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Marta Cavalli on course to do Ardennes classics triple at Liège-Bastogne-Liège

With commanding wins at Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, the Italian is on course to join Anna van der Breggen as the only women to win all three hilly classics.

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Marta Cavalli could be on the brink of something big.

The FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope rider has enjoyed the best spring campaign of her young career and is on course to complete a historic Ardennes classics triple.

As always in women’s cycling, the Ardennes triple of the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège has not been available to the riders for very long given that the latter of those three was only introduced for the first time in 2017.

Meanwhile, Amstel only made a brief appearance on the calendar in the early 2000s and only returned in 2017 also.

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In the short time that these three races have run concurrently, only one rider has won all three in the same season, Anna van der Breggen. Indeed, Van der Breggen is the only female rider that has won all three races, period.

Could Cavalli join her in this elite club?

Cavalli, who is still just 24 and joined the WorldTour last season, is in the form of her young career and with her recent results she is a red-hot favorite for Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The race is arguably tougher than at Amstel and Flèche, but it still suits her wide range of skills.

She will, however, have to fend off a very determined Annemiek van Vleuten and an SD Worx looking to change its fortunes in the Ardennes.

Should Cavalli claim victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège this weekend and take a clean sweep at the hilly classics, it would be an impressive feat made even more so by the fact that she scored a fifth place at Paris-Roubaix amidst it all.

Women’s cycling sees many more all-rounders compared to the men’s peloton, but the achievement of notching up these big results on such differing parcours should not be sniffed at.

Her previous best finish across all three of the major hilly classics was 14th in last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At the Amstel Gold Race, 33rd back in 2019 was her best effort and she had previously been as high as 17th in La Flèche Wallonne in 2020.

A year with FDJ gave the team a chance to figure out better where her strengths and weaknesses were and work on them over the winter. It is this work that she credits for her step up this season, as well as some new equipment.

“It’s a great satisfaction for me because as I said after the Amstel, I worked a lot this winter with Flavien [Soenen — team sport director] and the whole team,” Cavalli said Wednesday. “We developed a lot of things, on the [equipment], on the bikes, and yesterday we chose the lightest components, and we took care of all the little details. It’s great teamwork. I must say a big thank you to everyone, and especially to Stephen [Delcourt — team manager] who trusts me every day.”

Cavalli’s presence at the pointy end this spring is also thanks to her FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope teammates. The French squad has been building its roster since stepping up to the WorldTour in 2020 and it is paying dividends this year.

Brodie Chapman and Evita Muzic brought the Italian back into contention after she missed a key split Wednesday, and they will be there for her again Sunday. Grace Brown and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig are also set to return to the peloton this weekend, bumping up the strength of the squad.

While both Brown and Uttrup Ludwig can win this race and would be very good backup plans, it would be wise for FDJ not to muddy the waters too much in its tactics and put as much force behind Cavalli as it can muster. Both riders must be prepared to sacrifice their own chances for the team’s overall chances.

Getting the better of Annemiek van Vleuten on the Mur de Huy

Winning is sometimes as much about “nous” as it is about form and power, and Cavalli has had to use all of that on her way to her two wins so far this spring.

At the Amstel Gold Race, she waited patiently over the Cauberg before making the most of a lull in the action as the small group she was in crested the ascent. Wednesday proved to be a waiting game too, but she would have to hold her nerve until far closer to the line.

When Annemiek van Vleuten made her attack for the line with just under 400 meters to go, Cavalli paced herself into the wheel of the Dutch rider. She wouldn’t have the power to drop Van Vleuten on the steepest gradients and had to wait for the slightly flatter terrain, with just 50m to go, to make her move.

“It was a crazy race today, with an even crazier finish than the race itself. A big break formed in the second part of the race, but I had a strong team behind me. The whole team rode together and tried to close the gap.

“We finally joined the breakaway before the Côte de Cherave. At that point, the real struggle began. There were a lot of attacks on the penultimate climb, but I made it to the top with the first riders,” she said. “In the final climb of the Mur de Huy, I tried to keep the best position and I was in the wheel of Annemiek van Vleuten.

“She was climbing at a very steady pace, but I was able to stay with her. In the last 500 meters, I had good feelings and I tried to stay calm, and have a cool head, and concentrate only on my feelings. I’m very happy because in the last meters I tried to attack Annemiek and to do my sprint if I can say so, and it worked because I was able to widen the gap and beat her. It’s not usual, because she is one of the strongest riders in the peloton.”