Alexandr Kolobnev likes to call himself the “sniper” because of his ability to take aim at some of cycling’s most important one-day races.
The brawny Russian from Katusha almost bagged his biggest trophy ever in Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège only to lose steam in the final half-kilometer and settle for a well-deserved second place behind Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov.
Kolobnev was the only rider who could chase down Vinokourov when he attacked with about 16km to go on false flats after the main leaders were catching their breath following the assault up the Roche aux Faucons.
“I went on intuition because it was a good moment just after the group came back together on the Roche aux Faucons. I saw Vinokourov go and if you let him get 10 seconds, there’s no bringing him back,” Kolobnev said Sunday. “It was a good tactic because Vinokourov had (Alberto) Contador behind and I had (Joaquin) Rodríguez, so we had nothing to lose.”
And everything to gain. When Kolobnev muscled out to join Vinokourov, the pair quickly started to collaborate without having to say a word.
“We each did hard pulls because we knew that was our only chance of making it to Ans alive,” Kolobnev said. “Even on the final climb up Saint-Nicolas, we knew if we started to play games we would be caught. When we heard that (Philippe) Gilbert was coming from behind, we went even harder. He was the ideal breakaway partner, until the final 500 meters.”
That’s just about when Vinokourov surged ahead to drop Kolobnev, who was starting to struggle on the upper reaches of Saint-Nicolas. Vino powered away on the climb and hit the final left-hander with 200 meters to go with a five-second gap and victory in the bag.
“When he attacked, I just couldn’t respond. The effort from the long race and the breakaway just left me empty,” he said. “To finish on the podium with riders such as Vinokourov and (Alejandro) Valverde, who both have won this race, makes me even prouder. I am very satisfied with the podium in a race as important as Liège.”
Kolobnev expressed satisfaction with his run through Ardennes week. At Amstel Gold Race, he rode alone to the base of the Cauberg while at Flèche Wallonne he was instrumental in helping teammate Rodríguez finish second to Cadel Evans (BMC).
Kolobnev said his move to Katusha after riding three seasons with Saxo Bank opened up new opportunities for him in the Ardennes. With Bjarne Riis, Kolobnev was obliged to work for the Schleck brothers.
“I am very content on this team because they believe in me and they have given me more freedom,” he said. “I was in the middle of the action in all three races and had options for victory in the most important one, so I am very satisfied with my performance.”
Sunday’s ride at Liège on confirms Kolobnev’s growing reputation as a rider who delivers in major international competition. Last year in Lugano, he scored his second world championship medal in three years to go along with fourth place in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.
“They call me the sniper,” Kolobnev told VeloNews last fall. “You have one shot, then you have to wait 364 days until the next chance.”
The Russian will next prepare for what he hopes will be his Tour de France debut. He’s already participated in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, but the deep squads at Saxo Bank never left room for Kolobnev.
“This will be the first time I’ve raced in the Tour and I want to try to win a stage,” Kolobnev said. “I still haven’t had a chance to study the stages, but after a short break, I will start training hard to be good at Dauphiné Libéré and then arrive in the best possible conditions at the Tour.”
And then there’s the worlds, an event Kolobnev desperately wants to win.
“I haven’t seen the parcours yet for Australia. You never can tell. The worlds are always hard,” he said. “The sniper will be back.”