With Liége-Batogne-Liége looming, it’s interesting to consider the likely protagonists’ recent displays of form in the Ardennes.
Some inference can be gained from placings. Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde will command a position among the favourites after winning La Fléche Wallonne on Wednesday and finishing second at the Amstel Gold Race, for example.
Better clues, however, might be found in the race data of the key riders. Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) publishes his numbers on the ride tracking service Strava and “Kwiato’s” performances on consecutive ascents of the Cauberg are particularly revealing of the physical and tactical demands of an Ardennes Classic.
This parcours of this year’s Amstel Gold Race included four ascents of its signature climb, and Strava’s “RaceShape” tool clearly illustrates the world champion’s increasing efforts on each pass. Unsurprisingly, Kwiatkowski saved his greatest effort until last, but it is the scale of the difference that is most revealing.
The Etixx leader’s final ascent of a 2.5km “segment” identified by Strava as “Cauberg (New Finish)” is significantly quicker than on the opening pass, where he was required to do little more than hold position.The data offers a clue also to Amstel’s gathering intensity. All three of Kwiatkowski’s subsequent ascents of the Cauberg are faster than the first, and by greater amounts each time. In short, the race gets faster and faster as it approaches its denouement.
The fatigue of racing for 255km seemingly has little effect on the world champion, a testament not only to his condition, but also to his superb positioning: Kwiatkowski spent almost the entirety of the race tucked behind the first line of riders, refusing to panic when chaperone Tony Martin went up the road to nullify a breakaway containing Italian champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), emerging from behind his mobile windbreak only to contest the finale.
The Pole shaved 22 seconds from the time of his first ascent on the second pass. By the time he reached the third ascent he was faster still, trimming 36 seconds from the time of the first climb. It is his final ascent, however, that is most revealing of a race that traditionally sees the peloton save its best for last. Kwiatkowski climbs the Cauberg some 1.23 faster than on his first ascent: a significant improvement in any terms, but especially impressive given the brevity and steepness of the climb, one that gains 142m within a kilometre.
The world champion is in imperious form. Winning Liége will be no easy task, with the aformentioned Valverde, twice a winner, among his most prominent rivals. Kwiatkowski’s performance at Amstel, however, speaks volumes about his prospects for La Doyenne. He has the result – and the numbers – to support a position among the pre-race favourites.