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The Ardennes classics: Snoozers or sizzlers?

Some love 'em, some hate 'em. What are our editors' takes on the trio of hilly classics starting with this weekend's Amstel Gold Race?

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Just like cleaning your bike or getting the groceries, people either love or hate the Ardennes classics.

Set in the Dutch Limburg and Belgian Ardennes, the men’s and women’s Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège pack more hills than you can comprehend, mazy narrow alleyways, and knee-trembling distance. There should be a lot to love.

However, sat between the chaos of the cobbled classics and the kudos of the early summer stage races, the Ardennes classics often fail to hit home.

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So, what do our editors think? Sadhbh O’Shea, Andrew Hood and Jim Cotton debate whether the Ardennes classics are snoozers or sizzlers.

Andrew Hood: We want them to sizzle, but …

I’m not going to say the Ardennes races are boring, but … yeah, they’re pretty boring.

Don’t get me wrong. The races are fabulous and to be honest, they have sizzled the past several years. If every race was like the 2019 Amstel Gold Race we’d be loving “Ardennes Week.”

The problem is the races are too hard for their own good, especially Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At monument distance of 260km, you could have riders ride through loops of fire and jump over alligator-filled ponds, and the race would still be one of attrition.

And attrition does not often equate sizzle.

When you have races packed with 3,000 vertical meters of climbing, a race of attrition is all you’re going to get in distances north of 200km or more.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re not fascinating in their own right. Sizzling isn’t the adjective that comes to mind, however.

Race organizers have long recognized that the cobblestone classics are overshadowing their Ardennes offerings. And they’ve tried everything to spice things up.

Amstel Gold Race moved its finish line all over the map to search for that “sweet spot” to deliver at least a knock-out punch at the end of the race after the Cauberg. Flèche Wallonne is all about the Mur de Huy, but that hasn’t stopped ASO from adding new climbs and different approaches to try to change the script. It remains all about the Mur.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège was so predictable over the past decade or so that ASO moved the finishing line back to downtown Liège. The jury is still out if that change will spice up the racing dynamics.

Today’s fans have simply grown spoiled, and rightly so. Racing today is more dynamic, competitive, and engaging than at any point of a century or more of professional racing. People often look back with rose-tinted glasses at the sport’s glory days, but racing in those days was dominated by a few big riders, and sometimes not much would happen for hours on end until the bosses decided it was time to race.

Today’s racing is on the rivet from the gun. Sometimes that pain and intensity does not translate to the TV. And nowhere is that truer than across the Ardennes.

What’s encouraging is to see riders like Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar line up for the Ardennes. Having those two in any race cranks up the volume.

Bike racing fans will still tune in. Just be sure to set the “siesta” alarm to wake up with 30km to go.

Sadhbh O’Shea: Slow to burn but they sizzle when hot

The Ardennes races might be slow burners but that doesn’t mean they don’t reach sizzling point.

After being spoiled by the non-stop drama of the cobbled classics of Flanders and northern France, the hilly classics can feel like something of a comedown. They still have a lot going for them, though, and they do deliver the sizzle.

I think part of the problem is that the Ardennes classics lack the same storyline that gets told across the many weeks of cobbled racing. It is a bit harder to become invested in it when it is spread thinly across one week.

The races also take a little bit longer to get going, as it were. Like a long stage of the Tour de France, you need to endure the wearing down process before you can really get to the good stuff. But that makes it all the sweeter when you do finally get there.

Recent changes to the courses of the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège have opened up the races and, I believe, added a considerable amount of drama to the action.

The Cauberg is a great climb but taking it out of the Amstel Gold Race finale was a brilliant move by the organizers. It has made it more unpredictable and delivered us one of the best finishes in bike racing in 2019 when Mathieu van der Poel took victory in the men’s race despite being well and truly distanced on the Cauberg.

Moving the Liège-Bastogne-Liège finish into the center of Liège has also done wonders for the tension of La Doyenne. As with the Amstel Gold Race, the new finale allows much more opportunity for dropped riders to get back, adding much more jeopardy to any attack. Lizzie Deignan being chased down by Grace Brown at last year’s women’s race was thrilling.

Of the three, Flèche Wallonne is probably the one that doesn’t float my boat in quite the same way, but it still has something going for it. You just have to think of it as a hill climb challenge with a build-up.

The Ardennes classics take a time to wind up, but you don’t need all-day action to deliver a sizzling bike race.

Jim Cotton: Stuck in the middle of a snooze and a sizzle

On paper, the Ardennes classics have everything you could wish for. Steep hills, winner-takes-all one-day dynamics, and the confluence of stage racers and classics riders. But I cannot figure out where I sit in the “snoozer vs sizzler” argument.

For me, one of the main downsides to these races is their lack of in-race storyline.

Amstel Gold Race and Flèche cover the same roads over and over, and there’s no sense of journey. All three lack iconic waypoints like the Carrefour de l’Arbre or the Kwarement, and many of the climbs look and feel similar. Other than the north-south-north journey of Liège, it can be hard to follow a narrative as you watch.

And just as every passing kilometer can look the same, much of the racing feels like a groundhog. The group slowly but surely gets smaller as the selection is made from the back. It’s like a guessing game of which rider will pop next rather than who will make an attack first. It’s attrition at its most grinding.

That said, I do have a lot of love for these hilly races.

The coming together of big names from all across the spectrum of bike racing makes for a fascinating pick n’mix of contenders, from the likes of grand tour stars Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar to pure puncheurs like Julian Alaphilippe and Marc Hirschi. And cobbles-bashers even make appearances at times too. It’s the type of coming-together you’ll only otherwise see at the world championships.

And the racing can – on occasion – be awesome. But when it does, it seems to come down to single race-defining moments rather than several hours of action. Mathieu van der Poel made the 2019 Amstel one of the best races in memory single-handedly. And last year, the men’s Liège was rescued from being forgotten by Alaphilippe’s showboating sprint.

Recent changes in the routes of Liège and Amstel (not including this year’s one-off closed-circuit format) have made those races more open and attacking, but the odds seem to sit closer toward snooze rather than sizzle.

One final point. While Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège can be incredible, it’s hard to sing praise for La Flèche Wallonne.

Here’s hoping the next 10 days swing the sizzlometer in the right direction.