Am blogging from the Portland Airport, where the bike karma is decidedly... mixed. On the one hand, there's a display of local handmade frames, as if to suggest that bike-making is a tourist attraction. Also, the guy next to me in the cafe where I had dinner was describing Boonen's premature celebration at the Scheldeprijs to his traveling partner/spouse, who was doing a fine job of feigning interest. On the other hand, the wifi disconnected just as I'd finished this rather long post, and now I have to write it again. So I'm going to save it every ten seconds til I get on the flight. Here we go...
- Davide Rebellin Rating: ★★★★★
For the 65th consecutive spring, Rebellin remains hands-down the most reliable pick to do something in the Ardennes. He was second in the AGR last year, only because his teammate Schumi had disappeared up the road. He’s had the same preparation he always has, with the added benefit of actually winning Paris-Nice at long last. He’s got the climbing and closing speed. Good thing too, because Gerolsteiner have been invisible for a month.
- Stefan Schumacher Rating: ★★
Something about his late-night odyssey where he crashed his car and wandered around all night last fall made me actually like him… but he won Amstel last year with a Devolder move, a late attack enabled by the fact that everyone was standing around watching his teammate. No such luck this time.
- Vlad Gusev Rating: ★
So is Astana’s plan to load up on the Tour de Georgia? Makes sense given their Bruyneel-style stage race prowess, but it’s too bad they aren’t sending a real challenger to the Ardennes. Gusev is a great rider when healthy, which he maybe is now, but he can’t win here without a long solo. Not likely.
- Alexandre Botcharov Rating: ★
Good rider, pretty isolated. Top 20 maybe.
- Thomas Voeckler Rating: ★★
Voeckler has looked good this spring: 4th at E3 Prijs and winner last week at the Sarthe. I think he's been gradually raising his game over the last 12 months. Not enough to be taken too seriously as a threat here, but enough to move him from "irrelevant" to "keep an eye on him".
- Alejandro Valverde Rating: ★★★★★
Not much needs to be said here. He’s the prototype for the Ardennes. After last year’s slightly less fruitful campaign, he’s switched his approach by skipping Pais Vasco, presumably hoping fresher legs returns him to his 2006 levels and makes him a threat to sweep the entire week. He looks fast these days.
- Joaquim RodriguezRating: ★★★
His teammate Valverde represents Rodriguez’ biggest limitation. Probably not quite enough of a closer to win in a bunch, but a serious plan B/protagonist teammate, and a decent top-10 bet.
- Philippe Gilbert Rating: ★★
Of all the Ardennes races, Amstel Gold seems most accessible to the Cobbles guys, though just barely. Gilbert … I hesitate to rule him out of accomplishing virtually anuthing, if only because he’s definitely trying everything. He hasn’t done much here in the past, but not having burned a lot of matches at Paris-Roubaix means he’s still someone to watch.
- Damiano Cunego Rating: ★★★★★
What’s stunning is that this will be his first Amstel Gold, as far as I can tell; he typically doesn’t show up until Fleche or Liege. I’ve carried on and on about how he should focus more on exploiting his virtually ideal classics skills, on display last week with his stage win at Pais Vasco and sprint win against Valverde Sunday. Nice to see him finally listening to me.
- Leonardo Bertagnolli Rating: ★
Now that DiLuca has been cleared, what are the odds Liquigas have phoned his agent? 99%? 100? Anyway, Kreuziger might slot in here next year or so.
- Andriy Grivko Rating: ★
Milram… meh. I’ve started twice on a longer rant about what a waste of a team they are. Still, they might yet have a future plan…
- Peter Velits Rating: ★
His second AGR, but he’s basically a rookie. Still, the reigning U23 world champ has shown some prowess in the lower hills: a top 10 on a Pais Vasco stage and the Paris-Nice finale. So he may join the list of Ardennes aces sometime soon.
- Thomas Dekker Rating: ★★★★★
All else being equal, I wouldn’t expect him to beat Cunego or Valverde on the line, but it’s close enough where, if he’s strongest, he can win. His 3rd at Pais Vasco shows he’s well ready. It’ll be interesting to see if the hopes of an entire nation becomes a helping hand here over the long haul, as opposed to the curse Boogerd bore all those years.
- Robert Gesink Rating: ★★
Do his climbing skills translate into the classics, or does he need a visit to Tom Danielson’s bike handling boot camp first? I’ll say the latter, this is a pretty rough crowd.
- Riccardo Ricco Rating: ★★★
Exploded on the scene in the Ardennes with a 9th-4th-13th run over the 3 races, but his spring has been pretty unimpressive. Also, he might be a complete jerk… though we should probably wait for some more evidence.
- Frank Schleck Rating: ★★★★
Another big star... but like Cancellara on the cobbles, he needs to be head and shoulders above the rest to win. In Cancellara's case, mission accomplished. Not so clear here. No way does he beat Cunego or Valverde in a sprint. Given his success in the Ardennes, he'd have to have perfect timing to slip away from the others.
- Karsten Kroon Rating: ★★
Two years ago he got fourth here and 3rd in la Fleche. But he seems to have switched to a more Flanders-focused program, probably having something to do with being surrounded by Ardennes riders. Still, he's a threat, and at a minimum can be expected to pull some team maneuvers for Captain Frank. Don't overlook Andy or Kolobnev as well.
- Kim Kirchen Rating: ★★★
Strange spring for Kirchen... he's gone more than 15 minutes without entering and placing in a bike race. Injuries have derailed his plans a bit, but he appears to be back just in time, with two stage wins at the Pais Vasco. Can he get away from the stars? Doubtful, but they probably won't get away from him either. Also, where's Lovkvist?
- Ryder Hesjedal Rating: ★
Probable Slipstream captain, given the fact that he's at least been here before. Give the man a puncher's chance, I suppose.
- Martijn Maaskant Rating: ★
So, I ignored him in Flanders, then in France. Now he's home in Holland. Prolly ought to keep an eye out for him, at least at AGR, if not the steeper races later on. Question: does he ever get tired?