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The Favorites: Valverde, Nibali men to beat at Liege–Bastogne–Liege

On Sunday, 200 men will start the final classic of the spring, but these 11 favorites will be the riders to watch at "La Doyenne"

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The oldest of the modern monuments, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, opens Sunday morning in the heart of the industrial center of Belgium’s Wallonie region and will close 261.5 kilometers later after a new finale. And while the removal of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons late in the race will alter how “La Doyenne” plays out, the most important of the Ardennes classics will see a list of familiar names — headlined by two-time winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and 2012 runner-up Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) — fighting for monumental glory come the Côte de Saint-Nicolas on the outskirts of the Liège suburb of Ans.

These are the picks of the VeloNews editors for the top favorites in the 99th edition of Liège–Bastogne–Liège.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) ★★★★ If you want to know how motivated Alejandro Valverde is for the Ardennes classics, you should have seen him at the top of the Mur de Huy on Wednesday. After finishing a disappointing seventh, he was pushing and shoving photographers out of the way like he was rushing the stage at a Van Halen concert.

Valverde is clearly ready to rock, and after strong rides at both Amstel Gold Race and Flèche, he is among the front-line favorites for victory in Sunday’s classics finale.

“Balaverde” will turn 33 next week, and the older and presumably wiser Spaniard is quite a different rider than when he won two Liège trophies in 2006 and 2008. He’s leaner, more experienced, and racing to prove his pre-ban results were no fluke.

Of the three races across the Ardennes and Limburg, Liège is the one best suited to his racing style. He can climb, and accelerate to make the selections, and then packs a potent finish-line sprint. There are few who can beat him out of a reduced-bunch sprint, as he revealed by kicking to second ahead of the likes of 2012 Milano-Sanremo winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) to snag second at Amstel.

“Last year, I came to the classics physically tired, but mentally as well,” Valverde told VeloNews. “This year I am fresher. I can feel it in my legs. I am hungry to win.”

Backing Valverde is the loaded Movistar team, which packs perhaps the deepest squad in the hilly classics. Behind Valverde is Ardennes debutante Nairo Quintana and Portuguese strongman Rui Costa. Andrey Amador, Pablo Lastras, and Giovanni Visconti will provide key support as well.

Valverde’s return from a controversial two-year ban for links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal has been nearly perfect. Last year, he won in his first race back with a stage at the Tour Down Under. Despite crashing and losing GC options, he won a stage at the Tour de France, only to finish off his season with second at the Vuelta a España and third at the world championships.

All that’s missing is a big win in the Ardennes and Valverde’s almost a sure bet to be on the front row coming up the final climb to Ans. —ANDREW HOOD

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) ★★★★ Vincenzo Nibali enters Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne- Liège in perfect position: The Sicilian is flying, having already won Tirreno-Adriatio and shown well in the early season, and his team boasts the race’s other two podium finishers from last year. There is pressure for Astana to fare well this Sunday, but far less than rests on some others.

When it comes to race control, Astana won’t be looked to Sunday to do all the heavy lifting. That will fall to BMC Racing, whose Philippe Gilbert absolutely must win “La Doyenne” to avoid have a failed spring classics season. Fair or not, that’s the burden of having swept Ardennes week in 2011 and wearing the world champion stripes.

Nibali has finished inside the top 10 at Liège twice (eighth in 2011 and second last year) and 10 once, in 2008. This parcours speaks to what he does exceptionally well — short bursts up steep ramps — and his on-bike skills are as such that the Italian won’t be out of position, no matter how sideways the race becomes. If he has good legs, he’ll be in a position to win the final monument of the spring.

The luxury of lining up in the same colors as defending champion Maxim Iglinskiy and 2012 third-place finisher Enrico Gasparotto gives “The Shark” a numbers advantage. If the Astana trio can arrive to the Côte de Saint Nicolas in the front of the race, their options are numerous. An earlier attack from one of them could come and force the issue as early as the Côte de La Redoute, putting Astana’s rivals on the back foot.

Gilbert and BMC Racing have all the pressure, but Astana has more talent. The math could easily work out in favor of Nibali, who could secure his first monument win to complement his Vuelta a España and twin Tirreno titles. —MATTHEW BEAUDIN

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) ★★★★ World champion Philippe Gilbert’s reign as king of the Ardennes feels like a distant memory, but the Monaco-based Walloon’s sweep through the hilly spring classics was just two years ago this week. In a 2011 campaign that included wins at Strade Bianche, Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and a Tour de France stage, Gilbert was unstoppable. He finished the year as the world’s No. 1 rider, but the road has been anything but smooth for Gilbert since he joined BMC Racing for 2012. He salvaged a wasted season with a rainbow jersey, but hasn’t seen the top step of the podium in 2013.

All of that being said, Gilbert would enter Sunday’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège a favorite on pedigree alone. Forget his fifth-place ride at Amstel Gold Race, second to Peter Sagan (Cannondale) at Brabantse Pijl, and narrow miss on stage 6 at Paris-Nice; a world champion former Liège winner, who grew up near the base of the Côte de La Redoute (his name is now emblazoned in paint on that climb), will almost certainly make this favorites list every time.

But Gilbert is under pressure entering Sunday’s race. He is without a victory this season and wants badly to win the most important race on his calendar, “La Doyenne,” in the rainbow jersey. This is Tom Boonen winning Flanders in the stripes in 2006 type of stuff. His rivals know this and will certainly pressure Gilbert, who has one of the most dangerous finishing kicks of the favorites, but whose fitness is suspect.

While he’s come up short in the first of the two major hilly classics — failing to catch Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) on the Cauberg and leading the early chase but fading late on the Mur de Huy — Gilbert is arguably the strongest candidate on the revised Liège route. Countryman Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Leopard) said as much on Thursday, claiming that the Côte de Colonster, near his home, is not selective enough and that Gilbert should arrive to the Saint-Nicolas, a climb built perfectly for him, with 30-40 riders. But can Gilbert win a classic without the help of former Liège victor Dirk De Wolf, his former coach and Lotto director? He has yet to do so since the pair split last year.

BMC Racing showed on Wednesday that it is capable of holding the race together; but Flèche Wallonne’s 205km length is much different than Liège’s 261.5km. Look for Gilbert’s squad to try and put Mathias Frank into the breakaway, taking the onus off of them early, before turning up the pace after La Redoute. His teammates know that if Gilbert can win for a second time in Ans, all will be forgotten; the king will have risen again and with him, his black-and-red court. —BRIAN HOLCOMBE

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) ★★★ Joaquim Rodríguez is chasing Liège-Bastogne-Liège with stubborn determination and he knows time is running out. “La Doyenne” is one of the oldest races on the calendar, and at 34 in May, Rodríguez knows he’s nearing the twilight of his career.

“I don’t have many chances left,” Rodríguez told VeloNews this week. “Liège is one of my favorite races, perhaps the one I want to win most. Let’s see if I have the legs Sunday.”

“Purito” roared into the Ardennes in the best form of his career, but a crash in the Amstel Gold Race has left him deflated. A high-speed impact on a rival’s handlebars with 40km to go left him with a painful hematoma on his left thigh, casting doubt on his hunt for the elusive Liège. He wasn’t going to throw in the towel, and felt better in Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne, riding to sixth to help Katusha defend his title, with teammate Daniel Moreno kicking to the win.

Rodríguez has been close before, with eighth in 2008 and second in 2009, though he was more than a minute behind winner Andy Schleck when he was runner-up. A student of the sport’s history, “Purito” is staying this week in room No. 11 at the Hotel Malpertuus, the accommodation of champions. Rodríguez won his first monument at the Giro di Lombardia last fall and wants to add “La Doyenne” to his trophy collection. If he’s not hampered by his injury, don’t count him out. —ANDREW HOOD

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) ★★★ Anyone overlooking Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) for Liège–Bastogne–Liège is making a mistake. The veteran Aussie puncheur has been bubbling just off the radar all season. After falling ill at both the Santos Tour Down Under (allergies) and Paris-Nice (chest cold), Gerrans couldn’t defend his two biggest wins of 2012 at Down Under and Milano-Sanremo. Instead, he’s been picking up quality victories in races along the way, with a win at Old Willunga Hill and stage wins at the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country). Third in last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race confirmed he’s on track for a big ride at Liège. No Aussie’s every won “La Doyenne.” That could change this weekend. —ANDREW HOOD

Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) ★★★ To win a bike race, the adage goes, a rider must have the legs and the luck. Irishman Daniel Martin appeared to have the legs on Wednesday at Flèche Wallonne, but Lady Luck dealt him a heavy blow with a late flat on the run-in to the final climbs of the midweek classic. Martin still finished fourth, but was boxed in on the climb and unable to capitalize on the form that saw him win the Volta a Catalunya last month.

Martin has been knocking on the door in the Ardennes for a few years now and the instincts that come with experience in the Belgian hills should serve him well on Sunday. Garmin’s co-captain, along with Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal, lit up the finale in Ans in 2012, splitting the chase group, but ultimately falling short.

He has the legs to go the distance at “La Doyenne,” but luck may be against Martin even before the race has started. The removal of the Roche aux Faucons for road work will make the finale less geared toward the climbers on Sunday. While he packs a tough finishing kick, Martin will have a tough time dispatching fast finishers like Gilbert and Michael Albasini (Orica). While he may be riding the condition of his life, Falcon Rock would make a better launching pad for him than a toned-down Saint-Nicolas.

But, as we saw on Wednesday, there is almost nothing, not even bad luck, that can stop Martin this spring. Is he the top favorite on Sunday? No. But would we be surprised to see Martin as the first Irishman to win the final spring classic since Sean Kelly 23 years ago? Not at all. —BRIAN HOLCOMBE

★★ Favorites
Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge)
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp)
Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana)
Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff)
Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)