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Ardennes week preview: Five story lines to watch


Amstel Gold has come and gone. The climbers came out to play and Enrico Gasparotto beat them in the uphill sprint. We saw lots of hills, though perhaps not as much attacking as we would like. But fear not, there are more races yet to come.

And while we sit in anticipation, we think back to Amstel and perhaps even Brabantse Pijl - because we are the kind of cafe where we remember the little races too - to think of what might happen in the next few days. The prognostications, the anticipation, it is sometimes better than the racing itself.

So what is going to happen? What are we hoping to see, even if it doesn't come true? What are our real expectations, not just our hopes? I don't know what yours are, but if you permit, I can suggest five story lines to watch over the next two races. Not comprehensive, of course... but the ones I'm most anticipating.

The Battle of the Spainards

History lesson time. Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez used to be teammates on what was then known as Caisse d'Epargne. And we speculated - oh we speculated - about how good J-Rod could be if and when he finally stepped out of his master's shadow. Because J-Rod? He showed little promises of greatness, like how he won the stage to the top of Montelupone - a very Fleche Wallone type finish - in both 2008 and 2009. And finishing on the podium in the 2009 editions of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the World Championships road race in Mendrisio, Switzerland.

Then Rodriguez stepped out from the shadows and moved to Katusha. He flourished, but we never got a head-to-head comparison because Valverde was serving a two-year doping suspension from 2010-2011. So this year? Watch the two Spainards. They know each other very well and are similar riders - ones who have a devastating finishing kick on hilly finishes. And they've both been on the podium at Liege as well as all the other hilly classics. Extra history lesson? Valverde has won Liege twice. So watch these two, because there is a good chance they'll be doing battle, especially coming Sunday. Who is faster now? Well, we'll see, won't we?

The Revival of Cunego?

Il Piccolo Principe won Amstel Gold in 2008. And he's won Lombardia - a monument! - three times. So why isn't he on the tips of people's tongues when they talk about Ardennes week, version 2012? Well, Cunego has had some dark years. Seemingly cursed by his win in the 2004 Giro d'Italia, Cunego sought to make a name for himself as a classics rider and a Grand Tour rider for several years, to the seeming detriment of both. This is especially true because Damiano's stage racing ambitions always seemed to take precedence in his preparation for the season.

One can be forgiven for thinking this was an acceptable bet for Cunego. But the 2004 Giro, it was won both on power and on a very unique team situation where being the teammate of the defending champion allowed him the leeway to establish his gap in the first place. And that Giro? Not so climby. Well, it was in Italy, so it was way climby. But there were few really serious mountain passes like we see in most Grand Tours.

Cunego packs a powerful sprint out of a small group and is perfectly built to fly up the shorter climbs in Ardennes week. He's the guy you want to ditch before you hit the uphill climb into Ans at the finish of Liege, because he will beat you if your name isn't Alejandro Valverde.

This year? Cunego has been building form steadily and seems to realize his true potential is in the hilly classics, stage hunting, and smaller stage races. And at Amstel this year? He looked perfectly poised for the sprint... until he crashed with Lars-Peter Nordhaug with several hundred meters to go. Tsk tsk... But my gut? It tells me this won't be the last we see of Cunego this year.

The Apprentice Steps Out of the Shadows

The biggest surprise of last year's Ardennes season may not have been Phillipe Gilbert's utter domination of every race he entered over an 11-day span. Instead, it was his domestique, Jelle Vandendert. Stepping out of seemingly nowhere, Jelle pulled back Andy Schleck almost single-handedly in Amstel Gold before finishing 13th. Then he climbed to sixth on the Mur du Huy. And 17th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege after working judiciously for Gilbert.

And then he won the stage to Plateau du Beille in the Tour de France and finished second on the stage to Luz Ardiden. Quite a breakout year for the then 26 year old rider. Before? His career showed glimpses of promise, but ones you truly had to dig to find. Like 9th in the overall classification of the 2009 Tour of Austria. You don't end up there without being a prodigious climber, but most of the really prodigious climbers are at le Tour... And who remembers Austria, anyway?

This year? Jelle is nobody's worker. Gilbert has left and nobody else has come in to fill the void he left at Lotto. And what better position to be in than a budding Belgian star on a Belgian centric team? Evidently, it is a good place, because Jelle out-sprinted none other than Peter Sagan on the Cauberg this past Sunday to finish second at Amstel. That's a warning shot across the bow of a lot of teams.

Andy Schleck's Continued Obscurity?

Few young riders have appeared to hold as much promise as Andy Schleck. Second in the 2007 Giro d'Italia at a mere 21 years of age? Yowsers. And let us not forget how he won the 2009 Liege-Bastogne-Liege with a masterful solo breakaway (albiet assisted by no fewer than five CSC teammates blocking the chase behind) and finished second in Huy.

This year? He finished Amstel in 91st place, 5:39 down. That's where domestiques finish. And he has been nigh on invisible this year, even when he has gone on the attack briefly to "test his legs" and suss out the sensations in them.

Andy is at a crossroads in his career. Three times runner-up at the Tour de France (though now the winner of the 2010 edition, thanks to Alberto Contador's doping suspension), he seems more and more destined each year to never fulfill the full depths of his promise. He is 26 now - entering the prime of his career and past the time when he is supposed to be developing. And if he fails to deliver by playing at least an antagonist's role in Liege or Fleche, he could be written off by an increasing number of people. Something has to change. I hope it does in the next five days, but this might be shaping up the kind of year he needs to shock himself back into delivering on his talent.

Voeckler the Classics Specialist?

Who doesn't love Tommy Voeckler? If you don't, you're lying, at least if you're a fan of the sport and not one of his competitors. He rocks and rolls on he bike. His tongue has a mind of its own. And if there is a breakaway? It's a good bet Voeckler is in it. He is canny, attacking, seemingly carefree.

Voeckler races everywhere. He has done Het Nieuwsblad, Flanders, Fleche Wallone, and Liege, sometimes doing several in the same season. There is no rhyme nor reason to his racing... until this year. 8th in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, winner of Brabantse Pijl, and 5th in Amstel Gold. Perhaps this is the year Voeckler finds his calling as a classics contender in the Gilbert mold - one who can perform all spring long except for in Roubaix. And who honestly believes Liege-Bastogne-Liege isn't suited for the French rider?

Tommy, he seems well equipped to play this role. He is a rouler, a punchy rider suited to the bergs both in Flanders and in Wallonia. And for tactical nous? People remember Voeckler's doomed attacks more than anything else, but he has far too many victories to chalk up to chance success. It is time we refine our view of monsieur Voeckler. He is always cooly calculating, but at times the biggest goal is to secure sponsor airtime for his team. So, write off Voeckler at your peril this year. He has discovered he can be a contender in the monuments, so he is only going to improve.

Photo by Bryn Lennon, Copyright Getty Images Sport