The Ardennes classics will highlight the peloton's toughest climbers. Here are 10 top riders to watch.
The spring classics are almost over, but don’t despair. We have three hilly races remaining that offer a chance for the peloton’s tough climbers to prove their prowess: Amstel Gold Race is Sunday; Flèche Wallonne is Wednesday, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the spring’s final monument, is Sunday next. Here are 10 top favorites for this week of exciting racing.
10. Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida)
Riding for Pro Continental team Wanty-Groupe Gobert in 2016, Gasparotto stunned the WorldTour heavies with his second career win at Amstel Gold Race. Gasparotto is now aboard WorldTour squad Bahrain-Merida. Can he capture that magic again? At 35 years old, he might be getting a little long in the tooth, but he finished a respectable 14th place at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday.
9. Roman Kreuziger (Orica-Scott)
Another former Amstel winner (2013), Kreuziger might not be a hands-down favorite but remains one to watch at the Dutch race. Based on his Vuelta al Pais Vasco results, Kreuziger is riding into good form, however it’s not the same form he showed five years ago when he was a grand tour outsider. He’s not on the start list for Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which means he may play all of his cards at Amstel.
8. Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates)
Ulissi has never won during Ardennes week, but his palmares suggests it is only a matter of time. At 27, Ulissi thrives in brutally long, hilly races that finish with a painful punch. He peaks at the Giro d’Italia, and his most impressive wins include the monster 227-kilometer stage 11 of the 2016 Giro, as well as the 264km stage 7 of the 2015 Giro. He won both stages from diminished groups, which bodes well for his chances at the hilly classics. The Italian was also top-10 in Saturday’s Eibar time trial in Pais Vasco. The shorter Amstel and Flèche may not suit Ulissi, but the brutal, long Liege-Bastogne-Liege could fit his strengths.
7. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
What is GVA doing on this list of Ardennes favorites? Did our intern muck up my top-10 preview list? No, “Golden Greg” is racing Amstel Gold Race, and you’d be a fool to bet against him. He’s on the form of his life (see Paris-Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke), he can climb (see Olympic road race) and he has the punchy finish and tactical acumen to win from small breakaways (see all of the above). This year’s new Amstel course suits Van Avermaet, since organizers have pushed the Cauberg climb from the finish to 19 kilometers out from the line. Could this new feature give a small breakaway the chance to race for the win? If so, the race could easily fall into the clutches of Golden Greg.
6. Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb)
Australian Michael Matthews has yet to add a major one-day race to his rich trophy case, which includes stage wins in all three grand tours. All of those victories came for his old team, Orica. Matthews would love to win a classic in his new Sunweb team colors. He’s on good form, and won stage 1 at Pais Vasco, and finished 11th at Brabatse Pijl. Liege may be a bit too long and hilly for the Aussie, but Amstel’s new flat finish could suit his fast sprint.
5. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac)
Uran was oh-so-close to a career-defining win at the 2012 London Olympics, sprinting to second behind Alexander Vinokourov. Based on that day, you would have thought Uran would go on to rack up a few wins in the Ardennes. Cannondale-Drapac’s Colombian climber did win GP Cycliste de Quebec in 2015, but otherwise, his focus has been on the grand tours. For 2017, Uran has dedicated himself to an Ardennes campaign that will start at Flèche but is surely centered on Liège, where he was fifth in 2011.
4. Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors)
The 2013 Liège champion is sure to be a threat after coming up short in last year’s edition, where he was 47th. Backed by a deep Quick-Step team (which includes Philippe Gilbert… more on that later), Martin will have ample support in “La Doyenne” and won’t be under too much pressure to perform at Amstel or Flèche. Martin is also coming off of a sixth-place overall finish at Volta a Catalunya, where he was one of the best climbers. Could he translate that good form into another winning day at Liege?
3. Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
Sky’s Kwiatkowski has stormed through the spring, winning Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo. With two top-10 finishes at Pais Vasco last week, Kwiatkowski has not lost any of his winning form. He’s already an Amstel champ (2015), however that victory came on the course’s traditional Cauberg finish. Will the new route derail his ambitions? If Amstel isn’t in the cards, Kwiatkowski would love to win his second monument at Liege. With his teammate and last year’s champion Wout Poels sidelined by a knee injury, Kwiatkowski will have unmitigated support for the race. The last man to win both Milano-Sanremo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same year was Eddy Merckx in 1975.
2. Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
If you weren’t amazed by Gilbert’s win at Tour of Flanders a few weeks ago, you must not have been paying attention. The Belgian champion is riding with extra panache this season. It has been three years since he won in the Ardennes, so you can bet that he’ll be hungry to prove himself. Whether that means a daring attack over the Cauberg, 19km from the line in Amstel, or a burst of finishing speed up the Mur de Huy at Flèche, we are in for a great week of racing from Gilbert. He could also be an intriguing wild card to play if Quick-Step focuses on Martin as its leader in Liège. Between this week’s three hilly races, Gilbert has five career victories — three in Amstel, and one apiece in Flèche and Liège.
1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Remember what I said about Gasparotto getting old? Well that doesn’t apply to Valverde, 36, who is absolutely flying into the Ardennes with overall wins at Pais Vasco and Volta Catalunya and Ruta del Sol and the Tour of Murcia (sheesh, what hasn’t he won?) — a first in his storied career. Amstel is also a race that Valverde has never conquered. Perhaps the revised route will favor the Spanish star, nicknamed “The Unbeaten One” in his formative years. If not, he’ll have ample opportunities at Flèche, a race he’s won four times, including the last three editions (2014-2016), or at Liège, where he’s won three times, the last being in 2015.