First, a housekeeping note: the blogosphere is collectively turning on "extended text" as a needless distraction for any post shorter than War and Peace. I'd say it's worth putting, say, Clydesdale's Virtual DS Rider Rankings in extended text, but that might be about it.
Today's offseason winter musings turn to the latter half of April. Supposedly the Ardennes season starts at the Brussels airport, day after Paris-Roubaix, where you can see all the big power studs leaving for vacation and a smaller but scarcely less powerful breed of rider arriving to do battle. Amstel Gold-La Fleche-Liege week is for the climbers, at a minimum, and especially the climbers who can sprint.
In truth, Amstel-Fleche-Liege week is open to all sorts of riders, not just the skinny climbers of grand tour fame. If anything, the sharp distinction between these races and Flanders-Roubaix week isn't so much that Tom Boonen can't win in the Ardennes, but rather, David Rebellin can't win on the cobbles. These are the classics for the guys who can't win on the cobbles... but who can hump it up a 20 percent slope. And since that list includes a number of the biggest names in Cycling, these races are just as much a battle royale as Flanders.
1. Frank Schleck
Surprise? Last year's win at Amstel showed that he has the instincts of a classics rider to go along with all that talent. Could he outsprint Valverde head to head? Dunno...perhaps. But he gets the nod here for the favorite because of the top riders, he has the least incentive to guard his form for another day. He may not be the best, but he's the most certain to be heard from.
2. Alejandro Valverde
Best of the climbers-who-can-sprint. Hell, maybe the best cyclist anywhere. He could make a career of feasting on hilly classics, with his pure class and blazing finish. But I sense he's evolving into a grand tour specialist, with eyes on the Tour... which means he'll hardly be seen before, say, the Dauphine. Eventually. This year, he'll be back to defend in the Ardennes one more time, at least nominally.
3. Damiano Cunego
Next of the climbers-who-can-sprint, the Kid could also be a phenomenal classics rider. Will he? His form should be coming around in prep for the Giro, and if he makes the finale of any Ardennes race, he'll be a good bet. My hunch is he'll give it a real go once.
4. Paolo Bettini
Could be much higher on this list. When's the last time he lost a race? And like Cunego and Valverde, his style is perfect for these races... he was the climber-who-can-sprint long before these kids showed up. But a win at Flanders would move him ahead of his old friend Michele Bartoli as a giant of the Monuments; right now they've each won three of the Big Five, with Bartoli having missed on Milan-San Remo, Bettini on Flanders, and both on Paris-Roubaix. This seems like a key to Bettini's motivation for Flanders this year, and you can't blame him. But what it means is that he might not be all that interested in his third Liege win, or in a title at Amstel or La Fleche. Then again, Bettini is one of those guys who seems to hold his form for months on end. If he doesn't win Flanders, look for him to be ready to pounce at Amstel or Liege.
5. Sammy Sanchez
Fits my bias for young, developing studs. Plus he's yet another climber-who-can-sprint. Seems like I can cut-and-paste this and the Cobbles articles into a pretty good case as to why we're entering a golden age of Cycling... how many more brilliant twentysomethings can the sport take? Second at La Fleche last year, and 15th at both Liege and Amstel. And his year was really just getting started.
6. Patrik Sinkewitz
Fifth, fifth and fourth in the three Ardennes races last year. How's that for consistency? Only Schleck (1st, 4th, 7th) was more visible that week. But I wouldn't take Sinkewitz head to head against anyone higher on this list. And with T-Mobile searching for a Tour leader, he might be holding back more this year.
Best of the Rest
- The Past Winners
Danilo DiLuca has a lot of face-saving to do after last year's dentally-impaired debacle. But he still thinks he can win the Giro. Learn much? Davide Rebellin's sweep of the three Ardennes races is one of Cycling's greatest ever accomplishments -- I still remember my jaw dropping watching Liege -- but nobody thinks he can bring it like he used to, at 35. Igor Astarloa (La Fleche 2003) is returning from the wilderness and cannot be overlooked. Alexandre Vinokourov would be a favorite to repeat past successes (Amstel '04, Liege '05) if he weren't becoming rather Lance-like in his Tour focus.
- Don't Forget About:
Carlos Sastre, Vlad Karpets, Thomas Dekker, Michael Boogerd, Yaroslav Popovych, Ivan Basso, David Kopp, Cadel Evans, Andrey Kashechkin. And another dozen I've blithely overlooked, I'm sure.