A week in the Ardennes
Now the cobbled classics are done, the world of cycling’s attention moves to the Ardennes. The Ardennes races are held across Holland and the Wallonian side of Belgium, and are typically fought for by classics riders and grand tour climbers. While the peloton’s diesel engines dominate the cobbled classics, it takes a far punchier rider to thrive in these races, as they involve actual roads, instead of shonky, cobbled paths that resemble someone’s driveway. Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are the big prizes, with warm-up race Brabantse Pijl being held in the week before.
While Paris Roubaix might be the most stressful day of the year, Amstel Gold probably comes as close as anything else. It’s not just the route, which includes a staggering 35 hills, but the roads - narrow, twisty, uneven and full of Dutch road furniture. The Dutch are like 70-year-old ladies on the TV show “Hoarders”: way too much furniture. Starting in Maastricht, the race travels to Valkenberg does three loops of the Limburgian hills with each lap getting shorter, and finishing back
The centrepiece of the course has been the Cauberg, a power climb that previously held the finish at the top. Exciting as the finish was, it made for a boring race until that point (Milan San Remo anyone?), as Philippe Gilbert usually won. They now skip the Cauberg on the final lap, so the last 6 km is flat, but it hasn’t really worried Gilbert, who won last year on the new course’s debut.
Last year was certainly one of the more memorable editions with the race getting feisty with still 40km to go, but that was possibly due to the horrendous winds and echelons rather than the pure genius of the organisers– we’ll see if the new course works wonders again this year.
Michael Kwiatkowski is a previous winner and podium place getter here, while Michael Matthews has been on the podium previously. Alejandro Valverde is usually in the mix too, but the race probably isn’t quite hard enough for him. There’s extra motivation for making the podium here; the race’s main sponsor, Amstel provides podium beers that usually make for a great photo.
If you’re a fan of ultra predictable racing with a climb at the end of the race that decides everything, fear not! They haven’t changed the course of Fleche Wallonne yet. At Fleche, all that really matters is the finishing climb the Mur de Huy; At 1300m metres and averaging 10% with a max of 28% at the top, it’s hell on wheels. To add to the predictableness of the race, Alejandro Valverde usually wins - he’s won the last four editions and will probably win again on Wednesday. If you’re that excited about the idea of an outsider, Dan Martin, Michael Albasini and Julian Alaphilippe ride well here usually.
The queen of the week is Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one of cycling’s Monuments. La Doyenne, the old lady, runs a figure-of-8 loop through Belgium, hardly taking in a bit of flat road all day while summiting eleven categorized climbs. The key climbs include the final trio of La Redoute (fun fact: Philippe Gilbert’s childhood house is on this climb), the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, and lastly the Côte de Saint-Nicolas. Like the rest of the race, these climbs are around a kilometre and a half, and around 8% with steeper pitches in the teens.
The hardest of the three races, Liege caters more to your proper classics riders and tour GC guys; Amstel’s course changes have made it slightly easier and it’s likely a rider like Michael Matthews will feature in the finish. Although he finished 4th at Liege last year, it’s generally been too hard for riders in his mould, and he rode superbly last year to be anywhere near the front. Valverde will be another strong favourite in this race, but he’ll be challenged by Julian Alaphilippe who’s been on an early season tear, and Dan Martin who was the race’s tough luck story a few years ago, crashing on the final corner whilst riding alone in first place.
The SSS will be debriefing both Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege on the podcast.
See you back at the social club,