Six storylines to watch during the 2013 Ardennes classics

Amstel Gold Race will reveal the first hints of the storylines that will captivate us during a week of hilly one-day races in the Low Countries.

The Ardennes classics open Sunday in the Limburg region of the Netherlands with the Amstel Gold Race. At just 48 years old, the Dutch classic will reveal the first hints of the storylines that will captivate us throughout the week of hilly one-day races in the Low Countries.

Which grand-tour winners look sharp? Who will add his name to the palmares at Liège–Bastogne–Liège? Can Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) repeat at Flèche Wallonne? These are the obvious stories ahead of the final spring classics. But what will we be watching below the surface, beyond the obvious television shots of the race leaders? Here are six of the stories we’ll be talking about around the VeloNews offices next week.

Who’s willing to chase on the Cauberg?

The tactical battle late in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race will be interesting to watch for a number of reasons. The new circuit finale will turn what has become a somewhat predictable finish (chase down an attack from the Fromberg or Keutenberg, then attack in the corners on the Cauberg finish climb) into a free-for-all. Will the favorites attack early, on the climbs that used to lead directly to the finish, or wait until the new Geulhemmerberg and Bemelerberg, or even the Cauberg? Will Peter Sagan (Cannondale) attack, or ride for a small group sprint?

But we know the attacks will come. What’s arguably more compelling is how the riders caught out will react. When the new finish, 1.8km after the top of the Cauberg, debuted at the road worlds last fall, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) rode away on the climb; behind him, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), and Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) marked each other out of the rainbow jersey. Instead of working together in the chase, the pursuers aimed at silver and attacked each other on the flat road leading to the finish.

On Wednesday at Brabantse Pijl, Sagan finally saw the fruits of his brutish spring campaign turn sour. No bother, though. When Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Nikolas Maes (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) attacked leading into the final climb, no one in the chase group would help Sagan. He still hunted the leaders down, countered, and out-sprinted Gilbert for the win. If the same happens on Sunday and Sagan is left in the chase, will anyone help? If not, what will the Slovak champion do? And if non-Cannondale riders are willing to chase, why?

Will Andy Schleck finish a race?

Andy Schleck’s struggles since fracturing his sacrum in a frightening time-trial crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné last June have been well documented. The RadioShack-Leopard rider has abandoned the Tour of Beijing, Santos Tour Down Under, Tour Méditeranéen, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Vuelta al País Vasco since returning to action late last year.

Schleck, winner of Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 2009, has acknowledged that he’s not a contender in these Ardennes classics or the Tour de France. He is in the Low Countries to represent his sponsors while his team hunts for new backers, work for his teammates, and get racing kilometers in his legs. Racing kilometers are one thing, but a race finish is another, and Schleck is in need of a number next to his name on a results sheet instead of a “DNF.”

Will he get it? Sadly, it appears doubtful. It is difficult to find a more likeable man in the professional peloton, the sort you’d like to sit down with for a drink and and a chat. But, as has been widely written, that characteristic may be his ultimate undoing. We hope Schleck finds the finish line in the Ardennes, but he has done little to make us confident that he will.

Second-tier Soviet bloc riders get aggressive

From Vladislvak Bobrik to Maxim Iglinskiy, riders of the former Soviet bloc countries have long captured imaginations in the hilly classics. Rumsas, Kivilev, Ivanov, Vinokourov, Kolobnev — these are the names of attackers, of men without fear of coming up short. Nearly every spring there is one such who comes from relative obscurity to punch his way into the thick of the action in the Ardennes. Say what you will about many of their reputations; these men are exciting to watch on a visceral level.

Who will he be this week? Will it be Omega Pharma’s up-and-coming Pole, Michal Kwiatkowski? He didn’t finish any of the three races in 2012, but has come alive in 2013. “Honestly I don’t know what I can expect from [Amstel Gold Race],” he said Friday in a team press release. “I’m okay, but during the race a lot of things can happen.”

A lot of things can happen and often it is a rider of Kwiatkowski’s nature who makes it so — an aggressive, headstrong rider without the tag of outright favorite. Sure, the most exciting rider in the sport, Sagan, is Slovak, but we expect him to be at the sharp end. Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Evgeni Petrov (Saxo-Tinkoff), Sergey Lagutin (Vacansoleil-DCM), Vasili Kiryienka (Sky), step on up. Attack on the Eyserbosweg or the Côte de La Redoute. This is your time.

Who will attack too early on the Mur de Huy?

It happens every year. Alberto Contador (Saxo) did it. So did Paolo Bettini. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) botched the Mur de Huy multiple times before he came back and won Flèche Wallonne as world champion in 2010. Who will attack too early on the ultra-steep wall above the River Meuse on Wednesday?

Winning on the Mur, the most iconic climb of today’s Ardennes classics, is a game of strategy and strength. Jump too early and you will fade on the long, straight rise to the finish. Wait, and you’ll just hit stride as you hit the buses beyond the finish.

We cheer the early aggressors; they are bold and make the race theirs, even if it means certain failure. We shout uncomfortably at the television as forceful circles become labored squares above the final, left-hand bend. An attack like Rodríguez’s in 2012, or Gilbert’s in 2011, from impossibly far out, gives us hope that the long-shot surge can survive. But more often, they fizzle like Matthias Kessler in 2007.

But we will still cheer them, while they last.

Can Sagan win Flèche Wallonne without being called a Tour contender?

Perhaps you remember 2011, the year Philippe Gilbert swept his way across the Ardennes, winning De Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège–Bastogne–Liège? Fast-forward two and a half months and there he was, in the Pyrénées, the press tipping him as a GC contender at the Tour de France.

Rodríguez, whose only previous result at the Tour was seventh in 2010, is riding high on his two grand-tour podiums in 2012 and hopes to contend for the maillot jaune in July. Evans took his Tour triumph the season after winning the “Walloon Arrow.” Despite a top 10 at the Giro d’Italia as a young pro, Davide Rebellin avoided that billing, even after winning Paris-Nice. Kim Kirchen took a crack at the Tour after his Flèche victory, finishing seventh in 2008, and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), winner in 2006, continues to target the yellow jersey.

If Sagan wins on Wednesday in his final race of the classics season, can he possibly avoid billing as a Tour GC rider for the future? The prognosticators and armchair directors have been discussing the idea for a full year, but the chorus has been muted. Can the Slovak winner of the green jersey in 2012 possibly win in Huy and escape the calls for him to drop weight and focus on the high mountains? We hope so.

Will Vos mis-step again?

Marianne Vos (Rabobank) owns Flèche Wallonne Féminine. The Dutch Olympic and world champion has won the women’s World Cup here four times. But in 2012, upstart American Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) timed a late surge perfectly to beat her back on the Mur de Huy. Stevens said afterward that she had little confidence she could beat Vos on the steep finishing climb. For her part, Vos had no answers, saying simply that, “the Mur does not lie.”

The Dutchwoman, the current world champion in road and cyclocross, will enter Wednesday’s round of the World Cup the top favorite once again. But will she return to her winning ways in Huy? Will Stevens’ 2012 win give the field more confidence when Vos surges low on the wall? And, if she loses for a second year running, will we write that Vos’ rivals have unlocked the secret to the Walloon classic?

Vos’ dominance is incredible to watch, but elite women’s racing is better when the field at least rides as though it has a chance, even if it’s small.