Sixth in the Mur de Huy on Wednesday, following the enforced absence of BMC Racing teammate Philippe Gilbert due to a fractured finger, Spain’s Samuel Sánchez has a rare opportunity to fight his own corner 100 per cent at Liège-Bastogne-Liège today - which he starts as the co-leader of his team, along with Richie Porte.
The winner of a stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco in heavy rainstorms and cold, Sánchez clearly has no problem with the inclement conditions forecast for Sunday afternoon. And the Spanish veteran told Cyclingnews that he’s expecting a “race like those of yesteryear because of the weather and that difficult new climb” [of La Rue Naniot after the Côte de San Nicolas].
Seventh in Liège in 2012, 10th in 2011 and in 2009, a career-best fourth in a now distant 2004, and sixth in his debut way back in 2003, Sánchez has always been there or thereabouts in Liège. And as he predicts, “Assuming the weather forecast for cold and rain is correct, I think it’s going to be a battle for survival.
"Then you’ve got the new climb at less than three kilometres from the finish. Combine the two factors, and it could be a whole different race. That new climb will decide who can go for victory and who’s left behind.”
Sánchez believes that the reason why the new climb has been included is that “the organisers don’t want the kind of Liège we’ve had recently, which have been decided in a [small group] sprint. They want the kinds of Liège from the old days, from seven, eight or ten years ago, where you’d get a solo winner, and where the strategy was completely different.
“There’s a lot of equality in racing these days and with a tougher finale, this will be an edition of the race where other kinds of strength come into play, rather than what you can do in a small group sprint.”
Whilst Sánchez believes the 102nd edition of Liège Bastogne-Liège will blow apart on or before the Côte de la Rue Naniot, the Spanish veteran also thinks Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will remain “the top favourite, regardless, and we all know how strong he is.”
As for Sánchez himself, though, he’ll have a chance. “Richie [Porte] has told me he’s using this race partly to build for the Tour de Romandie, so I’ll see what I can do.”