No cobbles but with significantly more hills, these Classics are for the lighter riders who have spent the Spring trying to avoid the cold or any road that isn’t hotmix. While the cobble specialists were readying themselves last week for Paris-Roubaix, those aiming for Ardennes success were fighting it out for the right to look the most ridiculous on a podium…nothing against the Basque hats, more so how they combine with a skinny man in lycra.
In part one of the Classics preview I mentioned that in the Pro ranks, it’s impossible to hide form. And there is no better way to really shake out the wheat from the chaff than a 6 day stage race through the Basque country (think Adelaide hills on steroids for the terrain) finishing with a time trail like this. So steep most riders changed to a road bike mid-way through.
How is this relevant you ask?
Well until this point Joaquim Rodiguez had been a relative spectator. Two third places in Tirreno-Adriatico, but nothing to suggest a great deal of form. Fast forward to the Tour of Basque Country and J-Rod even managed to TT so well that he kept the leaders jersey (fans of the riders will know Rodriguez time trials about as well as pigs fly.)
Now as if these races aren't already hard enough, there is even less time between them than the cobbled Classics. Amstel Gold kicks off proceedings this Sunday, la Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday and Liege-Bastogne-Liege the following Sunday. Not many riders do all three – except for Philippe Gilbert in 2011, when he made a mockery of the fields and won all three. Chances of that happening again are...
With that, here is my list of riders to keep an eye out for over the coming week:
Joaquim Rodriguez: as mentioned, ‘Purito’ time trialing well is as rare as a solid chocolate Kit Kat. He’s won Fleche Wallonne (2012) and been second in that and both other races. There’s not one that does not suit his punchy uphill sprint. That he’s clearly in form leaves the list rather slim as far as those who might out-sprint him.
Michal Kwiatkowski: not a surname you want to have to try and say three times fast after a few Amstel Golds, the World Champion has had the opposite start to 2015 to that of Rodriguez. Strong riding, an excellent Paris-Nice and no signs of the ‘curse of the Rainbow Bands’. Third in last year’s Amstel Gold and Liege, fifth in Fleche. In retrospect it was a sign of things to come. Even being heavily marked I expect the Polish rider to be a force over the course of the week.
Alejandro Valverde: fortunately his form isn't receding as quickly as his hairline. Even at 34, he’s both the defending Fleche Wallonne champion and still one of the only riders who can out-sprint Purito. Modest start to the year, but still showing enough to say he will be a factor.
Bauke Mollema: left for Trek Factory Racing with ambitions to be more of a protected rider and so far it’s been a great start to 2015 for the Dutchman. Even the crashing curse that seems to be plaguing Trek won’t be enough to stop Bauke (he hit the deck in the Basque Country Tour) and combined with the fact he won’t be a tightly marked rider could see a breakthrough win for the 28 year old.
Rui Costa: the 2013 world champion and in a team that I still struggle to know the direction they’re heading. Lost a lot of big names after last season and only just seen Diego Ulissi return from suspension. They will be working for Rui, who has had a quite reasonable season so far. But whether the team around him will be strong enough to support him is another question entirely.
Philippe Gilbert: fair to say we’re not likely to ever see Philippe repeat the incredible week in 2011 where he didn't just win all three races, he obliterated them. If I’d had a newborn due at that time then 100% I would have named him Philippe. The breath-taking attacking flair is still there and some seemingly pointless sprint classification point chasing in Paris-Nice looked like a rider testing his legs. Threepeat? No. Amstel Gold however has been his three times before. Phil loves the Cauberg (was also the point he attacked to win the 2012 World Championship) and regardless of the race finishing on top of it or 2 miles down the road, he’s a huge threat.
Dan Martin: if you somehow missed Simon Gerrans’ win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege last year then you would have missed the heartbreaking pedal clip by Martin as he rounded the final bend. Myself – and most other Aussies – maintain Gerro would have still won. But to drop yourself in that manner was truly train wreck viewing. Martin has quietly been building nicely towards avenging the mistake of last year.
Michael Matthews: climbs exceedingly well for a sprinter. That said, I can only see Amstel Gold being his chance for a result. Fleche Wallonne’s Mur de Huy is simply too steep for him and there’s too much climbing in Liege. However after all the misfortunes Orica have had with Gerrans, if Bling could snatch the Amstel win they’d surely say Ardennes Classics was a success.
What still remains to be seen is what the big teams of Tinfoff-Saxo and Astana do. Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru have shown very little and Rafal Majka I think is still on holiday in Oman. Not a single result of note for the winking 2014 Tour de France Polka Dot jersey winner. Neither team have owners who accept anything short of winning, so I expect both to approach these Classics with a lot of aggression.
The terrific crew SBS will be broadcasting all three races free-to-air and I’ll be tweeting live via my Twitter handle of @tinea_pedis . So stock up on sleep over the next few days and prepare for the final week of what’s been another top notch Spring Classics.