I sat down to have a look at the people likely to take glory in the forthcoming classics of the paved hills, and I wanted to make up a list of names before writing up any of them. I originally came up with twenty-two, shaved off the heretofore invisible Tom-Jelte Slagter, and prayed that a obvious candidate won Brabantse Pijl, to narrow my list to my preferred twenty. Well done Ben Hermans, the place on the list is yours, leaving me with twenty-one, before I realised that for some unknown reason, Bardet would be riding Trentino instead of the Ardennes. To the challengers!
1. Alejandro Valverde:
Affectionately known as "the bane of my existence," to most, for a reason that I have never quite determined, Alejandro Valverde has twice won Liége-Bastogne-Liege, is the holder of Flèche Wallonne and has rarely looked slow at Amstel Gold. He started his season in some style at the Challenge Mallorca, winning one race, and finishing second to only Steve Cummings in another. He then went to torture himself in the crosswinds of Qatar, before putting in decent showings on the mountains in Oman. Following that, he was again respectable in Strade Bianche, repeating his third position from the previous year, but worryingly, completely cracked at Van Avermaet's attack on the sharp rise into Siena. I'm not saying parallels can be drawn to the rise to the Mur de Huy at Flèche, they had been racing on Stybar and Van Avermaet's terrain, and in the wind, unlike the conditions next Wednesday. A twentieth in La Primavera followed, but his most impressive race was still to come. Many touted Valverde as a favourite for the Volta a Catalunya, its short climbs suiting the Spaniard, and indeed he would challenge, finishing second, four seconds behind winner Richie Porte, but his real showing was in the three stages which he won. On Stage 2, to Olot, he outsprinted established fastman José Joaquin Rojas, who only slightly let him win, and Martin Elmiger. On Stage 5, to Valls, a group of elite GC riders was pulled clear, Valverde attacked, and arrived at the line with a five second advantage. He also won Stage 7 to Barcelona, catching flier Dan Martin with under 100 metres to go, and pulling out a great sprint to beat Bryan Coquard. His only outings since have been in the recent small Spanish one-day races, securing top tens in both. He will realistically hope to defend his Flèche title on Wednesday, and to take Liege-Bastogne-Liege for the first time. Amstel? He doesn't seem to like it as much, but he'll be formidable for the other two.
Winning Fléche. (Bryn Lennon, Getty Images)
2. Michał Kwiatkowski
The world champion has raced 27 times this year, winning just once, and never in his rainbow jersey, taking the Prologue in Paris-Nice, but if there's a curse it's a kind one. Kwiatkowski, in those 27 race days, has 12 top tens, a good race on the cobbles, and his lowest finishing position in the recent Vuelta al País Vasco was 13th, on a harder hill than anything you are likely to find in the coming races. Worryingly for Valverde, Rodríguez and Martin, Kwiatkowski's sprint seems to be better than ever, coming second in a sprint on day one. Admittedly it was after two very difficult hills, but sprinters suck as Felline were in the mix, and he lost to only Michael Matthews, by just a bike length at that. He showed charisma, but never finished in the front group on a truly tough stage. While Stage 5's climb was slightly longer and steeper than the Mur de Huy, it's still food for thought. Even so, his Ardennes record is impressive, with top fives in all of the classics over the last two years, finishing on the podium in Fléche and Liège last year. Despite this, Amstel looks made for him. A tough hill with a flat finish, where a sprint or prologue skills may be required. I can't see him having the punch to outdo everyone on the Mur. Liège? He can win from a small group, but not alone.
3. Joaquim Rodríguez
Beginning with two anonymous races in Asia, Rodríguez showed small signs of form in Tirreno, ultimately finishing thirteenth, before the race he stamped all over. Winning three stages and the general classification, Rodríguez dominated the race, and showed a good sprint and excellent tactical nous. His record in the Ardennes is certainly useful, he has won La Flèche Wallonne, and came second in both other races. Last year he was disappointed, with more than one crash, but his form is better now.
4. Daniel Martin
Martin is the holder of the most recent hilly Monument, Il Lombardia last October, where he made it over the top of the final climb with a group of 13, and in what is becoming his signature move, attacked them on the flat coming to the flamme rouge. Despite a chase, where Valverde actually did some work, Martin took it by a solitary second from the Spaniard and Ruí Costa. Last year he led on the Mur and "actually thought he was going to win" before being overtaken by Valverde in the last hundred metres. He has given interviews that Fleche is actually his main target, having finished 4th in 2013, as well as second last year, although in Liège, which he has also won, in 2013, you can scarcely expect to see him hiding or doing team duty. The race owes him something for the skin it took from his last year, when he looked set to win. What else? I've met the man, and he is scrawniness personified. He's 5'9", but looks shorter, and so thin that you have to squint to see him. He doesn't like Amstel so much, he has only finished it once, in 75th, but expect to see him on Wednesday and Sunday. (I just happen to be a fan, for those of you who don't know)
5. Philippe Gilbert
Chris posed the question, before the Brabantse Pijl, "Can Gilbert be Stopped?" This could be answered with a question. "Is it 2011?" No. However, i am also guilty of the crime of 2011-itis, as he is 5th on this list. Yes, he won Amstel last year, but can he again? He is less well equipped than Kwiatkowski. For Flèche, less well equipped than Martin. So his best hope is the least predictable of the three. He is 5th on the list for old time's sake. His form? Middling. Yes, he came third in Pijl, but Rebellin was 5th, so...
6. Sergio Henao
Well well well Sergio, that Basque thing was a sudden return to form, wasn't it. Can't say I'm overly displeased. 2nd on stage 3, 5th on stage 4, 7th on stage 5, 4th on stage 6, holding the yellow jersey for 3 days. After his "exile" last year (which I'm not going to go into) he was quiet for the first three months of the season, but rose to prominence last week. In 2013 he had a great Ardennes week, taking 6th in Amstel Gold, 16th in Liège, but his best result was in the race which best suits him, La Flèche Wallonne. There he took 2nd, which I can see him repeating, if his punch last week was anything to go by.
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)
7. Simon Gerrans
Injuries have assailed the former Australian champion and holder of Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year. He has raced but seven times this year, not finishing Strade Bianche, finishing the Vuelta Cyclista a La Rioja in 73rd and riding 5 stages of the Vuelta al País Vasco, with a best result of 45th, on the longest hill of the race. Not once did he finish in the front group. This is as opposed to the almost perfect preperation he had last year; racing 22 days before the Amstel Gold Race, which he finished third in, and going on, of course, to take La Doyenne. How can he do? Well, he will be short of form, and he will be marked. Not ideal things. If he does recoup some form, the best he can expect is top 10s.
(Bryn Lennon - Velo/Getty Images)
8. Tony Gallopin
Tony Gallopin, the stage racing wonder? Or so we thought after stage 6 of Paris-Nice. Gallopin attacked on the Côte de Peille, sprinted down it, and crossed the line with 35 seconds on the GC favourites, and giving him one of those cuddly little lions that ASO kindly hand out. But that was not all, no. On the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret, a bona fide summit finish, Gallopin hung on to finish an unexpected seventh, level and ahead of such names as Costa, Talansky and Aru. This prompted many to believe he could hang on in the Col d'Eze time-trial, but alas he could not, losing almost two minutes to Richie Porte, finishing 6th. He placed respectably in Pijl, 4th. I don't know anyone who can say they hate him.
9. Daniel Moreno
Are Katusha the strongest Ardennes team? With Rodríguez leading them, with Moreno as back-up and Caruso to go up the road, they are as formidable as anyone you are likely to find. Moreno himself is best on the steep, steep pitches, think of his 2013 season, where he won Flèche, and also the Vuelta stage to Valdepeñas de Jaén. On form, there are few who can outpunch him, but is he on form? He was dropped on every single stage of consequence in the Basque Country. He'll lead Katusha if anything happens to Rodríguez, watch out for him.
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)
10. Bauke Mollema
Here's a quandary. He had trouble on the most relevant stage of the Basque Country, but came back to finish second the next day. The following day, he crashed, ripping half his skin off, but according to a recent interview with NOS, he is perfectly alright. He has a sore wrist, but "with the legs, everything is okay," he says. Mollema is also a rider well suited to these races, he is a punchy rider, third in Flèche last year, but also has a good sprint, useful for Amstel and Liège. If he truly has recovered from his injuries, you can expect to see a lot of the Trek rider over the coming week.
(Susie Hartigan PDC)
11. Simon Yates
Ludicrously high up the list for a 22 year-old you say? I beg to differ. I'll take his performance on Stage 5 last week here. (And yes, I know I'm probably taking too much out of it.) A break was up the road, Mikel Landa was attacking his companions to victory, but who was that but Yates, as Quintana was falling back on the horrible kicks, he attacked, leaving all the GC favourites in his wake to take a few seconds and give him a legitimate shot at the GC. It failed to come to pass but it bodes well for non-Team-Sky British cycling in the future. His brother Adam is unfortunately out of the equation, taken out by the traffic bollards, but in a race of just 200 kilometres like, I don't know, La Flèche Wallonne, he could just have something to say about the result.
12. Ruí Costa
Since winning the worlds and leaving Movistar for Lampre, in the same year in which he won two stages of the Tour, Costa hasn't done so well. Yes, he took his almost annual win at the Tour de Suisse, but there were his only wins. He failed to finish the Tour de France and has placed respectably, if almost anonymously, in the top 10 in many stage races this year, seventh last week, despite taking up approximately the same number of seconds of camera time. Despite a poor run in the Ardennes last year, not taking, or coming close to a podium or victory, he managed third in Lombardy, and shouldn't be overestimated. Watch out for him in Liège especially.
13. Vincenzo Nibali
Will Vincenzo Nibali continue to be the only one of the "Big Four" GC riders to care about these races? Froome is on the startlists, but if he finishes Liège I will eat my hat, and if he wins it I'll eat my shoes on video. He'll do Flèche though, boy, those ASO guys really thought this through. Nibali though, he loves the classics. He still holds the forlorn hope of winning Milan-Sanremo, but has nearly won here before. In 2012, he was on his way into Ans, (riding for Liquigas) when Astana rider Maxim Iglinsky came up onto his wheel. (Has he been in the news?) Iglinsky, like everyone, is a much better strinter than Nibali, but had no need to pull it out, as he left Nibali for dead, to finish 2nd. It's the closest he's ever come. Can he do it this year? No...? He needs to finish alone, which means that a serious lack of co-operation is required.
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)
14. Roman Kreuziger
There is a three-word sentence for what would happen if Kreuziger repeated his 2013 Amstel success, or even took another race. Thus: "Cat, meet pigeons." It's a possibility. On the eve of the Tour last year, as he was getting ready to assist Contador, and hope to repeat his top-5 finish, the news broke that he, when he was not at Tinkoff-Saxo, in 2010-'11, while at Liquigas and Astana, had abnormal findings in his biological passport. He was excluded from the Tour. However, due to his trial being delayed and...delayed, he was permitted to resume racing, with two stage races, finishing 10th in Tirreno-Adriatico, and two one-day races, finishing 11th in Strade Bianche. He spends his time railing about his hearing being delayed. Seventh in Liège last year, if he can rekindle that form, the aftermath may be more exciting than the race.
15. Giampaolo Caruso
The main beneficiary of the only attack in last year's Liège, Caruso finished fourth, only recaptured by Martin's attack, and only beaten by the podium. Caruso is Katusha's go-to-guy for risky, but possibly profitable attacks, and that is how he can win. If he gets into a small group anywhere after 40 kilometres from the line, he is a huge danger to anyone with designs on winning a race next week. And all this suits a man named Purito right down to the ground.
16. Ben Hermans
Oh, Ben, Ben, Ben, Phil is not impressed with you. Hermans, won De Brabantse Pijl, going clear with IAM's David Tanner in the closing kilometres, dangling in front of the bunch. I for one was sure they were going to be caught. However, with less than 5 kilometres to go, Hermans shed Tanner, as Gilbert attacked, pleaded, tried to work, but all to no avail. Hermans crossed the line just a few seconds ahead of the peloton. He'll be marked now though. I can't see him taking anything else, but the legs are clearly excellent
(DAVID STOCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
17. Tim Wellens
You're styling yourself into a GC rider Tim? And you a Belgian? Tut, tut, whatever will they say? Seriously though, he's been very impressive this year. 10th in Paris-Nice, 2nd from a breakaway in stage 5 of Pais Vasco, and 15th in Sanremo. At 23. There was also that small Belgian race last year that he won...But really, the best result we saw from him was in Il Lombardia, 4th after over 250 kilometres is a great feat. He won't win Flèche, but if a small group gets away in Amstel, you just never know...
(Susie Hartigan, PDC)
18. Jelle Vanendert
Another Belgian. This one not doing much GC, he hasn't ridden a Grand Tour since an unsuccessful 2014 Vuelta, and isn't showing anything like his 2011 Tour form. However, where he does tend to show up is Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne. After a barren 2013, last year he was back. With a 2nd in Amstel, a 6th in Flèche and 11th in Liège, he's still around, still fighting. The moustache is still there though!
19. Fabio Felline
Highly praised this year, probably aided by the fact that he's 2-pointer who's scored 575. He's been excellent though, finishing on the podium of numerous one-day races before showing real versatility in the Criterium International, winning the time-trial and finishing high up on a real mountain, to take third place on the GC behind two of the Tour's podium finishers. He then got over some tough climbs for 7th on stage 1 of the Basque Country, due to bad positioning, winning a sprint against Matthews the next day. Another guy who can't win Flèche, probably can't win Amstel, but in a boring Liège, it's a fool who brings him to the line.
20. Diego Rosa
(You're free to disagree with this.) Diego Rosa has barely even raced this year, why should he be picked ahead of Matthews or Dumoulin. Well, it's because of Strade Bianche. Originally in the lead group, he was dropped by continued accelerations, but forged on, riding alone or in a group, even sometimes closing on the leaders, beating the likes of Cancellara, Felline and Uran to fifth. He can do that again unless Nibali holds him back.
Honourable mentions go to Tom Dumoulin, who Chris thinks will win Amstel. I wholeheartedly disagree, but give him a year and yeah, he'd be a threat. Also Michael Matthews who people are tipping, but he won't make it through Liège, and just hasn't the uphill speed on the Cauberg. Nathan Haas indeed looked lively in Brabantse Pijl, taking a repeat 6th. Davide Rebellin was 5th, his team's going to the Giro, be interesting to see how he does in Amstel, I'll shut up now. And for those of you who haven't noticed, I have a remarkable tendancy for being wrong. If someone on my list wiins anything, I'll be bowled over.
Enjoy the Ardennes.