The Ardennes Classics, and the Spring Classics as a whole, come to a beautiful conclusion this Sunday with Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
One of the most beautiful and undulating courses of the year, La Doyenne is a true spectacle of cycling. The course winds and twists over every lump and low mountain in the area, notable hitting eleven cols that are a kilometer in length. After the Fleche-Wallonne, a number of contenders come to mind as favorites, but there’s no way of telling who still has the legs in the hardest, toughest and oldest leg of the Ardennes campaign.
The very first L-B-L took place in 1892, starting from Spa and looping to and from Bastogne. For many years, the route finished in downtown Liege, though now the line is in the suburbs. The move allowed for the inclusion of the Cote de Saint Nicholas, which now serves as the final ascent and the last decisive moment for riders to attack or simply survive.
The lumpy route favors riders with deep reserves of stamina and climbing abilities that can take repeated, sustained climbs rather than the short, powerful exercions required at Fleche Wallonne. Some of the biggest names of the sport have conquered La Doyenne over the years, including five wins by Eddy Merckx and four from Italian Moreno Argentin.
Riders in the current peloton with multiple wins include Alexandre Vinokurov and Alejandro Valverde, both on two wins each. Valverde last won in 2008, and returns in 2012 on super form and a heavy favorite. The Spaniard, now riding with Movistar, has shown the ability to not only climb with the best but make the smartest breaks all spring long.
L-B-L has to be a sticky subject a year later in the Schleck household. In 2011, Frank and Andy laid down the gauntlet at the ready feet of Philipe Gilbert. The Belgian had just won at both Amstel and Fleche, and the media were looking for anyone to at least make a race of it on the final Sunday of Classics racing. The Schleck Bros. went on from distance and isolated Gilbert, but could do absolutely nothing to shake him over the final three climbs. In fact, Gilbert put in a handful of short accelerations against the pair, almost as if he wanted to show he could. The Schleck 2-3 on the podium foreshadowed a similar result in the Tour a few months later. Andy Schleck has been committed to helping Frank for most of the spring, including putting in a long attack Wednesday to keep the pressure off his team and on Katusha and BMC to chase. This Sunday, however, it would be no surprise to see both Schlecks attack in tandem as they did last year. Andy won this race in 2009, and would love to repeat his effort after a long, difficult spring.
Fleche Wallonne winner Joaquim Rodriguez isn’t the same type of climber as the Schlecks or Valverde, but if is able to stick with them late, he has even more punch in the last 500 meters than even an on-form Philipe Gilbert. He’ll have to put in a lot of work to stick around, but if the others mark him as a favorite, he may actually benefit from slowing the race down and keeping it together as long as possible.
Simon Gerrans won Milan-San Remo, but you may have forgotten already. With all the Super Fabian talk, Gerrans very quietly slipped back into his comfortable role of forgotten favorite. He had bad luck and bad legs at Amstel, but L-B-L suits him far better. His toughness on the Poggio in Italy bodes well for the climb of la Redoute , the very selective climb often used to break up the race after about 240km.
Other riders in with a shout are Damiano Cuenego, coming off a stage win at Giro del Trentino. Samuel Sanchez should also be a threat, along with a fresh Vicenzo Nibali. Rigoberto Uran, Lars-Peter Nordhaug and Mauricio Henao form a dangerous trio for SKY, a team committed to putting anyone up the road as a threat and protected whatever rider feels best. They never play their hand too soon, making them hard to mark. Amstel winner Enrico Gasporatto of Astana will be given more attention after his win, but his team also offer threats from Roman Kreuzinger and Robert Kiserlovski.
Predicting this race is very tough, but current form is the best indicator, perhaps more so than other Classics. Over a course this hard and lumpy and long, riders can’t hide. Team leaders will have to be present and correct throughout, often alone and isolated from as far out as 30km. Squads with the firepower to have 2-3 left late on will have the luxury of putting men on the front or on the attack. Teams like SKY, Astana and BMC have the most firepower, along with RadioShack-Nissan and Liquigas-Cannondale. I’ll take Astana’s Maxim Iglinsky in a surprise win, followed by Thomas Voeckler of Europcar and Sammy Sanchez. The dark horse, outside of Iglinsky, would be a show of force from Frank Schleck, and a lone winner shouldn’t be counted out. If the weather is rough, the final selection may come later, perhaps even on the Cote de Saint Nicholas itself.
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