The Ardennes Classics triple crown returns to the 2018 Women's WorldTour for a second season. Last year, Amstel Gold Race made its return, followed by the long-running La Flèche Wallonne and the debut of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) stunned the cycling world when she won all three races.
Anna Van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans)
If you're betting on a favourite to win Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, then you'll be putting all your money on Anna van der Breggen. The Dutchwoman powered to victory in all three events last year and now carries the title "Queen of the Ardennes". She said that she doesn't believe it's possible to complete the trifecta for a second consecutive year, but we aren't convinced. Given her unrivalled solo victories at Strade Bianche and Tour of Flanders, it seems that nothing and no one will be able to unseat this ruler of the Ardennes.
Van der Breggen's Boels Dolmans team have been known to share the wealth, however, and if an opportunity arose for a teammate to attempt glory, the likely candidates would be Amy Pieters and Megan Guarnier.
Pieters has had perhaps her strongest season to date after victory at Ronde van Drenthe and most recently the overall title at the Healthy Ageing Tour. The courses used for the Ardennes Classics are a fair bit hillier, but she has shown her strengths over the pitchy climbs after placing inside the top 10 at Amstel Gold Race last year.
Guarnier has steadily, and rather stealthily, worked her way onto our favourites list. After winning Strade Bianche in 2015, the American seemed unstoppable the following year when she won the Tour of California, Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, Philadelphia Cycling Classic and the Giro Rosa. Double crashes last year - a concussion at the start of the season and a broken jaw at the end - meant that Guarnier has needed time to recover. On paper, her 12th place at the rain-soaked Strade Bianche and then 10th place at Tour of Flanders may not standout against the podium performances of other riders in the peloton. They do show that she has come a long way in her recovery process, however. The experience she has after placing on the podium in previous editions of Flèche Wallonne make Guarnier a rider to watch.
Anna van der Breggen rides solo to the finish of Tour of Flanders
Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott)
"Hard as nails." That's was the cycling community called Annemiek van Vleuten when she crashed and dislocated a shoulder, and then went on to sprint to third place at Tour of Flanders. If ignoring the limits of the human body are what it takes to beat Van der Breggen, then Van Vleuten will be the one to do it. The time trial world champion has placed second at Flèche, fourth at Amstel, and fifth at Liège. She didn't start Brabantse Pijl so that she could tend to her sore shoulder, but there is no doubt that she lines up as Mitchelton-Scott's best chance of a victory in the Ardennes Classics.
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo Bigla)
When Van der Breggen made her winning attack just after the Kruisberg with 27km to go at the Tour of Flanders, there was fatigue and a moment of hesitation in the chase group. Then Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio decided to fight back. She was the only rider from a select group to start chasing alone over the cobbles of the Oude Kwaremont. Van Vleuten and a chase group that included several content riders from Boels Dolmans later joined Moolman-Pasio, and in the end, she sprinted for fourth. Most importantly, she reminded us of a valuable lesson in cycling - no guts, no glory.
Moolman-Pasio has made the top 10 in all three races and was third at Flèche Wallonne in 2013. That alone makes her a capable contender in all three courses, but it's her courage that makes her a rider to watch for victory.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)
Kasia Niewiadoma spent her first years on the professional circuit under the tutelage of Van der Breggen at Rabobank. Now, on different teams, she's Van der Breggen's biggest threat.
If there were ever a case of consistency in women's cycling, it was at the Ardennes Classics last year with the same podium finishes at all three races: Van der Breggen (1st), Lizzie Deignan (2nd) and Niewiadoma (3rd).
Over the winter, Niewiadoma decidedly shaped her training programme to target the Ardennes Classics, followed by the Giro Rosa in July and the World Championships in September. It's a programme that looks remarkably similar to Van der Breggen's, which shows the similarities between the two.
Niewiadoma placed second to Van der Breggen at Strade Bianche earlier this year and then won Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Although she was disappointed with her seventh place at the Tour of Flanders, she said she was confident that her preparations for the Ardennes are where they needed to be.
It should also be noted that her teammate Pauline Ferrand-Prévot won Flèche in 2014 and was 8th at Amstel Gold last year, which gives Canyon-SRAM options.
Katarzyna Niewiadoma wins the Trofeo Alfredo Binda
Ellen van Dijk (Sunweb)
A time trial specialist by nature, Ellen van Dijk has captured solo victories after late-race attacks at both Omloop van het Hageland and Dwars door Vlaanderen. She's a regular fixture in the finals of the spring Classics and last year was 10th at Amstel Gold and fourth at Liège. Like Van der Breggen, if she is given any leeway, no matter how small, she will ride away with the race all the way to the finish line. Sunweb have a second card to play with Coryn Rivera, who won Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Tour of Flanders last year and featured in the finals of Amstel and Flèche.
Marianne Vos (WaowDeals)
The Mur de Huy used to be Marianne Vos' stomping ground. She is the only rider in the peloton who has won Flèche Wallonne more times than Van der Breggen - five times. But her last victory was five years ago, and since her return to cycling after a one-year absence, she hasn't shown the same dominance of seasons past. That being said, the former multi-discipline world champion has stood on the podium at the hilly Trofeo Alfredo Binda and more recently at Brabantse Pijl. The latter is considered a warm-up to the Ardennes, and so Vos is in a good position to build on that success.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5)
Elisa Longo Borghini hasn't had the best start to her season. She was third at Strade Bianche, 10th at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and didn't start Tour of Flanders because of illness - all races that she has previously won. But the Italian can't be discounted during the Ardennes Classics because she's had strong finishes in all three. She was part of a select chase group in Amstel Gold last year and finished fifth and then ninth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and twice stood on the podium at Flèche Wallonne. She has recovered from her illness and will be on the start line for all three events.
Janneke Ensing (Ale Cipollini)
Ale Cipollini has had a stellar run of success during this spring Classics season, and it all started with Janneke Ensing winning Le Samyn des Dames. Her teammate Marta Bastianelli carried on the team's wins at Gent-Wevelgem, Grand Prix de Dottignies and Brabantse Pijl. Bastianelli was second in the 2008 edition of Flèche Wallonne, but the team will likely switch focus and give Ensing a chance to shine during the Ardennes Classics.
Malgorzata Jasinska (Movistar)
Movistar launched their new women's team this season, and although they haven't yet won a race, the team have shown strengths in both stage races and spring Classics. Alicia Gonzalez was third overall at Setmana Ciclista Valenciana and the team's top finisher at Strade Bianche. Aude Biannic was 11th at Gent-Wevelgem, and Alba Teruel finished fourth at Grand Prix de Dottignies.
The team's Polish rider, Malgorzata Jasinska, has proven most reliable on the hilly, cobbles challenges this spring. She finished seventh at Dwars door Vlaanderen and then featured in the select group that sprinted for second place during Tour of Flanders. She could be the one to watch as Movistar reach for a place on the podium during the Ardennes.
Shara Gillow (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope)
Last year Shara Gillow markedly improved her sping Classics game, finishing sixth at Strade Bianche, 15th at Amstel Gold, fifth at Flèche Wallonne and seventh at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It was the Flèche performance that stood out. Although she didn't feature in the attacks that separated Van der Breggen, Lizzie Deignan and Niewiadoma from the rest, the strength it took to muscle up the Mur de Huy for a top-five place after 120km of intense racing won't go unnoticed.