It is nearly time for the wrap up of the Ardennes Classics with a tough final act of Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes on Sunday, which brings with it a rare chance for one rider to complete a trio of victories at the hilly races.
It's only been done once before in the women's events, with Anna van der Breggen sweeping up all three titles in 2017, when the women's peloton first got to race the full set. Now, however, Marta Cavalli is in with a chance, after taking out her first Women's WorldTour victory ever at Amstel Gold Race solo and then following up at La Flèche Wallonne Féminine to become the first rider, other than the now-retired Van der Breggen, to claim victory atop the Mur de Huy in eight years.
Despite the power the Italian has displayed in those victories, there are no shortage of strong rivals lining up to quell her momentum. No one will be underestimating Cavalli's strength after her dual wins, perhaps looking to team strength or the longer climbs as a way to tip the scales.
Ahead of the April 24 finale to the Ardennes we take a closer look at six of the riders who could climb to the top step of the 142km race from Bastogne to Liège on Sunday.
Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope)
There’s no need to comb through the historic results to see why Marta Cavalli should be near the top of the favourites list at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The 24-year-old, who has never had so much as a top 10 in the Ardennes Classics before this year, has just gone and leapt straight to the top step in the first two races of the trio. She took out the Amstel Gold Race solo with a savvy well-timed attack and then at La Flèche Wallonne Féminine reigned supreme in a duel on the Mur de Huy with Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar).
It was a powerful climbing display at both races and she took different paths to victory, providing evidence that the Italian’s first Women’s WorldTour wins were far more than a lucky turn or clever one-off move. Plus, momentum seems to be on the rider’s and team’s side with the aggressive racing attitude paying dividends and a growing strength to the squad, between new recruits and the maturing of the core cohorts. Recent Grand Prix Féminin de Chambéry winner Brodie Chapman proved a valuable ally at Flèche Wallonne. By the looks of the preliminary start list for Sunday, Cavalli will also have two riders who have come second at the race in recent years, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Grace Brown.
Still, it is a huge ask for anyone to win the three Ardennes Classics in a row, let alone a rider who has only just broken through to take her first top-tier victories. Cavalli, who also managed fifth in a gruelling Paris-Roubaix just days ago, seems to have developed a habit of going beyond expectations in recent weeks.
Demi Vollering (SD Worx)
This was the race that last year marked Demi Vollering's first big Classics victory and consolidated the view of her as the heir apparent to a retiring Van der Breggen. It is also a race where she stepped on the podium during her first year as a professional in 2019, so there are no doubts the terrain plays to her strengths. Also, after standing on the two lower steps of the podium in the earlier two Ardennes Classics she is bound to be hankering for that missing step and a first Women's WorldTour victory for the season.
The 25-year-old will be missing Van der Breggen, who was such a valuable ally last year in the race, but will still be able to lean on her experience from the team car.
On the road, Vollering will have the climbing strength of Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, who is clearly in good form and is the rider who could also provide an alternate option for the team. The experienced Vollering hasn't once fallen out of the top 10 in her five starts so far this season. Plus, Niamh Fisher-Black provided a reminder that she can throw out a handy attack at Flèche Wallonne.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar)
The 2019 victor at Liège, who has stood on every step of the podium at the race, has had a run of second places at the big races so far this season. Van Vleuten was just pipped by Cavalli on the Mur de Huy and was beaten in the sprint by the fast-finishing Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) at the Tour of Flanders and Strade Bianche. It is a combination of near misses that has left her in the unusual position of heading toward the end of April without a Women's WorldTour victory for the season to her name.
However, she still has wins on the board at the 1.Pro-ranked Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Setmana Ciclista Valenciana and in all three of those second places has delivered a powerful display, with a clear cut gap between her second place and the final step of the podium. That means it seems like it will be just a matter of time before the race falls in her favour and the top step once again belongs to her.
The form is clearly good, the teamwork putting her in the right spot at the right time and perhaps, with the slightly longer climbs of Liège, Sunday could be that time.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo)
Elisa Longo Borghini hasn't had the best spring season, battling with sinusitis and unable to deliver performances at the level she wanted, but then she took one of the most sought after victories of the season last weekend. The solo Paris-Roubaix winner, however, fell away from the top few positions at La Flèche Wallonne Féminine, saying there was a "fire in my legs, and the Mur de Huy was just a struggle."
A few more days distance from the solo effort to the Roubaix velodrome, however, could make all the difference at Liège. The Italian rider came third in the race last year, part of the lead group of five but in the sprint fell behind Vollering and Van Vleuten.
As always, solo is the Italian rider's best chance of victory. While it was a group last year that came to line to sprint for the podium spots, the race often falls into the hands of a long break. In fact in 2020 it was teammate Lizzie Deignan who last delivered an Ardennes win for the team after attacking on the Côte de La Redoute and holding her gap to the line.
Liane Lippert (Team DSM)
Liane Lippert may be a serious long-shot for the win but the steps of the podium certainly don't seem too far out of reach given recent performance. The Team DSM rider has twice stepped onto the podium in recent weeks, with a third at Amstel Gold Race and at Brabantse Pijl.
What's more, in the La Flèche Wallonne finale she, for a time, managed to stick with the podium trio of Cavalli, Van Vleuten and Vollering. Ultimately, she faded to seventh, going into the red too long in pursuit of Van Vleuten's attack on the Mur de Huy, but the fact that she held in with the leaders so long is an indication of the form she is carrying into Sunday's race.
The 24-year-old last won at the start of 2020 at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, but didn't compete at Liège in 2021. When Lippert last competed in 2020, she came 10th, finishing one position ahead of Vollering as she led a group of 15 over the line.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)
Kasia Niewiadoma wasn't making any excuses after her La Flèche Wallonne 12th place, simply saying she didn't have the legs to stay at the front of the field. Though, given the result comes after a second at Brabantse Pijl and fifth at Amstel Gold, it's hard to write off the possibility that they may be back in time for Liège.
"Personally, I hope I can shake off the bad feelings and take Sunday as another opportunity for a win for the team,” said Niewiadoma.
The 27-year-old isn't a stranger to the podium in the Ardennes Classics, having won the Amstel Gold Race in 2019, coming second at Flèche Wallonne last year and she came third at Liège in 2017, as well as just missing the podium at the race in 2021.
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Simone joined the team as Production Editor based in Australia at the start of the 2021 season, having previously worked as Australian Editor at Ella CyclingTips and correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.
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