A new Amstel Gold finish
The 52nd edition of the Amstel Gold Race will be a very different one, with a revised finish that cuts out the usual fourth ascent of the race’s traditional final climb and most recognisable landmark of the race, the Cauberg.
Instead, it’s climbed for a third and final time at 18.8km from the finish, with the Geulhemmerberg and Bemelerberg promoted to being the last obstacles at 14.2km and 7.3km from the finish respectively.
These alterations make it difficult to predict who will win, and render several different scenarios possible.
The course as a whole is still defined by its challenging number of short, steep climbs – 35 in total, so resilient, tough Ardennes specialists who have gone well here in the past, like defending champion Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida) and three-time winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), could still win from a small selection.
But the flat finish brings into contention sprinters who can get over the climbs, such as Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), who were incidentally fifth, fourth and third respectively last year.
Conversely, the lack of an obvious launchpad late in the race may encourage more long-range attacks, which would play into the hands of aggressive riders like Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) – maybe even Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), if he’s not too exhausted from his efforts in the cobbled classics this spring.
The Mur de Huy
Prior to the climactic showdown on the Mur de Huy, there isn’t an awful lot to recommend on the route of the Fleche-Wallonne – although nine summits are peaked in total, every race in recent memory has boiled down to a sprint up the final climb.
That final sprint is always a spectacular one though, with usually a large group of riders all digging in for a slow motion slog up its 1300 metres of nearly 10-per-cent-averaging gradients, including a maximum of 25 per cent on a winding s-bend halfway up.
It is a tense affair, which is often decided first by who manages to work their way to the front of the peloton, and then by which of the strongest riders successfully manages to deny the instinct to attack too early – many in the past have been caught out by burning out before reaching the peak, and the winner tends to leave it as late as possible to make their move.
In the past three years that has been the experienced Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who is the overwhelming favourite to add a fourth title.
A slightly revised Liege-Bastogne-Liege
Although not to the same extent as Amstel Gold, there are subtle changes to this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege route too.
Two of the La Doyenne’s early climbs (Cote de Wanne and Cote de la Haute-Levee) have been replaced by a trio of new uphill obstacles – Cote de Pont, Cote de Bellevaux and, most difficult of all, the 1.2km-long, 12.1-per-cent averaging Cote de Ferme Libert.
The most significant change however is the removal of the Cote de la Rue Naniot, a short cobbled climb included last year between the finish line and the usual final climb of the Cote Saint-Nicolas. Its addition made the 2016 edition even more attritional than usual, and the winning move was made on it.
Without it, there may be less fear of going on longer-ranged attacks, although that remains a risky tactic on such a severe course.
A strong Sky squad
Sky may have finished their cobbled campaign without a longed-for win, but they look better equipped to achieve success in the Ardennes Classics.
Their two main weapons have been on great form this spring. Michal Kwiatkowski has already won Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, and is a specialist at the Ardennes Classics – he won the 2015 Amstel Gold, and skipped the Tour of Flanders in order to save himself for this week. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is his main goal.
Sergio Henao, meanwhile, starred on the climbs to win Paris-Nice, and should relish in particular the steep uphill finish of Fleche-Wallonne – a race he came second at in 2013.
The team would be even stronger if defending Liege-Bastogne-Liege champion Wout Poels were present, but he misses out due to a knee injury.
And an equally strong Quick-Step Floors
Quick-Step Floors don’t just dominate the cobbled classics these days – they’ve also got a similarly formidable squad for the Ardennes.
If Philippe Gilbert has anything like the form that saw him romp away to victory at the Tour of Flanders last week, he’ll be a huge threat in races that he tends to go better in than the cobbled classics – especially Amstel Gold, which he has won three times.
Dan Martin too will be a hot favourite for Fleche-Wallonne, which he has finished second, third and fourth at over the past four years, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, which he won in 2013 and may have done so again in 2015 were it not for a crash on the finishing straight.
Like Sky, however, they’ve suffered their own major injury loss, with Julian Alaphilippe having to pull out with a knee problem, just when it looked as though he was capable of making the step-up and winning his first ever Ardennes classic.
Alejandro Valverde on arguably career-best form
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has been on scintillating form all season, apparently improving with age to win a hat-trick of stage races at Volta a Catalunya, Tour of the Basque Country and Vuelta a Andalucia.
That’s an ominous sign heading into what is usually his most prosperous races of the year, the Ardennes Classics.
He’s certainly the hot favourite to add what would be a record-extending fifth Fleche-Wallonne title, and also looks like the man to beat at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a race he has already won three times.
New women’s races
For the first time ever, there will be a full set of women’s Ardennes Classics.
The Fleche Wallonne Feminine is already a firmly established spring fixture, with the Mur de Huy finish making it one of the most selective races in the season.
But Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are both new additions to the calendar, the former being re-introduced following a 14-year absence, and the latter being raced by the professional women’s peloton for the first ever time.
Boels-Dolmans’ Anna van der Breggen’s victories in the past two Fleche Wallonne editions, and her aptitude for tougher hilly one-day races, suggests she may be the rider to beat, while other on-form punchy climbers like Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) and Annemiek Van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) will also be dangerous.