Gilbert looks to continue dominance at Liège

Omega Pharma-Lotto rider versus the peloton

We've nearly reached the end of the Northern Classics for another year with La Doyenne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the crescendo before that other fever sweeps the cycling world, that of the Grand Tours.

So far, it's been a season for the Belgians. Tom Boonen (Quick Step) won Gent-Wevelgem; Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-SunGard) was brilliant in winning the Tour of Flanders; Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Cervelo) posted a memorable escape at Paris-Roubaix; and then there was Philippe Gilbert.

The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider cemented his April dominance following his strong showing over compatriot Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) in Brabantse Pijl with wins in both Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne. Some may consider the 28-year-old to be the new Superman, especially given Gilbert says that following his victory on the Mur de Huy he has now 'flicked the switch' and has a new understanding of his physical capabilities.

The last Belgian to triumph in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège was Frank Vandenbroucke (Cofidis) in 1999. Belgians have dominated the race from its 1892 beginnings with Léon Houa's three-peat to 1978 with Joseph Bruyère (C&A ) with only the odd Swiss, French, Luxembourger, Italian or German rider providing interruption.

Should Gilbert succeed on Sunday, he will join only six riders to have won Fleche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in same year: Switzerland's Ferdi Kübler who managed the feat twice (1951 and 1952), Belgians Stan Ockers (1955) and Eddy Merckx (1972), Italians Moreno Argentin (1991) and Davide Rebellin (2004) and Alejandro Valverde (2006).

The other contenders

Defending champion, Astana's Alexandre Vinokourov seems quite determined to bow out on a high note and if he's first over the line, he will join Houa (1892, 93, 94), Alfons Schepers (1929, 31, 35) and Fred de Buyne (1956, 58, 59) as a three-time winner. Roman Kreuziger has been called into the Astana team for added support.

2009 victor, Andy Schleck didn't quite have the legs for Fleche Wallonne but along with brother Frank, has been vocal in their focus on Liège. The younger Schleck will no doubt be trying to focus on a key moment from 2009, when he attacked on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons and then blew past Gilbert to win.

With Alberto Contador choosing not to race and bound for Italy to recover from his cold, Nicki Sørensen is the main hope for Saxo Bank-SunGard.

Euskaltel-Euskadi team leader Samuel Sánchez was two seconds behind Gilbert on Wednesday and having previously finished fourth in Liège will be looking to provide fireworks with Igor Antón who was sixth last year.

If you're thinking Spaniards, there is no way that you can discount Fleche and Amstel runner-up Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) who while frustrated by Gilbert attacking early on Wednesday, will probably be more alert to the Belgian's movements.

Worthy mentions also go to: Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha); Beñat Intxausti (Movistar); Simon Gerrans (Sky) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC).

Hills, hills, hills

Starting in Liège, the 255.5km race will head south to Bastogne before following the Luxembourg border back north towards Liège and the finish a few kilometres beyond the departure point an Ans. The parcours is what makes this monument so great. The road north to Ans is like a constant slap in the face, twisting and providing a rollercoaster ride over the final 100km.

The first of the ten, the Côte de Saint-Roch is short at just 1km but the 11% gradient is just a sign of what's to come.

Eight of the ten categorised climbs are in that final 100km, asking time and time again 'are you good enough?'

The first of those is the Côte de Wanne (2.7 km at 7.3%) after 157.5km, followed by the Côte de Stockeu (1km at 12.2%). Roadworks complete, the Côte de la Haute-Levée (3.6km at 5.6%) kicks in at 170km before the peloton hits the tough Col du Rosier (4.4km at 5.9 %) 13km up the road, the Col du Maquisard (2.5km at 5%) at the 195.5km mark and at 206kms Mont-Theux (2.6km at 5.9%).

In the Côte de la Redoute (2.0km at 8.8%) after 220.5kms you have Liège-Bastogne-Liège's launching pad. At its midpoint, the gradient is over 10% and the riders deafened by the sounds of a tightly-packed crowd making it even harder to pay attention to any attacks from behind.

With 20kms left to go, the peloton will hit the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (1.5km at 9.5%) where on the descent last year, Vinokourov and Kolobnev made a dash for the finish.

The final climb, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas (1.2km climb at 8.3%) is in the middle of Liège and reminiscent of the Mur de Huy however while the riders will be ready for it, the finish is still another 5.5km away – uphill.

While un-categorised, the rise of around 65m in the final kilometre will provide enough of a challenge should a few riders be fighting for first place, with those with an explosive kick sure to prevail.

The ten key climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège:
Km 71.5 - Côte de Saint-Roch - 1.0km climb to 11%
Km 157.5 - Côte de Wanne - 2.7km climb to 7.3%
Km 164.5 - Côte de Stockeu (Stèle Eddy Merckx) - 1.0km climb to 12.2%
Km 170.0 - Côte de la Haute-Levée - 3.6km climb to 5.6%
Km 183.0 - Col du Rosier - 4.4km climb to 5.9%
Km 195.5 - Col du Maquisard - 2.5km climb to 5%
Km 206.0 - Mont-Theux - 2.6km climb to 5.9%
Km 220.5 - Côte de la Redoute - 2.0km climb to 8.8%
Km 236.0 - Côte de la Roche aux Faucons - 1.5km climb to 9.5%
Km 250.0 - Côte de Saint-Nicolas - 1.2km climb to 8.3%


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