is ranked sixth out of 31 participating countries at Liège, just behind Italy. French riders are far and away the most numerous — 38 to Belgium’s 26. And they might have a shot at their first win since 1980 (Bernard Hinault) with Julian Alaphilippe on fine form.

None of the Americans are outright favorites, however. Nathan Brown was second in 2013’s under-23 Liège. (Also noteworthy: Logan Owen (Axeon) won this year’s U23 edition.)

But most remain enthusiastic regardless. “I think it’s one of the nicest races of the year and a race I have always been a huge fan of,” Warbasse said of Liège. “It’s one I hope to one day do well in as it is probably the classic best suited to my characteristics. Whether that’s this year or in the future, I’m not quite sure! I’d love to have a good ride there this weekend, but either way it will be a great experience.”