Weird Als Sweep Liège

They say that if you look hard enough around the less-traveled corners of Las Vegas and London, you can get betting odds on just about anything – life, death, and most things in between. Usually, though, when you hear about offbeat wagers, they’re talking about more mundane stuff, like betting on the opening coin toss of the Superbowl, or the time about a decade ago when David Miller’s mom put some cash down with Lloyd's on her neo-pro son winning the Tour de France by a certain date (update: she lost). But I’d guess that even the freak-wager specialists in the world’s betting capitals would take quite awhile to think out the odds on ending up with an all-Al podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. No matter how long the odds were, though, that’s exactly what we got, with Al Vinokourov (Astana) taking the top spot, followed by Al Kolobnev (Katusha) and Al Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), so anyone who placed that peculiar bet in time is probably still out drinking on their winnings now. I mean, really, that sort of thing hasn’t happened since Louis Armstrong outsprinted Lance Armstrong and Neil Armstrong to win the 1996 Classique des Alpes.

If you happened to be the person trying to make those odds, though, it probably would have been the Al on top of the podium who threw off your calculations. He certainly threw off mine. On hindsight, it seems obvious that Vinokourov should have been on the collective radar more prominently than he was, particularly coming off his win at Trentino. As indicative of good form as that win was, or should have been, banging around Italy for the prior week kept Vinokourov’s name well-removed from most of the pre-Liège buildup. Unlike the vast majority of his competitors, his initial odds weren’t predicated on performances at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, then constantly revised and discussed based on Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne performances. So despite his recent success, he was still somewhat of an unknown quantity, which can be a pretty valuable asset in professional cycling.

Despite his last minute arrival, though, Vinokourov’s performance shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise, at least once everyone realized he was there. He did, after all, win the 2005 Liege in fine style, so he kind of knew what he was doing. Remarkably, the fact that this was Vinokourov’s second Liege win went unmentioned in a number of initial reports I read, despite the fact that even the most info-anemic press packet typically includes a list of past winners. And he certainly didn’t get the pre-race previous winner treatment that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Valverde did. Did his blood doping suspension really wash him so thoroughly from the public consciousness that not even the media pros could acknowledge that he’d taken this particular ride before?

Regardless of the reason or intent behind that memory loss, one person who didn’t forget his previous Liège win was Vinokourov himself. In fact, he managed to duplicate the conditions of his prior win as nearly as possible without wearing T-Mobile pink. As he did in 2005, Vinokourov forged his victory from a two-up break, and just as he did then, he went with a fellow former Eastern Bloc hardman as his breakaway companion, this time swapping East German Jens Voigt for Russian Kolobnev. In both cases, after working well with his companion to establish the winning gap, Vinokourov made two late-race moves to secure the win – a first testing attack just past the 10 kilometers-to-go point, and then a final killing move well inside the red kite. I suppose when you know what works, you might as well stick with the script.

Having the experience and the legs to win Liège is one thing, though, actually pulling it off is another. Fortunately for Vinokourov, he had an ace up his sleeve that none of his competitors did: a spare Al. Now Vino may claim up and down that he’s not doping, but really, the way things were working out on Sunday, having two Als in one team was so unfair it might as well have been illegal. For the preceding week, Vinokourov’s Astana teammate Alberto Contador had been busy soaking up all those Ardennes expectations, questions, and examinations that Vinokourov was studiously avoiding in Italy, playing the perfect decoy. And on Sunday, Contador took that decoy role from the press room to the road. Despite crowing to anyone who would listen that he was only at Liege to gain experience, when the Spaniard jumped to reach Andy Schleck and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma) on the crucial Côte de la Roche aux Facons climb, there wasn’t a serious contender around who was going to let him go and see how things worked out. No sooner had an elite group of 10 contenders come back together around Contador than Vinokourov countered, drawing out Kolobnev as the mega-favorites – Gilbert, Cadel Evans (BMC), Valverde, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) – watched each other and Contador. And with that, two Als were off and running, and that's apparently a hard thing to stop.

  • So how did the other Als of Liège-Bastogne-Liège fare? Well, Alan Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) made the early break and held out until just prior to La Redoute before taking the backroads back to the team bus, so that’s certainly a big day out for him. But Alessandro Spezialetti (Lampre), rolling in an anonymous 89th? That guy needs to pick it up.

  • Hard to believe that late chase group couldn’t get it together, isn’t it? With Valverde, Evans, and Gilbert, they should have had the horsepower and experience to get back in the mix for the win. The only problem was that, when the trio drew to within 20 seconds or so of the leaders, only Gilbert seemed terribly interested in riding to win. Valverde, on the other hand, started skipping turns to save his energy to sprint to the third place he ultimately got, but his willingness to settle cost the group a shot at the title. For his part, Evans apparently tried to talk Valverde back into the rotation, but simply resigned his own chances when that proved ineffective rather than giving it a go himself. But, eh, that’s bike racing, and all three put in a hell of a ride regardless.

  • What the hell is going on with Saxo Bank and brake drag? Frank Schleck had to bike-jack teammate Niki Sorenson at the bottom of the Roche aux Facons due to a rubbing brake on his own bike, leaving brother Andy alone at the front at a key point in the race. A few weeks ago at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, rubbing brakes were the impetus behind the famously flubbed Matti Breschel bike change. Fabian Cancellara also changed bikes during that race due to a rubbing caliper, but fortunately he received one of the smoothest bike changes in recorded history and still came out with the win. Since I haven’t heard any complaints about SRAM Red brakes, I’m starting to wonder if there’s an issue with the interaction between the brakes and the mounting point on the team’s bikes that’s causing the brakes to slip off-center (e.g., are Saxo bolting homemade number plate holders between the brake and bridge?). But please note that I’m basing those theories on absolutely nothing. Anyway, might be worth noting that Joao Correia of Cervelo Test Team also came down with a case of brake rub recently. Maybe team mechanics just aren’t doing enough blow to stay awake anymore.

  • I suppose we have to talk about the doping angle in Vinokourov’s win, don’t we? Or maybe we don’t, because everyone else sure as hell is, and frankly, it’s exhausting. No matter how much I try to think about it, I have to confess to being a little ambivalent on the whole thing. Yes, it’s a little distasteful to have pretty unrepentant people back in the peloton and winning right after their suspensions end, especially people who are prone to referring to themselves in the third person. On the other hand, the world at large offers second chances in a lot of arenas far more important than bike racing, so I’m having a hard time getting too worked up about it. Mostly, I’m just reminded of the times following cycling’s first great purge, when Virenque, Brochard, Zulle, Moreau and company all made their way back into racing, and gradually back into big events and onto podiums. The same cries erupted then as now (though in a more muted way due to the relative infancy of the internet), but gradually, those initially vivid distastes faded more and more until Moreau became seen as a handsome, good-natured underdog again, and the Broche reestablished himself as a cult hero to mullet-loving cyclists everywhere. Virenque remained a ridiculous caricature of his ridiculous self, but there’s not much you can do about that guy. Now, the veterans of the second great purge – Miller, Basso, Vino, Ricco, Scarponi – are back, and we’ll go through those same pains again, and to much the same result, I expect. Would I rather have seen Kolobnev or Gilbert win? You bet your arse, but I don’t make those decisions.

    In the end, I think the most interesting things in all the post-Liège Vinokourov doping claptrap are the implied admissions of prior wrongdoing he's finally made in the wake of his win. In various post-race quotes, he makes references to starting fresh, proving he can win without doping. For those observers who absolutely must have a confession to move on, I think that’s as close as you’re going to get.

    Despite those confession-ettes, though, Vinokourov still seems a little confused about his message – kind of like my old dog used to get when he couldn’t remember whether he was play-growling at you or real-growling at you. Mixed in with his starting over talk were remarks about how his Liège win is great “revenge.” Apparently, he was talking about revenge on the media, who he believes treated him unfairly in the wake of his unseemly exit from the sport back in 2007. I can see being a little peeved at the people who called you names, especially when you think or know that all your coworkers are doing the same elicit things, but regardless – if you’re acknowledging that you did the crime, I’m not sure you get to have your feelings hurt by the reaction. (Also, it is notoriously hard to “get revenge” on the media – it’s part of their job to not give a shit what you think of them. The cycling media is bad at maintaining that perspective sometimes, but we still try. And whenever a subject tries to get revenge, they just provide more fodder.) The other thing Vinokourov doesn’t seem to quite be getting, judging by his open letter today, is that while he does indeed have the right to participate in and even win bicycle races, the public and the media are also perfectly within their rights not to like it, even if he's as clean and pure as a convent on wash day. That said, I do grudgingly admire the sort of self-confidence that makes people not understand why people don't like them.

  • Am I the only one who thinks the "open letter" is a whiny, brooding way to do just about anything?

  • OK, it wasn’t just lack of a doping prior that made me really want Kolobnev to win. It’s because I noted on Thursday that if the big favorites didn’t watch themselves, Kolobnev could run away with a Liege win, and I desperately wanted to be right. So I was hoping pretty hard in those last few kilometers. Obviously, it wasn't to be, but it was a darn good ride by the Russian, even if it wasn’t a particularly surprising one. Besides his good rides at Amstel and Flèche earlier in the week, a good ride was indicated for one other reason: Liège is long as hell and hard as hell, and Kolobnev loves long, hard races. He’s been second twice at the World Championships and on the podium at Lombardia, and he’s also won the Montepaschi race in Italy. If things continue on the current path, be on the lookout for Kolobnev come this year’s Lombardia.

  • If you didn’t like the podium at Liège, you really shouldn’t delve deeper into Vinokourov’s Trentino win. Top 5 on GC: Vinokourov, Ricco, Pozzovivo, Scarponi, Basso. Only Pozzovivo hasn’t spent time on the bench. You know why? Dope won’t fit in the guy. Seriously, I’m no giant, but that dude’s tiny.