Italian stallions ready for pre-Giro battle at Liège-Bastogne-Liège

By Tim Maloney, European Editor

With less than two weeks before the start of the Giro d'Italia in Seraing, Belgium, just a few kilometres south of Liège, the 92nd running Liège-Bastogne-Liège should be an interesting battle between the top Italians looking for Giro victory. 2005 ProTour winner Danilo Di Luca, who was 6th in Fleche Wallonne last Wednesday, is now riding into top form with his sights set on a good ride in L-B-L and hopefully a win in the upcoming Giro.

"I'm ready to go for the win (in L-B-L) and even if I get a good place, I'll be happy," said Di Luca to La Gazetta dello Sport. "It will be important to not make any mistakes tomorrow. The most dangerous adversary will be Ivan Basso, who can even win by himself. We're friends and this year, we both want to win the Giro...we'll be looking at each other so it's natural that our rivalry has grown. Basso is really strong right now and I don't believe that he can get much stronger."

Di Luca also evaluated his other adversaries, saying "(Gibo) Simoni is also going for the Giro and he will be one to watch, especially on the climbs. Cunego is coming in today from Italy and he may be tired after his win in Trentino. Valverde may not be ready for the longer distance of Liège. Everything will be decided on the climb of St.Nicolas..."

Basso is ready to rock Sunday, confidently saying that, "This is my last race before the Giro d'Italia and I don't want to go back home with bad feelings from Liège. Even if I didn't go that well in the finale of Fleche Wallonne, Liège is a different story, with a longer distance and longer harder climbs more suited to me. I want to be a protagonist Sunday, and if I can win, that will be fantastic. But I don't want to take anything away from (CSC teammates) Schleck or Kroon. I have nothing to lose and I'd rather that my rivals are watching me than I'm watching them."

Among Basso's most likely rivals are last year's L-B-L winner Alexandre Vinokourov and Damiano Cunego, fresh from a solid victory in Italy's Giro del Trentino. "I think Cunego can win (L-B-L)... He's coming into top form now as he showed in Trentino and his explosiveness can hurt you, like he showed at Lombardia two years ago."

Cunego arrives in Liège Saturday fresh from his Giro del Trentino win and is looking forward to the Ardennes battle to come Sunday. "I'm feeling relaxed and looking forward to Liège," he said. "I raced it for the first time last year and was 9th. It's a beautiful race but more than anything, I want to use it as a long training session, another step towards the start of the Giro on May 6th in Seraing."

Cunego's diesse Beppe Martinelli has another idea, saying that "maybe we will come up with something else on Sunday."

But no matter who rides over the finish line in Ans first in Sunday's 92nd running of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, many will be looking closely at these three Italian stallions to see who has the best legs with the Giro d'Italia starting in only thirteen days.

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