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Ardennes week: Why we love the hilly classics

Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège — our editors pick their favorites. What's yours?

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Three races, two distinct geographical regions, and one headline-friendly tagline — bundled together they’re known as the Ardennes classics.

Amstel Gold Race is named after a beer (not a bad thing). Flèche Wallonne is the “arrow of the Walloon,” and Liège-Bastogne-Liège is an out-and-back across the rugged, forested hinterlands of eastern Belgium.

Technically, the Limburg region of the Netherlands is distinct from the hilly Ardennes area just 20 miles to the south. Yet the three races are linked by history and profiles.

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All three races feature sharp, short climbs, contested over often narrow farm roads, and often under inclement weather. Is anyone old enough to remember “Neige-Bastogne-Neige?”

For a special breed of riders, the treble is one of the highlights of the entire racing season. The puncheurs and even the odd GC rider take over from the brawny cobblestone specialists, with the steep hills along the Meuse valley giving the edge to the leaner and meaner climbers.

Some consider the Ardennes treble a bit of an anti-climax coming on the heels of the dynamic cobblestone classics. It’s true these races are more attritional in nature and cannot match the drama of racing over the punishing pavé, yet all three hold their allure.

Our editors at VeloNews pick their favorites:

Sadhbh O’Shea — Amstel Gold Race

Marianne Vos is in her 15th pro season but not slowing down just yet. Photo: Dion Kerckhofs – Pool/Getty Images

The Amstel Gold Race is by far my favorite of the Ardennes races, even if it isn’t actually in the Ardennes. It has the best course, the best peloton, and the best racing of the three, and you’re not going to change my mind.

Sunday’s dramatic action in both the men’s and women’s competition should be enough proof as to why it is the superior of the three races. But it wasn’t just this year that delivered the goods in terms of the drama.

By moving the final climb further out from the finish, it has allowed the action to open up far earlier and gets rid of a lot of the negative tactics that is often associated with the Ardennes races. Attacking is not a kamikaze mission at the Amstel Gold Race.

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Though it doesn’t always work out for the breakaway, it always feels like there’s a good chance that it will, and I like the race for that reason. When was the last time you saw a breakaway rider winning, or even getting close to it, at Flèche Wallonne?

Amstel Gold Race’s place in the calendar also allows it to have a more diverse peloton as many of the cobbled classics riders, such as Tom Pidcock and Wout van Aert, close out the first part of their season at it.

The wider mix of riding styles means it is a much harder race to predict, making it even better than Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Andrew Hood — Flèche Wallonne

The fans packed the Mur de Huy to watch the peloton make multiple laps up the climb before a final lung-busting effort to the finish. Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Someone had to say Flèche Wallonne, right?

Sandwiched between Amstel Gold Race and Liège, poor ol’ Flèche has a lost a bit of its luster over the decades. It used to rank right up there with Liège in importance as part of “le weekend Ardennaise,” and its winner’s list reflects its importance in the sport.

The “Walloon Arrow” reminds me a bit of Milano-Sanremo. It’s boring as hell for four-fifths of the race, but that finale is something else. If Sanremo’s action is compacted to the final 20 minutes, Flèche Wallonne is even more succinct.

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It all comes down to the Mur de Huy. At 1,300m long, the Mur packs an average grade of 9.3 percent and one bend at 26 percent. It takes riders a few years to work out the dynamics of the Mur, but riders like five-time winner Alejandro Valverde and six-time winner Anna van der Breggen know exactly where to jump.

It is one bloody steep stretch of pavement, and it’s been the finale of the men’s race since 1984 and 1998 for the women. Race organizers have tried to spice up the route a bit, adding a few climbs as a preamble, but it always comes down to cycling’s shortest but most explosive finale.

It’s the unofficial puncheurs world championships, and though it doesn’t last very long, it’s one finale that cannot be missed.

Jim Cotton — Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Jakob Fuglsang attacked the final climb of the day to ride solo to victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the biggest result of his career. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

I’m going with “La Doyenne.”

The change of route in 2019 rescued the toughest, oldest monument of them all from its growing reputation for being a bit of a predictable snoozer.

The shifting of the finish from the grim and grey uphill grind in Ans to a flat finish in Liège progressed the race from a stale attritional slug-fest to a more open and aggressive race. With the final hill arriving around five kilometers from the finish line, the race is now open to both climbers and tough sprinters who can cling on through the hills.

That change of parcours and newfound accessibility to a range of riders shifts the dynamic from before. With the new route, some riders try to take the initiative early while others try to defend for a reduced bunch kick, which makes for an interesting interplay of tactics, ambitions, and strategies.

I’m also quite a big fan of Amstel Gold Race, but LBL has an ace card up its sleeve – the design of the race.

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I’m a big fan of races with a sense of narrative and progression, and I dig the way that “La Doyenne” heads out of Liège through the green rolling hills of the Ardennes before hitting Bastogne and taking on a totally different complexion.

The return leg takes the bunch through a series of grey, gritty villages and a procession of even grimmer leg-breaking climbs that see only the strongest survive, leaving an elite bunch to throw haymakers at each other through the final climbs. Amstel Gold Race’s “spaghetti-on-a-plate” parcours of repeated roads, multiple loops, and déjà vu hills feels confusing and endless, and somehow less engrossing.

Here’s hoping Sunday’s rendition of LBL lives up to the praise I just piled upon it, and lives up to its potential as the most dynamic and engrossing of the three Ardennes races.