Why do I still love the Ardennes? I know Paris-Roubaix is the best classic, I know Flanders is the second best and I’m quickly beginning to think Strade Bianche is the third. Nevertheless, I always look forward to the Ardennes week. Perhaps it’s due to the Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday structure we’ve seen organisers adopt in recent years. Maybe it’s because the trio of races have been won by some of my favourite riders (Dekker, Cunego, Schleck, Martin…). It’s most likely got something to do with the day I spent watching my first live Monument in the cold Liege rain. I’m smart enough to realise they haven’t been great in recent years, but not quite smart enough to adjust my expectations ahead of this year’s races. Here’s all my quick picks, rolled into one big post.
Amstel Gold Race
The big news when it comes to Limburg’s Amstel Gold Race is the removal of the final Cauberg ascent tackled in close proximity to the finish. Organizers are entitled to try something new – sometimes wonderful things happen – but I did enjoy the Cauberg finale. The change plays into the hands of the sprinters and a flatter finish is music to the ears of bookies favourite Michael Matthews. My preference of the fast finishes would be Sonny Colbrelli, who looked in the form of his life at Brabantse Pijl. However, I don’t expect things to go smoothly on this tweaked route and I fancy a couple of others.
The Winner – Enrico Gasparotto 22/1
It’s usually no fun picking defending champions – let alone ones who are two time race winners – but at 35 years old there would be some magic in Gasparotto pulling off yet another Amstel Gold victory. His two years at Wanty – Groupe Gobert felt like a retirement party but allowed the Italian to lead at his favourite races and he duly delivered. He had a terrific 2016 and was rewarded with a return to the World Tour. At 22/1 he provides plenty of value and has rounded into form in the recent weeks. He won’t be quick enough to beat the sprinters so he’ll need to be part of an elite selection at some point.
The Contender – Fabio Felline 25/1
Whilst Gasparotto will almost certainly end up in the top 20, there’s a realistic chance that Fabio Felline won’t finish (as was the case last year). However, I can’t see anybody on the Trek Segafredo team better suited to Amstel Gold and we know Felline has a fast finish. At 25/1 I was a little disappointed with his price but he still offers enough value to lure me in. I don’t think the bumps in the road will cause him too much trouble and he looked very good in Roubaix. Felline has been afforded a very free role at Trek and has shown just how multi-talented he is. Perhaps a podium at Amstel is the next step in his career.
In my opinion, the Mur de Huy is the hardest climb tackled over the eight days. It’s therefore no surprise that the super strong, explosive, Alejandro Valverde has taken the last three editions and heads the betting by some distance. The race always comes down to the Huy and this year will be no different. Laughing in the face of logic, I’ve gone for some outsiders.
The Winner – Michael Albasini 25/1
We know the versatile Swiss goes well at this time of year and he should be capable of giving Valverde something to think about. In order to beat the Spaniard, you need to either out-climb him in the final 25km (which nobody in the field looks capable of doing) or out-sprint him up the Huy; Albasini may just be able to do the latter. At 36 years old, he can count himself unlucky not to be a Monument winner having led a lurking Wout Poels into a race-winning gap in Liege last year. A stage win in Pais Vasco earlier this month suggests he has the legs to produce another serious Ardennes campaign.
The Contender – Romain Bardet 100/1
In a 1km, 9.5% gradient, race against Valverde, Bardet doesn’t stand a chance. But is he really a 100/1 shot? Ag2r have indicated they will be bring Bardet, Alexis Vulliermoz and Pierre Latour to the Ardennes races and the trio are too talented to not get involved at some point. Perhaps Bardet will be sent on the move on an earlier climb, softening the field up for a surprise Vuillermoz attack? The Tour de France runner up is a fine bike rider and has been inching towards a big result in a one day race. The Tour is four months away and there’s no reason for Bardet not to go full gas next week. He’s 33/1 for Liege, which makes his La Fleche price even more surprising. He followed Valverde home in Eibar on Stage 5 of Pais Vasco which was an encouraging result.
And now for the big one. Liege is a unique one day race in the sense that hard, short climbs are peppered right through the race. It’s often thought of as a race without any flat road and we’ve seen the last few editions play out as brutal slogs. The race will once again finish in Ans and there’s plenty of possible launch pads inside the final 20km if riders are in the mood to attack.
The Winner – Dan Martin 6/1
In this Purito-less world, Dan Martin has ended up as the greatest threat to Valverde’s domination of the Ardennes. He’s already had a cracking battle with him this year up La Molina and will start at Quick-Step’s main man following Julian Alaphilippe’s knee injury. Even if you don’t think Martin will beat Valverde, at 6/1 he is a far better price. Liege is a tactical affair and Movistar got it drastically wrong last season despite leading the peloton for most of the race. I’d like to see Quick-Step take control this year.
The Contender – Tim Wellens 25/1
Lotto Soudal’s Wellens has become somewhat of a favourite amongst punters due to his love of old school attacking. He doesn’t seem particularly tactical, favouring a ‘catch me if you can’ approach to winning races. It’s been relatively successful over the years and he jumped out at me yet again when browsing the Liege markets. To win he’ll have to escape the peloton; either alone or with a select few riders. He doesn’t have the speed to best many riders in a sprint and I’m hoping Lotto have a few tricks up their sleeve to help the Belgian pull off something special.
Look Out For – Ulissi, Lammertink and Lutsenko!
Can Diego Ulissi take a big win outside of Italy? I stopped myself from mentioning my favourite explosive Italian sooner because I can’t quite see him coming out top of the pile. He’ll be racing alongside teammate Rui Costa who is more proven in April but I still think he could take home a good set of results. La Fleche should suit him best.
I feel the need to mention two other riders. Maurtis Lammertink is 200/1 for Amstel Gold yet may end up Katusha’s highest placed rider. He’s my outsider of the week. The Ardennes opener is the most unpredictable of the three races and it feels wrong not to give an obligatory mention to Alexey Lutsenko. He can be found at 100/1 on Bet365.