The headline of this post pretty much says it all, so I won't futz around. Just one caveat: I didn't have Serguei Ivanov listed in any discussion of Amstel Gold. So take this with the appropriate lump of salt.
1. Damiano Cunego, Lampre
He failed in the finale on the Mur, but I don't regard this as representative of much besides his ability to do that particular race. L-B-L is different, the finale is gentler, so it should suit his finishing abilities better. I don't have time to run all the numbers, but there's a recent streak of LBL podium finishers who started slowly at Amstel and peaked by the time they got to Ans, and to me Cunego looks like he's headed in the right direction. Not a strong favorite call, but since you have to put someone here, I'm going with The Kid.
2. Davide Rebellin, Serramenti blahblahblah
One win, two seconds in Ans... is there anyone else who's a mortal lock for a top-five besides Rebellin? The guy is always, ALWAYS around the front of the race in the Ardennes. Age apparently means nothing, so far anyway. The only reason he's second is my guess that Cunego doesn't get dropped before the finish, and in a head-to-head on that slope I'd pick Cunego.
3. Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d'Epargne
Um, my point about guys coming around during Ardennes week? Valverde was 21st in Amstel and seventh in La Fleche. If you (OK, I) think Cunego can finish off a race... Still, he's seemed pretty invisible, so there's a chance he's not playing possum. Very weird season in general -- you knew that already -- so I'm marking him down a bit, since Liege isn't the kind of race you win after months of seeming adrift.
4. Andy Schleck, Saxo Bank
Like Rebellin, there's almost no way he isn't on the pointy end of this race when they reach Ans. But to close it out he will have to outmuscle some combination of faster finishers, unless he can escape prematurely. Anywhere in the top ten is a realistic possibility for Schleck the Faster, but top three will take some doing.
5. Cadel Evans, Silence-Lotto
You could make a convincing argument that he was the strongest guy on Wednesday. This sort of thing doesn't help you win on the Mur, if you've got a wispy climber on your wheel, but it most certainly does matter in LBL. There is little history of Evans figuring out the last km of a major classic, so you wouldn't put all your money here. But exactly nobody should be surprised if he powers away to the line.
6. Robert Gesink, Rabobank
So now he's back on the startlist. In a show of faith toward Rabobank management, I will guess that his knee must be fine, for no sentient being would send a talent like Gesink out to ride LBL with a hurt knee. Right?
7. Serguei Ivanov, Katusha
The hottest hand in the peloton right now -- little dude's been everywhere. But two major factors against him: he has zero history at LBL, which is pretty conspicuous considering he's been on the verge of winning Amstel for about a decade. And there is a similar inverse history to the guys peaking at Ans, that is guys peaking at Amstel and blowing up in Liege.
8. Thomas Lovkvist, Columbia
I suspect he's plan A-1 for this race, where if Kirchen feels good at km 250 Lovkvist becomes a domestique for the finale, but I don't expect that to come about. To me, in the classics Lovkvist is a poor-man's Andy Schleck, by which I mean he's not as glitzy and accomplished but otherwise very similar in ability (right Jens?). A longshot to actually win, but if Columbia get their tactics right he's highly likely to find himself in that crucial position, at the end of the race, where anything can happen. History? Not much here, but he had no history at La Fleche before finishing sixth yesterday.
9. Christian Pfannberger, Katusha
A future winner of something in this region. Last year he ran 6-9-5 in his first three Ardennes races, and he had the bit in his teeth yesterday too. It'd be interesting to see if he and Ivanov can mess around with the favorites at LBL. This is a much more strategic race than La Fleche -- it's far harder, and there are numerous places to attack in the last 15km or so, with no Mur looming to thwart you. So what if Ivanov, no longer someone you want to underestimate, takes off like a madman at 8km? Does Pfannberger get a cozy chariot ride in the ensuing chase? There are some scenarios to tinker with, for sure.
10. Sammy Sanchez, Euskaltel
Another great Spaniard having a quiet spring, which seems to be his m.o. recently. I can't figure out his plan. Also, his best finishes at Ans were 4th and 6th in 2004 and '03, a lifetime ago. I'm all for him winning, but if you think of where he's had his best days (Beijing, San Sebastian, certain Vuelta stages), they're all noticeably less grueling events than LBL.
11. Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas
A for effort this week. I probably shouldn't rank him even this high, as he seems to be in attack-til-you-blow-a-gasket mode... something that won't work Sunday. Hell, he may not even be the team captain by the time it's over, what with Basso (supposedly) there. But Vinny is developing well, and was tenth here last year.
12. Linus Gerdemann, Milram
Well, he can climb. And he's the captain of one of the bigger (if sillier-looking) teams. The race suits him fine, given his showings in some very hard races. But the lack of race days this year, and his being a rookie at LBL, makes me think he won't get the last moo.
13. Clément Lhotellerie, Vacansoleil
Just a kid, all of 23, so this is a wildcard pick. But in his first-ever Ardennes race (aside from some espoirs events), La Fleche, he finished 11th. Next great French hope?? Naw, let's not bury him with that tag yet.
14. Simon Gerrans, Cervelo Test Team
I wouldn't call him a lock for second place, not after Pippo broke the CTT streak at Roubaix. But the possibility certainly can't be dismissed. Gerrans has struggled on this course more than the previous two events, so his pair of top-tens this week might not say everything you need to know. But top 15 sounds quite plausible.
15. Rinaldo Nocentini, AG2R
He's certainly proven over the years that he knows how to find the front end of an Ardennes classic, even if he isn't quite talented enough to finish off the peloton. The man always gets his points.
Anyone missing? Besides my repeated failure to make Philippe Gilbert the favorite to win, I mean?