By Brecht Decaluwé in Liège
The Dutch Rabobank team has a lot of strong riders in its line-up for Liège-Bastogne-Liège including Robert Gesink, Thomas Dekker, Denis Menchov and Oscar Freire, but lacks an obvious leader like many of the other top teams. Cyclingnews spoke with several of Rabobank's riders at the team presentation in Liège on Saturday evening.
Gesink and Dekker are two young riders who moved over from the youth team in the past and both are riding impressively on the hills these days. Dekker has proven that he can cope well with the team's leadership during the past couple of weeks, but the 23 year-old hasn't been able to convert his good form into a big win just yet.
"I think I have three really good weeks behind me," said Dekker. "I finished third in Castilla Leon and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, but also fifth in the Amstel Gold Race and the Flèche Wallonne. I hope to be on the podium on Sunday because I have a good level and I'm feeling really strong. It would be really nice to finish this period with a podium place."
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a race that suits the Dutch rider pretty well and Dekker explained why he should be able to excel in Wallonia. "The climbs are a little bit longer and the new climb makes it a little bit harder as well since it is a bit steeper, which is good for a rider like me.
"It's one of the hardest climbs of the race as it comes so deep in the finale after 241 kilometres. It will make a big difference since we're not hitting the big road like previous years. There's a good chance that if you attack on the Redoute you can stay away. It's better for guys who want to go in the attack. There's less chance that guys will come back because it is harder."
Despite his predictions, Dekker will choose a different tactic and stay with the big favourites. "For me it's easier to ride with opponents like Schleck and Evans and stay there on their wheel," he said. When asked which guys are more suited to going in the early attack, Dekker explained that several of Rabobank's other riders could have a go. "Gesink could do it and Denis [Menchov] is always strong as well. We also have Oscar although I don't know how he's feeling but probably he will be there."
After Liège-Bastogne-Liège Dekker won't be enjoying a vacation as he participates in the Tour of Romandie that starts on Tuesday, while his next big goal is the Tour de France. "I try to go for the white jersey," Dekker stated," but I don't know who my rivals will be, that's always difficult to say before the race."
Cyclingnews also spoke with triple world champion Oscar Freire to talk about his current form. The likeable Spaniard explained that the team was probably stronger as a group, rather than choosing a designated leader. "I don't know how Menchov is right now," began Freire. "Gesink is in a good shape, and also Thomas is good. So maybe we don't have a clear leader but we have a good team for the finale. It's too difficult to know how it will be in the finale."
Asked about his own form, Freire remained cool about his chances in a race that hasn't suited him in the past. "Now I am good but it is a difficult race," he said cautiously. "One time I finished very close behind the leaders. I didn't sprint for a sixth position or something like that. That time we were really close to the leaders. Every year is different so we'll see. I hope to be in front but the finale is so difficult. I'll choose tactics during the race."
Freire thought that the new climb could have a surprisingly big impact on the finale. "Normally the most decisive part is between the ultimate climb and the finish, but this year it might start earlier," he said. "Maybe we will ride slower because the race is harder."
Besides Milano-Sanremo, Freire hasn't been able to win a Spring Classic and despite his previous record still holds the race in high regard. "For everybody – not only for me – this is one of the most important races. The most important are the world championships," the triple world champion laughed.
Rabobank's other draw card will be 2007 Vuelta a España winner Denis Menchov, although the Russian is riding the Spring Classic as a build-up for what is to follow. "I hope that I can be there to help the guys in the finale but clearly this isn't my cup of tea," Menchov said. "I've always focused on stage races and I'm not going to change that in the near future. Of course, if the opportunity arises then I wouldn't hide away."