Vuelta contenders on alert for stage to Liège

Steep hills, narrow roads and nerves could cause damage

The Vuelta a Espana heads out for its final stage across Northern Europe on Tuesday before it travels to its native land. Before leaving the Netherlands and Belgium, the race will take in some of the toughest climbs best known from the Ardennes Classics Liège - Bastogne - Liège and Amstel Gold Race.

The stage contains two trips up the Cauberg, the painfully steep finishing climb from the Dutch race, and the Mont Theux, formerly used in the Belgian Classic, as the only classified climbs at category four.

The frequency of several other, non-classified hills, and the close proximity of the short trip up the St. Niklaas climb in the final 15km may allow for some enterprising rider to foil the sprinters for the first time in this year's race.

The stage could also spell disaster for any of the general classification contenders who would find the chasing difficult should they crash on any of the quite narrow, twisty roads, or get caught behind a split in the heavy crosswinds that frequently plague cyclists in this area. Concentration and plenty of luck will be the word of the day for anyone hoping to make it to the top step in Madrid.

The worst of the climbs come mid-way through the fourth stage, with the Cauberg crested at kilometre 76.5 and 116.5. The Mont Theux tops out at kilometre 183.5 of the 225.5km stage, and could prove to be a stage winning springboard for the likes of Liège - Bastogne - Liège winner Andy Schleck, Giro d'Italia stage winner Philippe Gilbert. Yet Alejandro Valverde seemed to be focusing on conserving his energy than winning the stage.

"After three days without climbing even a small hill, tomorrow's stage will be a little bit different," said Valverde, who said the race would be quite different from the April Classic.

"Even if the stage finishes in Liège, the finale will have absolutely nothing to do with the Classics. It will just look a little bit like the Amstel, if we take into account the fact that the Cauberg is on the program. This means that we will again have to ride on narrow streets and that it will be important to remain careful until the end."

The course on Monday featured broader boulevards and far less crashing than the opening road stage on Sunday, where quite a few riders hit the ground. But the cool weather and treacherous roads have been wearing on the Spaniards, who are eager to head home on Wednesday.

"I can't wait to return to Spain, to the warm temperatures, but we have to get through the stage tomorrow, no doubt the most dangerous of all that we've had so far. A day that will be require us to be very attentive from beginning to end," said Ezequiel Mosquera, last year's fourth place finisher in the Vuelta.

One rider who may miss out on the day is Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara, who could see the jersey pass on to someone else as the team focuses its efforts on working for its young phenom, Jakob Fuglsang.

"We will focus on protecting Jakob," said Saxo Bank director Kim Andersen. "We won't do anything to hang on to the jersey just yet and tomorrow's stage will undoubtedly make things more difficult for us."

Cervélo's Simon Gerrans, who finished in the top 10 in all three of the Ardennes spring classics earlier this year, thinks that, despite the many climbs, the stage will still come down to a bunch sprint.

"The day into Liège is quite hard, but the last climb is still 20km from the finish, so I think it will still be a sprint," Gerrans said. "We're seeing guys like Tyler Farrar and Tom Boonen, those guys are going really well right now, so I think those guys will be there in the end to make the sprint."

The climbs could be good news for the Milram team, which hopes to get Gerald Ciolek another eight seconds on Cancellara so he can don the race leader's jersey.

"Tomorrow will be a long and difficult stage, which will be a good one for our riders. We will attack again. Through our stage win on Sunday the team has picked up enough self-confidence to bring in another success."

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