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Chris' Five For Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Lbl_mediumMy entry (one of several from the Editors) (and, p.s., you can add your own too) in the insta-series randomly profiling riders for Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Basically, a few of us are picking a handful of guys from up and down the Ardennes hierarchy, people who we individually think it interesting to write a short preview about. Here's my five.

1. The Freshman

A threshold question: can Tejay Van Garderen get to Liège in time? [update: He made it.] If he does manage to work out the travel arrangements, the HTC-Columbia newcomer will be making his first truly big-time race start. Van Garderen is no stranger to the top level of cycling, mingling with the big boys in his Rabobank CT days and more consistently in the start to his Pro Tour career, but those events have transpired in races of secondary concern to the Contadors and Gilberts and Evanses of the world. Sunday is young Tejay's first big taste of the big time.

I spoke with Van Garderen Wednesday from his home in Lucca (more coming on that), and although he started off by assuring me he had no aspirations of a big result, he did so with a sparkle in his voice... first saying he just wanted to keep up and finish in a good group, not thinking of where he could place, only to then say top 40 would be solid and anything higher would be amazing. Grounded, but not without the hope that comes with being young and very talented.

There are a number of challenges facing Van Garderen, besides volcanic ash clouds. The roads are not entirely familiar to him, though his Rabo days placed him in Limburg often enough to get the basic idea -- lots of hills, skinny roads, etc. The length and speed are probably beyond what he's experienced, at least in that combination. And his pedigree is heavily slanted toward stage races rather than one-day events. But from talking to him I gather he likes a challenge. So he should love Sunday. Forecast: He'll finish.

2. The Sophomore

I want to equate Dan Martin to Van Garderen -- both tall, lean, young and strong -- but there's one thing that separates Martin: that 8th place Martin registered in the 2009 Giro di Lombardia. Sure, there are probably innumerable ways that October racing differs from what's coming Sunday, starting with the overall quality of the field. But the similarities are striking: the top contenders include guys like Evans, Gilbert, Cunego, Gesink, Sanchez and so forth. The distance is comparable, save a dozen km. And the climbing comes in long, hard waves. At age 23, two years Van Garderen's senior, Martin cannot be called unproven per se. You don't finish in the top ten of any monument by accident.

Martin is going well this spring too, and his 18th placing in yesterday's Flèche Wallonne suggests he's getting close to contending in the Ardennes. But while Garmin like to talk about giving everyone a shot at the win, the current run of form by Ryder Hesjedal -- one of three riders in the top ten at AGR and La Flèche -- may dicate that Martin sacrifice whatever chances he has for Garmin's hot hand. That itself would be impressive, should Hesjedal challenge for a podium place and Martin contribute to it. After coming in 97th last year in Ans, factoring into the race's outcome would be monumental in and of itself. But if Hesjedal falters, Martin moves up into the dark horse role, not to be overlooked if he's still going well on La Redoute. The biggest question is simply numerical -- can he go as strong for 250km as he's gone for 200? Forecast: Top 25.

3. The Standard Bearer

It's Belgium, somebody from Quick Step has to make a go of it. Stijn Devolder is on the startlist, but recent knee pain and his comments in Sporza about "one last ride" before vacation make me think he's either on the fence or unlikely to make any noise. Maybe young Seeldraeyers or veterans Cataldo or Van de Walle have a result in their legs. But if I had to pick a leader from that lineup it would be Sylvain Chavanel.

It seems a tad cRaZy, given that the French warrior hasn't taken the start in Liège since his Cofidis days and has four pretty forgettable finishes on his resume, but Chavanel's form is supposedly "on the rise" following his benching for Paris-Roubaix. His 16th last Sunday marked a personal best for Chav in a race he regularly attends (often to close out his classics campaign). Chavanel skipped today's Flèche festivities, pronouncing himself "too heavy" to win on the Mur de Huy, but is gunning for a result Sunday. Best case: he and a teammate or two find themselves in the finale, in a position to make mischief. The Monuments have been known to smile on strong, aggressive riders like Chavanel. More than likely he'll get lost on one of the long climbs at the end, but if they let him hang around, he'll be a danger man in a finish that's good for powerful rouleurs. Forecast: dropped on La Redoute.

4. The BCS

Omega Pharma have their man for Sunday, Classics legend-in-the-making Phillippe Gilbert. Few teams have telegraphed their ambitions so clearly. So what's Jurgen Van den Broeck to do? That's easy: whatever the team tells him. Van den Broeck is being billed (by himself as well) as the co-pilot of Lotto's last, maybe best, assault on their home roads for a while. He's mentioned that he hopes to get into the finale and look for a way for the team to win. If somehow he's survived the late climbs and Gilbert hasn't, then it's his race to win.

A far likelier scenario is that Gilbert is there, and if he is, then Van den Broeck slots in as plan B. Prio to 2010 the 27-year-old Belgian has shown little in the Ardennes, making a name for himself more as a stage-race climber than a one-day guy. Now he has a pair of 20th places in the last five days to his name, and Van den Broeck starts to look like a guy who can get a result here... but not as high a result as Gilbert, and La Doyenne, the last Belgian monument, has to be among the team's and Gilbert's highest priorities for the year. Which leaves Jurgen on hold: he can shield his teammate for the final kms, or maybe chase or launch his own attack to put other teams on the defensive, to Gilbert's advantage. But I really doubt he'll have a totally free hand as long as his more famous (and frankly faster) teammate is around. Forecast: he'll be a busy boy late Sunday afternoon.

5. The Expected One

We've seen him coming for a while now. His stage win in the 2008 Tour of California and a subsequent assault on Paris-Nice that spring told of good things ahead for one Robert Gesink. At age 22, he finished seventh in the Vuelta that year, and came back last spring intending to show his classics forte as well. Third in Amstel Gold was his early-season highlight, but his luck (or legs) ran out in LBL (50th) and a crash in the Tour de France marred his third pro season until an autumn harvest that included sixth in the Vuelta, a beautiful win in the Giro dell'Emilia, and a strong attack leading to sixth in Lombardia. There seems to be little in the climbing world of the sport that he can't do.

The question is whether he will, of course. Still only 23, Gesink learned another hard lesson at La Fleche this week, puncturing at an inopportune moment and spending himself in the effort to get back on. He commented after that he was "coughing up his lungs" and his third classic in a week -- the hardest -- won't be any kinder to his young frame. In ideal fitness, Liège is a very good race for Gesink, with long climbs that should hurt most other riders worse than it gets to him. OK, he's not a great finisher, but the aggression he showed in Lombardia gives his fans hope. But how ideal is his fitness? How tiring has it been to go from Pais Vasco to Amstel to La Flèche? He's done it before, posting his best LBL finish in 2008 (13th), so if he can recover for Sunday, look for him in the finale. Forecast: top ten.