Italian Davide Rebellin conceded defeat to the "faster legs" of Spanish rival Alejandro Valverde after their thrilling battle for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, one of the most prestigious crowns in one-day cycling Sunday.
A runner-up to Italian Danilo Di Luca last year and winner in 2006, Valverde left Rebellin struggling to match his pace when he capped the tough, 12-climb 261km epic with a winning sprint a few hundred metres from the finish line.
Rebellin's victory here in 2004 rounded off a superb week in which he won the Amstel Gold Race and the Fleche Wallonne classics. But in the end the 36-year-old Gerolsteiner rider fell victim to the younger legs of 28-year-old Valverde, who mastered the hot conditions and tough climbs to finish top of the 133 finishers.
"I thought about attacking in the final kilometre, but I just had nothing left," said Rebellin. "I decided to wait for the sprint, in the hope he (Valverde) would be as tired as me. In the end, the fastest rider won."
Luxembourg's Frank Schleck finished third after failing to turn what appeared to be a tactical advantage into a maiden win on the one race he is so desperate to win. He was part of the four-man lead group which broke away inside the final 20 km, and which also included his CSC teammate and younger brother Andy, the runner-up in last year's Giro d'Italia.
But after attacking, Andy Schleck soon tired. "Right after I attacked I realised I wasn't going to maintain the pace," admitted Andy Schleck. "I quickly warned Frank through my radio piece and told him it was up to him."
After he was reeled in, Frank was left with the two riders he would have least preferred to contend the final with.
In the end, his earlier efforts in staying with Valverde and Rebellin as they distanced a larger bunch of contenders took their toll as they rode over the final five kilometres through the hilly Saint Nicolas quarter.
But after just missing out on victory at Amstel last week, won by Italian Damiano Cunego of Lampre, Frank Schleck was happy with his positive classics campaign.
"I didn't win but I've got two podiums in the classics now after my second place at Amstel last week. I have to be pleased with that," said Schleck, who was also third here last year when Valverde finished behind Italian Danilo Di Luca.
He poured out plaudits to his younger brother Andy, who, at only 22 years old, has shown he has the legs to become a future Liege champion.
"Andy did a lot of work for me in the final, but he also showed today he has what it takes to be a future champion in the classics," said Schleck. "We tried hard together but in the end we couldn't shake off Rebellin and Valverde, who was really strong."
Valverde claimed that Frank Schleck was the "strongest", but added: "But Rebellin and me were the fastest."
© AFP 2008