Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest one-day race on the cycling calendar marks the finale of the Spring Classics, and although the race route has undergone changes this year the event still holds its own distinctive footing within the sport; a rare occasion where the best climbers in the world take on the one-day hard men and the occasional stage race specialist.
And with no standout favourite to speak of this year's race has the ingredients to provide some of the best racing action of the season so far.
The Roche aux Faucons has been removed from the race this year due to road works, but despite the loss of this climb, the course still offers compelling and numerous opportunities to split the race. To replace the Faucons, race organisers ASO have brought in the Colonster, a 2.4km climb (average gradient of 6 per cent) situated 17 kilometers to go.
While the new climb may not be as decisive as the Faucons, the race's emphasis will be on the iconic La Redoute at 223km and Côte de Saint-Nicolas at 256km, both of which have been used as launch pads for winning attacks.
If the race still hasn't been decided by either of those climbs, the final ascent of Ans, towards the finish, will crown the winner. But the marquee climbs, for all their relevance, are just part of La Doyenne. Inside the final 70 kilometers barely a meter of the course is raced over flat roads, and the continued pressure and pace is often the most decisive factor before the hammer blows are issued out on the final climbs.
Level playing field among the favourites
With no firm Cancellara-esque favourite for the race, La Doyenne is a wide open affair.
Philippe Gilbert's form has been somewhat disappointing this year. Having skipped the Tour of Flanders in order to ramp up his preparation for the Ardennes, he was expected to shine this week. He came up short in Amstel Gold, unable to propel himself clear of the field with the clarity and class demonstrated at last year Worlds, while in Flèche Wallonne he assumed too much responsibility on the final drag race up the Mur.
A former winner of Liège-Bastonge-Liège – and with the rainbow jersey on his shoulders – Gilbert will be a marked man once again. However, Liège is perhaps the race best suited to both his characteristics as a rider and his current form. The rolling terrain, the number of attacking positions on the course, and a well-drilled BMC team give Gilbert an array of cards to play.
The same can quite possibly said of Katusha and Astana. Both teams have tended to animate the race in recent years, and with Daniel Moreno fresh from his win in Flèche Wallonne and Joaquim Rodriguez continuing to improve his health after his Amstel crash, the red half of the Eastern bloc teams look as dangerous as ever.
Astana have more than just the defending champion in their ranks: Maxim Iglinkiy is joined by the man he passed on the final climb last year – Vincenzo Nibali – and Janez Brajkovic, Enrico Gasparotto and Andriy Grivko.
Two teams looking to salvage poor springs campaigns are Sky and Omega Pharma-QuickStep. Much was expected of both squads in March with Tom Boonen looking to repeat any part of his 2012 season, and the same for Sky after its much vaunted Tenerife training camps.
After Boonen crashed out of Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders, and Sky suffered throughout the cobbled races, both teams are under pressure to rescue their springs. Heading into Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Sky appears the more capable with the ever-impressive Sergio Henao (second in Flèche Wallonne), Rigoberto Uran and Riche Porte leading their squad.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Carlos Alberto Betancur (AG2R), Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and the Garmin pairing of Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal are also in the running.
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