Following John Degenkolb’s magnificent win at Paris-Roubaix the World Tour bid farewell to the cobbles and will soon return to Belgium for the next Monument. Liège-Bastogne-Liège takes place this Sunday but is preceded on Wednesday by the other Ardennes classic; La Fleche Wallonne. The two races, once held on consecutive days, offer hillier routes than the early spring classics and attract explosive climbers and those sometimes dubbed the ‘GC guys’.
The cobbled races are over for the season and both John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff have laid claims to being the World’s best. After his brilliant Roubaix win, where he bridged a gap to the escapees before delivering in the Velodrome, the former was given a suitable nickname by his team mate Roy Curvers on Twitter- John Degencobble. Most of the riders who rode Paris-Roubaix will now rest up for a week or so, before making preparations for the Grand Tours. Degenkolb himself should have eyes on a couple of stages and perhaps even a second points jersey win.
And so, with the Ardennes hills comes riders such as Alejandro Valverde, Daniel Martin, Rui Costa, Philippe Gilbert and Simon Gerrans. However, the winners are often hard to predict and races unfold in a variety of ways. Races which no teams control will bring aggressors into play such as Tom-Jelte Slagter and Tim Wellens (or, indeed, any member of the extremely active Lotto-Soudal team). If a group comes back together, a certain Australian named Michael Matthews may be the only sprinter interested- although this outcome seems highly unlikely in Liège.
Last Sunday the Amstel Gold Race took place in the southern region of the Netherlands named Limburg but the last Dutchman to win the race was Rabobank’s Erik Dekker in 2001. In recent years it has become the step-brother of the famous Ardennes double and now takes its place on the calendar at the start of the Ardennes week. Its hilly finish isn’t as testing as the races that follow but it’s an exciting race and worthy warm up for the climbers. Gilbert, a three time winner, broke away following a 1-2 attack with teammate Ben Hermans but was soon closed down by a defiant Matthews. Orica’s premier sprinter looked good for the win but the pair slowed and a large group of riders came back together. World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski, who had looked beaten on the climb, ghosted into a brilliant position and sprinted home for the win.
We should see similar action in tomorrow’s Fleche Wallonne and then again at Liège-Bastogne-Liège itself. The race is the oldest Monument establishing in 1892 as an amateur only event. Fleche Wallonne was inaugurated just prior to the Second World War and for a while threatened to be the more popular race. Many famous moments and historical races eventually cemented Liège as ‘the one to win’. The hard and hilly route is adored by the Walloon natives and Belgians monopolized the race until the start of the 1980s. Since then, Italians Moreno Argentin, Michele Bartoli and Paolo Bettini have been multiple winners as has Astana team boss Alexander Vinokourov. Argentin completed a Fleche/Liège double in 1991 and this feat was matched by Alejandro Valverde in 2006. However, scanning the list of winners one man stands out- Philippe Gilbert. Though he has just the one Liège win to his name (2011), it was the last of a fantastic seven day treble where he was also crowned the champion of both Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone. For a while, Gilbert looked like the future of the Ardennes and, though he has failed to deliver on his promise, is considered one to watch every year.
The week of classics gets gradually harder in terms of climbing and it’s the recognised climbers that usually go well. The exceptions are Gilbert and the equally as explosive Simon Gerrans- the 2014 defending champion. This year Valverde and Rodriguez look set to compete for the top spot but, despite dominating La Fleche, there’s been no Spanish winner since 2008. Irishman Martin looks to be rounding into good form and will look to profit if the pair miss out once again. Despite winning Amstel Gold, Kwiatkowski looked second best on the final climb showing the same mediocrity we saw on the hardest parts of Paris-Nice. For me, Martin will go toe-to-toe with the dangerous Spaniards but may lose out to Valverde. However, no rider will start a heavy favourite and it may just be a day for the chancers; Lotto-Soudal will bring a more than able team and they look capable of landing the Monument this time around. As for the others, Rui Costa went well when an overlooked fourth at Amstel Gold and certainly knows how to win big.