Preview: Liege-Bastogne-Liege

All eyes on Rebellin as Valverde defends 'Queen of the Classics'

Italian veteran Davide Rebellin is hoping to add a regal touch to an impressive week of bike racing by winning the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the 'Doyenne' of the one-day classics, this Sunday.

Rebellin capped a tactically strong ride in Wednesday's Fleche-Wallonne to claim a record-equalling third victory in the Belgian one-day classic. Held in between the Amstel Gold Race and Liege, the 195.5km Fleche finishes on the notoriously tough 'Mur de Huy' climb, but it is not as gruelling as Sunday's race.

Winning Liege, known as the 'Queen of the Classics' or the 'Doyenne' - thanks to a first edition held way back in 1892 - is considered one of the major achievements in cycling. Won five times by Belgian legend Eddy Merckx, its difficulty lies in the succession of short, but tight and sometimes steep climbs that pepper the scenic Ardennes course after a relatively easy first 57km.

Of the race's 261 km, 24.3km are uphill. Although the accumulation of climbing efforts will exact a costly toll, the race is often decided on the 11th and final climb into Ans on the outskirts of Liege. At only 1km long, it's average gradient is a punishing 11.1 percent meaning those who have overspent on the 10 previous climbs could come up short for the final, slightly uphill sprint to the finish.

Last year's finale saw Spanish ace Alejandro Valverde hold off the threat of Rebellin and the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, to claim his second victory after his maiden win in 2006. And despite a winless spring classics season so far Valverde, who has been busy dodging flak from his alleged links to the Operation Puerto doping scandal, is ready to make amends.

"It was impossible to win (at Fleche) ... but I felt a lot better than I did at the Amstel Gold Race, and that's a good sign for Liege-Bastogne-Liege which I'm far more suited to," said Valverde.

Rebellin's last win in Liege came in 2004, when the Italian stole the classics show with an Ardennes classics hat-trick which included wins at Amstel and Fleche. However his second place last year, coupled with Wednesday's win, means Rebellin's back wheel will be under close scrutiny.

Having spent the middle part of his career trying to compete in the three-week Tours, it took Rebellin a while to realise his talents lay elsewhere.

"I tried for about two or three years to compete in the major (three-week) Tours before realising they weren't for me," said the Italian, who rides for the Diquigiovanni-Serramenti team. "I'm a classics rider (one-day) rider, I like them and I'm still hoping to add a few to my list that I haven't yet won - like the world championships."

Italy's Damiano Cunego and Australian Cadel Evans are also in the mix although they will be hoping to avoid the setback of last year when they were left trailing in the last 20km by a decisive four-man break.

Cunego has been on solid form so far this spring, with a fifth place at Amstel and third at Fleche. Three years after a promising third place, Cunego said Wednesday: "I'll be more at ease Liege-Bastogne-Liege."

In the absence of last year's third place finisher, Frank Schleck, his younger brother Andy - pipped to the line by Rebellin on Wednesday - will shoulder Saxo Bank's hopes after a promising fourth place in 2008.

"I am really proud of the second place since in a finale like this, it is virtually impossible to beat Rebellin," said Schleck on his team's website.

Climbs

  • km 57.5 - Côte de Ny - 1.8km climb at average gradient of 5.7 percent
  • km 82 - Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne - 2.8km at 4.9
  • km 128 - Côte de Saint Roch - 0.8km at 12
  • km 172 - Côte de Wanne - 2.7km at 7
  • km 178.5 - Côte de Stockeu - 1.1km at 10.5
  • km 184.0 - Côte de la Haute-Levée - 3.4km at 6
  • km 196.5 - Côte du Rosier - 4km at 5.9
  • km 209.0 - Côte de la Vecquée - 3.1km at 5.9
  • km 226.5 - Côte de la Redoute - 2.1km at 8.4
  • km 232 - Côte de Sprimont - 1.4 km at 4.7
  • km 241.5 - Côte de la Roche aux Faucons - 1.5km at 9.9
  • km 255.5 - Côte de Saint-Nicolas - 1km at 11.1

© AFP 2009

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