Having won the previous two Ardennes Classics, Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde come into Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege race as the clear favourites.
Gilbert made a stunning attack on the final Cauberg climb to win last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race from Belgian compatriot Jelle Vanendert while Valverde timed his final push to perfection to beat Ireland’s Daniel Martin at Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne.
But both 31-year-old Gilbert and Spaniard Valverde, 34, were keen to remind fans and pundits alike that there will be others in the mix at the fourth of five ‘Monument’ races this season.
One such is young Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski who is enjoying a fine season having won the Strade Bianche, finished second at the Tour of the Basque Country, third at Fleche and fifth at Amstel.
And another Gilbert expects to ride well in Liege is Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali, who was 14th at Fleche.
“Kwiatkowski is very young but he’s already very impressive. You can count on him,” said Gilbert.
“Nibali is always better over 260km (Liege is 263km) than 200km (Fleche is 199km) and there are others like Daniel Martin.
“For Joaquim Rodriguez the question is whether or not he’s recovered from his falls (at both Amstel and Fleche).
“But he’s a Liege specialist, (his Katusha team-mate Dani) Moreno too, they have a very strong team.”
Valverde said there are a lot of riders who could win in Liege but agreed that he and Gilbert are the two favourites.
“There will be Gilbert, I’ll be there, but it won’t just be us two. I think there will be a lot of other riders fighting for victory,” said the 2006 and 2008 winner.
But Valverde fancies his own chances, saying the course is more suited to him that that of the Fleche Wallonne, which he has also won twice.
“I like it because the climbs are not 1-1.5km but 4-5km, which is better for me and my characteristics.
“It’s a race where positioning isn’t so important as Amstel, where you’ve always got to be at the front and paying attention. That creates a lot of tension.”
– Liege is tactical –
Several other riders could figure such as Dutchamn Bauke Mollema, an impressive fourth at Fleche, or Vanendert, who is more suited to the Liege course than Fleche, where he was nonetheless sixth.
How well Rodriguez — twice a runner-up in Liege and five times in Ardennes Classics — goes will depend on how he recovers from his Amstel and Fleche crashes, but if he’s not on top form, Katusha will look to his Spanish compatriot Moreno to have a tilt.
For Nibali, second in 2012 behind team-mate Maxim Iglinsky, there are three favourites.
“There are always great rivals. Certainly Valverde and Gilbert because they won the last two big Classics.
“They’ve shown they’re a little more in form. But I should add Kwiatkowski, who is going very well. There’s a little less pressure on us and more on them.”
For Martin, the reigning champion who was also second at the Fleche Wallonne, it’s all about team-work.
“Liege is definitely more of a war of attrition and you don’t see the same explosiveness (as the Fleche Wallonne) in the final,” said the 27-year-old.
“Liege is a lot more tactical. Last year me and Ryder (Hesjedal) played it well.”
One rider some are tempted to view as an outsider is Tour de France winner Chris Froome, who will race alongside his chief Team Sky lieutenant Richie Porte.
But Nibali is not sure the Briton, who is making his comeback from a back injury that forced him to miss last month’s Tirreno-Adriatico, has what it takes.
“It’s a Classic one day race, it’s totally different to a stage race. You need a lot of luck and to have a perfect day. I don’t know how much experience Froome has in these type of races,” said the Italian.