By John Wilcockson
The sunshine that enveloped the green hills of the Ardennes Saturday evening augers well for the Italians who have arrived in force for Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Not only do they have the highest number of starters (44) and teams (six) for this World Cup race, but they have also delivered the race winner four times in the past seven years.
Last year, of course, Tyler Hamilton broke their stranglehold with a brilliant solo victory ahead of two other non-Italians, Spaniard Iban Mayo of Euskaltel-Euskadi and Dutchman Michael Boogerd of Rabobank. Both Hamilton (race No. 1) and Boogerd (No. 51) are again among the race favorites, but Mayo has chosen to miss the Ardennes classics this year to focus on his preparations for the Tour de France.
Also a Tour contender, Hamilton says he’s a notch below his 2003 form at this period, but he will still defend his title to the best of his ability, especially as he has another former race winner Oskar Camenzind as a teammate this year. And Phonak, Hamilton’s Swiss team, is expecting him to ride strongly at next week’s Tour de Romandie. As for Boogerd, he deliberately missed Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne to save the form that earned him second place at last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race.
Amstel winner Davide Rebellin, who went on to take the Flèche, too, is the hot favorite at Liège. In both classics earlier this week, his Gerolsteiner teammates had the strength to control the race, while Rebellin showed excellent tactical skills, climbing strength and sprinting skills — all the attributes of a budding Liège champion.
Rebellin hasn’t won this race before, but his two placings in the event — second in 2001, third in 2000 — have given him the course knowledge and experience needed to win this classic. His biggest challengers are likely to be two former race winners, Paolo Bettini of Quick Step (who won in 2000 and 2002) and Michele Bartoli of CSC (1997 and 1998).
Besides Rebellin, Bettini and Bartoli, the thousands of Italian fans who are in town for the race will be cheering for several other compatriots with a chance of winning: Stefano Garzelli of Caldirola-Nobili (second in 2002); Ivan Basso of CSC (third in 2002); Michele Scarponi of Domina Vacanze (fourth last year); and Danilo Di Luca of Saeco (eighth last year, and second at Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne).
Others to look out for include the 1999 winner, Frank Vandenbroucke of Fassa Bortolo, and his fellow Belgian Peter Van Petegem of Lotto-Domo; the Spaniards Samuel Sanchez and David Etxebarria of Euskaltel-Euskadi; and Russia’s Denis Menchov of Illes Balears. Menchov is the recent winner of the Tour of the Basque Country, while Etxebarria finished second at Liège behind Bettini in 2000.
There are no changes to the course from last year. Its 258.5 kilometers contain 10 categorized climbs, plus the long haul up to the finish in Ans, a Liège suburb, where Hamilton was fighting hard in 2003 to hold off the pursuing Mayo and Boogerd. The most significant of the hills are La Redoute (2km at 7.4 percent with pitches approaching 15 percent), which comes with 35km to go, and the Côte de St. Nicolas (1.1km at 11 percent), which summits 5.5km from the finish and appropriately angles up through one of the city’s Italian neighborhoods.
Such is the strength of the Italians this year, especially in the warm sunshine that is predicted for Sunday, that they could even have a clean sweep. Bettini, Di Luca, Garzelli and Rebellin should all be in at the kill.