Love hurts: The give and take of the Ardennes

The Ardennes classics serve up the full package of thinking man's races, where it's game on from start to finish and one miscue ends it all

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VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) — The soft morning light bounced off the city hall, into the main square in Maastricht, and Andy Schleck said in this moment these were his favorite races of the year.

It wasn’t hard to see why. The square was loud and the sun was shining and the roads the peloton would soon flow over dissected this tiny country in one-lane cuts across fields and through orderly and straight-walled Dutch towns.

And then, a short time later, Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) crashed and later pulled out of the Amstel Gold Race, a victim of a pileup that also drowned the hopes of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). It was an indication how quickly things can change in bike racing, no matter the rider or the route, though there’s a much greater chance of an incident in Amstel or even La Flèche Wallonne. One of his favorite races put him on the ground.

A broadcaster referred to Amstel Gold as an elimination race on Sunday, and he couldn’t have been more right. Rodriguez was a sure bet to factor in the late fight on the Cauberg. Geraint Thomas (Sky) also crashed out when “someone decided he wanted a wee and just turned 90 degrees right,” he said on Twitter. Tony Martin clipped wheels with an Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate and had a long and lonely chase back on, to finish in 72nd place, more than six minutes down.

They wasted no time at all, these cruel hilly classics, in their dream-ending. And though at first blush these don’t feel like the iconoclasts the classics to the north have become, these Ardennes week races are special and edgy, built for riders who manage the left-right-left-up-down-up calculation. For six hours.

“It’s like back and forth and up and down. I crashed last year in one of the big crashes, and I still loved it,” said Tinkoff-Saxo’s Rory Sutherland. “It’s just a really cool feeling and the people out there and the fact that the sun is shining — it’s a beautiful area to ride a bike.”

And, here’s this from the yet-to-crash Schleck:

“These are my three favorite races of the year. Many years I try to do good — I did good in Flèche, and I won Liège. Amstel I always came close but never really made it to the podium. So of course everybody wants to go to the podium, but I’m really motivated. Especially for today and next Sunday. I believe the team is ready. We did good races and good preparation before. We hope the best.”

They always do, though it seldom happens. That’s racing, but that’s also racing the thin and bendy Amstel. Up next is Flèche, on Wednesday — not as harrowing as Amstel, but still very much a racer’s race.

“They’re kind of nasty races. The sort of races that it really takes a full package,” said Garmin-Sharp’s Alex Howes.

“You’ve got to know how to drive your bike real well. You’ve got to be a pretty strong climber but also have to have a pretty sound understanding of how the tactics are going to work out. It takes a bit of luck — knowing how you’re going to play your cards. And very often the weather is not good.

“So it’s a full race, from beginning to the end you’ve got to be switched on. And each one is like six and half hours of full gas.”

BMC Racing showed Sunday it has brains and brawn. The team rode a clean, forceful race, using the right riders to reel in the break, and then playing its cards — cards most teams would call aces — to perfection late in the race. Greg Van Avermaet leapt into the Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) attack. Samuel Sanchez burnt his book of matches low on the Cauberg, making the race thin instantly. And then, pop, Philippe Gilbert reminded the sport he was still Philippe Gilbert. Being strong wouldn’t have been enough. At least according to the riders.

“You have to think. If all you’re thinking about is right turn left turn up down this that, you’re not going to get very far,” Howes said. “You’ve got to be thinking two steps ahead the whole time. ‘Okay. Who’s playing this, who’s playing that, where are we going, what’s coming up here, can I sag this climb if we’re coming on to a big road after that? Do I really need to put the effort in here? Is it going to save my ass 5k down the line?’”

And though he abandoned Sunday, Garmin’s Dan Martin will return to fight for the next two, in Flèche and Liège.

“I just love the one-day races. It’s same as Lombardia, also one of my favorite one-day races. I just love that. Starting completely fresh, everything you’ve done to prepare properly for it. The two or three days before you’re just tapering. You probably feel as good as you can possibly feel at the start line of these races. Especially Liège, after the four days. Flèche, you always feel Amstel a little bit, but Liège, it’s always you’re super fresh and it’s everything on the line. One tactical mistake, you lose the race.”

Or, one crash. But, ask any rider or director and, to a man, they will all tell you that it’s just part of the game.

“I will never say it’s too dangerous. … It’s dangerous, we know. We are professional,” said Sky director Nicolas Portal. “Maybe because I come from the mountain bike, you know, sometimes you take some risks. You have nothing on the right side, but if you want to win the race, you need to be strong on the climb, and technically strong, too. On the road it’s the same.”

Before he abandoned, Martin said the peloton was particularly well mannered. Asked if there’s a reprieve from the tension, he wasn’t sure. He’s crashed out of Flèche twice.

“The peloton showed a lot of respect today,” he said. “I wasn’t there for the final, so I don’t know how hectic it got then, but from what I saw it was a lot more relaxed than previous years.

“For sure there’s a lot of road furniture here in Holland. It’s the left right up down. It’s a lot more about positioning. It’s natural the guys are going to fight for position a lot harder. Whereas Flèche and Liège, it’s definitely more, the legs do the talking. Especially at Liège.

“Flèche is still a big fight for position at the bottom of the Mur, but even then, it’s not just that last steep part. It’s a hard climb into the bottom of the Mur. … At the same time, I’ve crashed two or three times in Flèche. I think I’ve crashed out of the race twice in Flèche.

“So it’s — it’s cycling. Accidents can happen anywhere, you know?”