Classics crew delivers its Ardennes arsenal

Forget the flatlands, it's time for the hills

Put away the flat land diesel engines, it's time for the climbers to clamber onto centre stage and settle some scores in Holland and southern Belgium.

Cyclingnews looks at the three Ardennes Classics - Amstel Gold Race, La Fléche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - to see who will be back, who stands a chance and who we think will prevail in some of the toughest races on the calendar.

Amstel Gold Race: April 18

Last year's winner:Serguei Ivanov

Big Serguei (below) will return in 2010 - whether it's riding with 2008 Flèche Wallonne winner Kim Kirchen or not remains to be seen - and it's unclear whether the Russian, who went on to win stage 14 of last year's Tour de France, will get the reins as captain.

With the likes of Joaquim Rodriguez, Alexandr Kolobnev and Filippo Pozzato on the Katusha roster, Ivanov will have to prove he's got the eggs to put into the Russian squad's Amstel basket.

This year's favourites: Karsten Kroon, Philippe Gilbert, Björn Leukemans and Alexandr Kolobnev

Kroon took seconSerguei Ivanov (Team Katusha)d in this race last year, and recently told Cyclingnews that the event on home turf is a major objective in 2010.

"I wouldn’t call myself a favourite. There are a few guys that have proved they are already strong but I will be up there," he said.

With the help of world champion Cadel Evans, who'll be the Dutchman's domestique for this race, Kroon needs little more motivation. "It's in the area where I live and I use those roads for training. It's the biggest race in Holland so obviously it's very important for me," he explained.

Meanwhile, Gilbert has come close on many occasions already this season, as has countryman Björn Leukemans, whilst Alexandr Kolobnev is normally well-conditioned at this time of year, so expect the man who ran sixth in 2009 to aim for a higher spot in 2010.

La Fléche Wallonne: April 21

Last year's winner:Davide Rebellin

There's one certainty surrounding this year's Ardennes Classics - Davide Rebellin won't be there. The 2009 Fléche champion can't defend his title thanks to a ban imposed after he tested positive to EPO-CERA from samples taken following his silver medal performance at the Beijing Olympics road race.

He also won the event in 2007 and 2004, the latter as part his 'Triple Crown' triumph that season, which included victories in the Amstel Gold Race and Liège - Bastogne - Liège in one eventful week. As much as we like seeing veterans rip the legs off young upstarts in the Ardennes, at least there'll be no wondering whether he can do it again.

This year's favourites: Alejandro Valverde, Andy Schleck, Samuel Sanchez and Cadel EvansStage winner Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel - Euskadi) on the podium.

Valverde is a perennial favourite on the Mur de Huy and he's already won some big races so far this season, including two stages at the recent Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the overall at the Tour Méditerranéen. Schleck may not be at his best but should he have a good day, he may be hard to beat. He seems to have recovered from early season setbacks and emerging as a contender for the Ardennes.

Sanchez (right) recently won the Klasika Primavera in the Basque Country and took stage four of Pais Vasco - the Euskaltel Euskadi man is riding brilliantly and could grab another victory.

Evans, meanwhile, has his sights set on the Giro d'Italia next month, although he could spring a surprise on the field and enjoy a moment on the Mur; he took second in 2008 and finished fifth last year... definitely don't count the world champion out of your calculations.

Liège - Bastogne - Liège: April 25

Last year's winner:Andy Schleck

The younger of the Schleck brothers (below) has experienced a less-than-ideal start to this season, enduring injury that has spoilt his form during the week-long stage races that prepare riders for this time of year. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old from Luxembourg will still be a contender to defend his crown thanks to massive helpings of natural talent and a waif-like physique.

This year's favourites:Andy Schleck gets ready for his season debutFränk Schleck, Joaquím Rodríguez, Alejandro Valverde and Simon Gerrans

The elder Schleck seems to have been struck by the same sort of luck as his younger sibling and 2010 hasn't been memorable thus far. A win in the 'Old Lady' would sit nicely next to his 2006 Amstel Gold crown.

Arguably the most consistent rider across the three weeks of the Ardennes Classics, Rodríguez could in fact win any of them, given the stars align for the 30-year-old from Parets del Vallés. Overall victory in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, a GP Miguel Indurain title plus a Pais Vasco stage so far in 2010 are all indications of his form - red hot. He finished second in this event last year and could make the jump to a spot on the top of the podium on April 25

Australian (and sentimental favourite) Simon Gerrans is due a big win in one of the three Ardennes Classics; three top 10 placings in last year's trio of hilly one-day events was an indication the Australian has carved his niche in the Euro peloton. All that remains is to stand on the podium and savour the champagne.

The dark horses...

Irish talent Nicolas Roche could be worth an each-way bet in one of the three Ardennes Classics; he's been steadily improving each season and it may well be time for the son of Irish cycling legend Stephen to cash in his chips.

Normally a favourite for any one of these races, Damiano Cunego will likely be an outsider this year due to a recent illness. If he shows some decent form in Amstel Gold, he could really come into contention for Fléche Wallonne - the Italian is certainly a 'wait and see'.

American Chris Horner recently won the Vuelta a Pais Vasco and is on hot form coming into the Ardennes Classics. He's placed well in the past but this could be the year that he finally has the support as a protected rider to help him step onto the podium.

Ryder Hesjedal could take the battle up to the big names for Garmin-Transitions. The Canadian is a Vuelta a España stage winner and has both the mental and physical attributes needed to succeed in the Ardennes.

Last year's Clasica San Sebastian winner Carlos Barredo is regularly a protagonist in these types of races, although the severe bergs usually prove a little too much for the Spaniard's legs. Don't rule him out of being in the right moves next week.

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