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Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Past is Prologue

At last, Andy Schleck has taken the huge potential that has grabbed the attention of the cycling world since he turned pro, and celebrated victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Schleck’s winning move came on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons with 20 kilometers to go. It should have come as no surprise: He launched precisely the same attack in last year’s edition of La Doyenne. In that case, the determined efforts of Davide Rebellin ended Schleck’s bid for freedom. This time, the large chase group could not bring back the flying climber.

Sometimes, it’s easier to stay away from a large group than a small one. Odd, but true. In a small group, everyone is playing to win. There is commitment and urgency. In a big group, well, there’s always someone else who will chase, right? And look, there’s more than one guy from the other team, I’m sure they’ll do the work. Of course, by then, the winning move is well and truly gone.

In the case of this Liège, a sprinter problem also slowed the chase. No one wanted to drag Alejandro Valverde, Davide Rebellin, or Damiano Cunego to the line. Of course, both Cunego and Valverde wanted nothing more out of this race than to reach the sprint. Waiting for the sprint sometimes works. But other times, it becomes a trap, forcing a rider into a passive, defensive role, from which he can not shape the race to his ends.

Saxo Bank, meanwhile, made sure to disrupt the chase effort whenever possible, subtly inserting a rider into the line-up. The Danish team is truly skilled at this manuever: no Cat. 5 style sit-up and grab brake levers blocking here. It didn’t hurt that in Karsten Kroon and Fränk Schleck, the team had two possible winners in the chase group.

Though Andy Schleck won solo, the team deserves significant credit for this win, as he proved quick to acknowledge. In much the same way Quick-Step dominated the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Saxo Bank had tight control over this race. Indeed, put Andy Schleck in the position of Stijn Devolder, and you have exactly the same race. Well, except for the part about the cobbles. Details, shmetails.

Tactically, this Liège bore the marks of a team effort. The successive attacks of Chris Anker Sörensen, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Karsten Kroon wore down the teams and set the conditions for Schleck’s big move to succeed. Lampre-Ngc, in particular, looked short-handed in the finale, and Cunego had no team-mates left by the decisive kilometers. From the helicopter shot, it was possible to see either a Silence-Lotto or Caisse d’Épargne rider (the jerseys look similar from the air shots) waving his arms in Cunego’s direction. What, you expect us to tow you to the line?

Cunego seemed to trap himself in this race. He convinced himself that he needed to wait for the sprint to win, and he seemed to expect that one way or another a sprint would come. Though he tried to follow Andy Schleck on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, he did not appear to have the legs. Even so, he wasn’t the first to react, instead waiting for Davide Rebellin to jump first. Cunego followed much the same pattern on the Saint-Nicholas. He followed the attack of Michele Scarponi, looking for the small group sprint, he’d conditioned himself to expect. Unlike Saxo Bank, Cunego’s Lampre-Ngc could not impose their plan on the race. They could only react.

Perhaps Cunego could not do anything more this time, though his performances elsewhere suggest he has the legs to win in the Ardennes. The Italian seems to ride best when he has nothing to lose, and simply rolls the dice, as he did at Lombardia last October. When Cunego has won, he has also made the race, rather than rely solely on his big sprint. And perhaps that is the mark of the best one-day riders: They are able to adapt to the way the race unfolds, seize what opportunites that come their way, and commit without second-guessing. Sometimes Cunego shows those characteristics. This time, he didn’t.

And then, there’s Philippe Gilbert, who has never seen an attack he didn’t like. Gilbert’s move made a certain kind of sense: Anticipate the attack he knew must come from Andy Schleck on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, an attack he knew he couldn’t follow. It nearly worked, except for the part where in Gilbert’s words, “Schleck dropped me like a junior.” At the finish, Gilbert still had legs left to take fourth in the sprint. With just a bit more speed, he’d have taken his second podium in a monument this season, after his third place finish at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Like Andy Schleck, Philippe Gilbert begins to come into his own. In Gilbert, we have a rider who will always dare and always surprise. Hopefully, he’ll win a few, too, while he’s at it.

All of which is to say that the strongest rider won on the day. A big solo escape, perfectly timed and placed to the characteristics of the rider who made it. Andy Schleck will never win a sprint, but he climbs like a dream and has the engine to finish the deal. All of cycling’s sages have marvelled at his abilities since he first turned professional, and all expect him to win the sport’s biggest races. He has a Tour win in those legs somewhere. It’s a matter of if, not when. He’s already made the podium in the Giro d’Italia. The last rider to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour de France in a single season was Eddy Merckx. Only two other riders have won both races in their career: Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil. And they both, like Merckx, won the Tour five times.

But it’s far, far too early to be talking about the Tour de France. We have first the party in Italy to enjoy. Giro!

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