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Champions of a Different Road

Today's stage was largely about three of the biggest names in Cycling: Kim Kirchen, Alejandro Valverde, and Damiano Cunego. We all know what happened to them, and with the possible exception of Kirchen I think we know who these guys are.

Ranked #10 in the world at CyclingQuotient, Kirchen is the Champion of Fleche Wallonne, the mid-week Ardennes classic with the huge finishing climb. Kirchen excels almost anywhere, a guy who's been third at Brabantse Pijl and who races the Tour of Flanders as a way to get ready for his Ardennes campaign. He has multiple top-20s at all three of Amstel, La Fleche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He's also got a 7th at the Tour, second in the Tour de Suisse and Tirreno-Adriatico (both in '07), and two national titles of Luxembourg, one road and most recently the chrono.

Next, the World's #9 rider is one of the world's most consistent producers. Since achieving the top ranking for the 2004 season, Damiano Cunego has never ranked lower than 12th, and since October he's racked up two wins in huge races (Amstel and the Giro di Lombardia) to go with four lesser wins, a third in La Fleche, fourth in the Tour de Suiss and Pais Vasco stage races, and fully twelve other top-ten placings. Since October. With two wins at the Lombardia monument before his 28th birthday, he may well own the race before he's through. While less consistent and versatile than Kirchen, Cunego is a nearly unstoppable finisher.

Finally, there's Mr. Unbeatable, Alejandro Valverde, world #3. Two-time winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, in the last month alone he's won a Spanish road title, the Dauphine Libere and two stages, and the opening stage of the Tour de France. He has few peers in one-week Spanish regional tours, and even fewer in the closing stages of an Ardennes classic. Only Amstel Gold, where he's been third and sixth, has eluded him that week. On form, nobody can stop him in a dash for the line after a day of climbing. Since 2003 he's only spent one season outside the top five world ranking.

All three of these guys are champions of the Ardennes in 2008. All three are young and exciting racers who, in their element, are battle-tested and proven winners. They are stars of a generation, now in its prime, which is staging epic battles -- against each other and some additional riders -- all around Europe. These guys will be winning huge races for the foreseeable future. It just won't include the Tour de France.