The episcopal palace on Liège’s Place Saint Lambert is a rather grand location for a last chance saloon, but for many teams and riders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the final opportunity to salvage some reward from the Classics campaign.
Small wonder, then, that Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) wore the broadest smile of all of the contenders when he met the press during the pre-race presentation on Saturday afternoon. Fresh from his second Amstel Gold Race victory last weekend and a best-ever placing of fifth at Flèche Wallonne in midweek, the Italian lines out for La Doyenne unfettered by pressure: come what may, his Spring has been a resounding success.
“I was close in 2012 when I finished third, but up to now winning Liège has been more a dream – but why not dream when things have gone so well for me already this week? I’m going to keep dreaming even if I know it won’t be easy,” Gasparotto said. “There’s an extra climb, the weather’s going to be bad, but I think I’m the rider in the peloton with the most positive mood at the moment because even if the race was cancelled tomorrow, I’d still go home happy.”
Gasparotto’s podium finish in 2012 came the week after his previous Amstel Gold Race victory and he seems to be imbued with a same feel-good factor this time around. After a solo training camp on Mount Teide in Tenerife, Gasparotto came down off the volcano to place second at Brabantse Pijl before winning over the Cauberg last Sunday and performing strongly on the Mur de Huy three days later.
“I watched last year’s Flèche Wallonne on video and took Michael Albasini, who finished on the podium, as a point of reference. I was 12 seconds behind him at the bottom and the gap was the exact same at the top. That gave me the conviction all winter that I could come back to Flèche Wallonne and be up there with the best,” Gasparotto told Cyclingnews. “Fifth place at Flèche has given me even more tranquillity and it’s given me a lot of confidence.”
While Flèche and, to a lesser extent, Amstel tend to follow a preordained script ahead of their final climbs, Gasparotto insisted that he had no ideal scenario in mind ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, particularly given the predicted foul weather.
“The important thing is to be first in Ans, and it doesn’t matter how, why or when you attack. Anything can happen, especially if there’s bad weather or even snow. There could be ten riders in a sprint or we could be coming home in ones and twos. With weather like this, whoever copes with it the best will be in front,” Gasparotto said. “We already saw how it affected riders at Amstel.”
The addition of the Côte de Rue Naniot between the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and the interminable final drag up to the finish at Ans, too, lends a further veneer of uncertainty to Sunday’s race. On reconnoitring the climb for the first time on arriving in Belgium last week, Gasparotto immediately thought it suited to the talents of his former Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang.
“It changes the race completely in my opinion, and Saint-Nicolas won’t be as important as before. Everybody is going to be frightened by this climb,” Gasparotto said. “I’d fancy Fuglsang, provided he’s recovered from Trentino, because he’s done Flanders already this year and that means he’s got the resistance in his legs.
“He’s always attacked on Saint-Nicolas and put me in difficulty – even when we were teammates, but that happens – so I think Jakob is the favourite, after Alejandro Valverde. The only scenario I’d predict in advance is that Jakob will attack on the pavé.”
Gasparotto was coy, meanwhile, about his own future once the curtain falls on this Classics campaign. After picking up a haul of UCI points this week, he could well find suitors in the WorldTour for 2017, but given his ill-starred relationship with the Italian national team, he is unsure of his prospects of lining out at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“[Italian manager] Davide Cassani told me he wants to talk with me, but I’ve not spoken to him yet. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the national team – love from me and hate from them, because I’ve never done the Worlds in my career. We’ll see,” Gasparotto said with a smile. “First up I’ve got Romandie and then the Dauphiné, which is important for the team and we want to honour it so I’m only thinking about the team until then.
“Obviously people are asking me questions about the transfer market too, but with the way the mercato is in cycling at the moment, we’ll wait for June.”