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When Alexandre Vinokourov outsprinted Jens Voigt up the Rue Jean Jaurs to win Lige-Bastogne-Lige last year he saved T-Mobile's spring, securing their first victory of the season in the process, writes Susanne Horsdal.
Since then Vinokourov, formerly a rider committed to the whole season has moved to Liberty Seguros and with that move changed his whole approach to the year. This season his focus is 100 per cent on the Tour de France and everything he does until that is basically preparation. This has meant cutting the spring Classics that he usually rides, but 'la Doyenne' is one he doesn't want to miss - for three reasons: "Because I'm wearing the number one, because I like this race very much and because I want to test my form against riders such as Basso and Cunego," says the Kazakh.
Paolo Bettini is in a different chapter of his season. He's already had a busy race schedule and hopes that Lige will see a change of luck in this year's spring Classics campaign. In the Amstel Gold Race and Flche Wallonne he rode in his normal aggressive style, but got only honorary mentions from of his efforts.
"In Amstel you have to save strength. You only have so many bullets and Paolo fired his too early. Regarding Flche Wallonne, I think it's something mental for him," says Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefvre.
Still, the little Italian is one of the favourites for Sunday's race and this time he hopes to have the support of a few team-mates in the finale. This is something Lefvre is fully aware of. "I hope we can put Manuel Garate, Serge Baguet and maybe Bram Tankink with him in the finale," says the Quick Step director.
But others are ready to challenge Vino and Bettini. Not least the Italians, for many of whom the Giro is just ahead, are ready to fire. Danilo Di Luca, winner of Amstel and Flche last year, is one, Damiano Cunego, coming fresh from victory in the Giro del Trentino, is another. CSC's line-up includes several options. Ivan Basso is certainly one who can go for the victory but so is the Amstel winner Frank Schleck and Karsten Kroon, third at Flche.
For the Spanish, Alejandro Valverde, undoubtedly hoping to complete a double after Wednesday's win on the Mur in Huy, is a good option. As usual Rabobank's Michael Boogerd will be trying to finally get a win in the race where he's finished second and third twice.
The Vino-less T-Mobile have also been riding strongly in the past couple of spring Classics. In Patrik Sinkewitz (fifth in Amstel and Flche) and Steffen Wesemann (runner-up in Amstel) the Germans have two very strong riders, but will they be able to repeat Vino's victory last year and thus secure the Magentas' first big victory of the season? All will be revealed on the Rue Jean Jaurs.
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