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From Hellingen to Côtes: The Ardennes are Here

From the final weekend of February, we turn our attention towards Belgium and northern France, yearning for the no holds barred racing across the cobbled tracks that pass for roads. There is wind and rain and sometimes even snow, the elements of nature contributing to instill visions of gladiators on two wheels in our minds. These one day races captivate us, the importance of luck forefront in our minds as we see riders crash, flat, get caught at the wrong end of an echelon, the unabashed no-holds barred racing we do not see in stage races captivating our fancy. As riders scrub dirt from their bodies in the Roubaix showers and the cobbles fade into the distance, we turn our attention towards the stage races of May, June, and July... but not without a jaunt through the Ardennes classics, those races that fly up and over the many bergs and longer côtes in southern Belgium and the hilly region of the Netherlands. While not as punishing as the cobbled classics, these are no less vicious, especially Liège - Bastogne - Liège which has monument status alongside Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. My friends, the hilly classics are here.

Brynn Lennon, Getty Images

The cobbled classics are a marathon starting in February with Omloomp Het Nieuwsblad, taking a pause for Paris - Nice and Tirreno - Adriatico but resuming with even more fury from Dwars Door Vlaanderen through Paris-Roubaix. The Ardennes, on the other hand, are more compact: four races spread over the span of twelve days.

We begin with Brabanste Pijl, a segue from the cobbles to the Ardennes that used to be held, awkwardly, on the day after the E3 Harelbeke. Moved in 2010, the race now fits more logically with the other Ardennes races and serves as ideal preparation for Amstel Gold next weekend. Its name translates literally as the Brabant Arrow, which is a misnomer for describing the route if there ever was one. The course traverses from Leuven past Overijse before doubling back on itself as it returns to Overijse for three laps of the climb-heavy finishing circuit. Twenty five climbs dot the route and they come closer and closer to each other on the run to the finish. The course suits both puncheurs such as Sylvain Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler as well as climby sprinters; Oscar Freire has won thrice and Luca Paolini once.

The more memorable racing, however, begins Sunday with the Amstel Gold race. Named after a beer and located in the one small hilly region in the Netherlands, Amstel Gold is the second most important of the Ardennes classics with - count them! - thirty four climbs. Thirty four! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Flanders. This year we witness several major changes to the route which should make the race more exciting to watch. The iconic Cauberg climb is no longer the finish but instead comes 1.8 kilometers from the finish line, which is located where the finish line of the 2012 World Championships Road Race was. This should break up the race some, broadening the selection of racers who stand a chance at winning from a select group of riders with a vicious uphill kick. The finish line is not all that is changed as the route now passes through the finishing town of Valkenberg - and climbs through hordes of Amstel fueled fans on the Cauberg - four times. The final approach to Valkenburg is also different, though more on that will come later.

On Wednesday we return to Belgium for La Flèche Wallone, or the Walloon Arrow. Really, what is it with all the arrows around here? At least Flèche looks like an arrow, streaking eastwards from Charloi for some distance before looping twice through the finishing town of Huy. The climbing starts once we hit the first, larger, circuit and climbs come closer together - as they should - on the second circuit. The real focus of Flèche, however, is the finishing climb of the Mur de Huy, a twisting ascent through narrow streets iconic both for the bold white lettering stating Huy Huy Huy emphatically on the road and the murderously steep 26% gradient in the middle of the climb. Though several changes were made to the route last year, adding two climbs near the finish, in order to prompt more aggressive racing, the finale always ends in the slowest sprint in the world at the top of the Mur.

Sunday brings an end to the Ardennes season all too soon with the oldest of the Monuments, Liège - Bastogne - Liège. The climbs here are longer, though just as steep, as those in prior races. The steep ramps come with depressing regularity at the end of the race and are just as memorable as the Muur van Geerardsbergen - Saint-Roch, Stockeau, La Redoute, and Saint Nicholas are among the iconic climbs on the route. In 1980, Bernard Hinault won the race in a blizzard; in 2003 Tyler Hamilton became the first American to win a monument; in 2011 Philippe Gilbert confirmed his ascension to the highest ranks of the sport - each running of this race is memorable. This year, the route changes some with the removal of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons - the penultimate climb where Andy Schleck launched his attack for victory in 2009 and Vincenzo Nibali slipped away, almost to victory, last year - for roadwork. The Côte du Colonster will take its place and should pose an interesting addition as the climb begins after a tight hairpin turn; positioning will be crucial in whatever group remains at this point.

Over the next two days, some new names rise to the fore, the stocky specialists of the pavé fading into the background as lithe, explosive climbers who have been riding in Pais Vasco come into view.These races are Philippe Gilbert's bread and butter, what Dan Martin dreams of, what motivates Rigoberto Uran must have had his eyes set on since November. There is some crossover, though, especially in Brabantse and Amstel. Peter Sagan was on the podium at Amstel last year and Greg Van Avermaet was fifth in Brabantse behind Thomas Voeckler - all names that have animated racing over the past month. Who has gas left in the tank and who is dangerously near empty? Will the emergence of Nario Quintana continue? There are new storylines waiting to be written over the next twelve days, old names to affirm and new ones that will leap out at us. In any case, the racing should be superb.

These are my favorite races of the year, the tactics and knowledge of the roads just as important as the cobbled races to the north and the racing equally explosive. The scenery changes, as do the main characters, but the distinctive feel of unquestionably explosive and aggressive racing we have grown accustomed to remains. Over the next two weeks we will look at courses, what changes to Amstel and Liège mean for racing, and riders. It's not time for the classics season to end quite yet, so let us enjoy these treats to the fullest.