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The men of the Ardennes

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

News from Movistar. Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, the men who will share leadership at the Tour de France, are about to enter the Spring Classics.
Ardennes Week begins with the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday when the attention of the cycling world will swing from cobbles to bergs. The squads who have been busy in Belgium and the French Nordiste since March will seek recuperation while their counterparts, so far engaged in little more than week-long stage races, will enter the one-day fray. What gives?
Ardennes Week, and here we must not overlook Wednesday’s Brabanste Pijl, is Spring’s climber-friendly counterpart to the Northern Classics; or perhaps, more specifically, the domain of the puncheur. If De Ronde and Roubaix, Harelbeke and Wevelgem, are the territory of the 1, then cycling’s lighter, but no less aggressive set, find a home on the relentlessly hilly parcours of Limburg and the Ardennes. In the case of Lotto-Soudal, for example, this means that Jens Debuscherre and Andre Greipel stand down, and in will come Tony Gallopin and Jelle Vanendert. Jurgen Roelandts however, will do duty at Amstel, despite having led the team at De Ronde and Roubaix.
He is an example of a handful of riders for whom riding the Spring Classics means exactly that: the cobbles and the bergs. BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet is the most prominent example: a rider who finished third at both cobbled Monuments – De Ronde and Roubaix – and who will roll out again on Sunday for the Amstel Gold Race, even if he is likely to ride in support of team-mate and defending champion Philippe Gilbert. Elsewhere, we find 142 spearheading IAM Cycling’s challenge in Limburg, and John Gadret (Movistar), variously former French cyclo-cross champion and mountain domestique, rolling out for Movistar; another, like Chavanel, last seen in action at Paris-Roubaix.

The ideal qualities for the success in the Ardennes lie somewhere between the 1 and the grimpeur, it seems. In the camp of the former we find Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE), proficient enough on the climbs to remain in contention on the Cipressa and Poggio, for example, and sprint to victory at Sanremo, and also defending champion at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. For the climbers, see the aforementioned Valverde, who won La Flèche Wallonne for a second time last year (see also the 2006 and 2008 editions of Liège), but also routinely contends for Grand Tour victories. To return to where we started, ‘Valve’ looks a much better bet for success in the Ardennes than Giro-winner Quintana.
So what makes an Ardennes Classic champion? Or a rider able to contest the cobbles as well as the bergs? Jon Sharples’ TrainSharp coaching business is highly respected, with a staff that has included in recent times both Sean Yates and Daniel Lloyd. Sharples believes that the Classics set will train for multiple peaks in form during the season, unlike their Grand Tour counterparts, who at this stage in the season are likely to be on what he describes as “a more progressive journey”.
The riders with serious ambitions for the Giro will show up at Ardennes Week in good shape, but don’t expect the likes of Rigoberto Uran to show up at his very best. This is one reason why the Grand Tour contenders, with the exception of specialists on uphill sprints like Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, are only fringe contenders in Spring.
Some crossover occurs – in physiological terms – between the Classics hardmen and the Grand Tour contenders. The differences are only subtle, Sharples says, but discernible when considered in absolute and relative terms. The one-day rider is likely to have exceptional absolute power (see any of the numerous examples of Gilbert winning on the Cauberg, for example), while the Grand Tour rider’s superiority will be found in relative terms. “Power to weight,” Sharples summarises.

He describes a “second aerobic threshold –Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and maximal aerobic power (MAP)”. Those able to post dizzying numbers in both categories tend to be the peloton’s most versatile, able to compete in the three-week races of summer, as well as in the Spring Classics.
“Peter Sagan, a rider with a MAP figure of 500+ watts, has shown time and time again he can perform in the Tour de France,” Sharples says. “Just last year, Vincenzo Nibali proved his abilities on the cobbles in a testing course that arguably suited the one-day specialists.” Sharples refers to Nibali’s race-changing ride to second place on the cobbled fifth stage of the 2014 Tour de France: one on which the Astana leader put two-and-a-half minutes into GC rival Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo); also worthy of note are Nibali’s efforts in recent editions of Milan-Sanremo and the 2012 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Positioning is key in the Spring Classics, whether cobbled or hilly, and leg strength is the key, Sharples believes: those sufficiently strong to fight for their place, whether it be on a steep berg or on the approach to a secteur, will find success. The Ardennes in particular are littered with what he describes as “power climbs” – those lasting between one and around six minutes.
“Being able to sustain a high power both into and out of the power climbs and cobbled sections is key. The higher a rider’s sustainable power, and the more efficient they are at holding this effort, the greater position they will be in – physically – when it comes to the section that require significant bursts of effort.”

All the leg strength in the world, however, is of little use without the mental resilience to survive the pounding of the cobbles or the leg-sapping bergs. The Northern Classics are routinely described as “brutal”, but for many of the riders the relentless demands of Liège-Bastogne-Liège exact a similar psychological toll. Surely, however, a three-week Grand Tour offers the ultimate test of mental resilience?
“Psychologically, both present demands that many people cannot even begin to comprehend,” Sharples says. He identifies pressure from a seemingly endless list of sources – sponsors, coaches, friends, family – as the principle drain on a rider’s mental reserves. The antidote, he suggests, is focus.  “When it comes to racing, the cyclist will be totally focussed on the target ahead and this is likely to carry them through the toughness of what they are about to endure.”
Toughness will be required by the truck load in the week ahead. Three of the biggest prizes in the sport will be offered within the space of seven days, and for a handful of riders, Ardennes Week will extend a one-day campaign opened at the beginning of March. The handful of 1s who remain in the peloton for the Ardennes will line-up alongside the Grand Tour contender with equal chance of success. It is the puncheur, however, who is likely to have the final say.

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