11 riders to watch at the Ardennes Classics
Valverde, Gilbert, Kwiatkowski and Sagan among the favourites
Three races, three chances. The Ardennes Classics provide a trio of race templates on which the one-day specialists and Grand Tour riders can pit themselves against each other.
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While Alejandro Valverde has won a staggering 50 per cent of the Ardennes races since 2014, the Spaniard is not the only rider to keep an eye on through the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Cyclingnews picks 11 riders to watch ahead of this weekend's curtain-raiser in the Netherlands.
Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal)
Winning De Brabantse Pijl is not a precursor to success in the Ardennes, as for every Philippe Gilbert there's a Sebastien Rosseler. However, Wellens seems to have coupled his undoubted powers with the talent of knowing when to attack and when to defend.
Once a mere have-a-go-hero attempting long-distance raids, the 26-year-old has matured into one of the most complete riders in the peloton. There's still room for improvement, of course, but the Lotto Soudal leader is flourishing after the departure of Tony Gallopin and has embraced the added responsibility placed upon his shoulders. No Lotto Soudal rider has won more than Wellens (four times) in 2018, while he's already matched half of his victory tally from 2017. It surely helps when you're in a contract year, but Wellens, along with Tiesj Benoot, have shown that there is life after Andre Greipel. That said, Wellens has only made the top ten in an Ardennes race on one occasion, in Amstel back in 2016. It's a poor record for a rider of his quality, and one that he will dearly want to address.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Valverde may not be everyone's favourite former doper, but few can argue with the sheer statistics surrounding his record in the Ardennes. His dominance, especially since his time served at the UCI's pleasure, has been nothing short of astounding, and Messi-esque regarding consistency. The term relentless springs to mind.
Valverde's only blind spot remains Amstel Gold, where he has finished second on two occasions. However, five wins in Flèche Wallonne and four at Liege-Bastogne-Liege speak for themselves. In fact, since 2014 Valverde has won 50 per cent of the Ardennes Classics. At some point, the fun has to stop. Whether it's age, bad luck or new, fresher legs assuming control, it's not yet clear, but for now, Valverde remains the rider everyone else has to beat. The new modifications at Amstel open up the race for more riders, but the latter two races remain archetypal Valverde.
Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing)
Third place in last year's Flèche Wallonne was a promising result for the 25-year-old but it was during the second phase of 2017 when Teuns established himself as a winner. Until that point, he had gone relatively unnoticed in a year dominated by Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert. However anything the two elder statesmen could do, Teuns replied in kind with a purple patch between July and August that netted three races in a row, and a number of stage wins. In the post-Tour and pre-Vuelta period no one came close to the BMC rider. Although this year has not yet yielded a win, Teuns' overall improvements have been noticeable. Sixth in Paris-Nice was followed by 11th in the Basque Country and seventh in De Brabantse Pijl. Van Avermaet is included in the team for Amstel, yet it's Teuns who will enjoy leadership roles throughout the Ardennes campaign.
Daniel Martin (UAE Team Emirates)
The decks at UAE Team Emirates don't appear to be as polished as those on the Quick-Step Floors ship, and it's fair to say that Martin is still finding his feet among his new shipmates.
The 31-year-old has raced Algarve, most of Paris-Nice and Catalunya, but has failed to make a last impression, bar for a top-five on the first uphill finish in Portugal. His major goal this season remains the Tour de France but the Ardennes are where he has enjoyed significant success over the years with a win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and a string of impressive places. Twice second to Valverde at Flèche, and with five top-ten places in total, there are few riders, other than Valverde, who can match Martin for consistency, but it's been five years since his first and only Ardennes win.
Over the coming days, the key factor could surround Martin's team. Alexander Kristoff cut an isolated figure during most of the cobbles. However, UAE look a more robust unit for the Ardennes, with the likes of Diego Ulissi and Rui Costa in their ranks. Then again, Flèche could come down to positioning. Martin started the final slog up the Mur in 2017 so far behind Valverde that he never looked in contention. His ride to second was perhaps just as special as the Spaniard's regarding performance, but once again he missed out on the win.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
After a humbling period in the cobbled Classics, Team Sky need to redouble their efforts. One can assume that no stone will be left unturned, no special pillow left un-fluffed, while Dave Brailsford's Winnebago will be meticulously hoovered as the team seek to 'marginal-gain' their way back to success. And they arrive at the Ardennes stacked with talent in the form of standout leader Michal Kwiatkowski, Wout Poels, and Sheffield University's greatest gift to altitude medical research, Sergio Henao.
However, if this list is about riders to watch, as much as it is about potential winners, then Egan Bernal and Tao Geoghegan Hart are worthy of mentions. The latter has been a consistent presence in Team Sky's stage-racing armoury this season and has shown steady signs of improvement during his second year at the WorldTour. He will race Amstel and Flèche, while there's no place for him currently for Liège-Bastogne-Liège – a race he finished third in twice as a U23 rider. As for Bernal, he was Valverde's closest rival in Catalunya and was second overall before crashing out. Flèche is his only Ardennes outing on Team Sky's current plans and his first taste of racing the terrain. He could go unnoticed and be asked to ride as a domestique, but he has all the attributes to one day be an Ardennes star.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)
There's no Amstel for the French Tour de France hope but ASO's flagship Ardennes races - Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - both feature on the AG2R rider's calendar. His record in both one-day spectacles have been modest, but two sixth places in La Doyenne highlight his class and potential. Those features were reinforced when he won a one-day race in France earlier this year and then backed that up with a sterling effort in Strade Bianche.
Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
Valverde may have carpeted over the Ardennes in recent years, but Gilbert remains the last rider to do the triple back in 2011. This year, the Belgian was a constant presence at the cobbled Classics, and although a win eluded him, his form was integral in Quick-Step's tactics and eventual results. Now in the more familiar Ardennes, we can expect a more aggressive showing from Gilbert, who has won the Amstel Gold Race four times, and Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege once each. His record in Amstel speaks for itself; in the last nine outings, he has only finished outside the top-10 on one occasion. His rides in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and especially Fleche Wallonne have tailed off in recent years, but he remains Quick-Step's greatest asset.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
Nibali's recent saddle sore at the Basque Country was far from ideal preparation, but the Milan-San Remo winner can't be ruled out of contention for the Ardennes. Amstel may come too soon, and he lacks the kick to take on the best at Flèche. However, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the ideal hunting ground to launch a bid for a fourth Monument win. He was agonisingly close in 2012, so the pedigree is certainly there.
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors)
Is the talented Frenchman Valverde's most dangerous rival? The Quick-Step Floors climber certainly looked impressive when he took two stage wins at the Basque Country, but the kicking Valverde handed him at the summit finish of Abu Dhabi provided a timely reminder that Alaphilippe still needs to raise his game. In 2015, he was second at both Flèche and Liege and followed that up with another strong showing in 2016. Last year was wiped out due to injury, but Quick-Step Floors return with a formidable arsenal that includes Amstel's defending champion Gilbert, Enric Mas, Niki Terpstra, and Bob Jungels.
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb)
The 2017 Giro d'Italia is scheduled to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and while he will not carry the weight of a pre-race favourite, few riders will undergo as much scrutiny at the start and finish. Most of that comes from the fact that the Dutchman has struggled throughout the early months of this season, with a combination of bad luck, crashes and the odd strop providing a complete contrast to 2017, in which everything Dumoulin touched turned to gold. With his Giro d'Italia defence just a few weeks away, the single-day outing in Belgium will provide little concrete evidence about Team Sunweb leader's long-term form but his demeanour, attitude and application will be closely monitored.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
There isn't a race on the planet in which Peter Sagan can escape attention, but after winning Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix, the world champion heads to the Amstel Gold Race without undue pressure on his shoulders. His experience in the race might be limited but it’s also fruitful, with a third place back in 2012. He hasn't been back to the race since the following season, and while the course is different in some ways, it will matter little. If Sagan is in the mood to race, then he'll be a genuine threat.
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Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at Cyclingnews.com between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.