Intriguing tactics at Amstel Gold Race
As this will only be the second edition of Amstel Gold since a radical route change removed the Cauberg from its finale, it’s difficult to know how the race is likely to play out.
Similarly, as this will be only the second women’s edition of Amstel Gold since its return last year, no pattern has yet been established as to how that race unfolds.
Last year’s change in the men’s race seemed to have a huge impact on how it played out, with the decisive selection being made on the Kruisberg a whole 40km from the finish, in stark contrast to the scenario we’d grown used to of the favourites holding back until the end to make their move.
A similar thing happened the last time the route was revamped in 2013, when a new finish line a few kilometres beyond its former place at the top of the Cauberg prompted a long-range attack from Roman Kreuziger to win the race. However, the following editions reverted to type somewhat, with riders again waiting until the Cauberg.
Will this year’s edition therefore also revert back to conservative racing? Given how exciting both the men’s and women’s races were last year, let’s hope not.
The Mur de Huy
Whereas Amstel Gold has undergone great changes recently, La Flèche Wallonne remains the same as ever. A few hills are added here and there, but everything inevitably boils down to a bunch sprint on the Mur de Huy, the super-steep climb on which the finish line is located.
Unlike the new Amstel Gold route, then, that requires ingenuity as to how to win the race in new circumstances, Flèche Wallonne is a Classic that rewards riders who can perfect the already established way of winning.
That’s why Alejandro Valverde, who by now knows exactly how to pace the perfect sprint up the Mur de Huy, has managed to win four editions in a row riding exactly the same way.
The women’s Flèche Wallonne is a little less formulaic. Despite also finishing atop the Mur de Huy, selections have tended recently to form much earlier, to the extent that you have to go back to 2014 for the last time the key move was made on the finishing climb.
It does share one thing in common, however - a regular winner. Anna van der Breggen, whose three consecutive wins is just one short of Valverde’s run.
The last Liège-Bastogne-Liège in its current format?
The third and final Ardennes Classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, is the most heralded, difficult and oldest of the lot.
Like all of cycling’s most enduring races, it is a balance of both tradition and innovation - a race doesn’t grow to become as old as this without being able to adapt, and elements we associate with being traditional, like the climb of La Redoute, were once innovations.
The introduction of an inaugural women’s race last year was another welcome change, that ensures the race maintains its relevance.
If reports are to be believed, another innovation could be made next year with the finish line moving back to the centre of Liège, meaning this could be the last of 27 successive editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège to finish in the suburb of Ans.
With this change on the horizon, riders who are ideally suited to the current draggy uphill finishing run-in - such as explosive punchy sprinters like Valverde and Julian Alaphilippe - will be especially keen to win the Monument while the advantage remains in their favour.
Whoever wins, it could be the end of a significant era in the race’s long history.
Can anyone stop Valverde?
As he has grown older, Valverde has looked increasingly unbeatable in the Ardennes, winning two of the last three editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and four consecutive Flèche Wallonne titles. His scintillating form in 2018 suggests that he will once again be the man everyone must attempt to beat.
But who is capable of doing so? With a rapid uphill acceleration capable of matching Valverde in a finishing sprint, Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) has appeared to be the man in waiting for a few years, and his form to win two stages at the Tour of the Basque Country recently suggests his time may have come.
Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski has foregone other potential early season targets to prioritise the Ardennes races, and, if at his best, is more than capable of winning any of the races having previously taken a podium spot in each.
Dan Martin (UAE Emirates) has a similarly impressive track record here, having won Liège-Bastogne-Liège back in 2013 and finished on the podium at Flèche Wallonne multiple times, but hasn’t shown much form this year.
Although these riders will be expected to perform well in all three races, others will specialist in just one or two.
Amstel Gold, for instance, will welcome plenty of riders who animated the cobbled Classics, such as Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and four-time winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors).
And many riders more known for their stage racing exploits than Classics riding target Liège-Bastogne-Liège, such as Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Can anyone stop Van der Breggen?
Last year’s women’s Ardennes Classics produced the odd result of the same three riders finishing on the podium in the same order.
It was indicative of just how difficult and selective each race was - brute strength rather than tactical subtlety was what shaped the races, and Van der Breggen was the strongest of all, followed by Lizzie Deignan, followed by Kasia Niewiadoma.
So strong was Van der Breggen, who won all three races with powerful solo attacks, that even the absence of her pregnant team-mate Deignan for this campaign does little to offer hope to her rivals.
They include Niewiadoma, who, now a year more mature and with a spectacular win at Trofeo Alfredo Bina under her belt this season, should push the Dutchwoman closer.
Also Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), who has come into great form heading into the Ardennes and is one of the few riders capable of at least competing with Van der Breggen’s powerful attacks.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) hasn’t been on such great form as late but is capable of winning if she can return to her best, while South African Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo-Bigla) is in the reverse position of being on very good form, but without the past pedigree of winning races at prestigious as these.
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