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.