This week is a time of transition. Seeing Tim Wellens, and his Lotto-Soudal team, take the victory in Brabantse Pijl yesterday, with nary a Quick Stepper to be found anywhere near the podium, was itself a break in the clouds that have hung over every other team in the sport. Wellens, too, is from the class of climbers who might dip their toes in the cobbled classics (Wellens started the Omloop) but are long gone once the action shifts to Compiègne. It’s time to climb, and that point will be driven home with brute force Sunday at the Amstel Gold Race.
This is a great week, for multiple reasons, and one I’d like to stop to appreciate is the fact that all three of the Big Events is both a men’s and women’s race day. This triple pleasure took hold last year when Amstel revived its women’s event, and the other two races being ASO events, they had already gotten the memo (and miraculously didn’t find a way to misinterpret it). I don’t have the bandwidth to keep up with the women’s races very well right now, but am grateful we will see them in action. Paris-Roubaix, you are next!
Parcours and Where It’ll Go Down
OK, let’s dispense with Amstel. There is virtually nothing to say about the parcours that will interest you unless you haven’t been following the event in recent years. As far as I can tell there are no changes slated to the course they rode a year ago. The Official Website doesn’t even seem to have bothered to re-label the map for 2018. It’s just as simultaneously picturesque and terrifying as always.
Here are the hellingen (I get one last weekend of pretending to speak some Dutch), presented via cut-and-paste from Wikipedia with links to each hill if you want more details about the individual climbs:
1 Slingerberg; 2 Adsteeg; 3 Long Raarberg; 4 Bergseweg; 5 Sibbergrubbe; 6 Cauberg; 7 Geulhemmerberg; 8 Mescherberg (Heiweg); 9 Kalleberg; 10 Wolfsberg; 11 Loorberg; 12 Schweiberg; 13 Camerig; 14 Vaalserberg; 15 Gemmenicherweg; 16 Vijlenerbos; 17 Eperheide; 18 Gulperberg; 19 Plettenberg; 20 Eyserweg; 21 Huisberg; 22 Vrakelberg; 23 Sibbergrubbe (2nd time); 24 Cauberg (2nd time); 25 Geulhemmerberg (2nd time); 26 Bemelerberg; 27 Loorberg (2nd time); 28 Gulperberg (2nd time); 29 Kruisberg; 30 Eyserbosweg; 31 Fromberg; 32 Keutenberg; 33 Cauberg (3rd time); 34 Geulhemmerberg (3rd time); 35 Bemelerberg (2nd time).
The main point is that it’s a long 261km, and it no longer finishes with an ascent of the fearsome Cauberg, opening up the possibilities as to how the race might unfold. Getting the race to unfold will be the big challenge this week, with the world’s most predictable classic on Wednesday (La Flèche Wallonne) and the Monument Liège-Bastogne-Liège of next weekend with its own legacy of everyone sitting on the wheel of Alejandro Valverde until the last km. The AGR is likely to be loads of fun, however, with the potential for long-range attacks settling matters (as they did last year) as well as a formidable cast of riders capable of making life hard for the presumed favorites. Look no further than the fact that Valverde, the one-man Ardennes Doomsday Machine himself, has never won here. That alone should tell you that maybe tactics matter a bit more than they do the rest of the week.
As to where the race will be won, I think you can place a marker on Climb #25, the Geulhemmerberg, as where things should start to get exciting. That’s with 82km remaining, and contending teams will want to start narrowing the field so they can make their moves over the skinny roads of the finale without being impeded. Another milestone is the fearsome Gulperberg, coming at 44km remaining and hitting 19% gradient. The 1.4km-long Cauberg will wear dudes out. The last two climbs are the last two climbs. But beware: surprise and cunning are the ingredients that matter most (along with pure strength of course), which means the winning move is just as likely to happen just over the crest, or on the descent, or anywhere your rivals least expect it.
That’s about all I have to say in the way of a straight preview. This is one of the highlights of the year, and if you want to have another monuments debate, you can pit this one against L-B-L and commence fighting. Honestly, if the race were associated with a better beer, that change might have already happened. But the Dutch, for all of their cleverness and sophistication, insist on selling us Amstel, Heineken and Oranjeboom. It’s like they are trying to stop Americans from moving there.
OK, on to Part II, the teams.
Ranking the Wolf Packs
The theme of the spring, so far, has been the Wolf Pack. Quick Step adopted this as their mascot image, becoming the second team in cycling (after the Telenet-Fidea Lions) to go American-style with their name, though not quite formally. Of course, Quick Step could have named themselves the Ant Pack or the Tulip Field and we would be forced to honor the concept because they just fucking won everything.
[Side note: another Wolf Pack, one with at least a charismatic fable to its history, did some fine work of its own this week. #DajeRoma]
But the wolf pack image is an outstanding choice. Not that there are any wolves in Belgium, but we have them out our way. [I once spent New Year’s Eve in the mountains up by the Canadian border with a friend who’s a wolf biologist, skiing under the full moon and occasionally howling in the hopes of hearing from a pack that was rumored to be headed that way. He can really howl. No response, alas. I don’t think he was scamming me, though. He didn’t ask for any money.]
Anyway, just like most cycling teams like to think of themselves, wolves are highly organized, highly intelligent, and don’t seem to like losing. If anything, they are perhaps a step beyond cycling teams in their evolution — you’ve never seen a film of the beta wolf helping a rival pack chase down his/her own alpha wolf in the hopes of grabbing the meat for him/herself, have you? Quick Step, though, showed the ruthlessness that makes teams truly great, that total commitment to team success even if it comes in the form of your domestique taking the caribou haunch from the mouth of the captain. Whatever works, do that, and run it in to the hilt.
So what teams have some Wolf Pack Potential in the Ardennes, starting with Sunday? Let’s peruse.
Riders: Philippe Gilbert, Pieter Serry, Julian Alaphilippe, Bob Jungels, Niki Terpstra, Enric Mas
Wolf Characteristics: Nobody encapsulates the whole > sum of parts aspect of wolf-packingness better than the Original Wolf Pack. The cobbles team that embodied the concept is half-intact here, with the additions of Serry (4th in Brabantse Pijl) playing the wild card, as well as possible alpha Alaphilippe, all supported by Terpstra, the strongest rider of the month, paying his mates back for their support the last few weeks.
[What’s the name for a wolf who isn’t the alpha or beta? The gamma? Epsilon? Or pack filler?]
Human Flaws: Ala serves as the Stybar character for this week, always close but never quite pulling off the win. Gilbert comes in having burnt lots of extra matches in Paris-Roubaix, which he usually skips to stay fresh for this week. He’s the second-most prolific winner taking the start in any of these events, but his focus is always changing, and I don’t think it was on the Ardennes so much this year. So they may be the best pack, but I’m not sure they have the best situation at the Alpha role.
Riders: Tim Wellens, Tiesj Benoot, Maxime Monfort, Tosh Van Der Sande
Wolf Characteristics: Wellens and Benoot make perhaps the best Alpha and Beta tandem in the peloton this week. The dropoff to the rest of their pack is pretty substantial, but even that lends a certain clarity to the squad. Both riders have been formidable this year.
Human Flaws: I do say perhaps because neither has much of a record in the races to come, with Benoot only dipping his toes for the first time last year. That inexperience plus a long, exhausting spring campaign could see him drop off, which would leave the questionable alpha Wellens alone to fight for himself. Their pack is experienced and useful, but not threatening.
Riders: Rui Costa, Dan Martin, Diego Ulissi, Aliaksander Riabushenko, Matteo Bono
Wolf Characteristics: A rotating cast of Alphas and Betas, with Martin for LBL and one of the other two for Amstel, at least. Riabushenko might be someone to watch for the future, though he’s a bit green now. Ulissi is Valverde-light, a guy you don’t want to drag to the line, but might have to.
Human Flaws: Let’s see how well this team has actually gelled. Martin just arrived and is taking over the top spot next weekend, which seems simple enough, but it’s a far cry from the team he came from (QS) and their well-practiced tactical brilliance.
Riders: Greg Van Avermaet, Dylan Teuns, Damiano Caruso, Simon Gerrans, Alberto Bettiol, Alessandro De Marchi
Wolf Characteristics: A lot of fangs. Long fangs at that.
Human Flaws: I have no idea who the alpha is. Van Avermaet has hung around at Amstel a bit but this is the upper end of his climbing chops. Gerro is a former LBL winner but his best days aren’t ahead. Bettiol is an unproven talent. Teuns seems like a guy whose limit is the top 15.
Riders: Alejandro Valverde, Winner Anacona, Mikel Landa, Carlos Betancur, Andrey Amador, Marc Soler
Wolf Characteristics: The ultimate alpha. Lots of threatening betas. In theory, the scariest pack around.
Human Flaws: Can they do anything tactically besides wait for Valverde to win? Soler and Landa aren’t classics guys (yet), Betancur and the rest may or may not be strong enough to bother anyone. And so it goes like it always does, where Valverde hangs around and tries whatever he can on the last climb.
Riders: Michael Matthews, Soren Kragh Andersen, Tom Dumoulin, Sam Oomen, Simon Geschke, Edward Theuns
Wolf Characteristics: Strong Alpha in Matthews, who was there at the end of both Amstel and LBL last year, and has been an Amstel winner-in-waiting for a while. Interesting betas for each race, including Dumoulin, who’s had a quiet start to the year.
Human Flaws: The Beta role won’t be a major card to play as a feint for Matthews unless one of these guys raises their game. Dumoulin is the most talented, but Giro contenders don’t often come good in the Ardennes.
Riders: Robert Gesink, Jos van Emden, Paul Martens, Joris De Tier
Wolf Characteristics: Hm, fur?
Human Flaws: Someone has to be eaten, I mean beaten here. Might as well be the home team.
Riders: Bauke Mollema, Jasper Stuyvens, Tom Skujins
Wolf Characteristics: Alpha on his home turf. Actually, Mollema is from the opposite end of the Netherlands, and is probably more at home in Spain than in Limburg, but at least the fans will cheer for him. And he’s having a strong season, in Italy and Spain anyway.
Human Flaws: Everything after the Alpha. Stuyvens could be effective in Amstel. Not much to say from there.
Riders: Vincenzo Nibali, Sonny Colbrelli, Enrico Gasparotto, Giovanni Visconti, Franco Pellizotti, lots of Izagirres.
Wolf Characteristics: Fangs everywhere, starting with an alpha in Nibali who is the wisest wolf around at times. This might not actually be one of those times; his Classics strategy is usually an all-or-nothing attack once in the race, but he hit “all” as recently as Sanremo, so yeah. Colbrelli was second in Brabantse and has had his baptism by now. Gaspa won Amstel last time he raced it two years back, his second win here. This is the kind of pack where the alpha can delegate lots of jobs to lots of wolves, which is exactly what you want.
Human Flaws: Not a lot of ways to stop Valverde?
Riders: Michal Kwiatkowski, Wout Poels, Sergio Henao, Geraint Thomas, Teo Hart, Vasil Kiryienka
Wolf Characteristics: Flower is a true alpha in all respects: world champion, past winner at Amstel, podium at LBL last year. Poels won LBL in 2016. That’s maybe as good a top two as there is.
Human Flaws: Not much. I don’t believe in too many of the rest of the wolves apart from Henao.
Riders: Michael Albasini, Luke Durbridge, Roman Kreuziger
Wolf Characteristics: Er, I mean, they have guys. Albasini was one of those folks you had to watch, but he’s getting long in the tooth. Kreuz won Amstel but that too wasn’t exactly yesterday.
Human Flaws: Is anyone here a guy you feel like you need to pay close attention to?
Riders: Romain Bardet, Silvan Dillier, Jan Bakelandts
Wolf Characteristics: Bardet is about as big a name in world cycling as there is in attendance. He’s been at Liège enough to know what he’s doing.
Human Flaws: Does Dillier have anything more to give? His Paris-Roubaix ride has me still feeling exhausted, so I can only imagine how he’s doing.
Riders: Dario Cataldo, Jakob Fuglsang, Michael Valgren, Davide Villella, Tanel Kangert
Wolf Characteristics: Foogls is aging out of the Alpha role but Valgren will be well-suited to it once deemed ready. Might be in 48 hours. Solid in the middle of the pack too.
Human Flaws: I really, really want to see what Valgren can do here, but he’s young, and that isn’t helpful in these tricky contests.
EF Education First
Riders: Rigoberto Uran, Lawson Craddock, Pierre Rolland, Michael Woods, Sep Vanmarcke
Wolf Characteristics: Their fangs are always a bit hidden, but they’re there. If races like Amstel are for launching surprises, the Argyle Armada are game.
Human Flaws: This isn’t really their strength. Some interesting dogs but that’s about it.
OK, so how to rank them? Here’s my top five.
- Quick Step: Coming at the kings? Come correct.
- Sky: They... know what they’re doing.
- Bahrain-Merida: Next up? But they have to prove it first.
- Movistar: Valverde keeps them afloat for now.
- UAE? Lotto-Soudal? Big names, medium hopes.
Who ya got?