The cobbles are gone - at least until the Eneco Tour - and Chris is curled up in a fetal position somewhere. It's okay, though, because racing stays in Belgium, and that's pretty rad. It's time for Ardennes week - the treble of Amstel Gold's umpteen climbs, the murderous Mur de Huy in Flèche Wallone, and the grandmother of them all, La Doyenne, or Liége-Bastogne-Liége. Unlike the cobbled season, which has a bevy of races for teams to split amongst themselves (or hoard, because it's racing), the Ardennes have three races over the span of eight days, plus the transitionary Brabantse Pijl that transpired yesterday. But if anything, the number of teams looking for a good result - and with riders who can win or podium - is even larger, which makes for a lot more broken hearts than smiles. Without further ado, here's the rundown of the top teams.
Goal: Repeat Gilbert's 2011, right?
Prospects: Philippe Gilbert is a mystical creature, a body crafted by the cycling gods to win races in April - especially the latter parts - but who only comes good once in three or four years. In 2011 he won everything from Brabantse Pijl through Liége, becoming only the second person to sweep Amstel, Flèche, and Liége in a year - and given that it was Davide Rebellin who did it the first time, maybe the only one whose results we trust? But in 2012, Gilbert was silent until September, where he won two stages of the Vuelta and then the World Championships (which, for the record, had the same finale as Amstel. You do the math). This year, though, he's been taken off cobbles duty to focus solely on the upcoming week. What's happened? Well, for starters he won Brabantse Pijl again by clearly having more left in the tank - even after trying to bridge to a dangerous breakaway some 20km earlier - than anyone else. And with Stephen Cummings and Tejay van Garderen for backup, the team's depth looks good, but they'll no doubt miss Cadel Evans' experience. Cummings looked pretty strong yesterday and Tejay is on a good year. The biggest thing that looks like it could get in the way of Gilbert, it seems, is...
Omega Pharma - QuickStep
Goal: Win something
Prospects: Patrick Lefevre's squad could be forgiven for taking a break after being, by far, the best team over the past month of stone-riddled racing. But they won't rest on their laurels quite yet. Michal Kwiatkowski finished 4th in Amstel last year and 5th in Flèche, and that was coming on the back of a cobbles campaign. This year, the 23 (!!) year old Polish superstar is focusing purely on the Ardennes, which should herald a fair bit of improvement. He was flying earlier this year - remember when he dropped Peter Sagan at Strade Bianche? - but hit a rough patch at Tirreno-Adriatico. That data point isn't too relevant, though, because he was suffering on the long climbs, the likes of which we won't see til the stage racing kicks back up again in two weeks time. With in-form Jan Bakelants and Wout Poels to send up the road as a decoys or pull back breaks, his support looks good. Plus, the even younger Peter Serry is looking realllll interesting right about now.
Goal: With more depth than last year, anything under a win is a disappointment
Prospects: At first glance, Garmin seems like an embarrassment of Ardennes riches. Martin is your defending champion at Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Hesjedal is always threatening to pull off a podium in these races. And don't get me started on Tom-Jelte Slagter's promise. The kid is all of 24 and nearly won Paris-Nice by making it over the climbs and having the fastest sprint 2 times out of 3. Oh, and there's Nathan Haas, who was in the break in the last 20km of Brabantse Pijl and still got 6th in the sprint. Can they pull all the talent together for a winning battle plan, though? Hesjedal can be counted on to be entertaining and aggressive (see Flèche Wallone in 2012, or Amstel last year), but his biggest asset is his ability to take the onus of pace setting off his teammates. Dan Martin has been anonymous so far this year, so I'm guessing it comes down to whether Slagter's legs are good past the 230km point.
Goal: Win? Podiums will probably make them happy though.
Prospects: Simon Gerrans is made for these races - punchy, wily, good sprint, what else could you want? He's come close before, including finishing 3rd in Amstel in both 2012 (the Cauberg finish) and 2013 (the new post-Cauberg finish) and multiple top tens in Liége. But, no win, yet. His form this year was cracking early on when he won the Australian National Championships and the Tour Down Under, but he slipped off the radar a bit. To be fair, that's to be expected - one has to cool jets a little if you want to be good in April. In Brabanste Pijl yesterday, Gerrans was all over the front at the end of the race, marking and bringing back breakaways for Michael Matthews, so he's looking pretty sharp again. Oh, and Michael Matthews should be scaring people for Amstel. He's better and better at getting over the short climbs and has the kind of sprint that makes him a threat now that the Amstel finish is moved 1.2km past the Cauberg. With Michael Albasini and Simon Clarke for backup, their team is looking pretty solid.
Goal: Take the way back machine to 2006 or 2008 so Valverde can win Liége again
Prospects: Pretty standard Valverde - he looks good now, especially after winning Roma Maxima a month ago and the GP Miguel Indurain two weeks ago. He'll have an able enough cast supporting him, but it'll largely come down to the old dog's legs.
Goal: How many times can I say "win" without it becoming absurd? They've won Flèche the past two years counting, and Rodríguez came oh so close to winning Liége last year. Anything but a victory will be a disappointment.
Prospects: Rodríguez and Moreno look pretty good this year, or at least they did in Tirreno. If anything, Moreno seems the sharper of the two. Those old dogs don't need new tricks, so expect them to be their usual selves.
Ag2R La Mondiale
Goal: Get Betancur higher up the top ten than last year
Prospects: A bit of a one-trick-pony for the upcoming 8 days, but Carlos Betancur is a heck of a pony to saddle your hopes on. Let's hope he learned how to time his attack on the Mur du Huy after going too early last year (and still finishing 4th!). If so, things will get plenty exciting, as he's certainly only gotten better since winning Paris-Nice.
Prospects: If Contador were racing, things would be mightily exciting. In 2010, his early attacks set up Alexander Vinokourov to perfection. But, alas, el pisterelo is taking a break / training for the tour / riding around northern France on cobblestones instead of helping out Kreuziger. Speaking of, Kreuziger looked fearsomely strong in Tirreno when he was doing work for Contador, but it's hard to see him getting the same leniency he got when he slipped in the break in Amstel last year and then soloed clear inside the last 10km.
Goal: Rediscover relevancy? Take media focus off Greipel?
Prospects: Jurgeon Van Den Broeck and Jelle Vandendert are great for racing in the Ardennes. Great, I tell you. If they aren't battling injury or sickness, like they've been the past few seasons. Once upon a time Vandendert out sprinted Sagan on the Cauberg and before that he was Gilbert's perfect lieutenant when Gilbert won these things. But even if those two aren't convincing yet this year, Tony Gallopin ought to be really exciting to watch. He just grabbed third in Brabantse - after getting a flat inside the last 20km and making contact just before the final climb. So, yeah, the guy's got some power right now and a pretty nice finishing kick.
Trek Factory Team
Goal: Schleck Redemption. Really, even TV time at the front in the last hour might be enough.
Prospects: You remember when Fränk won Amstel Gold? (Hint, it was way back in 2006). And Andy won Liége in 2009 at the youthful age of 23? oh, there was so much promise back then, wasn't there, back in the days of Bjarne Riis and Saxo Bank. But the Schleck brothers - the true core of Trek, when combined with Fabian Cancellara - have been out in the wilderness for a while. Frank is back after a 12 month ban for a positive test for a banned diuretic and Andy hasn't been himself since a crash in the 2012 Dauphine that cracked his sacrum. With Bob Jungels and Matthew Busche as backup, the Schlecks ought to have able support, but it comes down to their legs, and I seriously doubt they're there. Well, Frank looked a little alive at Paris-Nice, but Andy? *crickets*
Goal: Get someone up the road sometime and hope for the best?
Prospects: The boys in aqua have two former winners - Gasparatto won Amstel in 2012 and Maxim Iglinski won Liége just a week later. Enough said, right? Not quite, because with both Vincenzo Nibali and Jacob Fuglsang along too, the question is probably more "who gets to be leader today" than "can we win?". The problem? All are second level favorites, at best. Not quite the embarrassment of riches Garmin has. Nibali ought to make the races interesting, at least.
Goal: Hmm. Keep then headlines away from Gesink?
Prospects: Things looked a lot better before Robert Gesink - a former podium finisher at Amstel and able one-day racer - announced a break from competition to sort out a heart arrythmia. Bauke Mollema is flying solo now, and while he's plenty cagey (see Stage 17 of last year's Vuelta a España), it'll be surprising if he pulls off one of the three wins.