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There’s gold in them there hills!

A look to Sunday’s first parts of the Ardennes trilogies

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Something that reliably winds me up is the very notion of a guilty pleasure. It is, as we say nowadays, signalling. The message is, “I like [x] but I consider myself better than the people who like [x]. I’m more of a [y] person, but by some fluke I just happen to like [x] more than [y].” Nope. You like what you like, and so long as you aren’t harming anyone, crack on.

Me, I’ve got no guilt. I like watching property shows, listening to Kenny Rogers, and eating donner kebabs when sober (though not for £60). I like other things, too, but I feel no guilt about any of those choices. In related news, I like the Ardennes races. I don’t think I’m supposed to, as a cycling fan. I think I’m supposed to have more sophisticated tastes. Not me. Without any guilt, I like races where the guy who crosses the line first wins. I like races that have a bit of climbing, but also some flat bits. I like a bit of suspense at the finish. I like lots of famous names. I like knowing when to tune in to see the good parts of the race.

Mmmmm... guilt free supper
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Could the Ardennes be better? Sure. Liege runs through some ugly terrain. Amstel is very long. Fleche is basically a hill sprint. All three races can be a bit predictable. They also can’t shake the “after the Lord Mayor’s show” feeling of following the Flanders-Roubaix double bill. Still, as Seems pointed out a few weeks ago, sometimes after a rich meal, you just want reliable old ice cream. In that spirit, serve me up a scoop of hilly, first past the post, reliable fun. The Ardennes week starts on Sunday, beginning with Amstel, the race named for the soft scoop of lagers.

The practical stuff

It is nice to enter a week with three big races, and men’s and women’s editions of each. On Sunday, both races start in Maastricht, complete some dizzying loops, and finish in Berg en Terblijt. The men cover 266km and 35 hellingen, and the women 127km and 19 hellingen. Basically, if you stand on a slope somewhere between Maastricht and the German and Belgian borders to the east, there will be riders going past you for most of the day.

Men’s map: loopy

The men’s course hasn’t changed since Chris looked at it last year, and the same hills will be key, with the short but savage Gulperberg (600m at 5.7%, with a toughest gradient at 13.9%, taken twice), Eyserbosweg (900m, 9.3%, 17%) and Keutenberg (1200m, 5.9%, 22%) among the leg-softeners, with the Cauberg, Geulhemmerberg and Bemelberg passages in the closing kilometres making this tough all the way to the finish, which comes a bumpy 6km past the final named climb.

Men’s profile: bumpy

The women’s race takes in many of the same climbs and finishes with the Cauberg as the decisive climb, as the men’s race used to. There’s a fast 1.8km finish after the third and final passage (800m, 6.5%, 12.8%). The order is different, but the Geulhemmerberg, Bemelberg, Cauberg trio in the last 18km ensure this will be at least as tough a finish as the men’s.

Women’s map: also loopy

In both races, no one climb will be decisive, but tackling so many climbs on narrow roads will soften legs and drop domestiques, and neither race is expected to come down to a bunch finish. In happier news for the peloton, the weather is set fair. There’s also good news for the armchair fan, with both races set to be televised in the usual places. Take them for what they’re worth, but the expected timings see the men hit the Guelhemmerberg and business time at 83km to go around 3pm local, with an estimated finish somewhere just after 5pm local. The women, meanwhile, are due to finish around 2.30pm local and things should get good from about 1pm or a bit before, assuming that the Guelhemmerberg serves as the blue touch paper for their race too.

Women’s profile: also bumpy

Who wins the men’s race?

Having said that the Ardennes can be a little too predictable, that is least true of Amstel Gold. This is the third year with the new finish and there’s yet to be a clear understanding of how the race will be won. Tougher sprinters could certainly feature, but there’s plenty of opportunity for a strong break to stay away, or for a puncheur to go clear on the final lap. Michael Valgren won from a two-man late break last year, and Phillipe Gilbert won in 2017 (his fourth victory) in similar fashion.

Both men will be back for more in 2019 and it is the evergreen Gilbert who carries by far the better form into the race. He’ll be joined by a predictably strong squad, for whom Julian Alaphilippe is the named leader. With eight wins this year, including the Strade Bianche and Milan San-Remo double, he’s the rider to beat, and he showed he retains form in finished second at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday.

Yeah, Phil’s on form
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The man who beat him that day, Mathieu van der Poel, is one of the few other riders who would be confident of winning from a large group or a solo break. Like Alaphilippe, he comes in with excellent form (his Brabant victory followed wins in Denain and Dwars door Vlanderen, as well as a battling fourth in Flanders on his monument debut). He’s the bookies’ favourite and one has to quibble to find weaknesses. I wonder about his team support, whether he can retain his form after a long peak, and about his over-attacking style, but none of these are insurmountable problems for the revelation of the 2019 road season.

Plenty of others will line up to oppose Phil Gil, Ala and MvdP. To those three, I’d add three more favourites. Tim Wellens and Wout van Aert are excellent climbers in good form, but both would want to get to the line on their own. Nobody will want them in the front group towards the end, but it is quite probable that both will make it, and if so, expect fireworks on the final lap. Another name to conjure with is Alejandro Valverde. I don’t need to tell any of you about his tactical excellence, solid climbing, and devastating finish. Curious that he’s never won this race despite many high finishes, but we said that about the World Championships until last autumn.

I don’t know if we’ll see a group of 10-15 coming to the line together this year, but my strong suspicion is that we’ll see it on this course at some point soon. If this is the year we see a reduced sprint finish, there are plenty of good climbers with excellent finishes in the field. Given their relative form and upside, I’d have them ranked as follows: Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, Greg van Avermaet, Matteo Trentin. Your milage may vary.

Others still will want to see a tougher and more broken race. If a break goes clear and there are men up the road towards the finish, look out for the likes of DQS third-string and possible spoiler Peter Serry, the Trek double act of Jasper Stuyven and Tom Skujins (the former seeking glory after a cripplingly disappointing cobbles season), Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski (who, but for injury and uncertain form, would be on my list of favourites) and Wout Poels, and just about anyone from a strong-on-paper UAE team, with wunderkind Tadej Pogacar one to watch in particular.

Who wins the women’s race?

As with the men, there’s a stellar cast list for the women’s race, and the list of potential winners is long too. The differences in course from the men’s race – in particular, the fact that the last climb comes much closer to the finish, reducing the chances of regrouping – mean that a bunch finish looks less likely for the women. The smaller teams and more dynamic racing style of the women’s peloton further increase the chance of a solo winner or one from a very small group.

The bookies haven’t priced this race, but if they did, Annemiek van Vleuten would be favourite. She’s on great form and looked among the strongest riders in Flanders, and this course will suit her better. A repeat of her dominant solo win in Strade Bianche is not impossible and even if she’s still got company late in the final lap, everyone will be dreading her attack. Her Mitchelton-Scott teammate, Amanda Spratt, is something of an Ardennes specialist and is riding very well this year, and could be one to spring a Wolfpack-esque surprise on the field, or benefit from an easy ride if she can get in a group chasing AvV.

Anna van der Breggen returns to the road and if she’s back in form, she’ll be one to watch. She took this in 2017, and is the consummate Ardennes racer (winning the last four editions of Fleche Wallonne, and the last two Liege-Bastogne-Lieges). If she falters, 2018 winner Chantal Blaak, and mountain bike star (and Strade Bianche 2nd) Annika Langvad provide enticing options for the always-powerful Boels squad.

Don’t rule out a repeat win
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A few other teams bring strength in support of their leaders. Sunweb looked excellent against a weak field in Brabantse Pijl, and whilst Coryn Rivera couldn’t finish that off, she’s back for more. The team can also hope for success from Lucinda Brand, who was second last year and looked to be improving as the cobbles season progressed. Kasia Niewiadoma is the trump card for Canyon Cycling but Alexis Ryan might be a very good ace. Both are young and improving riders, and Ryan has enjoyed some of her best days in the Ardennes.

It’ll be interesting to see Lizzie Deignan back in the saddle, and she’s picked a very tough day to return from maternity leave. My suspicion is that she’s aiming at targets much later in the season (and much closer to her Yorkshire roots) and will be riding in support of teammates, including Elisa Longo Borghini, who has an excellent chance if she can stick on the toughest climbs. Finally, I’ll mention my outsider pick, Sofia Bertizzolo. The young Italian has ridden brilliantly in support of Virtu Cycling leader Marta Bastianelli, and still managed to pick up 4th in Flanders for herself. She’s a handy climber and shorn of domestique duties can certainly improve on last year’s 13th.

Prediction time!

For the men’s race, I’m going to predict a reduced bunch make it to the finish and Peter Sagan takes the win, proving that his form really is coming right for Liege and preventing second-placed Alejandro Valverde from ticking yet another race off his to-do list. Julian Alaphillipe isn’t a man easily satisfied by third place but that’s where I have him on a classy podium.

I certainly don’t see the women’s race coming down to a sprint, and at the risk of being predictable I have Annemiek van Vleuten taking the win, ahead of surprise second Sofia Bertizzolo and AvV’s gallant teammate Amanda Spratt, giving us a podium with a little more surprise factor than we’ll see when the men roll over the line a couple of hours after the women step off the stage.

Wait, they’ve left a gap...
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...yup, that’ll fill it nicely
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