In cycling’s modern era, the Ardennes classics are won with a combination of supreme endurance, climbing talent, and above all, patience.
The Ardennes classics hold a special place in bike racing’s tapestry. While Milano-Sanremo often ends with a duel between sprinters, and the northern classics a battle between hardmen, the Ardennes — La Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and, by modern extension, Amstel Gold Race — are a clash among cycling’s long-distance thoroughbreds.
Set among the steep Walloon hills and deep forests of eastern Belgium’s coal country, the punishing races are some of the sport’s oldest. The trio of races has delivered some of the most epic, long-distance duels in cycling history. But those days are long gone. Over the past decade, much of the excitement and anticipation has been bulldozed by the smothering equality within the peloton. The last four winners of Liège — often called La Doyenne (“Old Dame”) since it is the sport’s oldest race, first contested in 1892 — have blasted from a select group on the final gradual grind to Ans.
“You would be crazy to try to attack at La Redoute today!” says 2011 winner Philippe Gilbert, referring to the milestone climb that comes with 35 kilometers to go. “It is impossible to arrive to the finish line from so far away. Today, everyone waits and waits, because the pace is too high.”
There was a time when a long-distance attack was nearly inevitable. The legends of the sport bolstered their mythology with unfathomable exploits. Exhibit A: Eddy Merckx won the race a record five times, and liked to use the Côte de Stockeu, some 100km from the finish line, as his favorite launching pad. In 1980, Bernard Hinault famously attacked with 80km to go to win what was dubbed “Neige-Bastogne-Neige” (Snow-Bastogne-Snow), battling through arctic temperatures, freezing rain, and snow. It took “the Badger” two days for his fingers to thaw out.
Today, we witness a different peloton, on the rivet until the final surge. It’s a shame. Instead of the dynamic, attack-riddled affairs, today’s Ardennes classics are largely a race of attrition — followed by a waiting game.
“The level is so high and so close between the leaders. And the speed is much higher, so when everyone is going faster, it is harder to make a big difference,” says ex-pro Patxi Vila, now a sport director at Bora-Hansgrohe. “And it’s harder to hold it, because you have to go faster than everyone and then maintain it. If you look to the climbing times, they are faster and faster, so you don’t have much chance to make a gap. But that is modern cycling.”
“You would be crazy to try to attack at La Redoute today.”
Another obvious reason for the tightening of the action in the Ardennes is the sport’s crackdown on doping. If we assume we’re watching a cleaner and more transparent peloton, we can safely reason it is a more egalitarian place. During the pinnacle of the doping era, long-distance attacks were a hallmark because they were more tenable — when the tank is full of jet fuel, with reserves to burn, racers could attack at will. In fact, in 1999, Frank Vandenbroucke had the audacity to predict he would attack on Liège’s La Redoute climb with 36km to go, and win. And that’s what he did, dropping two-time defending champion Michele Bartoli, and soloing home to win. Only later would it become clear this was the pinnacle of his career, before it spiraled out of control.
Today, nearly everyone agrees that riders are on their physical limits and have one or, at a maximum, two big surges in their legs. That’s why teams are more cautious about dropping the long bombs. One of the last to try it was Vincenzo Nibali, who attacked solo in 2012 on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons with 20km to go, only to be reeled in by the now-banned Maxim Iglinsky, formerly of Astana, with 1km to go. Since then, the last four winners have come out of small groups that surged clear on the final climb to Ans. A sign of a cleaner peloton? Maybe.
In response to the changing tactical dynamics, organizers have tweaked the respective courses. At Amstel Gold — though geographically not in the Ardennes region, it is bundled with the other two races — organizers moved the finish from the flats near the Meuse River to the top of the emblematic Cauberg climb over a decade ago. When that outcome became predictable, they relocated the finish line slightly more than a kilometer beyond the top of the Cauberg. It has produced electrifying finishes because of the difficulty in deciding when to attack. However, that has changed again for 2017, as the route will skirt the steep climb for the finish, perhaps opening up the race for late attackers.
By contrast, tweaks at Flèche have had little impact on the racing. In 2015, a new climb was slotted in ahead of the agonizingly steep Mur de Huy, which closes the race, to give would-be attackers more hope. Thus far, the outcome is the same: Flèche is still decided on the Mur.
Things are starker at Liège, considered one of the hardest races of the season. Into the 1990s, the famed La Redoute climb that comes with about 35km to go was considered the prime attacking point for winning moves. When the peloton stifled the action there, organizers added the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, with about 20km to go. It soon became a launching pad: Andy Schleck attacked there to win in 2009.
“The level is so high today that you only have one attack in the tank”
Today, even that is too far from the finish. Last year, a new cobbled climb was squeezed in between the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and the final, unclassified climb to the finish line at Ans. The result? Everything hinges on getting the timing right on the finale to Ans.
“The level is so high today that you only have one attack in the tank,” says 2013 winner Daniel Martin. “You can see how every team is so well drilled. Gone are the days when you can go to the races half-fit. Just to finish the race, you need to be fit. The winning margins are dropping. Everyone is going so hard, it is almost impossible to make a long attack. After that effort, when you are caught, you have nothing left.”
That’s not to say the Ardennes races are less prestigious within the peloton. Quite the contrary. Because the level is now so deep, the climbers covet their rare opportunity for success outside of the grand tours.
“They have changed the course, but the race stays the same,” says retired pro Frank Schleck. “There is no hiding; there is no mercy. It’s a monument. That says it all.”
Martin echoes that sentiment. As a climber and attacker, he has few chances for victory each season. At the Ardennes, however, he is a favorite every day he toes the line. Add the prestige and history, and Ardennes week remains eternal, even if it reflects the relative uniformity of the modern peloton.
“You start the day, and you need everything to go your way. It’s the poetic part of racing, it’s the magic of racing,” Martin says. “The classics inspire the most dramatic stories that make cycling such a beautiful sport. I think it’s incredible that the courses are more or less the same, so you’re testing yourself against history.”