Ardennes classics: Popularity waning, but why?

The growing pull of the cobbles seems to have sucked the life out of the season’s other classics, especially the Ardennes.

Classics season reaches well beyond the windswept flats of Flanders and northern France. But these days, you’d hardly know it.

The growing pull of the cobbles seems to have sucked the life out of the season’s other classics, especially the Ardennes. If you throw in Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race, the so-called “Ardennes week,” anchored by Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, should be a natural extension to cobbles week.

It once was. Liège rightfully ranks as one of cycling’s monuments, with epic editions that have included Eddy Merckx’s solo attack in 1971 through 92 kilometers of rain and snow, and Bernard Hinault’s battle through the snow in 1980.

Yet the Ardennes races have lost their luster in recent years. It could be because these races lack the unpredictability that has made the cobbles such crowd favorites. The hillier, demanding courses of the Ardennes have fallen victim to the growing collective strength of teams. In a way echoing the GC style of racing — with a few big squads controlling the pace to set up their captains for the finale — the Ardennes follow familiar scripts each year. In 2015, Movistar was so strong that Alejandro Valverde was able to sit back and watch his teammates cover the moves, then simply ride off everyone’s wheel with less than 400 meters to go to win Liège.

It’s rare for a rider in this era to uncork a Merckx-style, long-range attack in the Ardennes and have it stick. At Liège, the winning moves used to happen at the Côte de la Redoute, at about 40 kilometers to go. But over the past 10 years, as the peloton has changed gears, nothing has been able to stick from so far out. Race organizers added a new climb — La Roche aux Faucons, at 20 kilometers to go — in hopes of livening things up, but even that has proven a touch too far out to tempt riders into solo moves.

There’s also a cultural difference that adds another dimension. Cycling reaches levels of national obsession in Flanders, where an estimated one million people line the roadside for De Ronde, rain or shine. In contrast, in the French-speaking, less-populated Wallonne region, cycling simply doesn’t have the same penetration, so the races draw smaller crowds. There’s also the simple fact that the bleak industrial landscape of Liège cannot match the photogenic beauty of places like Bruges, host of the annual start of Flanders.

But if the Ardennes don’t draw the same thick roadside crowds, for the riders, they still hold plenty of allure.

“The Ardennes are still special,” says Trek – Segafredo’s Fränk Schleck, winner of Amstel Gold in 2006. “It seems true that the media is paying a lot of attention to the cobblestones, but inside the peloton, I know these races are still very important. For me, and riders like me, they’re the biggest goal of the year behind the Tour.”

In 2016, even if the Ardennes can’t quite match the buzz of the northern classics, they’ll boast equally deep fields. Joining the list of favorites will be 2014 world champion Michal Kwiatkowski, who’ll try to deliver Sky’s first monument victory. Dan Martin and Rigoberto Urán swap places at Etixx – Quick-Step and Cannondale, and both will be hungry for success, especially at Liège. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), winner of Flèche Wallonne in 2012, leads the crop of Spaniards that also includes Valverde. The occasional GC rider, such as Sky’s Chris Froome or BMC’s Tejay van Garderen, will parachute in, as will the Yates brothers (Orica-GreenEdge). There’s also last year’s breakout rider in the Ardennes, Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx – Quick-Step), second in both Flèche and Liège in 2015.

Then there’s Philippe Gilbert, who grew up at the base of La Redoute. Winner of the rare Ardennes treble (Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège) in 2011, he says nothing can take away from the prestige of these events. “Oh, for me, Liège is the biggest win of my career, along with the worlds title,” he says. “I think for anyone in the peloton, they would like to have Liège in their palmarès. It’s a special race.”