Belgium's Philippe Gilbert lines up for Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday with a rare chance of securing a Grand Slam of victories in the tough 'Ardennes Classics.' Liege, the oldest one-day classic on the calendar, brings an end to the spring classics season with the one-week stage races that lead up to the first of the three Grand Tours looming on the horizon.
Gilbert was untouchable in the first two of the three Ardennes one-day races, dominating Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday just three days after also winning the Amstel Gold race. The Omega-Pharma rider secured both victories with a strong final kick which left his rivals rooted to the spot. However Liege is the toughest of the three and Gilbert, who grew up in a village at the foot of one of its many climbs, knows it will present a different challenge altogether.
"I have to ensure that I don't go in there feeling over-confident. I know I will start in the hope I can win it and if I'm best on the day then I will," said Gilbert.
Going on his recent form, Gilbert looks capable of emulating the hat-trick feat of Italian Davide Rebellin in 2004. However Liege is coveted by many top racers and the French-speaking Belgian is not short of equally ambitious rivals. Joaquin Rodriguez, for example, hopes Gilbert runs out of steam.
"I'm looking positively towards Sunday," said the Spaniard, who was runner-up to Gilbert in both Amstel and Fleche - races where the ability to finish with a quick burst of speed going uphill is an absolute must for victory. "In 2005 Danilo Di Luca easily won the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne but wasn't at his best for Liege and lost out."
Alexandre Vinokourov won Liege for the second time in his career last year, the controversial Kazakh rider beating Russian Alexandre Kolobnev into second place after they had broken free of the pack in the final 15 km. While the Astana rider has had a modest classics campaign so far, he believes his fourth place finish at Fleche Wallonne is a good sign.
"It's my best result at Fleche Wallonne since I started my career. It makes me even more confident for Liege," said Vinokourov.
Going on their current form and past results at Liege, Rodriguez, Spanish compatriot Igor Anton of Euskaltel and Leopard-Trek's Andy Schleck are also among Gilbert's biggest threats. Anton finished seventh in the race last year and was fifth at the Fleche Wallonne in midweek. Schleck will be hoping his lack of brilliant form at Fleche Wallonne, where he worked in support of older brother Frank, is not a portent of what lies ahead as he bids to repeat his 2009 victory at Liege.
Held over a distance of 255.5km, the race heads from Liege south towards Bastogne and back again, steadily eliminating the field over a series of 10 climbs. The Cote de Saint Roch, at the 75 km mark, is only one kilometer long but has a whopping average gradient of 11 percent. The final climb is the Cote de Saint Nicolas, a 1.2 km stretch over 8.3 percent which leads the peloton to the finish line in Ans, just above Liege. Although the 'Doyenne' usually crowns the strongest rider on the day, Gilbert will be hoping his team can continue their sterling work against rivals who will do everything they can to shake the Belgian off.