By Gregor Brown
Though finishing second last year and dominating the Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne in 2006, Spain's Alejandro Valverde counts himself out as a top favourite for the Liège-Bastogne-Liège this Sunday. The 28 year-old of Team Caisse d'Epargne gave his thoughts on the coming Classic and his Tour de France preparations in a press conference on Thursday evening.
"I am not favourite number one for Liège, the Tour de France and Beijing are the objectives," Valverde stated three days before the 261-kilometre Liège-Bastogne-Liège is run in Belgium's Walloon Region. He preferred to direct the attention to his team-mate, Spanish Champion Joaquím Rodríguez, who finished eighth in Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday. "We have Rodríguez, and I think the real big favourites are [Fränk] Schleck and [Damiano] Cunego."
While Rodríguez filled the top spot for Team Caisse d'Epargne in Flèche Wallonne, Valverde found his legs unresponsive on the race's final, decisive climb of Mur de Huy.
"No," he responded if he was the same rider as last year, who finished second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He continued, "My preparation has been quiet. My condition is not 100 percent, because I am building for the Tour de France, Olympics and Worlds, so I have not had as many kilometres leading into this year's race. I have more motivation to race this year, so it compensates for this lack of condition. Amstel Gold Race was the best ever for me and it is clear I have some good condition.
"It will depend on the weather, if it is like Flèche Wallonne it will not be good for me. In Flèche, my legs were cut off because when I wanted to accelerate on the Mur de Huy my legs would not respond. However, I hope I will the legs in Liège."
The team reconnoitred the parcours, noting the different penultimate climb that organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) added in to spice up the finale. The Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (9.9% average gradient, 18% maximum) is new this year, inserted in place of the Côte du Sart-Tilman.
"The Côte de Sart-Tilman used to be hard, but now it is even tougher because the new climb is even steeper and longer," Valverde explained. "At the Sart-Tilman in the last two years there were still guys that could just hang on, but now that won't be possible. So, on Saint-Nicolas there will probably only be four or five guys instead of 30."
During his time in the Ardennes, Valverde is keeping an eye on potential Tour de France contenders. "In this moment, you can see who is good here will be good at the Tour. You often see the guys who are good here are good later on, meaning they have worked hard over the winter."
He learned a few tricks in his first full Tour de France. "Last year, it was the first time I finished it, and sixth was good," stated the rider known as the 'Green Bullet' of the French Grand Tour. "The podium would have been hard for me in the first time to do all three weeks. I should not have attacked so much in the opening mountain stages, because in the Tour you pay every acceleration in cash, so in the third week I could not do a lot. In the Albi time trial I could not do anything, and my motivation was low."
Valverde will be joined by seven team-mates for Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège; in addition to Rodríguez, the team is expected to utilise José Vicente Garcia, Alberto Losada, David López García, José Joaquín Rojas, Luis León Sánchez and 2006 Tour de France winner Oscar Pereiro.