Schleck puts little Luxembourg back on Liege map

Cycling: 95e Liege -Bastogne -Liege 2009

Saxo Bank ace Andy Schleck ended Luxembourg’s 55-year wait for victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege by coasting to a memorable win in cycling’s oldest one-day classic on Sunday.

The 23-year-old fulfilled his pre-race hopes by crossing the finish line of the 261km epic alone in 6hr 34min 32sec to become the first Luxemburger since Marcel Ernzer in 1954 to claim victory in ‘La Doyenne’.

Coming in second, 1min 17sec in arrears, was Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez of Caisse d’Epargne, with Italian Davide Rebellin, the winner in 2004, pipping local rider Philippe Gilbert to third.

Considered a surefire future winner of the Tour de France, Schleck launched a decisive attack near the bottom of the Roche aux Faucons, a climb 20km from the finish and which organisers introduced, to devastating effect, last year when Alejandro Valverde of Spain won the race.

After quickly closing a small gap to interim race leader Gilbert, Schleck went on to build a lead which, helped by a lack of co-operation in the chase group behind him, rarely came under threat.

Schleck later admitted he had come into the race still shaken up after seeing older brother and teammate Frank suffer a serious crash at last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, which left him concussed for a few days.

But Frank displayed no ill effects as he smiled and waved to television cameras during his role in keeping a close eye on any ambitious riders who would try and attack to threaten Andy’s lead.

After his triumph, Andy was quick to pay tribute to a Saxo Bank team whose punishing tempo after a relatively easy first two hours of racing soon left many of their rivals in the red zone by the time the Roche aux Faucons appeared.

“It would be difficult to have done any better today, it’s my favourite race of the year,” said Schleck, whose father Jonny, a respected professional in the 1960s, finished in the top 20 of the Tour de France three times.

“To solo across the finish line, which I’d spoken about before the race, is a dream come true for me. It was a good performance, but it wouldn’t have been the same without the team.

“Although I’ve felt strong in all Ardennes classics I took a risk on the (Faucons) climb. But I knew after the team delivered me at the bottom in such good condition it was the perfect time to attack.”

The apparent ease with which Schleck attacked signalled the death knell for his rivals like Valverde and co. But despite holding a lead of 1:35 on a small chase group with 10km to go Schleck said he was never sure of victory.

“At 10km (to go) I thought ’it’s not possible they’ll catch me’. I could have suffered a puncture or a crash, so I stayed as concentrated as possible.

“It was really only with 500m from the finish that I allowed myself to savour it.”

Diquigiovanni team rider Rebellin had been among the pre-race favourites following his victory in Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday, a hilly 195.5 km classic in which Schleck finished runner-up.

The 37-year-old tried later in the race to close the gap, but after waiting in vain for Valverde’s Caisse d’Epargne team to help the best the Italian had to settle for holding off a resurgent Gilbert at the finish to claim third.

In the end, it has proved a satisfying week for Rebellin, who won all three Ardennes classics – Amstel, Fleche and Liege – in 2004.

“I was one of the few to try and close the gap to Andy Schleck in the closing stages, and was surprised Caisse d’Epargne didn’t do more,”said Rebellin, the 2004 winner here who now has a total of five podium places here.

“But I’m satisfied. A third place here after winning at Fleche it’s been a great week for me.”

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April 29, 2009