Flèche Wallonne is the true start to the Ardennes races because Amstel Gold Race technically isn’t in the Ardennes, but you already knew that, didn’t you?
After the cobbled Classics there’s a waft of anti-climax gently floating on the spring breeze. A pang of nostalgia quickly sets in. Instagram’s #tbt is littered with photos of grimacing gladiators tackling iconic pavé sectors. So why don’t the Ardennes events strike a chord like their cobbled predecessors?
They are tough races: riders say that Liège-Bastogne-Liège (aka L-B-L) is the toughest one day race there is out there. And at 258.5km with 4,100m of climbing, the description on the L-B-L website denotes it as “hilly”, somehow undermining the sheer effort it takes to complete this race.
Look at Flèche Wallonne and this race still packs a punch at 198.5km with just under 3,000m of elevation. But really, the elephant in the room for these races is predictability: last year, Alejandro Valverde claimed his fourth straight win at Flèche and his fifth in total. With Señor Consistency also on the top podium step for two out of the last three years at Liège, it’s understandable why people feel a bit of a downer after the volatility of the Cobbled Classics. So, how do you beat Mr Ardennes himself?
Not many riders can transition from the cobbled Classics to the Ardennes and perform well. A reason for this is by the time the cobbles have come to an end, these stone specialists are feeling the strain from almost two months of rigourous racing. These guys are also usually heavier than those that excel at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège and with both races finishing on the punchy climbs of the Mur de Huy and at Ans, respectively, natural selection plays its part in ruling them out. But there are always exceptions: yep, we’re looking at you, Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert.
Contender No. 1: Dylan Teuns – BMC
How do you try and outfox the most cunning fox of them all? The young Belgian racer Dylan Teuns, who placed third at last year’s Flèche Wallonne, has admitted to relentlessly watching replays of Valverde’s successes on the Mur de Huy to try and understand how the Spaniard has so often managed to take the peloton by surprise.
Contender No. 2: Sergio Henao – Team Sky
Never to be overlooked even though he’s not graced the podium since 2013 in Fléche, Henao is always in the mix. And with a killer team that includes Egan Bernal and Wout Poels, Sky as always have the potential to be up there.
Contender No.3: Michal Kwiatkowski – Team Sky
Clocking up quite a few third places over the last few years in both Flèche and Liège, this master of attacks is always on the cusp of another big win. Team Sky have more than a few marginal gains when it comes to rider calibre to get the upper hand over Movistar this year.
Contender No. 4: Julian Alaphilippe – Quick-Step Floors
When we asked Quick-Step DS Brian Holm a few weeks ago how to beat the Spaniard, he’s convinced he knows how: “To stop him winning? I mean, we call Alaphilippe. He could be the man who could do it, otherwise it’s a bit difficult”.
But whilst we as viewers might tire of the Spanish veteran’s dominance, Holm speaks of him fondly: “With Valverde, somehow I think he’s a rider that everybody likes. I mean with him it seems like the whole bunch actually likes him. He’s got a good personality and at that age he still likes winning, it’s a piece of art.”
Contender No. 5: Dan Martin – Team United Arab Emirates
The Irishman has consistently been in Valverde’s shadow. He was runner-up to him in both Flèche and Liège last year and has pretty much finished on the podium for all but one of Valverde’s last four wins at Flèche. If anyone knows how to read Alejandro’s attacks, Dan should be the man.
Having won Liège in 2013, he tells us how he thought at the time it was going to be the first of many: “It possibly means more to me now than it did back then, now it’s had time to sink in. But obviously I think since then I realise how difficult it is to win Liège. When I was 26 years old I thought to myself, ah, I’ll probably be able to win it a couple more times in my career. Unfortunately it’s proven much more difficult.
“But it’s an incredible achievement to have won that race and it gives me confidence going into it every edition because every year I take the start as a favourite. It almost takes away a bit of the pressure.”
Contender No. 6: Tim Wellens – Lotto-Soudal
Whilst Wellens hasn’t managed a podium for either race before, he was victorious at Brabantse Pilj last Wednesday, which shows he’s obviously got the form to be a contender. The bookies have taken note and have him down at 11-1 for Liège.
Spice it up
As the organisers can’t officially stop Valverde from showing up as a way to scupper his dominance, they know they must do something to shake things up. The contract with Ans, which has hosted the finish of Liège for over the last quarter century, is due to expire this year. The rumour merry-go-round has been turning, suggesting we could see the finish relocate back to the centre of Liège in 2019, meaning it will be a flat run-in to the finish line. This removes the springboard effect of a hilltop finish that Valverde has notoriously used to launch his attacks year after year. Could this be the change that helps crack the monotony of the Ardennes Classics?
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