A quick overview of the contenders for the 2011 La Doyenne
Why he wins Has there been a hotter favourite for La Doyenne since the days of Merckx or even Moreno Argentin? Gilbert hasn’t simply ground his rivals into the road this past week with his stunning victories in Amstel Gold and La Flèche Wallonne, he’s absolutely smashed them to smithereens. Everyone thought he was capable of winning Amstel in the way he did but no one thought he was capable of doing what he did on the Mur de Huy at La Flèche. Wow!
There are only two ways you can win a bike race - with your legs or with your head. The thing everyone loves about Philippe Gilbert is that he consistently uses both. Compare Gilbert’s wins this week with that of Cancellara in the cobbled classics. Cancellara was the strongest rider and the hottest of favourites, yet showed he didn’t have the smarts to find the top step of the podium. God knows what Spartacus was thinking at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - Harelbeke when he showed up and blew everyone’s doors off. Surely the smarter play was to fake a cough on the start line, complain of a cold and roll over the finish line in 8th. Pressure off and you get to roll out the heroics at Flanders and Roubaix. Equally, you didn’t see Gilbert remonstrate with the Rabobank team car when they refused to ride in the closing kilometres of Amstel, instead he put himself on the front and worked to bring back the dangerous move by Andy Schleck. Smarts? Gilbert has got them in spades. And that’s why regardless of what the other teams throw at him on Sunday, he’ll combine them with his awesome form and the support of a more than handy team and win the ‘monument’ he desires the most - La Doyenne.
Why he doesn’t Gilbert can’t follow every move and just like last year when Vino and Kolobnev got away, there’s a real danger that he might miss out again when the other favourites look at each and don’t help him chase down the counter attacks when they come. The other teams will be keen to isolate Gilbert so expect there to be a flurry of attacks in the closing 50km with Côte de la Redoute at 223km the likely scene of much of the animation as usual. The teams most likely to be active are those with more than one card to play like Leopard-Trek (Schlecks x 2), Team Sky (Gerrans and Löfkvist) Katusha (Rodriguez, Kolobnev and Di Luca) and Rabobank (Gesink and Sanchez Gil). Likewise, Liège-Bastogne-Liège has always been a much more tactical race than either of Amstel and La Flèche, so there’s a strong likelihood of a pretty decent sized break getting away. And just as Cancellera was brought undone by similar tactics in Paris-Roubaix, there is some chance that one of the smokeys in the break steals the main prize, denying Gilbert his trifecta of wins.
Why he wins Defending champ Vino was a real surprise packet at La Flèche on Wednesday - finishing a very impressive 4th behind Gilbert on the Mur de Huy, a climb that you wouldn’t think would usually suit his characteristics. One thing we know about Vino is that he won’t die wondering when it comes to a monument like La Doyenne. And just as he did last year when he launched his winning attack with 17 kilometres to go on the descent of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, he is likely to be in the thick of things inside the final 20km. Vino knows that he’ll never beat Gilbert in the uphill finishing sprint so he’ll have to attack and counter attack in order to get away. Working in his favour is that there are a bunch of other riders with exactly the same plan in mind. If the likes of Gerrans, Kolobnev, Di Luca, Tony Martin and the Schlecks all have a crack, Vino will be poised to pounce on the counter at precisely the moment the rest of the field is on the rivet. Can he win Liège a third time? Yes. Yes he can.
Why he doesn’t The one thing Vino doesn’t have at his disposal this year is a team mate of the calibre of Alberto Contador to pull the focus from his own aspirations. Last year, Vino had flown well and truly under the radar, with Contador garnering all the attention after his 3rd behind Evans at La Flèche. In fact it was only after Contador had duped his rivals by launching an attack on the climb of Côte de la Roche aux Faucons that Vino was able to counter on the descent. This year Vino will only be able to make hay on the backs of the other favourites and that is where he is likely to be undone. If he can’t get away and he’s still in the company of Gilbert in the final kilometre, Gilbert smokes him in the sprint.
Why he wins Twice denied by Gilbert this week, the Spanish powerhouse from Katusha is definitely the man most likely to overthrow the King. On paper his team are probably the strongest in this year’s race and given that Liège is much more tactical than either Amstel or La Flèche, having a kick-ass team is why Rodriguez will finally over come his biggest rival. With Omega Pharma-Lotto having to burn matches to hold the break within spitting distance and then to cover the moves in the final 50kms, Rodriguez is the rider likely to have team mates at his side come crunch time. Don’t be surprised to see Rodriguez coming of the wheel of his team mate Di Luca when he finally bests Gilbert on the line.
Why he doesn’t Sure, Rodriguez is good but unfortunately for him Gilbert is great and destined to become one of the greats. There is not a one day race that Gilbert cannot win when he sets his mind to it. I fully expect him to add the likes of Flanders and Roubaix to his palmares before he’s done. Before then, he’ll finally nab La Doyenne. What that means for Rodriguez is another 2nd, his third behind Gilbert for the week.
The Schlecks Frank (3rd twice) and Andy (2009 winner) definitely have the characteristics to upset Gilbert on Sunday. Both have been on pretty good form during the Ardennes classics, though Frank raced without luck at Amstel (crashing behind Spartacus) as things were starting to hot up. As a double act and with the help of in form Fuglsang, Montfort and the irrepressible Voigt, the Leopard-Trek dream team have the firepower to take the race by the scruff of the neck. The only thing missing from the equation this year is having Bjarne Riis at the wheel of the team car. The same guys racing as Saxo-Bank won races by the truck load, yet in their new colours they seem to be lacking the tactical smarts at the decisive point in the race. Andy’s attack in Amstel was a cracker and more like what we’re accustomed to see from him. If Frank stays upright and they have both cards to play at Côte de la Redoute, there’s every chance one of them walks away a winner.
Simon Gerrans After a terrific 3rd place in Amstel Gold last weekend, Gerro rolled his legs over and stayed out of trouble at La Flèche on Wednesday. Near the pointy end of the race approaching the Mur he was happy to let the other favourites smash up the devastating final climb. Of all the ‘monuments’ this is the one that Gerro has had his eyes on. A quite start to the year has him hitting the excellent form at just the right time. The kind of form he displayed in 2009 when he won a bunch of races including stages at the Giro and the Vuelta. The big favourites will be well advised to keep a sharp eye on the Australian. To win he’ll need to take a leaf out of Vino’s 2010 playbook and with Löfkvist as his foil there’s every chance this might just happen. Gerro outsprinting a Katusha and a Schleck the most likely scenario.
Alexandr Kolobnev Second last year, Kolobnev is a key part of the Katusha triple-threat alongside Rodriguez and Di Luca. Just as he did last year, the Russian will need to take advantage of the tactics falling the right way for him. With a likely team mate up the road in the breakaway, Kolobnev will be able to hide out of the wind for the first 200km before having a sniff during the closing climbs. On the counter attack, the punchy Russian has the strength to stay away in the right selection. This year he’ll be hoping to do one better when it comes down to the final mad dash to the line.
Robert Gesink Off the boil somewhat during La Flèche, more was expected of Gesink and his team on Wednesday. Tactically, Rabobank made a mess of things at Amstel, which was somewhat of a surprise as they’re much better known for getting the most out of the hand they’re dealt. Gesink was absolutely super in the early part of the year, winning the overall at the Tour of Oman and then 2nd behind Evans at Tirreno–Adriatico. La Doyenne is precisely the kind of classic that Gesink can and should win. If he gets his chance on Sunday he’s definitely in with a show.
Tony Martin Martin had an absolutely cracking start to the year, winning the overall at the Volta ao Algarve and then claiming the ITT and overall in a brutal edition of this year’s Paris-Nice. Pegged as the likely heir to the Time-Trial throne of Cancellara, there’s every chance that Martin might start adding ‘monuments’ to his palmares in the same way Spartacus has. The tactics will need to go his way but if he is still in the mix at the top of Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, there is every chance that Martin could power away from the field and time trial the final 17km to victory.
Ben Hermans The young Radioshack rider has been terrific all year. First spotted showing his colours on the climbs of the Tour Down Under this year, he won at the Trofeo Inca and then finished 8th at Amstel and 18th at La Flèche. The parcours of Liège-Bastogne-Liège will suit the 25 year-old Belgian more than the other two Ardennes classics and with all the attention on team leader, Janez Brajkovic, Hermans might slip away. A smokey to be sure. But with Nuyens and Van Summeren already flying the flag, smokeys are having an awesome spring in 2011.