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Daryl Impey: The ultimate Ardennes dark horse

Michael Woods will be back for Amstel Gold Race after crashing out of Itzulia Basque Country, Dan Martin will skip Ardennes.

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Daryl Impey might not be among the pre-race favorites coming into Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège to close out the spring classics.

That could change in an instant.

The South African veteran is hoping to upset the oddsmakers with a strong run across the hills of the Limberg and Ardennes regions of the Netherlands and Belgium over the next few weekends.

“This year I can build up for the Ardennes with more of a target,” Impey told VeloNews. “In the past, it’s been a mad rush. This year it’s been a nice change in the program.”

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Along with Michael Woods, Impey will be among the leaders for Israel Start-Up Nation in Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Team officials also confirmed Wednesday that Woods will start Amstel Gold Race this weekend following a spill at last week’s Itzulia Basque Country, when he crashed with cuts and abrasions in stage 4. Woods was not seriously injured but did not start the next day in order to be fully prepared for the Ardennes.

Former Liège winner Dan Martin will race the Tour of the Alps next week alongside Chris Froome, and will not race the Ardennes this spring, team officials confirmed.

On paper, the explosive Ardennes races favor Woods, and he will be the team’s first choice in the hilly courses. Woods has been nipping at the edge of a major victory in the Ardennes, with second in Liège in 2018, and third at Flèche Wallonne last year.

“I was on really good form and I still am, but I have to take a look at the bigger picture,” Woods said last week. “My main goals are the Ardennes, and I don’t want to make things worse.”

Also read: Daryl Impey on his African roots

The lumpy profiles also favor Impey, who packs a fast finishing kick coming out of select groups. Though his best result in the Ardennes was 23rd in 2019, the 36-year-old comes flying into the important classics window on top form.

So far in 2021, he’s hit the podium three times. He was second in February at the one-day Royal Bernard Drôme Classic, winning the bunch sprint behind solo winner Andrea Bagioli. Only Peter Sagan bested him in a bunch kick in stage 6 at Volta a Catalunya, and he won the bunch sprint in stage 5 at Itzulia Basque Country behind a three-rider winning breakaway.

Those results confirm that Impey — a Tour de France stage-winner in 2019 — is storming into the Ardennes ready to perform at a high level.

One reason why: Impey didn’t have the pressure to race the Santos Tour Down Under to win.

For years, Impey carried the weight to perform in January on home roads for team sponsor GreenEdge. Especially following the retirement of Simon Gerrans, the mantle of leadership and the responsibility to deliver the win for Australian sponsors fell on Impey.

The South African delivered in a big way, winning the Tour Down Under in 2018 and 2019, and then followed that up with third in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race each of those years as well. Last year, he carried the leader’s jersey into the final stage but was out-gunned by Richie Porte on Old Willunga Hill.

Also read: Old Willunga Hill decides TDU crown

His transfer from Team BikeExchange to Israel Start-Up Nation on a two-year deal means that Impey could approach the 2021 racing calendar in a dramatically different way.

“The Tour Down Under is a fantastic race, and I love racing down there,” Impey said. “It was very demanding to train through December and with our sponsors down there, there was a lot at stake every year. The Tour Down Under takes quite a bit out of you at that time of year. This year’s it’s been a nice change in the program.”

So instead of trying to hit peaks of form across various points on the calendar, Impey is a bit relieved to return to a more traditional approach to the season.

“It was almost like having three peaks for the season,” Impey explained. “It was a mad rush, to be ready for the Tour Down Under, then again for the Ardennes, and then for the Tour. It’s nice to not have that full-blown pressure so early in the season. That pressure will still come, but it will come later in the year, and in a different way.”

And what about Froome’s hopes for the Tour de France? Impey said no one should doubt Froome’s drive and resolve.

“After the classics, it’s all guns blazing to make the Tour de France team,” Impey said. “Having Chris on the team is great for morale, and everyone knows he will be targeting the Tour. I know he can win another Tour de France, and it will be great to not only be part of that team, but to play an important role.”

Before helping Froome in July, Impey is hoping to shine in April.