(Yes, I am aware Reagan was not sworn in until 20 Jan 1981. I don’t care. Riders born after 1/1/80 are herein described as “Reagan Babies”.)
Perhaps there will be no image more representative of the 2006 classics season than that provided by Alejandro Valverde and Paolo Bettini in the closing meters of today’s Liege-Bastogne -Liege: the young Spaniard, sprinting to victory in this long, hilly classic with a Cipo’-sized gap, peering over his right shoulder just long enough to see the Italian drop his gold-covered head in disgust at being beaten soundly in a race he considered as good as won. Il Grillo, previously unbeatable in these small sprints, was perfectly positioned on Inbatible‘s wheel, but was never a threat to come by him in the closing meters. For those keeping track at home, that’s all four of cycling’s five Monuments this season taken by riders born after 1980, and perhaps more significantly, the winner at each event has been different. Without question, the Reagan Babies have arrived.
Today’s Liege, though raced at a blistering 41.3kph, was not particularly aggressive, as most of the favorites seemed content to let a rider or two float off the front while favoites CSC and Liberty Seguros rode tempo, those two teams having apparently forgetten the miserable failure of Liquigas and Rabobank to make this strategy pay off earlier in the week. Reagan Baby Philippe Gilbert of FdJ, egged on by hordes of rooster-waving Wallonians, gave the race its first few solid tugs at just over 40k to go, but Jens Voight turned himself inside out to keep the field together until La Redoute. As riders jostled for position on that climb, Damiano Cunego (yes, another Reagan Baby) found himself bounced off onto the two feet of grass between pavement and barriers, and decided he’d better thin out the herd with an attack. The end result was a field split, with the all favorites on the happy end of it, and a bunch of Quick.Step second-tier guys on the other.
Not wanting to wait around for Bettini’s thugs to catch up, Caisse d’Epargne sent Joaquin Rodriguez (b. 1979) up the road. Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd, sensing the “wait-and-see” attitude in the field, bridged up, and together they amassed a 42-second gap. Becoming suddenly urgent, Bettini threw down the Mother of All Attacks and dropped everyone, including Valverde, who had tried hard to follow. But as The Cricket cleared the top of a small hill, he stopped pedaling. Though no one behind him really put watts to pedal in a chase (Reagan Baby Thomas Dekker might have been working the hardest working rider in the race at this point , flailing and yelling at the 2nd camera moto to stop pacing the bunch behind), thanks to a long, wide descent down a superhighway, the first group came back together at the foot of the Cote St. Nick, some 15 seconds behind the breakaway.
The catch was odd, really, with most of the top riders, led by Martin Pedriguero, bridging up one by one. Somewhere in here, Vino’ got dropped. After the descent, CSC tried tossing out 1-2 attacks with Ivan Basso and Frank Schleck (Reagan Baby), but up the final climb in Ans, it became increasingly clear that this race would be settled on the final, flat 300 meter stretch. T-Mobile non-sprinter Patrick “Stinky” Sinkewitz (another Reagan Baby), hoping to place on position alone, led it out around the dramatic left-hand turn that caps the climb to Ans, with Valverde tucked in behind his wheel, and Bettini and Cunego strung along behind him. At 150m, Valverde jumped around the German to the right. Bettini tried to go with him, but was immediately gapped, and faded toward the line, lucky to have not been caught by Cunego, who took third. Sinkewitz just missed the podium in 4th, making his third top-five in a week.