10 riders to watch at the 2019 Ardennes Classics

Recent Roubaix winner and 2011 'Ardennes treble' champion Gilbert in action again

The triumvirate of the Amstel Gold Race (April 21), Flèche Wallonne (April 24) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (April 28) make up the Ardennes Classics, with Amstel - coming just a week after Paris-Roubaix - serving to signal an end to the cobbled Classics season, and the start to a glut of much hillier races that attract both sprightlier one-day specialists and Grand Tour riders who are building up to the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France.

Only two riders have ever 'done the triple', with Italian Davide Rebellin taking Amstel, Flèche and Liège in 2004, and then Belgium's Philippe Gilbert doing the same in 2011.

While Rebellin – still racing, at the age of 47, with Algerian Continental team Sovac – won't get another crack at repeating the feat, Gilbert certainly will. The recent winner, at 36, of Paris-Roubaix perhaps has his eye on next year's Milan-San Remo – in an attempt to win all five of the sport's Monuments, having now taken four out of the five – more than repeating the Ardennes treble over the next couple of weeks, but don't put it past him.

Last year's Amstel winner Michael Valgren (then with Astana, but now at Dimension Data), Flèche champion Julian Alaphilippe and his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Bob Jungels, who won Liège, have enjoyed a mixed bag of early-season form. While Valgren has yet to get off the mark – or onto a podium – Alaphilippe already has eight victories this year, while Jungels splits the difference with a stage win at the Tour Colombia 2.1 and victory at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in early March to his name in 2019.

Pick 10 riders across three similar, but subtly different, races? No easy task, you understand, dear reader, but such is life.

"So, where's Jungels?" you ask. After riding the cobbled Classics this year, the 2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner is expected to skip the Ardennes races as he prepares for next month's Giro d'Italia.

"No Tim Wellens?" you cry? As for him, do, please, consider the 27-year-old Belgian – thanks to his consistency at last year's races, finishing sixth at Amstel, seventh at Flèche and 16th at Liège – the one that got away, and our honorary '11th man'.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)

A likely winner of any – or indeed two, or even all three – of the upcoming Ardennes races, Julian Alaphilippe already has one under his belt after winning last year's Flèche Wallonne and preventing second-placed Alejandro Valverde from making it five wins in a row.

The Frenchman would naturally love to repeat teammate Philippe Gilbert's feat of winning all three of the Ardennes Classics, but it would be – as it always has been – a big ask, even of him. If any of the current crop of riders can do it, though, it's him.

Eight wins already this season, as part of the all-dominating Deceuninck-QuickStep machine, indicate that the 26-year-old is well on the way to surpassing his tally of 12 wins last season, while second place (behind Mathieu van der Poel) at Brabantse Pijl suggests that the next win is imminent.

Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) en route to the win in Fleche Wallonne

Michael Valgren (Dimension Data)

Michael Valgren fulfilled his promise with well-taken wins at both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold Race last year, prompting Dimension Data to sign the young Dane from Astana to lead the team at the Classics.

The 27-year-old's 2019 season, however, has been a quiet one so far, with no top-10 finishes yet in the bank, and a well-off-the-pace 46th position while attempting to defend his Omloop crown in early March.

Do we dare omit him from this list? No – we don't, as Valgren's second place at Amstel in 2016 proved that last year's win was no fluke, and even if Valgren can't repeat his 2018 Amstel success, he has two more chances at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège – both races he has the capacity and ability to win, having taken top-20 finishes in his last two rides at the latter.

"The talent hasn't just gone just because of one spring. That's why I'm not stressed, because it will come," head of performance at Dimension Data, Rolf Aldag told Cyclingnews this week, citing illness as having affected Valgren – and much of the rest of the team – at the Omloop and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne during 'Opening Weekend'.

"Michael prepared and he's kept going. It's not like he's 38 years old and his time is over. He's young and he's absolutely motivated," said Aldag.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

It's tough at the top, as Peter Sagan has always known. And while many have been ready to write the three-time world champion off as being past his best after a below-par spring campaign, his Bora-Hansgrohe sports director Patxi Vila told Cyclingnews this week that he thinks Sagan is "getting better and better".

The evidence for that, he said, was Sagan's fifth place at Paris-Roubaix, where, despite not being able to defend his crown at The Hell of the North, he was part of the key six-man move that went clear, and looked strong in the break – the strongest, in fact, according to Vila.

"From an overall racing perspective, I think that it was the best racing from Peter [this year]," he said. "I think that the progression of both his shape and his results has been getting better and better."

Sagan's sole victory so far this year has been a stage win at the Tour Down Under in January, but Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège have been goals all along, while Flèche was a late addition to his programme. Having fully recovered from sickness in early March, Sagan could well continue to show more of his old self over the next couple of weekends.

Peter Sagan on the cobbles

Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team)

Amstel Gold Race should have signalled the end of a spring Classics campaign that has failed to go Greg Van Avermaet's way in terms of a win, although the Belgian can be happy enough with his consistency, which has seen the 33-year-old take second place at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, sixth at Strade Bianche, third at the E3 BinckBank Classic, 10th at the Tour of Flanders and 12th at Paris-Roubaix.

This Sunday, then, is an opportunity for Van Avermaet to make that consistency pay off and score what would be only his second victory of the season, after taking a stage win at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana back in early February.

"I was really disappointed after Paris-Roubaix, knowing that I had the legs for a better result, so I'm motivated to line up at Amstel Gold and turn things around," Van Avermaet said this week ahead of Amstel, where he finished fifth in 2015.

"I have had good legs throughout the Classics and, although I'm missing a big result, I think I've consistently shown that my form is good. It would be nice to end this first part of the season with a good result."

With Liège added last minute to Van Avermaet's programme, the Belgian's chances of scoring a big win this Classics season remain.

Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-QuickStep)

It's certainly a very worthwhile consideration: whether Gilbert's transformation to be able to 'diesel' his way to his recent Paris-Roubaix victory – and so take his fourth of the sport's five Monuments – means that the Belgian has lost a bit of his 'jump' and sprightliness, which he'll need to be in the mix again at the upcoming races.

That may be true, although Milan-San Remo – that fifth Monument that Gilbert needs in order to complete the set – and the Ardennes Classics aren't a million miles away from each other in terms of the types of skills and abilities you need to win them, and so his days of having become a cobbles-eater may already be behind him as he attempts to re-transition back to the Philippe Gilbert of old.

Deceuninck-QuickStep's deux Philippes – Julian and Gilbert – should prove a dangerous duo across the Belgian WorldTour team's Ardennes campaign, and, even if neither of them can do the triple, it's feasible that, between them and their teammates, they could easily do the triple as a team.

Roman Kreuziger (Dimension Data)

Last year's runner-up at Amstel Gold Race behind Michael Valgren now finds himself in the odd position of being on the same team – Dimension Data – as his former Astana rival, while last year's third-place finisher, Enrico Gasparotto, has also joined the team from Bahrain-Merida.

Dimension Data – who, like last year, have been one of the most unsuccessful WorldTour teams this year – therefore find themselves in the borderline surreal position of having the entire podium from last year's Amstel on their roster, and in their seven-man squad for this year's race.

This, then, will be a fine – and vital – opportunity for the South African team to kickstart their season, with Kreuziger looking like the man most likely across all three races, having won Amstel in 2013, having finished fourth at last year's Flèche, and having finished in the top eight at Liège four times in the last five years.

Gasparotto, meanwhile, has won Amstel Gold Race twice – in 2012 and 2016 – and was the team's highest-placed finisher with seventh place at this week's Brabantse Pijl, with Kreuziger just behind him, in 15th place. How the team will juggle Kreuziger, Valgren and Gasparotto's ambitions for Amstel has yet to be seen, but having too many potential podium finishers this year will be a luxury that Dimension Data will be only too happy to have.

Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus)

Having won Amstel warm-up event the Brabantse Pijl in convincing fashion from Deceuninck-QuickStep's Julian Alaphilippe and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) on Wednesday, on top of his thrillingly successful spring, it means that 24-year-old Mathieu van der Poel is well up there as a favourite – if not the favourite – for Sunday's race.

There's no Flèche or Liège for Van der Poel or his Corendon-Circus teammates, although the organisers will no doubt by now be ruing the day they chose not to invite the Continental-level team, such is the impact that Van der Poel has had on both fans and the media this spring.

That's come thanks to results that have included wins at the WorldTour-ranked Dwars door Vlaanderen, a stage at the Circuit Cyclist Sarthe and that Brabantse Pijl victory, as well as fourth place at Gent-Wevelgem and a heroic fourth place at the Tour of Flanders, where Van der Poel chased back up to the front of the race following a heavy crash.

The Dutch road race champion has been batting away advances from WorldTour teams of late, telling them that he's happy with his contract with Corendon-Circus, which will keep him at the team until 2023 at least, so let's hope, then, that the organisers of the biggest spring races have Corendon-Circus right up near the top of their wildcard-entry possibilities over the next few seasons.

Mathieu van der Poel wins Brabantse Pijl

Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)

The only true Grand Tour contender on this list – Valverde, surely, has gone beyond being in contention across three weeks – Bardet is specifically targeting both Flèche and Liège this year, while hoping to use Amstel as somewhat of a warm-up.

A crash on the final stage of the Volta a Catalunya in late March threatened to derail his plans, but the resulting bruised – and luckily not fractured – ribs only kept him away from racing for a couple of weeks.

The rider who simply loves racing his bike – and refuses to just put all of his eggs into the Tour de France basket - as results such as his runner's-up spots at last year's Strade Bianche and the world championship road race testify – chose not to ride the traditional pre-Amstel race, the Brabantse Pijl, this week, and instead eased himself back into racing at French Cup race Paris-Camembert, where a respectable 42nd place actually hid some mechanical problems he experienced at the one-day race.

Bardet took third place at last year's Liège, and ninth at Flèche, but will return to Amstel this year for the first time since 2014.

"To tell the truth, I've never felt great at Amstel," he told Cyclingnews in Catalunya, the day before his crash. "But it could well be important to have this race in the legs ahead of Flèche and Liège."

Bardet's enforced lay-off between Catalunya and Camembert appears not to have dampened his burgeoning form too much, however, and he could well be a force to be reckoned with over these next couple of weeks.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Alejandro Valverde's Flèche and Liège results speak for themselves, with five wins at the former, and four at the latter, while 'only' three podium finishes at Amstel Gold – second place, twice, in 2013 and 2015, and third back in 2008 – make the Dutch race the one he needs to complete the set.

But the Spanish rider's 2019 season in the colours of the road race world champion has so far provided only the one win, on stage 3 of the UAE Tour, and the 38-year-old was left wondering last month whether there really could be something in the infamous 'curse of the rainbow jersey', whereby world champions often seem to struggle in the season after winning the distinctive maillot.

"I'm beginning to notice it in the high number of second places that I've been getting this season, when last year I would get to be first," Valverde told the Spanish press at the Volta a Catalunya. "There's always a rider ahead of me because he's a bit stronger or a bit luckier."

Nothing to do with being 38, then… Regardless, we'd expect to see Valverde up at the pointy end at all three races, and at Flèche – with its finish on the spectacular climb of the Mur de Huy – in particular, where he'll attempt to better his own record of five victories at the race, providing that that pesky Frenchman, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), doesn't pip him to the line again, as he did last year.

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)

While Mathieu van der Poel's Corendon-Circus team have only been handed an invitation for Amstel Gold, Belgium's Wout van Aert also stood to take part in only the Dutch race, despite his Jumbo-Visma WorldTour team also going to Flèche and Liège.

Lumped together as stars of cyclo-cross who are now showing a clear talent for one-day road racing – having between them dominated the Cyclo-cross World Championships since 2015, with three titles for Van Aert and two for current champion Van der Poel – this could be a last hurrah for both riders for a while, after having provided their fans with an entertaining winter and spring of racing. Expect more of the same as Van Aert searches for a first WorldTour win to match Van der Poel's victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

While the Dutchman's race schedule going forward is still to be announced, Van Aert, at least, is set to ride the Critérium du Dauphiné stage race – a celebrated Tour de France warm-up event – in June, although there's unlikely to be a Tour debut any time soon. That may come in 2020.

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