The World Cup bandwagon rolls into the hilly Ardennes region of southern Belgium for tomorrow's LiÃ¿ge-Bastogne-LiÃ¿ge classic, with locals hoping for a repeat of last season's home win.
The fourth of this season's 10 World Cup events, the 163 mile race, created in 1892, is the oldest of the classics and among the most scenic and most difficult events on the World Cup calendar. As the single-day race season develops, tomorrow's field looks wide open.
With last year's winner, Frank Vandenbroucke, missing the race because of health problems and focusing on the Tour de France, Belgian hopes are pinned on Johan Museeuw, second in the World Cup rankings and winner of last week's Paris-Roubaix race.
Other home-grown talent with the potential to catch the eye are Mario Aerts, the 26-year-old Lotto-Adecco rider, Farm Frites' Peter Van Petegem, currently fourth in the World Cup standings, and Axel Merckx, 27, who finished a strong 10th in Wednesday's Fleche-Wallonne race.
With a total of 61 wins, but only three since 1990, Belgians are increasingly looking to the young Merckx, part of Museeuw's Mapei-Quick Step team, to rekindle the glory days of his father.
Eddy Merckx won the LiÃ¿ge-Bastogne-LiÃ¿ge a record five times between 1969 and 1975. Only the Italian Moreno Argentin has come close to that with a hat-trick of wins from 1985 to 1987 and a fourth victory in 1991.
Merckx Jnr senses his time may be coming as his confidence and race discipline improve. "I have been too passive before. I've been wary of attacking because I've been scared of falling back again. This season, I'm being more instinctive and looking to attack. If I feel good, I'll go for it," he said.
His father Eddy agrees. "He was brave in attacking in the FlÃªche-Wallonne and I reckon he'll do the same in the LiÃ¿ge-Bastogne-LiÃ¿ge race which suits him better with its long, but less steep, climbs. It's perfect for Axel," he said.
Merckx and Museeuw are good friends and room-mates in a LiÃ¿ge hotel, so it should be interesting to see how the pair compete against one another when the race gets underway.
Belgians apart, the keyriders likely to be in at the death include the Italian Francesco Casagrande, of the Vini Caldirola team, who stormed to victory in the FlÃªche-Wallonne and who is looking to be only the fifth rider to complete that famous double.
Other riders to watch include the Dutchmen, Michael Boogerd and Maarten Den Bakker, second and third respectively in this race last year. The former world champion, Oscar Camenzind, the 1999 Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong, and France's Laurent Jalabert, who has finished in the top four in the LiÃ¿ge-Bastogne-LiÃ¿ge in each of the last three years, should all be challenging for honours as well.
Germany's Erik Zabel leads the World Cup with 190 points after three events. Museeuw is second with 111, one point ahead of his fellow Belgian Andre Tchmil.Reuse content