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Merckx: “Liège is the most beautiful classic.”

Lance Armstrong arrived in Liège, Belgium, Saturday afternoon as one of 10 Americans scheduled to race cycling’s oldest classic, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, on Sunday. Armstrong was whisked into the Palace des Princes Evêques, a giant stone structure in central Liège just in time to join his teammates at the presentation ceremony on the eve of the 88th edition of the demanding 258km race. Armstrong, who has twice finished second at Liège (1994, ’96), has marked this event, also round 4 of the UCI World Cup series, as one he’s been gunning for this year. A large crowd was packed into a tent

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By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor, in Liège

Merckx, aggressive in Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne, drew the biggest cheers in Liège Saturday.

Photo: Kip Mikler

Lance Armstrong arrived in Liège, Belgium, Saturday afternoon as one of 10 Americans scheduled to race cycling’s oldest classic, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, on Sunday. Armstrong was whisked into the Palace des Princes Evêques, a giant stone structure in central Liège just in time to join his teammates at the presentation ceremony on the eve of the 88th edition of the demanding 258km race.

Armstrong, who has twice finished second at Liège (1994, ’96), has marked this event, also round 4 of the UCI World Cup series, as one he’s been gunning for this year.

A large crowd was packed into a tent erected in the center of the palace on a cold, sunny afternoon to welcome Armstrong and the other 25 teams to Liège for the race that many consider cycling’s sweetest one-day prize. Domo-Farm Frites rider Axel Merckx said, “Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the most beautiful classic.”

Axel’s father, Eddy holds the record of five wins at Liège.

Casagrande is one of the Italians favored to be in the mix at the end of the 258km L-B-L.....

Casagrande is one of the Italians favored to be in the mix at the end of the 258km L-B-L…..

Photo: Kip Mikler

Favorites for the race, known for its 10 steep côtes, nine of which come in the final 100km, include a host of Italians: Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo), Paolo Bettini (Mapei-Quick Step), Michele Bartoli (Fassa Bortolo), Dario Frigo (Tacconi Sport) and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) have all shown signs that they have what it takes to be there in the end.

Other riders to watch include Belgians Merckx and Rik Verbrugghe (Lotto-Adocco); Spaniards David Etxebarria (Euskatel-Euskadi) and Oscar Friere (Mapei-Quick Step); Dutch Rabobank Michael Boogerd; and Armstrong.

Armstrong might not be the only American to watch for tomorrow. Tyler Hamilton, riding for CSC-Tiscali, seems to be enjoying a return to form and put in an aggressive performance in Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne race, which was won by Lotto’s Mario Aerts. Hamilton hinted on Saturday that he might have a different role to play at Liége than the domestique role he filled during Fleche-Wallonne.

“I’ll race a little more conservatively early on,” Hamilton said. “If I race smart, I think I might be able to do something tomorrow. I don’t know if I’ll be in there with the big guns at the end, but you never know. All those climbs really take a toll on you. It’s a long race, really a race of attrition.”

Another American to watch is Boogerd’s support man Levi Leiphemer, who, like Hamilton, put in an aggressive day of team support at Flèche on Wednesday.

George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service) and Fred Rodriguez (Domo-Farm Frites) both went home this week to recover from all-out efforts at Paris-Roubaix last week (Hincapie finished sixth, Rodriguez 27th), but each said on Saturday they were ready to go.

“I’ve recovered from the effort but I’m still pretty banged up,” said Rodriguez. “I’ve got bruises on both knees and both hips.” Rodriguez arrived Friday for his first crack at Liége, so he’ll be racing the course blind, having never been on it. “

We’ll see,” he shrugged. “If I have good legs, you never know.”

The race is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. in Liège (4 a.m. in the Eastern time zone of the United States). Check in here at www.VeloNews.com for updates throughout the race.


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