Preview: Liège-Bastogne-Liège favourites

Kirchen? Schleck? Evans, perhaps?

Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen may be a marked man after claiming victory in the Fleche-Wallonne classic which precedes the Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Sunday's finale to cycling's spring classics series.

But the Duchy's latest winner of a respected one-day classic, following in the trail of former Amstel Gold winner Franck Schleck, will be one among many.

As the oldest existing one-day classic and the fourth of cycling's five one-day 'monuments', victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege is one of the most coveted in the sport. With 12 short but steep climbs, totalling 25.7km and with a total average gradient of 7.6 percent, the race is particularly well suited to climbers, such as on-form Australian Cadel Evans and Italian Damiano Cunego.

However the peloton's 'punchers' - racers who can climb almost as well as the specialists and add equally strong sprint skills and a dose of tactical nous when needed - are just at home in the 'Doyenne'.

Tour de France runner-up Evans showed his Liege ambitions when he finished a promising second in Wednesday's Fleche-Wallonne, the traditional warm-up to Liege and the second of the 'Ardennes classics' after the Amstel Gold race.

It was only in the final metres of the steep ramps leading to the Mur de Huy finish line that the Aussie, and the rest of a small bunch, were stunned by Kirchen's late acceleration.

Kirchen is now a favourite for Liege - although given the profile, and added distance of the race compared to Fleche's 199.5km - the Luxembourg puncher is under no illusions.

"It's 50 kilometres longer and first I need to recover by Sunday but everything is possible," Kirchen said after Wednesday's rain-soaked race.

Evans finished just over a minute behind Italy's reigning Liege champion Danilo Di Luca in the 2007 edition, but this year the Silence-Lotto rider looks in better form as he hones his training for his big aim of winning the Tour de France.

His performance at the Fleche, when only Kirchen could match then better a late attack by the Aussie, suggests things are coming along nicely.

Evans' best finish in Liege was a fifth place finish in 2005 - when Alexandre Vinokourov and Jens Voigt went on a long two-man attack - but despite form which suggests he is the big favourite he insists the bigger picture is more important.

"My job is to win the Tour (de France). Everything else is a bonus," he said Wednesday.

Another climber with real victory pretensions is former Giro d'Italia winner Cunego, who underlined his Liege credentials with a superb victory, on his race debut, at Amstel ahead of Luxembourger Franck Schleck of CSC.

With the Cote de Saint-Nicolas - a 1km climb with a punishing average gradient of 11.1 percent - coming just before the steady rise towards the finish line, past editions have been decided by a combination of late, but also much earlier attacks.

"It's difficult to guage where the race is going to be decided," added Evans. "In 2005 it was a long way out. And last year it was just after the final climb, just before the finish line. Each edition is different, but that's what makes the race interesting."

Italian Paolo Bettini, the winner in 2000 and 2002, is set to go over the final part of the course, which has been slightly modified, on Saturday. Organisers ASO (Amaury Sports Organisation) have added the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons, with a 10 percent gradient, and that could be decisive.

It remains to be seen whether Quick Step's reigning Olympic and world champion copes with returning to the peloton after missing the Amstel Gold with a broken rib from a crash at the Tour of the Basque country.

Other contenders include Spanish puncher Alejandro Valverde, the runner-up last year, up and coming Dutchman Robert Gesink and Italian Davide Rebellin.

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© BikeRadar & AFP 2008 


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