Eurosport - Sun, 25 Apr 16:22:00 2010
Astana's Alexandre Vinokourov recorded his most significant victory since his return to cycling by winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The Kazakh, who served a one-year drugs ban following a positive test at the Tour de France in 2007, sprinted clear of Alexandre Kolobnev (Katusha) with 500 metres remaining, to win by six seconds.
The win was Vinokourov's third in the Spring classics, following victories in the Amstel Gold Race in 2003, and this race in 2005, and marks him out once more as a force to be reckoned with for the upcoming grand tours this season.
On an unseasonably warm, testing day in the Ardennes, it was no surprise that an audacious breakaway succeeded in a race whose glittering array of stars effectively marked eachother out of victory.
Though a seven man break comprised of Thomas De Gendt (Topsport Vlaanderen), Maxime Bouet (AG2R), Alan Perez (Euskaltel), Jussi Veikkanen (Française des Jeux), Dries Devenyns (Quick Step), Niki Terpstra (Milram) and Mauro Finetto (Liquigas) broke clear early on, and were subsequently joined by Dirk Bellemakers (Landbouwkrediet) after an tortuously long solo chase, they were kept on a tight leash of just six minutes by an attentive peloton, and Devenyns was the last man reeled back in with 40 kilometres remaining.
The Caisse d'Epargne team's pace at the head of the peloton put paid to any attacks on the flat as the last of the escapees was caught, only for Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) to light the blue touch paper on the Côte de la Redoute. He was followed by Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) and Stefano Garzelli (Acque & Sapone) amongst others, though a lack of co-operation saw the peloton close in rapidly again.
With the Rabobank team lacking a leader ideally suited to the finish, team orders were clearly to try everything possible as the kilometres ticked down, and as soon as Ten Dam was brought back in, Bram Tankink exploded away.
The Dutchman built up a promising lead of 40 seconds, before Saxo Bank's Jakob Fulgsang launched an attack for team-mate Andy Schleck on the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons, the very spot where the Luxembourg champion attacked successfully last year.
This time though, Gilbert was on his wheel in a flash, and the pair soon blazed past Tankink, before Alberto Contador (Astana) joined them, only for Evans to bring the chasing group back to the front.
Vinokourov then broke clear with 16 kilometres remaining, swiftly followed by Kolobnev. Gilbert and Valverde responded, albeit late, and were immediately joined by a strong-looking Evans once again.
The Russian-Kazakh duo out front extended their lead out to half a minute on the chasing trio, with the peloton slipping to over a minute adrift.
The Cote de Saint-Nicolas provided Andy Schleck with his chance to break clear from the pack and haul himself back into the reckoning, though a superb attack from GIlbert up the road left Evans first and then Valverde for dead, and marked him out as the one man who had any chance of catching the lead duo.
Kolobnev and Vinokourov shared the work well out front, however, while the chasing Gilbert began to fade as they entered the final three kilometres.
Perhaps wary of his rival's sprint, Vinokourov went for home a full 500 metres out on the climb to the rue Jean Jaures, and gradually pulled clear. By the time they took the final left turn to the home straight, Kolobnev's head was already down, and Vinokourov celebrated a victory that is likely to be greeted with mixed feelings as well as admiration for a genuinely impressive ride.