The Ardennes Classics are among the most predictable races on the men’s international calendar.
Despite taking place in rolling terrain ideal for attacking and ASO’s perennial attempts to spice them up, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège have become captive to their difficult uphill finales, on the Mur de Huy and at Ans, respectively.
Each of them is effectively an extended game of patience, almost inevitably won by Alejandro Valverde, who has the team, knowledge, climbing ability and sprint to ensure he is one of the strongest of favourites for any event all year.
The unveiling of the parcours for this year’s ‘Ardennes weekend’ hints at better races, with Flèche in particular benefiting from the addition of Liège regulars the Côte de la Vecquée and Côte de la Redoute in its opening half.
However, ASO’s latest bit of tinkering should ultimately change little, so get your money on Valverde now while his odds are reasonable.
While it seems unlikely that Flèche will move from what has become its iconic finish in Huy any time soon, the 104th edition of Liège will be the last to finish in Ans.
This anonymous and industrial suburb of Wallonia’s biggest city has hosted it since 1992, the line located alongside a hypermarket’s car park.
In 2019, though, La Doyenne, the oldest of the Monuments, will return to what was its traditional finish in the centre of Liège.
The precise location of the line has yet to be decided, but the one thing that can be said for sure is that it will be flat.
Many suspect, among them the route planners at ASO, that this will be the key to releasing the lock on the race’s finale, revitalising the importance of the historic climbs to the south of the city, such as the Haute Levée, the Stockeu and, notably, La Redoute.
Rising steeply out of Remouchamps alongside the E25 autoroute, La Redoute has played a crucial role in the race during the Ans years, the 1999 battle between Frank Vandenbroucke and Michele Bartoli being just one of the stand-outs.
More recently, though, it has become little more than a tough hurdle that must be negotiated, a large pack usually powering up to the memorial to the 1792 Franco-Austrian war near its summit and on towards the more decisive climbs very close to and up to the finish.
The flat finish should change this dynamic, tipping the balance away from pure climbers and towards the peloton’s puncheurs, including the likes of Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet – up to now Sagan has never ridden it and Van Avermaet’s best is seventh in four appearances. It should also favour new faces such as Frenchman Lilian Calmejane.
Rather than saving themselves for the last few hundred metres and in order to counter the threat posed by these riders, the specialist climbers, the Valverdes and Dan Martins, will have to commit further out, perhaps helped to do so by a double dose of La Redoute, which is a possibility.
Whoever wins, the return to Liège should revitalise a great event. The unrelentingly lumpy nature of the terrain will ensure that the strongest remain to the fore, but should require them to be a little stronger in the head than they’ve needed to be with Ans as their final destination.