It’s amazing how quickly things can change from one season to the next. This year, GreenEdge won Milan-San Remo with a rejuvenated Simon Gerrans—not with Matthew Goss, the defending champion. Tom Boonen tore through the cobbled classics after two seasons of relative mediocrity, while Fabian Cancellara was nowhere to be seen after bad luck and a broken collarbone ruined his April. Now a winless Philippe Gilbert looks to be a complete non-factor in races he dominated less than a year ago.
So with the Ardennes classics upon us—beginning with this Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race—what can we expect? Will former champions like Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego take a page from Boonen’s book and return to prominence in races they once dominated? Or will new stars have a chance to emerge? And what about Gilbert? Will his spring be a complete failure?
Here are six riders to watch over the next ten days:
Cadel Evans – Publicly, Cadel Evans has said all the right things regarding BMC’s off-season spending spree, but I wonder if he was nevertheless upset with BMC for signing Gilbert and Thor Hushovd. And why shouldn’t he have been? After all, as the team of the defending Tour champion, why add two riders to the roster who will do little more than help themselves to stage wins come July? The team could have easily afforded 2-3 experienced and talented support riders, men capable of helping Evans win another yellow jersey.
So don’t be surprised to see Evans send a message to his new colleagues and team management between now and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next Sunday. After winning the Criterium International, Evans has spent the past three weeks training and will certainly be his team’s best man over the next ten days. His team’s strong too, with Greg Van Avermaet serving as an able-bodied lieutenant and Gilbert a wild card who should at least keep some teams honest. By the time it’s all said and done, look for the former Fleche champion to add another Ardennes feather to his cap—possibly as early as this Sunday. And remember, Amstel is raced on a course similar to what the peloton at Worlds later this year—Evans could be giving himself an early edge on the competition.
Samuel Sanchez – Samuel Sanchez dominated last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco and now heads into the Ardennes classics as a top favorite. While the Euskaltel rider tends to perform better in stage races, his 2008 Olympic gold medal stands as proof that he can handle himself in one-day events. Of the three races between now and next Sunday, Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege suit Sanchez the best. He has multiple top-10 finishes in both events and a team dedicated to supporting him.
Joaquim Rodriguez – Of all the riders to consistently perform well in the Ardennes classics over the past few seasons, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez is easily the best to never have won one. Were it not for an indomitable Philippe Gilbert, Rodriguez would certainly have a won at least one of the Ardennes classics (or two, or three) last April—he finished second to Gilbert in both Amstel and Fleche (his second time as runner-up in the midweek event). Like Sanchez, Rodriguez enjoyed a fantastic Pais Vasco and heads to the Ardennes feeling confident and strong. Amstel and Fleche Wallone suit him best as both races end with steep climbs that suit Rodgriguez’s ascending talents
Simon Gerrans – GreenEdge might have been a bit surprised when Simon Gerrans won Milan-San Remo as it wasn’t exactly the race they signed him for—but the Ardennes classics were. Assuming Gerrans has fortified his Tour Down Under and Primavera-winning fitness over the past few weeks, there’s little reason to believe the Australian won’t improve on his Ardennes performance from 2009—when he finished inside the top-10 at all three races while riding for the Cervelo TestTeam. Volta Catalunya-winner Michael Albasini will play key role in GreenEdge’s strategy. He’s one of the sport’s better domestiques right now and will certainly force other teams to chase should he get up the road. Can this talented duo add to GreenEdge’s World Tour win total?
Alejandro Valverde – Much to the displeasure of many fans, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde has returned to the sport—and the top step of the podium. That said, while the Movistar rider bears watching in all three races, I wonder if the lack of a grand tour in his legs will hurt him. Amstel and Liege are long, grueling races—Valverde’s riding without the benefit of a full season racing in his legs, a factor that could limit him in the latter phases of both events. Then again, we’re talking about a rider with talent to spare and it’s not as if he sat around watching football during his suspension. Should he win next Sunday, he’ll be the second rider in three years to return from suspension and win La Doyenne.
Vincezo Nibali – My how far the Italians have fallen. The spring classics used to be Italy’s happy hunting ground as riders such as Argentin, Ballerini, Tafi, Bartoli, Bettini, DiLuca, Cunego, and Rebellin (yeah, I know about those last two) won scores of monuments in the Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts. But lately, Italy’s been reduced to a country of bridesmaids rather than brides, where its best riders’ best results are podium finishes and top-10’s. Enter Vincenzo Nibali—his nation’s best hope for success over the ten days. Easily Italy’s most exciting rider thus far this season, “Nibbles” looks to take a big bite out of the Ardennes (sorry, I couldn’t resist) before deciding whether to tackle the Giro or the Tour. If he rides like he did in Tirreno and Milan-San Remo, he could easily score himself a place on the cover of next month’s Bicisport. Liege—a race in which he already has two top-10 finishes on his resume—is his best bet.
In the end, I see Gerrans taking Amstel, Rodriguez winning Fleche Wallone, and Evans winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege—thus sending a message to both his Tour rivals and his teammates that he is indeed one of the best in the world.
On a personal note, I’m happy to say I made it back safe and sound after 10 days in Belgium and France to ride and watch the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about my experiences in the days to come, but for now I’ll leave you with this: the Tour of Flanders is held annually on the 14th Sunday of the year—start planning your own trip now.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti