Even with the dust barely settled, and mud barely washed off the brake calipers, the Ardennes week is upon us. Few are the contenders who could charismatically challenge both the cobbled and hilly classics in this 2-month block of spring classics. The hilly warriors had their traditional form-check at MSR, although the poor weather and resulting crashes that split the peloton in two put a dampener on many riders’ ambitions.
Last year’s hilly classics were at least perturbed by the explosion of Volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which grounded flights throughout Europe. Favorites such as Alejandro Valverde, Luis Leon Sanchez, and Carlos Sastre could barely make some of the later races. Scrambling for transportation, they were ill-prepared to race at top form.
In advance of these three races – Amstel Gold, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and la Fleche Wallone, let’s examine a few notable riders and teams as well as a few non-obvious contenders.
Vinokourov and Astana
Despite the loss of Alberto Contador, Astana lives on and has netted a few early wins including Remy Di Gregorio’s surprise stage victory in Paris-Nice. Their new recruit Roman Kreuziger is still getting up to speed, having left the over-crowded GC waiting room of Liquigas. Alexandre Vinokourov himself has netted a stage win in the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, with consistently good performance through out this traditional launching pad for the Ardennes contenders. It can be argued that his win in Liege last year was due to Contador’s excellent support, but Vino has proved that he is at least sufficiently classy to return the favor in the Tour last year. Can Vinokourov get lucky again this year, or will he fall into the hype trap without any teammates to put on the pressure on adversaries? A strong unexpected attack from the likes of Di Gregorio or Kreuziger may last the distance to the finish.
Contador and Saxo Bank
It appears that Contador has shed the burden of his doping allegation quite well, and the fingerbang is once more a common feature of Spanish races. Last year Contador was more than happy to “trade” Liege for Vinokourov’s loyalty, but this year’s Saxo Bank looks like a team with no other leader.
The Schlecks and Leopard-Trek
It’s hard to imagine that only a few seasons ago all eyes were on Frank, Andy still being grown in a secret young guns’ factory of Cyrille Guimard in disguised as Velo Club Lille-Metropole. Frank burst into the scene in 2006 with a convincing win in Amstel Gold, and a prestigious win in the Alpe d’Huez stage. After this year’s stomping of Criterium International, however, he was criticized for his Camelback antics, and his performance in the Vuelta last year was lackluster without Andy’s support.
Andy’s peak seems to be arriving a little late for the Ardennes, and clearly he can’t be blamed for going after that long race in the middle of July. In the past he has proven that he can reach good performance relatively quickly, like he did in 2009 in Liege without much of a preparation.
Gilbert and OmegaPharma-Lotto
Perhaps the only rider to really win on the cobbles and hills of the spring classics, Philippe Gilbert continues to be beset with having to fight with a weaker team than others. In the past his peaks have come two weeks late: targeting de Ronde but winning Amstel, then targeting Worlds but winning Lombardia instead. This year, it’s hard to ascertain whether he has reached his peak yet. His early win in Siena’s L’Eroica against the likes of Ballan and Cunego was convincing, as was his strong attack on the Bosberg in de Ronde. His more recent win in Brabantse Pijl is a good sign, however. It should be acknowledged however, that OmegaPharma-Lotto has lost a few key helpers such as Greg Van Avermaet, Leif Hoste, Charlie Wegelius, and Staf Scheirlinckx. Jurgen Van den Broeck may have a few cards to play if he decides to invest in the spring classics, and Mario Aerts is a reliable supporter even if his winning ways may be behind him. Gilbert’s shown himself to be capable winning without strong help, but he may need help in order to win some of the most prestigious races on the calendar.
Evans and BMC
Last year’s Fleche was a significant boost in morale for Cadel Evans, slaying Contador with apparent efficiency and ease on the Huy – all that while wearing the rainbow jersey, and after stating that he had given up on the spring classics. Ominously, he has a win in Tirreno this year already. He will be a marked man, unlike last year or previous years when he was castigated by other riders for slowing the chase on the descent of Lombardia. He’s further strengthened by BMC, who’s demonstrated throughout the spring that they’re finally racing as a team and are capable of some big wins.
Cunego, Scarponi and Lampre
The arrival of Michele Scarponi may be a blessing in disguise for the Little Prince Damiano Cunego. The previous season was his first winless season, although he must have had excellent Lactate Threshold workouts by being in every breakaway at the Giro and Tour. Doubts of his performance was such that Bettini didn’t call him to the national team despite his offer to be an assistant rider, and he skipped Lombardia.
Cunego opened his winning account early this year, with a stage in Sardegna and one in dell’Appennino, and it even appeared he had a lot of fun team-tagging with Scarponi in Sardegna. If anything else, Cunego seems invigorated and even more unafraid to lose as he continuous his trajectory to becoming a full-on classics contender. A third Lombardia will equal the current record, even if it is still just beyond the horizon. As an Italian, he’d love to win Liege someday, his previous strongest showing just behind Valverde in 2006. A bout of ear infection forced him to quit Vasco early, just before his win in Appennino.
Scarponi was Italy’s hero in Milano-Sanremo this year, with multiple attacks and a never-say-die bridging up to get back to contention in the finale – perhaps the most impressive performance of the race. The shadow of his previous doping suspension will always and it is interesting to imagine the dynamic between Cunego and his “I am dope free” tattoo and Scarponi’s past as Saiz’s right-hand lieutenant on the road. His form appears to be rising, with wins in Sardegna and Tirreno just leading up to MSR. He may be off the radar for most, except for a 2nd place finish and 2nd place in the GC in Catalunya. Consistency may be the best buildup after all.
Both Cunego and Scarponi seem to know how to support other riders, at least when the stakes aren’t too high, and having a heavy-hitter as support may be the key to the big win that has alluded both of them recently.
Basso and Liquigas
Finally proving his worth and claiming the GC throne at Liquigas, Ivan Basso as perhaps followed the opposite trajectory of Cunego. In 2002-2003 he was a legitimate contender in Liege and Lombardia, assisting Michele Bartoli with his double win in the latter. This year he has won GP Lugano, but had to quit Vasco due to an unspecified illness that he had had since Tirreno.
Having come up completely empty on the cobbles despite Daniel Oss and Peter Sagan’s rising forms, they may yet capitalize on Sagan’s potential. He has proved himself in Sardegna that he can more than keep up with Cunego on a good day, and those days are not as few as Cunego may prefer. Sagan may have been hyped in Gent-Wevelgem in 2009, but last year he won many hilly races including in Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, and even the Tour of California’s Big Bear Lake stage.
Each time a Katusha rider wins, a helicopter is blown off the sky in the Caucasus, or something like that. This team may not weigh heavily in the minds of English-speaking cycling fans, but they have invested in many heavy hitters in the past few years. Even discounting Filipo Pozzato’s non-delivery of results, the team boasts Serguei Ivanov, Alexandr Kolobnev, Luca Paolini, and Joaquin Rodríguez. Paolini was the key helper in many of Bettini’s victories, ever ready to neutralize an attack or set the leader up for an attack. Kolobnev’s specialization in silver medals means that he has the legs to at least be present in the finale, and Rodriguez has proven to be a strong finisher, having earned his wage at Caisse d’Epargne as Valverde’s key domestique.
Sanchez and the Orange Crush
Always the bridesmaid, Samuel Sanchez’ strongest asset is perhaps his mad descending skillz. His worst baggages, are his team’s consistent inability to support him in the finale, and their inability to stay upright. While Sanchez’s potential to be a winner is undeniable, we can’t remember the last time we saw him with a teammate in the last 50 km of any race.
Outside Contenders and the French
French riders and teams are at the cusp of a resurgence. Sylvain Chavanel, Steve Chainel, Thomas Voeckler, Joann Offredo, Di Gregorio, and even ever-green Frederic Guesdon show that they are a presence to contend with, at least in the final 50 km. Surprisingly, several French teams such as Europcar and FdJ have learned to ride more aggressively and tactically. Chavanel’s form certainly is impressive, but he will not have a strong team and it is unknown the impact of his crashes in Paris-Roubaix. In the past few seasons he tends to plan two peaks: one building from Paris-Nice to peak at the cobbled classics, and another one in his home tour in July. It is unknown what his personal ambition is. This year it can be argued that the start of his early peak was delayed, so he may have some reserves yet, both mentally and physically. On the other hand, Voeckler seems to peak only once per year, and there is no way to tell when exactly this will happen. In 2009 it was earlier in the season, in 2010 it was in late fall, and in 2011 it appears that he may have exhausted his reserves.
In the past, Unzue’s Caisse d’Epargne / Movistar team was a constant presence in the hilly classics, backing their star Valverde. Even in the absence of Valverde, the team has shown that they can win at least a few minor races. They are the best-drilled and best-led Spanish team today, and they have a few riders who can contend for the top races given good timing and some good luck. Vasili Kiryienka is a consistent performer who can benefit from a very controlled Amstel or Liege. David Arroyo has been instrumental in Valverde’s wins but almost never a winner. David Lopez and Xavier Tondo have rising form, with the latter at least used to earning podium appearances.
Analysis and Bets
Just like their cobbled sisters, the last few years have seen romps of certain riders through the 2-week block that is the Ardennes classics. A combination of strength, team support, and luck is absolutely necessary. For this , I tip my helmet at Astana, Movistar, Lampre and Katusha to be the dominant teams. Their roster and the form of their riders strongly suggest that they’ll have more than one rider in the finale of the races. Unlike their cobbled sisters – where the hype of Cancellara was so strong that everybody marked him – there is no obvious favorite for the hilly classics. I predict controlled races as usual in the hilly classics, unlike the “strange” outcomes of many of the cobbled races due to the relative weakness of Quick.Step and Leopard-Trek compared to previous years. The big powerful teams for hilly classics are still there and for the most parts have managed to keep their roster replenished, excepting the wholesale move from Saxo to Leopard-Trek. Thus, I don’t see Vinokourov being able to pull off another Liege win as he will be well-marked.
It’s been a very long time since la Fleche was won by a breakaway, and this trend I see continuing barring weather-related calamity. The sprint up the Mur de Huy is a very special effort requiring patience and self-confidence. Cadel Evans was a contender in the finale for years and years before he finally cracked it. Other consistent finishers include Rodriguez and Sanchez. For the win I tip Sanchez if he can keep his cool until the last false flat. His recent investment in grand tours certainly have bought him more durability on climbs, which should help him not get dropped just at the end of the final rise as has been the case the last few editions. Even without a team, the fast descent down towards the foot of the Mur de Huy favors re-grouping, very much in Sanchez’s favor to catch up and be the strongest uphill sprinter. While Rodriguez has consistently challenged for the win, he does not have the explosiveness to shed other riders off his wheel, and he’s not an especially tactical sprinter. Like Sanchez however, he has invested more in the grand tours, with a notable performance in last year’s Vuelta.
Amstel and Liege have both seen the number of contenders in the finale trending towards an increase. This means good news for strong late-attackers like Gilbert, Chavanel, Scarponi, Kolobnev, or even Voeckler. Having more than one strong leader will favor small sprint specialists like Cunego, who is my top bet for these two races.
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