Valverde Wins Liege
Oakley’s Alejandro Valverde held his nerve in a thrilling finish to Liege-Bastogne-Liege to claim his second career victory in cycling’s oldest one-day classic here on Sunday.
Valverde, runner-up last year to Italian Danilo Di Luca and winner in 2006, capped a tactically astute 261 km of racing in sunny conditions with a winning sprint inside the final 200 metres to leave 2004 champion Rebellin in second.
Oakley’s Frank Schleck finished in third place – but will feel disappointed especially as his CSC team held all the tactical aces in an exciting final 10km of the race.
Some of the other big favorites – Oakley’s Cadel Evans and Italian Damiano Cunego – failed to fulfill predictions and were left trailing inside the final 20km when one decisive break allowed a four-man group to eventually race clear of a tiring peloton.
With two men in that lead group – brothers Andy and Franck Schleck – and 10km to race, CSC were in a perfect position to aim for victory.
However Valverde and Rebellin, with Frank Schleck on their wheel and not taking any relays, refused to buckle when Andy Schleck attacked inside the final 10km.
When he was reeled in, his older brother had to contend with two riders who between them had already won the race once each.
The trio stayed together in the final kilometers, over the final climb at Saint-Nicolas, and it was Valverde – a ‘puncher’ who can both climb and sprint – who surged forward in triumph.
The 28-year-old admitted that past knowledge of the race proved vital, but said that not starting as the favorite had been his biggest advantage.
"This year I’ve raced less but trained a lot more in Spain, so actually racing gave me a lot of motivation today," said the Spaniard, who this year more than most will be a contender for the Tour de France yellow jersey – which along with the Olympic Games is his big objective.
"The fact that victory here wasn’t one of my aims and that I wasn’t a big favorite took some of the pressure of me."
Much of the race focused on the effect the penultimate climb, the steep and narrow Roche aux Faucons, would have on the big contenders.
However the favorites were forced to rethink their game plan before then, when Andy Schleck attacked on the formidable Cote de la Redoute 34.5km from the finish.
He was joined by German Stefan Schumacher, the Gerolsteiner teammate of Rebellin, and they overtook Frenchman Pierre Rolland, the last remaining rider from an early five-man breakaway, on the Cote de Sprimont 28km from the finish.
They held a lead of 20sec on the main peloton and all the favorites at the foot of the Roche aux Faucons, but after Schleck dropped Schumacher he was joined near the summit by his brother Franck, Valverde and his teammate Joaquim Rodriguez and Rebellin.
"On the Roche I was watching Evans and Cunego," added Valverde.
"And when (Frank) Schleck, Rodriguez and Rebellin went off I saw that Cunego and Evans couldn’t follow. That’s when I decided to go for it myself."
Evans and Cunego were left trailing with Austrian Christian Pfannberger and soon Rodriguez dropped back to mark them.
As Valverde, Rebellin and the Schleck brothers pulled ahead, Evans’ deficit soon grew to over 30 secs before he finished in seventh place at 40secs adrift.