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By John Wilcockson
Since his break-through victory last Sunday at the Amstel Gold Race, FrankSchleck has seen his stock rise like a meteor. “He seems like a fragileguy,” his CSC team manager Bjarne Riis commented this week, “but he hasa huge resistance.”Schleck confirmed his good form on Wednesday at the Flèche Wallonne,where he was one of three riders, with CSC teammate Karsten Kroon and SamuelSanchez of Euskaltel, who finished at the top of the Mur de Huy just behindwinner Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears.In placing fourth at the Flèche, Schleck rode a smart race inview of the difficulties that face everyone faces in this Sunday’s 92ndedition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He just followed the action,and that included getting a helping hand from his team leader Ivan Basso.Others who impressed at the Flèche included Spaniards Valverde andSanchez, of course, but also the Italians Danilo Di Luca and Stefano Garzelliof Liquigas, Paolo Bettini of Quick Step-Innergetic and Basso himself.Bettini was in a series of attacks at the Flèche, just as hewas at the Amstel last weekend, but he didn’t succeed in either race. “TheFlèche isn’t a race for attackers,” Bettini told Belgian paper LaDernière Heure, “ and at the Amstel I only made one mistake, whichwas jumping in a break with 60km to go.”As for Liège on Sunday, Bettini said about the race he won in2000 and 2002, “I’m happy that the Haute-Levée [climb] is back inthe course. The race is tough again [though] it was already long and thehills were difficult. Everyone talks about the Haute-Levée and LaRedoute, but I think that the crucial climb is the Vecquée. That’swhere [Jens] Voigt and [Alexander] Vinokourov attacked last year.”In sequence, the 10 climbs in the final 90km of the 262km Liège-Bastogne-Liègeare the Wanne, Stockeu, Haute-Levée, Rosier, Vecquée, LaRedoute, Sprimont, Sart-Tilman, St. Nicolas and the uncategorized climbto the finish in Ans. Last year, the Wanne-Stockeu-Haute-Levée combosaw the peloton split into multiple groups, with only a couple of dozenriders going on to contest the win.No rain is forecast for Sunday, but overcast skies and a southeast breezethat will be favorable for most of the final 90km and will again encouragebreakaways. Bettini is clearly hoping that a long-distance break will succeed,as it did last year. He could get some willing co-conspirators in fellowItalians Damiano Cunego of Lampre-Fondital and Gilberto Simoni of SaunierDuval-Prodir, who arrived in Liège Saturday after finishing thefour-day Giro del Trentino on Friday. Like Basso and Di Luca, all theseItalians are gearing up for the Giro d’Italia, which starts near Liègeon May 6.Others will be seeking to delay their major effort until as late aspossible on Sunday, which means that their teams will have to remain alertand be extremely strong to keep the breakaways in check. Those who wouldprefer to see the real action delayed until the steepest climb, the 1km,12-percent St Nicolas just 6km from the finish, are Valverde, Sanchez,Rabobank’s two leaders, Michael Boogerd and Oscar Freire, Gerolsteiner’sDavide Rebellin, Phonak’s Miguel Martin Perdiguero, Barloworld’s Igor Astarloaand Davitamon-Lotto’s Cadel Evans and Björn Leukemans.Liège-Bastogne-Liège is often won by a rider who has thestrongest team, and this Sunday, CSC, which is leading the overall classificationin the UCI ProTour, has all the credentials. Besides Basso, Kroon and Schleck,the Danish squad can also rely on Voigt and Carlos Sastre making it intothe vital split. Should one of their top men then get in a break, he wouldbe able to ride fairly defensively, reserving his strength for the ruggedfinale, in the knowledge that in the event of being caught one of his teammateswould be waiting to pounce.Last Sunday, it helped that Schleck had Kroon to cover the chasers forhim after he made his solo escape in the final kilometers. Maybe the samescenario will develop this Sunday. After this week’s Flèche Wallonne,Schleck talked about the fans he expects to see travel from his nativeLuxembourg, just a couple hours drive from Liège. “There were alot of my supporters, mainly from Luxemburg, on the course. That reallypleased me a lot,” he said. “And I hope to see just as many fans at thestart on Sunday because the race should be quite spectacular.”Not only spectacular, but probably extremely exciting given the qualityand quantity of this year’s field. Look for a detailed report from Liège-Bastogne-Liègeon VeloNews.com this Sunday.
Handicapping the favorites
5-STARPaolo Bettini (I), Quick StepFrank Schleck (Lux), CSCDanilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas
4-STARIvan Basso (I), CSCMichael Boogerd (Nl), RabobankDamiano Cunego (I), Lampre-FonditalDavide Rebellin (I), GerolsteinerPatrik Sinkewitz (G), T-MobileAlejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’ÉpargneAlexander Vinokourov (Kaz), Liberty Seguros
3-STARIgor Astarloa (Sp), BarloworldOscar Freire (Sp), RabobankMatthias Kessler (G), T-MobileBjörn Leukemans (B), Davitamon-LottoMiguel Martin Perdiguero (Sp), PhonakSamuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi
2-STARLeonardo Bertagnolli (I), CofidisAlberto Contador (Sp), Liberty SegurosDavid Etxebarria (Sp), Liberty SegurosCadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-LottoStefano Garzelli (I), LiquigasPhilippe Gilbert (B), Française des JeuxChris Horner (USA), Davitamon-LottoJosé Gomez Marchante (Sp), Saunier Duval-ProdirKarsten Kroon (Nl), CSCGilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval-ProdirFabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner