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GENK, Belgium (VN) — As usual, American outfit Garmin-Sharp finds itself a bit of an outsider as it heads into the hilly classics. As usual, the team prefers it that way. And unsurprisingly, the team itself maintains its traditional looseness — the riders all piled into a boat on a rarely sunny Belgian afternoon — in spite of having the defending Liège-Bastogne-Liège champion on its roster.
But make no mistake here: Garmin brings a very deep team into the Ardennes classics, one with 2013 Liège winner Dan Martin of Ireland. But Garmin doesn’t have the megastar of a Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), who won all three Ardennes races in 2011, and it doesn’t have the deep expectations of a Belgian team. The squad kicks off Ardennes week at Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race.
Alex Howes, one of Garmin’s key support riders, says he’s unsure of the pressure the team will face, particularly in Liège next weekend. The team hasn’t found itself in this position before.
“I’ve never had to defend Liège. We’ve never been in this position before. I think we’re fortunate in the fact that we’ve always been seen as underdogs,” Howes said, reclined on a couch at the team hotel a short distance from the start of Amstel. “But maybe that’ll change a little bit this year. But honestly, you look at the guys coming to these races. Guys like Gilbert, and Purito [Joaquim Rodriguez], [Alejandro] Valverde. Hitters. They’ll have a full squad around them, very deep squads as well. We’re definitely not the favorites.”
That’s a role the Garmin boys prefer. Martin won Liège last year to many people’s surprise when he unfurled a devastating final kick, dropping Rodriguez (Katusha) in the process. On that day, Garmin employed attacking teamwork brilliantly, as it sent a flying Ryder Hesjedal up the road to provoke the race rather than truly try and control anything. That’s not what wildcards do, control things.
Martin is excited to be back, and why not? Starting a monument with the ones on his back is something he’s looking forward to.
“Obviously in the past we’ve been relatively successful. Even last year coming into it I’d been sixth in Flèche and fifth in Liège,” Martin said. “And so we were optimistic about what we could achieve. I don’t think any of us could imagine that we’d be coming away with victory, but yeah, it happened. And to be starting Liège this year with the number ones on my back? It’s going to be incredible. It’s a pleasure to ride that race and I’ll be really proud pinning those numbers on. But at the same time, that’s last year, it’s done, it’s finished.”
Come Sunday in Valkenburg, it’s all business. The Amstel Gold Race climbs more than 13,000 feet and has riders packed into small streets for six, seven hours. Martin said he’s thinking of Amstel first and foremost, and that the rest of the Ardennes can wait.
In his Garmin teammates, Howes sees a deep lineup and, as a result, doesn’t think he has much of a chance to ride for himself in the Ardennes. He finished sixth in Brabantse Pijl (Brabant Arrow) in 2012.
“We’ve got a really, really deep team for Amstel, Flèche, and Liège,” Howes said. “It goes all the way down. We’re defending the Liège title. And Ryder Hesjedal’s always really good in these races. Tom-Jelte [Slagter], he’s been kicking phenomenally in the finals. Nathan [Haas] is looking good this year. Fabian Wegmann … He’s always there. On paper, I’m the weakest link.”
Garmin, even with a champ, is an underdog. The squad won’t hold any press conferences — maybe one before Liège for Martin — and won’t be stared at to constrict the races.
“We’re fine with that,” Howes said. “We’re gonna throw down.”