Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) leads a fleet of top Paris-Roubaix names into Amstel Gold Race this weekend as the northern classics push into hillier terrain.
And that’s where it will end for most of the top cobble-eaters.
Roubaix-winner Sagan is among several riders coming out of the cobblestoned one-days who will pull the plug on their classics campaign after Sunday’s Amstel Gold. Route changes over the past few years that relocated the finish away from the top of the Cauberg climb has made racing the Dutch classic more alluring, but few of the cobble-bashers will continue to pedal into the Ardennes at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The recently crowned Roubaix winner returns to the lumpy Limburg region of southern Holland in what will be his first appearance since 2013. Officials confirmed to VeloNews earlier this week that Sagan would race Amstel Gold. The Slovakian star will hold a pre-race press conference Saturday.
Others Roubaix riders racing Sunday include defending Amstel champion Philippe Gilbert and Roubaix podium man Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). In fact, the top-six finishers at Roubaix are expected to race Sunday.
“Amstel Gold will be the last spring classic for me this year,” said Van Avermaet, fourth at Roubaix. “I am always motivated to do well at the race because I like the parcours with the short climbs.”
Riding all the way from the cobbles of Flanders and northern France into the steep hills of the Ardennes is rare.
Last year, Van Avermaet was one of the few cobblestoned classic riders who raced (and won) Roubaix and then raced at Amstel Gold and Liège, where he finished the latter in 11th. Van Avermaet, who gravitates toward the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Roubaix double, has raced Liège on four occasions since 2007. His best result was seventh in the 2011 edition of Liège.
The 35-year-old Gilbert will be back to defend his Amstel Gold title Sunday after racing Roubaix for just the second time of his career. In 2017, Gilbert won Flanders, skipped Roubaix, and won Amstel Gold before injuries stopped him from racing in the Ardennes. This year, after riding to 15th at Roubaix, Gilbert is also expected to race Liège later this month.
It’s rare for modern riders to race all of the one-day spring monuments and be competitive in all four.
Coaches say it’s difficult, if not impossible, to remain at a high level from Milano-Sanremo in mid-March all the way through Flanders and Roubaix to Liège in late April.
“From Sanremo to Liège, it’s too long. There is no way you could race all of them to try to win,” Sagan’s coach Patxi Vila said. “You can start all of them. But if you’re trying to win from Sanremo all the way to Liège, it’s just too much.”
Calendar changes more than a decade ago pushed back Liège from its traditional slot immediately following Roubaix to two weeks after the “Hell of the North.” Not only is that a long time to keep form, but the race topography clearly favors different kinds of riders.
Races like Liège and Flèche Wallonne tilt toward skinnier, explosive climbers such as four-time winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Dan Martin (UAE-Emirates) and Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step). Van Avermaet and Gilbert are the rare riders who can dominate both types of terrain on the cobbles and the steep climbs of the Ardennes.
Trek-Segafredo’s Stuyven — the most consistent rider so far in 2018 with top 10s in all the major one-days from Sanremo through Roubaix — will pull the plug after Amstel Gold. Stuyven, a brawny Flanderen rider at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, is simply too big for the hilly terrain of the Ardennes.
Several riders who raced on the cobblestones this spring will line up in the Ardennes — such as Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Michael Valgren (Astana), and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) — but they all skipped Paris-Roubaix this year.
Gilbert will be an anomaly if he races Liège with a top result after a heavy spring calendar from Sanremo to the Ardennes in winning form. A rumored change in the Liège course that would relocate the finish from the current hilltop finale back into downtown Liège would dramatically alter the tactical dynamics of the race, and perhaps open it to riders who currently shy away from its explosive hilltop finale.
Vila said Sagan already could be competitive at races like Amstel Gold and even Flèche Wallonne, where he was third in 2012 and 12th in 2013, respectively. Sagan would need different training and approach for the much more demanding terrain and climbing of Liège, Vila said.
So if you’re a Sagan fan, be sure to tune in Sunday. It will be the Peter Sagan Road Show’s last race appearance of the spring classics. After a break, the three-time world champion will return to competition at the Amgen Tour of California, followed by a likely start at the Tour de Suisse and a return to the Tour de France.
Even for Sagan, the road from Sanremo to Liège is too far.