Could Cadel Evans win Liège-Bastogne-Liège?

Twice winner Paolo Bettini plays down his own chances

The addition of a punishing climb at the end of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic is willing on-form Australian Cadel Evans to grab what would be his biggest one-day victory to date.

The world's oldest one-day race is held over 261 km on Sunday, with 12 climbs of varying length and difficulty set to test the climbers, but also the 'punchers' who can keep pace with the specialists on the steep ramps during the one-day races.

Won in the past by the likes of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, the 'Doyenne' can often give a glimpse of potential future winners of the Tour de France - although it has also been won by non three-week specialists.

Evans, who finished runner-up on the Tour de France last year, is among the big favourites thanks to his superb form, despite admitting he is at "only 80 percent".

Going on recent results, the Silence-Lotto team leader is widely expected to duel with an Italian who also has big Tour pretensions, former Giro d'Italia winner Damiano Cunego.

Cunego won the hilly Dutch classic the Amstel Gold Race last week, a strong tactical ride by the Lampre climber being capped by a late acceleration which beat Luxembourg puncher Franck Schleck on the race's final climb.

Evans just missed out on victory in the one-day Fleche Wallonne classic in midweek after another puncher from Luxembourg, Kim Kirchen, got the better of him on the steep Mur de Huy finish.

But Evans has a chance to take revenge on a much tougher race which, thanks to the organisers, should also give the climbers the edge.

To toughen up the finale, organisers have included the aptly-named 'Roche aux Faucons' (Falcon's Rock) climb as the penultimate of the day prior to the final climb through St Nicholas.

It begins with 19.5km to race, and lasts for 1.5km at a tough average gradient of 9.9 percent - asking significantly more than the 3.6km climb, at an easier average of 5.3, it replaced.

Coming after a relatively quick succession of eight climbs, the Roche aux Faucons has already been put down as the deciding factor.

"It's a really difficult climb," said CSC's hopeful Schleck, who finished third last year behind winner Danilo Di Luca, the Italian who will be absent Sunday because his LPR team has not been invited.

"I'm happy it's been included, and I think it will be decisive. I see only about five or six riders being at the front for the finale."

Cunego, considered a true climbing specialist like Evans - although the Australian is a far more accomplished time trialler - was almost rubbing his hands with glee after learning of the new climb.

"It's going to make the finale much more selective," said the Italian. "It's a real climb, and for me that's going to change a lot of things. At that point I'll be paying particular attention to Cadel Evans and Franck Schleck. I think riders like (Alejandro) Valverde and (Davide) Rebellin could start to struggle there."

Both Valverde and Rebellin are considered punchers - but as former winners cannot be ruled out of contention. But Valverde, the winner in 2006 and runner-up last year, says the newly-included climb has changed the landscape.

"Yes, it does kind of change things," admitted the Spaniard, who rides for Caisse d'Epargne.

Evans meanwhile insists he is using this race as a guide to his form for bigger goals in July - namely the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. He admitted Wednesday he is "training and competing less". That strategy appears to have paid dividends as the former mountain bike champion is winning more, having picked up four big wins this season.

As one of cycling's men of the moment, he now has a great chance to become the first Australian to win the Doyenne.

Two-time winner Paolo Bettini plays down his chance for Sunday

Former two-time winner Paolo Bettini has played down his chances of a third victory in the prestigious one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege this Sunday.

The reigning world and Olympic champion will saddle up as the QuickStep team's biggest hope of winning the 261km race but the Italian could be forgiven if he winces with pain on several of the 12 punishing climbs. Bettini is still recovering from arm and rib injuries sustained in a heavy crash at the Tour of the Basque country earlier this month, a setback which he says could have left him off a lot worse.

Despite racing the four-day Giro del Trentino in midweek, Bettini appeared hesitant over his victory chances here despite saying his condition has vastly improved.

"I'm feeling better, but I haven't exactly had the best preparation for Liege," said Bettini, the winner in 2000 and 2002.

"I've had to work really hard to get back to fitness, and to find again the morale needed for this kind of race. I've got good condition, although it's not excellent. Hopefully I'll be able to produce something on Sunday, but I'm not making any predictions."

Bettini, like most of the peloton, said he is hoping the warm temperatures last throughout the race. But his hopes, like those who are not pure climbing specialists, could be hit by the new, tough climb added by organisers a few kilometres prior to the final climb at St Nicholas.

Bettini admits that compatriot Damiano Cunego, and Australian Cadel Evans - both among the race favourites - could have the edge.

"I think Damiano has what it takes to go for the win, but Cadel is in great form as well," Bettini added. "But I wouldn't count out (Franck) Schleck and (Davide) Rebellin."

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008 

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