Anna van der Breggen warned us that it would be impossible to complete the Ardennes Classics trifecta - Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - for a second consecutive year, and as it turns out, she was right.
Chantal Blaak, her Boels Dolmans teammate, won the opener at Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands on Sunday. The world champion showed top form over the hilly course; rode into the day's breakaway, held firm over the final ascent of the Cauberg, and then sprinted to victory ahead of Lucinda Brand (Sunweb) and Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott).
The running of the three consecutive events is new as of last year when Amstel Gold Race returned after a 14-year hiatus, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège made its debut on the women's circuit. Amstel's and Liège's short history in women's racing, therefore, offer little by way of statistics to analyse, and so predicting their outcomes is difficult.
Belgium's Flèche Wallonne Feminine held its first edition in 1998, was part of the former World Cup, and has developed roots in the sport. It has seen winners Fabiana Luperini, Hanka Kupfernagel, Genevieve Jeanson, Nicole Cooke, Emma Pooley, and more recently, Marianne Vos, Evelyn Stevens, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Van der Breggen.
Last year, Van der Breggen won her third consecutive title and joined an elite club of riders who have won the event three times, alongside Luperini and Cooke. There is only one rider who has won the race five times - Marianne Vos.
Van der Breggen is undoubtedly capable of a fourth consecutive victory and coming closer to matching Vos' rein in Huy, but the question is will she? Boels Dolmans said she will attempt a fourth title, but anything can happen in a one-day race like Flèche.
She has won about every major event in women's road cycling with an Olympic gold medal, the Giro Rosa (twice), the Ardennes Classics triple crown and most recently the Tour of Flanders, which was one of her targets for the 2018 season.
There is one glaring void in her resume, however, and in an interview with Cyclingnews earlier this spring, Van der Breggen said she is looking to fill that gap by winning the world title in Austria in September. And so, she seems almost content to let her teammates have a chance at success in the Ardennes Classics this year, while she pursues unconquered territory.
But Van der Breggen lines up as Boels best chance at victory. She could decide to, again, take the steering wheel in Huy or let her teammates attempt victory, that is anybody's guess. One thing is sure; the spring Classics that make up the first block of racing on the Women's WorldTour will continue with Boels Dolmans as the team to beat.
Who to watch
Flèche Wallonne is the eighth round of the series, and Blaak's Amstel Gold victory pushed her up into the lead with 538 points. Her teammates follow close behind with Amy Pieters in second at 455 points and Van der Breggen in third with 408 points.
Pieters won Ronde van Drenthe while Van der Breggen won Strade Bianche and Tour of Flanders. Blaak and Pieters are not confirmed to start Flèche but the team also have a strong contender with Megan Guarnier, twice on the podium, and who is gaining ground after an injury-marred season last year. But even though Boel Dolmans have a majority hold over the one-day races this spring, they haven't won everything outright, which means there is room for other riders and teams to have success.
Jolien D'hoore (Mitchelton-Scott), for example, won Driedaagse de Panne, and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) won Trofeo Alfredo Binda, while Marta Bastianelli (Ale Cipollini) won Gent-Wevelgem.
Flèche Wallonne is 118.5 kilometres long and covers two loops south of Huy. The crucial aspects of the route remains the combination of the Côte de Cherave (1.3km/8.1%) and the Mur de Huy (1.3km/ at 9.6%).
We highlighted ten riders to watch in the women's Ardennes Classics and noted Vos' achievements on the Mur de Huy. Even though Vos has seen some success this season with third places at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Brabantse Pijl and 10th at Amstel Gold Race, she is not confirmed to start Flèche.
Vos will instead pass the baton to a younger generation on WaowDeals; Riejanne Markus, a promising talent who rode into the breakaway at Amstel Gold Race and finished in fourth place and Jeanne Korevaar, who is currently second in the Women's WorldTour youth classification.
Mitchelton-Scott's Spratt joined Blaak in the breakaway at Amstel Gold and finished third. They also have time trial world champion Annemiek Van Vleuten, who dislocated her shoulder in a crash at Tour of Flanders but still managed to sprint for third place. She was second at Flèche in 2015, which gives her experience racing for the podium spots.
Canyon-SRAM have a series of potential podium finishers with former winner Ferrand-Prévot and Niewiadoma, second at Strade Bianche and winner at Trofeo Alfredo Binda. The Polish rider was also third last year.
Sprinters Giorgia Bronzini (Cylance) and Lotta Lepistö (Cervelo Bigla) surprised when they rode into the breakaway at Amstel Gold. The pair struggled over the Cauberg but fought to stay in the game and finished in the top 10. Both teams have climbing cards to play on the Mur de Huy with Lauren Stephens (Cylance), second at the Santos Women's Tour, and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo Bigla), who has been top 10 in all three Ardennes Classics races and was third at Flèche Wallonne in 2013.
Like Boels Dolmans, Sunweb have a series of contenders with powerful Dutchwomen Lucinda Brand, second at Amstel Gold, and Ellen Van Dijk, winner of Omloop van het Hageland and Dwars door Vlaanderen. Coryn Rivera is not confirmed to start Flèche, but the team will have Floortje Mackaij and a climber in Ruth Winder.
Elisa Longo Borghini gives Wiggle High5 a podium contender at Flèche - second in 2013 and third in 2014. She was third Strade Bianche, 10th at Trofeo Alfredo Binda this year but took some time off to recover from illness. She finished 12th at Amstel on Sunday and will look to build on that during Flèche and Liège.
Movistar have a dark horse in Malgorzata Jasinska, who has been in the mix in many of the spring Classics. She finished seventh at Dwars door Vlaanderen and then featured in the select group that sprinted for second place during Tour of Flanders. She finished in the main chase group at Amstel, 17th.
Other riders to watch include Ale Cipollini's Janneke Ensing, who won Le Samyn des Dames this spring. Astana line up with the leader of the Women's WorldTour youth classification Sofia Bertizzolo. Shara Gillow gives FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope a top-10 contender as she was fifth at Flèche Wallonne and seventh at Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year.
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