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Reflections on the Ardennes Classics

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Photographs: James Startt

Ardennes Week has, in recent years, had something of the feeling of “after the Lord Mayor’s show”, following hot on the heels of thrilling encounters on the cobbles.
Compare and contrast last year’s Amstel Gold Race, for example, when Philippe Gilbert delivered an expected victory by attacking in the final two kilometres of a 260km race, with Niki Terpstra’s death-or-glory assault on Paris-Roubaix a week earlier.

A combination of factors narrowed the gap this season. The Northern Classics, robbed of star performers by the injury-enforced absence of its two modern day greats, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, lacked their usual exhilaration, with the possible exception of Gent-Wevelgem. The Ardennes Classics, by contrast, delivered more than their usual share of thrills, even if, as before, the decisive moments came within sight of the finish.
Reflections on the Amstel Gold Race, La Fléche Wallonne, and Liége-Bastogne-Liége follow: thoughts on Alejandro Valverde, the turnaround in fortunes of Etixx-QuickStep, the dethroning of the King of the Cauberg, a celebration of versatility in an era of specialisation, and the risk vs. reward calculation of those among the Grand Tour elite who venture onto the narrow roads of the Ardennes.

Alejandro the divisive continues to rule
Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde was unquestionably the top performer in the Ardennes: second at the Amstel Gold Race and the winner both of Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége (for a third time in each), Movistar’s evergreen leader continued a trend of being competitive from January to October.

The Spaniard remains a divisive figure, however. Despite serving a two-year suspension for his implication in the Operacion Puerto affair, Valverde’s consistent denials of wrongdoing leave the rider in limbo in the wider court of public opinion. One thing is certain: had Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) and not Valverde been first across the line at Fléche and Liége, the sport would be revelling in the emergence of a new champion, untainted by an era most observers agree has largely ended.

Back in Step
Much of the media focus on Etixx-QuickStep’s Northern Classics campaign centred on the enforced absence of the ageing Tom Boonen, and the squandering of numerical advantage through tactical blunders. The Ardennes ushered in a different narrative for the Belgian heavyweights, however: the triumph of youth and the salvage of commendable results form positions where success of any kind seemed a distant prospect. For this comparative turnaround in fortune, EQS has its 24-year-old world champion Michal Kwiatkowski and 22-year-old rising star Julian Alaphilippe to thank.

Kwiatkowski delivered in one of the more exciting editions of the Amstel Gold Race in recent years, wisely resisting a slugging match with Gilbert on the Cauberg, instead patiently waiting for the 2km run from the summit to the finish line to launch his own emphatic bid for victory; one that, ultimately, proved irresistible.
Alaphilippe, by contrast, took his chances when Kwiatkowski faltered. Having led his more accomplished team-mate to the foot of the Mur de Huy, the Frenchman received news on the radio that he would lead the team’s charge for victory at La Fléche Wallonne, rather than the world champion. Second to Valverde was hailed as a commendable result, but better things were to come. Sure, his finishing position at Liége was the same, and he was bettered again by Valverde, but Liége is a Monument, and to finish as runner-up at a Monument as a second-year pro is a fine achievement. Chapeau, Julian.
A Spring campaign that began with humiliation at Het Nieuwsblad turned out rather well for EQS in the Ardennes. While there is unquestionably something of lowered expectations for the Ardennes – second places for Terpstra and Stybar at the Ronde and Roubaix respectively were viewed as defeats, while Alaphilippe was justly commended – Kwiatkowski’s win at Amstel and the emergence of a new French hope represent more than mere face-saving.

Crashes are, regrettably, a feature of racing in the Ardennes, it seems. The narrow roads are unquestionably the deciding factor in whether the peloton remains upright or not, and while the riders survived the Amstel Gold Race comparatively unscathed, La Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége brought their fair share of casualites, with Chris Froome, Dan Martin (pictured), Simon Gerrans and Philippe Gilbert among those caught in the melee. Martin, in particular, seems no luckier than last season, where he followed a crash within sight of back-to-back victories at Liége by breaking his collarbone on the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia.

In Froome’s case in particular, the risk factor is intriguing. So prone to accident that he is nicknamed Crash, the Sky leader showed up at Fléche ostensibly to recce stage three of the Tour, but ended the day with a hole in his shorts and down a few layers of skin on his hip. Cycling’s increasing specialisation means that the GC rider now risks jeopardising a season for a race as established even as Fléche. It will be intriguing to see which of the Grand Tour set, if any, return there next year.

King of the Cauberg deposed
BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert is a rider, happily, who fails to divide opinion. This is a good thing. If you enjoy bike racing, the chances are you enjoy watching Gilbert. The living definition of the epithet puncheur, Gilbert races in the right way: aggressively, from the front, and with total commitment. The Cauberg has become his personal fiefdom in recent years: the launch pad for victory not only in three editions of the Amstel Gold Race but also to the rainbow jersey in 2012.

This year’s Amstel Gold Race, however, will force him, and BMC Racing, to rethink their strategy. The “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy deployed by him and his team this year failed to deliver. With the small exception of replacing Samuel Sanchez with the in-form Ben Hermans for the role “igniter of blue touch paper”, BMC Racing deployed an identical strategy to 2014. Sadly for them, Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) recognised the script and remained glued to Gilbert’s wheel all the way up the Cauberg. The aforementioned Kwiatkowski was smarter than either, delaying his effort until both were exhausted. Does this signify a permenant end to Gilbert’s reign as the King of the Cauberg? Unlikely, but he’ll need a new strategy to regain his crown.

The few
Just a handful of riders contest the Northern Classics and Ardennes Week. The sport’s increasing specialisation, mentioned above in connection with Froome, combined with ever expanding squads, means that most ProTeams send separate personnel to these very different races. Those able to contend for victory in both are rare indeed.

Take a bow, then, Zdenek Stybar, who raced at Liége-Bastogne-Liége, and Greg Van Avermaet, who might have won the Amstel Gold Race had he assisted Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang, rather than chase him down for Gilbert. Both riders fought for victory at Paris-Roubaix and on what might be described as a median parcours: the hilly, but rough surface of Strade Bianche. Their versatility makes them a considerable asset to their respective Etixx-QuickStep and BMC Racing squads and something of a throwback to an era where the strongest riders contested as many of the Classics as they thought they could win.

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