Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde gave his future Tour de France rivals an early reminder of his explosive climbing talents by winning his second Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic Sunday.
At ‘only’ 261 km in length, this year’s ‘Doyenne’ – known as such because it was first held in 1892 and is the oldest one-day race in existence – was toughened up by the addition of a punishing new climb. But Valverde passed the test of the steep and winding Roche aux Faucons, the 11th and penultimate climb, with flying colours to show that, come July, he will be among Australian Cadel Evans’ key rivals.
It might be three months away, but the final, and one of the hilliest, chapters in the spring classics season gave a glimpse of who could be hot or cold in July.
Evans, last year’s Tour de France runner-up, is only in the middle of building the kind of form that he hopes to see him crowned Australia’s first yellow jersey winner in July. But the Australian was among the favourites to find that the race’s hilly profile and 261 km had come a bit too early for his liking.
Carlos Sastre, who finished fourth at the Tour last year and third in 2006, is steadily building his Tour form and could only manage a top 30 place on Sunday at over a minute behind Valverde.
The performances of Sastre’s CSC teammates, the Schleck brothers Frank and Andy, third and fourth respectively in Liège, have however left him feeling comfortable he can count on their support in the mountains of July’s three-week epic.
One notable Spaniard to be absent in July is reigning champion Alberto Contador, whose Astana team were controversially left off the organisers’ invitees’ list due to their past brushes with doping affairs. And the man who finished third in 2007 – American Levi Leipheimer – also rides for Astana.
But despite Astana’s absence, Evans will have no shortage of rivals for cycling’s big prize.
On Sunday the Australian was left trailing on the Roche aux Faucons, where a small bunch of riders upped the pace to force a decisive selection, and eventually finished seventh at 40sec adrift. In Evans’ defence, it was his first race over 200km in a season which, for him, is all about coming out on top in July.
“I hoped for more today, but I’m just a part-time classics rider so I can’t be too disappointed,” reasoned Evans, who will soon preview some of the Tour’s key mountains stages before racing the Dauphiné Libéré stage race in June.
“July (the Tour de France) is going to be when everyone says whether my year has been good or bad.”
Valverde will have taken note of the 30-year-old former mountain bike champion’s failure to make the crucial break. Yet the 28-year-old Spaniard, who reiterated on Sunday that his past links to the Spanish doping affair Operation Puerto were purely a “fabrication of the media”, refuses to get too carried away about his own yellow jersey aims.
Having crashed out twice, and finished 11th last year, he knows the Tour de France is a tough nut to crack. He even believes a threat could come from within, pointing to team-mate Oscar Pereiro, who last year was finally awarded the 2006 yellow jersey in the wake of the scandal of American Floyd Landis’s positive drugs test.
He added: “Then there’s Sastre. Maybe this could be the year he finally wins the Tour.”
Despite CSC boss Bjarne Riis’s insistence on Sunday that “Sastre is our main yellow jersey contender”, Andy and Frank Schleck’s performances earmarked them as yellow jersey wild cards.
While Frank won the Tour’s 15th stage to the Alpe de Huez in 2006, younger brother Andy upstaged him to finish runner-up in the 2007 Giro d’Italia.