Hey, at least it has a short shelf life. I plan to do this exercise twice: today and after Liege-Bastogne-Liege. There's a reason people associate Classics season more with Flanders than the Ardennes... one of them is six weeks long, the other one.
As for team tactics in Ardennes Week, you could argue that races which end with uphill sprints don't call for a great deal of team tactics. If you are Kim Kirchen, it's great that you have guys like Lovkvist and Monfort around, but you really just need to stay close to Valverde and Rebellin and hope to take them on the Mur. Right? Well, we shall see. The past couple editions of Ardennes classics have featured a lot of powerful riders staring at each other, waiting for someone to blink... followed by a sprint. Part of this is due to the sprinting prowess of several team captains, and part is due to the fact that, well, races are hard and after 33 short Limberger climbs nobody is going anywhere. Anyway, here's your top ten, with details on the flip.
- Caisse d'Epargne
- Saxo Bank
- Francaise des Jeux
1. Caisse d'Epargne
Strengths: Two plausible winners. OK, Joaquim Rodriguez tends not to win outside of a single, wolf-infested mountain in Italy*, but his triple-eights last spring -- he finished eighth in all three Ardennes races -- is one of the truly improbable performances in recent cycling history. It also raises the question of where he might place if he were the protected rider for his team, not the protector. Still, Valverde is the 800-pound gorilla of this team, and of the entire scene.
Weaknesses: Does anyone take Rodriguez seriously? If not, then all you do is park your guy on Valverde's wheel until maybe the last 5km. Don't get me wrong, I like J-Rod, but if DS Eusebio Unzue doesn't let him attack because they're looking after Valverde, then the only guy who exists is Valverde.
Strategy: Get Unzue a copy of De Ronde and maybe he'll get why teams are scared shitless of Quick Step. I hope they send Rodriguez up the road with guys like the Schlecks and LET HIM ATTACK. With Valverde following the response (if there is one), Caisse d'Epargne will bring these races to their knees.
2. Saxo Bank
Strengths: The usual -- Schlecks, numbers, work well together, etc. Watch out for Kolobnev, he hasn't typically featured here but came second in the GP Big Mig and fifth in the first stage of the Pais Vasco. Chris Anker Sorensen is probably being groomed for these races too.
Weaknesses: No ace to play in the end. Frank isn't going to outsprint Valverde, lord knows he's tried. Andy? We really haven't seen him try. Anyway, if the Saxo boys look itchy starting about 30km from the finish, it's because they are.
Strategy: Attack attack attack. A great break puts maybe Andy or Kolobnev up the road with some B-listers and forces the heads of state to choose between staring at each other and having to engage in a leg-sapping chase. Dunno if it works but we'll all be better for it.
Strengths: Just when you thought Venezuelan cycling couldn't get any better, along comes Michele Scarponi back from oblivion to bolster the team that has everyone from the Andes to the Orinoco Delta talking about the Pro Tour. OK, they're really just an offshore Italian squad, but a team featuring a legendary closer like Davide Rebellin, a very threatening Scarponi, and an up-and-coming win machine in Francesco Ginanni must be taken very, very seriously.
Weaknesses: Hm... too many Bertolinis? I'd say they are low on team experience, with their three main guys all just hooking up this season.
Strategy: Not unlike the Caisse d'Epargne plan. You're obviously not springing Rebellin from the trap (without Valverde and Cunego in tow) so if they use Scarponi in the Devolder role, they can wreak havoc.
Strengths: One golden winner in Damiano Cunego. That's about it.
Weaknesses: Does anyone else threaten the race in an attack? Maybe Gavazzi, out of a small selection. Also, if Cunego and Valverde match up, Valverde is the likely winner. Not hands down, mind you: when Cunego got hot last spring he beat AV twice. But that's about it for major finales.
Strategy: Patience... but not too much patience. If the race slims down at the end, it might be worth having Cunego race aggressively. If it comes to a sprint, well, there's a chance.
Strengths: Mettle! Evans, Gilbert and whatever you can get out of Dekker these days, that's a pretty solid front line. Evans isn't as hopeless in an uphill sprint as we like to assume, though he'll have to time it better than he did on the Mur de Huy last year.
Weaknesses: Cohesion. Cadel complains about not having much support, so they pair him up with Thomas Dekker? Fun times.
Strategy: Cadel has had success by forcing the issue. It's easy to underestimate the role confidence has, particularly in the case of big-name riders. But to me Cadel seems like his confidence is growing in his older age (32), and beating Cunego in a Coppi e Bartali stage only adds to it. Anyway, he won't win in a last-km argy-bargy, but late selections will help him. Gilbert, meanwhile, could maybe, maybe eek out a sprint win if Amstel finishes in a bunch.
Strengths: Kirchen's win at La Fleche solidifies his status as one of the big boys in a finale. Unfortunately he has very few race days in his legs, so the idea of him winning AGR is far-fetched; maybe by Liege he'll be all back together. If not, Tony Martin and Mick Rogers are the man(s), with Rabon, Pinotti and Monfort around to make trouble.
Weaknesses: Kirchen's injuries have left the climbing squad a little rudderless over the past couple months, and it won't be easy patching things together for races of this caliber.
Strategy: Aggression. This is no time for Columbia to start acting like they have anything to lose. Pinotti's solo win last week should be a great confidence-builder for the attacking strategy.
7. Francaise des Jeux
Strengths: Well, just as I go to write about Sandy Casar's fine spring, the CQ server goes down. Anyway, he's had a fine spring. He could also get lost in the shuffle in a field such as this.
Weaknesses: They have to get someone (Vaugrenard? Meersman? Veikkanen?) up the road with Casar to help with the tactics.
Strategy: Late aggression. Assuming Casar is isolated, I'd try launching him in the last few KM and see who comes with him.
Strengths: Erm... Gesink sure can climb. No way does he get dropped in these races. They also feature lots of guys like Weening who can follow breaks and give the other teams some pause.
Weaknesses: Pressure! Nothing has gone all that well, and now they have to produce a result for the home crowd.
Strategy: I don't know if there's anyone who can get away from the field in AGR. Maybe they should just focus on protecting Gesink and hope for a top-five finish. In past years we've talked about Freire maybe stealing this one, but he's had too little preparation this year.
Strengths: Nibali has been great this year, very aggressive and active in his starts. These events might be beyond his reach, but he can make trouble. Kreuziger is a budding star, though his one-day resume is under construction.
Weaknesses: No big guns.
Strategy: Have Nibali on high alert for any interesting attacks from 15km on in. Maybe spring one himself with 8k or thereabouts.
Strengths: Sammy Sanchez, Olympic badass. Veteran squad.
Weaknesses: None of these races end in Spain or a screaming descent.
Strategy: Sammy is too well known to saunter away, but he has a shot in a bunch finish.
* Or possibly questionnaire-infested, if google translator is to be believed.