Called “La Doyenne,” the Grandmother of them all, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the oldest of the Spring races. First run in 1892 the parcours runs through some of the hilliest regions of Belgium in the scenic countryside of the Ardennes. It’s a demanding race that favors a strong all-around, aggressive rider who can climb. The race has been won by a veritable who’s who of cycling greats, including Eddy Merckx, who won the race 5 times between 1969 and 1975.
This year’s race promises to be an exciting one, as the field is loaded with talent Mario Aerts, takes the field fresh from his Fleche-Wallonne win, Johan Museeuw in top form, Lance Armstrong always a force to be reckoned with, Michele Bartoli, who has won Liege twice in the past, along with sparring partner Paolo Bettini, Michael Boogerd, Francesco Casagrande, the Etxebarria and Zberg brother, Oscar Freire, Levi Leipheimer, Christophe Moreau, Aitor Osa, super star Marco Pantani, perhaps looking to prove he can ride as fast as he talks, Davide Rebellin, US Pro Champion Rodriguez, Gilberto Simoni, Peter Van Petegem, Rik Verbrugghe, Alexander Vinokourov, the Alex Zulle… and so many more. With so many teams having real contenders at the line and a good athletically demanding course, the race should be wide open and exciting.
Last season saw the spread of promising American riders to all corners of the European peloton, and many of them come together to race against each other in the most prestigious of the spring Classics:
Levi Leipheimer’s explosive performance in last year’s Vuelta a Espana produced an offer he couldn’t refuse from Dutch squad Rabobank looking for a Grand Tour candidate. Leipheimer’s strong time trial skills and surprising performances in the mountains of Spain earned him a podium finish in a race he started as a domestique for Roberto Heras. Though he is a bit untested, L-B-L should be a good race for him. He rides for an exceptionally strong team including the likes of Michael Boogerd, Bram de Groot, and Marcus and Beat Zberg.
Mid Tour de France last year, the faithful and long-suffering Tyler Hamilton made the move from Lance Armstrong’s lieutenant on USPS to Grand Tour team leader for this year’s Giro d’Italia for a CSC-Tiscali looking to augment the powers of the aging Laurent Jalabert, who last year threatened retirement. Tyler is a strong climber who regularly rode time trial reconnaissance splits for Lance Armstrong. While his form has been slow in coming to him this season due to a heavy bout of allergies, he says he’s feeling better everyday. His focus this year is on the Giro and the Tour, but should have a good ride on the L-B-L course.
Bobby Julich takes to the course in a supporting role for Team Telecom’s likely leader Alexander Vinokurov. Julich came in a remarkable third overall in the 1998 Tour de France, but has never repeated that performance. This year he makes the move to Telecom and with it, embraces his position as domestique. A strong all-around rider, he will provide solid support to his teammates.
Fred Rodriguez joins Domo teammates Johan Museeuw, fresh from his victory in Roubaix, an Axel Merckx among others. His second place finishes to Cipollini in Milan-San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem, and 17th in the Tour of Flanders are a testament to good form. Fred is a quick sprinter with strong enough legs to take on a tough race.
USPS brings a strong American contingent, including three time Tour de France Champion and all around king of the road Lance Armstrong. Armstrong is in good form early this year, and would no doubt love to take a Spring win in a monument classic. Lance has ridden L-B-L three times, twice to a 2nd place podium finish. If Lance is in form and rides to win, he will be formidable indeed, even against so strong a field. But does he ride to win? Armstrong’s race is usually Amstel Gold, and there has been talk of his riding Liege to support George Hincapie. Hincapie will start as well, but could still be a bit battered from his hard day on the cobbles in Paris-Roubaix. He has never ridden L-B-L before and “doesn’t know what to expect,” but has had great form all year and his strength should show here. USPS also takes former mountain biker Floyd Landis, longtime USPS powerhouse Christian Vandevelde who made a strong showing in the top 20 at Fleche-Wallonne, David Zabriskie and David Clinger. Clinger is new to the USPS ranks, but rode L-B-L in 2001 for Festina, placing 107th, so he knows the course; and hopefully, Zabriskie won’t take any shortcuts to the finish!
It’s a good year for American race fans with so many strong faces in the peloton! Now if only we could get these big races on TV!