With Milan-San Remo already added to his palmares this year, Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) will ride Liege-Bastogne-Liege to ensure he, or another Team Sky rider, will follow teammate Wout Poels' 2016 victory in cycling's oldest Classic on Sunday.
Kwiatkowski was second behind Philippe Gilbert in Amstel Gold Race last weekend and seventh in Flèche Wallonne - performances similar to the most recent time that the Polish star skipped all of the cobbled Classics in 2014, when he was fifth in Amstel and third in both Fleche-Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Cyclingnews interviewed the Pole before news broke of the death of Michele Scarponi. He told Cyclingnews that he has felt the benefits of that change of program, and that he's feeling "very similar to 2014. Even if I didn't get the top three in Fleche. I'm feeling great and looking forward to seeing what I can do on Sunday."
He agrees that Valverde will start in Liege as the standout favourite with the rest of the contenders one level below.
"It's not only what he's done in the Classics before, but also the spring he's had, the best one he's ever done. If you look at last year, too, he had a very similar [disappointing] performance in Amstel, but then smashed everyone in Fleche. It'll be up to his team to take responsibility in the bunch, because he's clearly the strongest.
"But that's how it is, rather than thinking about him too much, we have to look at our own options, at what we can do. If you just wait for an acceleration from Valverde and for him to make a move in the finale, that's not the way to win the race. You have to use your abilities to race as you want, not as Valverde wants. So let's hope he's beatable on Sunday."
Facing Valverde, teams like Team Sky and Orica-Scott will have strength in numbers. Team Sky will play a two-hander again on Sunday, as they did at Fleche with Kwiatkowski and Sergio Henao, whilst Gianni Moscon, relatively inexperienced in the Ardennes but who has raced well this spring, particularly at Paris-Roubaix, could also be a card to play.
"That's the strength we've got, and I believe that's the best way to race the Classics. Rather than just sticking to one rider, we could vary our options, like we did last year when we had me and Wout [Poels] and then in San Remo we did that again as a team. So it's good to have that strength, and with Gianni Moscon, too, we have a number of guys who can fight for the victory."
Kwiatkowski recognises the race route changes in Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year are important, particularly the removal of the Cote de la Rue Naniot.
"It's still the same kind of race, the last part still has the major climbs where you really have to be awake and see whether you're in the race - or not," he pointed out.
On the plus side, Kwiatkowski believes that compared to Fleche Wallonne, which has come down to a mass uphill bunch sprint every year since 2003, "Liege is quite an open race, and there are other teams who will want to keep it that way. Orica-Scott have a number of options, with the Yates brothers, Roman Roman Kreuziger, Simon Gerrans, Michael Albasini and Quick-Step too. A headwind or tailwind will affect things a lot as well."
He concurs with Dan Martin that the freezing weather conditions and heavy snow showers that hit last year's Liège made the entire race a one-off in terms of how it was tackled.
"Everybody was in survival mode, trying to save as much energy as possible. It certainly wasn't a normal situation, you had riders on their knees after 20 kilometres of racing, and getting dropped even when the peloton was just riding at a normal pace, not even fast."
"This year I hope it will be different and you can see some more fresh guys in the last 70 kilometres and the race could be more dynamic than it was last year. I was suffering in the weather last year, too so I know what it's like."
Kwiatkowski finally took 36th, a far cry from his best result to date, third place in 2014.
The other big difference, of course, is that he has won his first Monument, but Kwiatkowski thinks that rather that being relevant.
"It's more important what I've done in Amstel and Flèche. I know I'm considered a favourite, I have to deal with that. It's happened to me already as a former world champion, but it's up to me how I deal with it, and I think I can do that."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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