Turning the Page to the Second Chapter of the Ardennes Classics
The first of three Ardennes Classics went to former World Champ Philippe Gilbert on Sunday after he put the hammer down on his favorite hunting ground, the Cauberg. His uphill strike was so powerful that not even the likes of Alejandro Valverde or Michal Kwiatkowski could reel him in over the final flat 1.8 kilometers of the Amstel Gold Race. Jelle Vanendert made a valiant move past a chasing group for 2nd, and Simon Gerrans outsprinted Valverde and Kwiatkowski for 3rd. A possible bunch sprint was nullified by the power of the big favorites up front: the pack could not survive the impressive climbing skills of Gilbert and Co. on the Cauberg. Anyone who struggled on the Cauberg will have an even harder time on Wednesday, as the peloton takes on the mighty Mur de Huy at La Flèche Wallonne (which I am generally styling as La Fleche Wallonne because accented vowels and easy-to-write, searchable internet text are not great friends).
At 199 kilometers, La Fleche Wallonne is shorter than some of the other classics the peloton has taken on this season. That opens it up a bit to riders who don’t specialize as heavily in the overlong spring races. Still, the route is peppered with grueling ascents in rapid succession, including two trips up the Mur de Huy (1.3 km, 9.3% average grade) before the third and final ascent at the end the race. The group that makes it to the bottom of the final climb will be very much reduced by the day’s many challenges. Unlike the Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne has no 1.8 kilometer drag after its decisive climb. The Mur is also steeper than the Cauberg. This is a race that goes to explosive climbers, period. Last year’s Top 10 was a who’s who of ascending heavyweights (figuratively, as all of them are, of course, quite light of frame). Daniel Moreno was strongest on the day, with Sergio Henao, Carlos Betancur, and Daniel Martin hot on his heels. Purito, Valverde, and Mollema weren’t far behind. La Fleche Wallonne 2013 was decided in the final moments on the climb to the top of the Mur, and it’s hard to see a different script for 2014, though there will be some other riders playing the roles this time around. Before I name my top names, a note: as usual, I’ll be tweeting plenty of analysis live during the contest, so be sure to follow @VeloHuman for more real-time thoughts on the race!
Philippe Gilbert won the race in 2011 and podiumed in 2012. He seemed to have lost a bit of a form for 2013, but his victories at Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold this year have catapulted him back into the conversation. He played his cards just right at Amstel, exploding up the climb and then hanging on over a not insignificant distance. A crucial component in his victory was an attack from teammate Samuel Sanchez, who will join him again at La Fleche Wallonne, making BMC an even tougher opponent for the rest of the pack. Still, with such a brutal climb to close out the race, even Gilbert’s punchy legs will be put on the limit trying to hold off some Grand Tour talent. He will also no longer benefit from the hesitation that he’s gotten from his rivals in the past several month of reduced form; everyone knows Gilbert is back now.
Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde is another past winner of the race, and he will certainly be among the favorites to contend for this year’s La Fleche Wallonne. The bookies’ favorite for Amstel Gold finished 4th on the day after being unable to follow Gilbert on the final climb, though I do wonder if a part of his failure to cover the Belgian’s attack was indecision and hesitation, as he, Simon Gerrans, and Michal Kwiatkowski did not react immediately to the move on the Cauberg. He’ll get a chance at revenge on Wednesday. Without the injury question marks of some of the other big contenders, I imagine Valverde will occupy at least one of the spots on the podium for this race. Mountain goat teammates like Ion Izagirre and Benat Intxausti make his bid for victory a formidable one.
Were it not for the aforementioned health issues confusing things, there are three riders I might favor among Gilbert and Valverde; unfortunately, each comes with unknowns. First and foremost is Joaquim Rodriguez. Katusha has dominated this race in the past two years: Purito won in 2012, and Daniel Moreno won in 2013. Both riders are perfectly suited to the finish on the Mur de Huy, and more than capable of making it there without too much trouble. However, Rodriguez crashed out of yesterday’s Amstel Gold and was immediately taken to the hospital for further examination. Reports indicate that he did not suffer any serious injury, but there was also talk that he was a bit dizzy after going down. None of this inspires confidence. It doesn’t help that he is really targeting Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and next month’s Giro, and will probably be willing to take La Fleche Wallonne easy if he thinks it’s necessary for recovery. Were it not for the question marks, Purito’s form this year and his skillset might have made him my overall favorite, but as it stands, it’s hard to put that kind of confidence in him. His teammate Moreno, winner last year, may be a better choice, with a similar skillset and a proven ability to win the race. Moreno was 9th in Amstel yesterday and 3rd behind Contador and Quintana in the summit finish fourth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico this year, so he’s looking strong to defend his title here in 2014.
2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Daniel Martin is another would-be favorite with injury question marks. He pulled out of Amstel Gold early with knee pain. He has stated that he does not think it will be a lasting issue, but like Purito, Martin is targeting Liege and the Giro and he has a capable teammate (in Tom-Jelte Slagter) to take up the reigns if he decides to take it easy. Were his health not in question, La Fleche Wallonne’s finish would be ideal for the Irishman, who came in 4th last year (he missed a podium place by about half a centimeter), and probably would have done better had he not been somewhat out of position at the start of the final climb. Should Martin not be up for it, Garmin will turn turn to the hot hand in Slagter. He was disappointing at Amstel Gold, but the young rider might have a bit more left in the tank at the end of the shorter race on Wednesday. Ryder Hesjedal was not long ago one of the better Ardennes riders in the peloton and he’ll be in attendance as well.
AG2R’s Carlos Betancur is the other injury-bitten top rider in the race. He was 3rd here last year and he is on fire in 2014. Unfortunately, he’s also been suffering from a knee issue lately, and it’s very much unclear what his status is for La Fleche Wallonne. He did not contend at Amstel Gold, but he didn’t get dropped off the pace right away either. His tools (perfect for this race) and body of work put him among my top 10 riders in this race, as I think he’s quite capable of winning, but it’s hard to say whether he’ll be able to put all that ability to good use. Romain Bardet will be the other option for AG2R, and the way he’s been climbing this year, he could feature in the finale.
Michal Kwiatkowski of OPQS was 5th in the race last year. Given his blazing form in 2014, I’d imagine we’ll see him in the vanguard on the Mur again this year, but the do-it-all 23-year-old might find the finish line just a bit too steep for his liking. As versatile as he is, he may be looking to Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege as a prize more suited to his talents. Still, anything is possible for Kwiatkowski. OPQS has another strong card to play in Wout Poels, who has been climbing very well this year and could take a crack at the final ascent himself. Jan Bakelants makes another strong supporter.
Lampre’s three-pronged attack was unable to make much of a mark on the Amstel Gold Race, but I think they’re better suited to La Fleche Wallonne: Diego Ulissi is a star on these finishes, and his biggest weakness so far in his career has been long days in the saddle. Significantly shorter than its Ardennes brethren, La Fleche Wallonne is perfect for Ulissi, and he is targeting this race heavily. He came to the base of the Cauberg with the pack at Amstel Gold, which suggests to me that he is in shape and primed for success in a race more tailored to his talents. Teammate and World Champ Rui Costa could also give things a go. The Mur might be a bit too steep for his liking, but victory in this race requires perfect timing and Costa has one of the sharpest minds for strategy in the entire peloton. Damiano Cunego has a pair of podium performances in La Fleche Wallonne on his resume, but even with his surprise 2014 form I’m not sure he can hang with the best in the bunch anymore, especially not after an anonymous showing in an Amstel Gold Race that suited him better.
I had questions about Bauke Mollema‘s form coming into Amstel Gold, but his 7th place in that race answered them for me. La Fleche Wallonne puts the spotlight more squarely on the GC climber types, and Mollema has the kind of climbing legs to contend for Grand Tours. He also has a very strong finish and a very aggressive approach, which are key in this race, and they’ve given him back-to-back Top 10s here in the past. I would put Mollema among the best value bets for a podium in this race, just a few steps outside the spotlight but very capable of contending. Talented climbers Lars Petter Nordhaug and Laurens Ten Dam make a fine support squad. Tinkoff-Saxo’s Roman Kreuziger was unable to defend his Amstel Gold title, but like Mollema, he is a Grand Tour climber with a strong finish. Though he did not feature among the contenders, he was among the Top 20 on Sunday, and the vicious Mur de Huy gives him another chance at victory. Teammate Nicolas Roche is building up to the Giro and could also make a move.
Astana again brings their talent-packed squad to the startline; Enrico Gasparotto was their best placed finisher at Amstel, coming in 8th, but Jakob Fuglsang looked strong in a breakaway and Vincenzo Nibali came to the base of the Cauberg with the pack. Nibali was 8th in La Fleche Wallonne in 2012 and he has the uphill ability to land another top result. Fuglsang isn’t well-known for explosiveness but he’s certainly got the climber’s physique. The Mur might be too much for Gasparotto and Iglinskiy but they’ll be valuable teammates as well.
Lotto’s Jelle Vanendert suddenly roared back into relevance with a runner-up performance at Amstel Gold, where he chased heavier favorites up the Cauberg and sailed past many of them on his way to 2nd place. He has a pair of La Fleche Wallonne top 10s to his name as well, so he certainly deserves a look for Wednesday’s race. Teammate Tony Gallopin is another good climber and one-day rider, and Jurgen Van Den Broeck nabbed the final spot in the top 10 in 2012.
Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEdge won’t be riding this race (the finish is a bit too steep for him), so they send punchy Ivan Santaromita, 2012 runner-up Michael Albasini, aggressive Pieter Weening and Simon Clark, and Simon and Adam Yates to represent their interests. No favorites among them, but plenty of riders to animate the race. Trek’s Julian Arredondo has had an impressive start to the season and will like the finish. Andy Schleck crashed out of Amstel Gold, but he should make the start with brother Frank, who has shown signs of life in 2014. IAM Cycling’s Mathias Frank is a good climber who will be riding for his own interests for once. Giant-Shimano’s Tom Dumoulin and Warren Barguil will hope to make an impact. Sky’s best bets are probably Mikel Nieve and David Lopez. Europcar’s Pierre Rolland is still looking for success in 2014. Daniel Navarro of Cofidis is a strong climber with a decent supporting cast. They’ll all have their work cut out for them in a race with a finish that tends to weed out long shots, but a number of the contenders are facing injury concerns, which could open doors at La Fleche Wallonne 2014.
VeloHuman Top 10 Favorites
Winner: Philippe Gilbert
Podium: Alejandro Valverde, Daniel Moreno
Other Top Contenders: Joaquim Rodriguez, Diego Ulissi, Bauke Mollema, Vincenzo Nibali, Michal Kwiatkowski, Carlos Betancur, Daniel Martin
Remember to follow @VeloHuman for more race-day thoughts, and come back soon for the Liege-Bastogne-Liege preview!
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