Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) will focus exclusively on the Ardennes Classics this spring, deciding to leave the cobblestones to one side.
Victory on stage 2 of the Tour of Oman on Sunday proved that the Kazakh, who was the overall winner last year, is once again gearing up nicely for the spring. However, although he will line up in Belgium for the 'Opening Weekend' of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in a fortnight, he will not appear during the main cobbled Classics period, choosing instead to focus on the hillier Ardennes races later in April.
Lutsenko, 26, had more of an emphasis on the Ardennes in the first years of his career, but then started getting into the cobbled races of northern Belgium, his potential laid bare by third place at the 2017 Dwars door Vlaanderen.
However, after a 2018 spring that was beset by crashes, and a year in which he developed as a climber - he was second on Green Mountain in Oman and won hilly stages at the Tours of Austria and Turkey - he is heading back to the Ardennes, with Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège both big targets.
"This year I won't do the cobbled classics - just Kuurne and Nieuwsblad. I want to try for the Ardennes Classics. I prefer them," Lutsenko told Cyclingnews in Al Bustan after his Tour of Oman win.
"I like more long climbs and steep climbs. I like the cobbles but I want to try for the Ardennes, and it's hard to do both."
After Oman, Lutsenko will head to Flanders for the 'Opening Weekend', followed by Strade Bianche on March 8 and then Tirreno-Adriatico. After a short break, he'll head to a training camp at altitude before riding the Vuelta al País Vasco ahead of the three Ardennes Classics - Amstel, then La Flèche Wallonne, and, finally, Liège.
Lars Michaelsen, Astana's lead directeur sportif for the Spring Classics, expressed his disappointment that he won't be able to count on Lutsenko in the likes of the Tour of Flanders.
"In my opinion, surely he is a man for the cobblestone Classics. In 2017 he was third in Dwars, so he can be there. It's up to him. I would like to have him the group there," Michaelsen said.
"You have to choose. That's the problem. You cannot do everything. OK, from my experience, if a rider has a big aim to win Flanders, he will certainly do everything to be in Flanders. On the contrary, if he's not so fond of Flanders - Lutsenko crashed last year before the Muur and didn't get back on his bike again - then for his own mindset and moving forward, he needs to go more to the Ardennes side.
"It takes something special [for the cobbles]. If you want to be there, you need to be able to take all the in-fights, or at least you need to believe in it one way or the other. Last year, Michael Valgren, it's not like he liked all the in-fights but he really believed he could win."
While La Flèche Wallonne, with the devilishly steep finish on the Mur de Huy, may seem a stretch for Lutsenko, Amstel Gold Race, in the Dutch Limburg hills, appears perfectly suited. Liège, by far the most intense of the three from a climbing perspective, might also have seemed a stretch, but the uphill finish in Ans has been scrapped in favour of a flatter finish in Liège, which is predicted to open the door to a wider range of candidates.
"Liège is, at the moment, a target," Michaelsen said. "But with him we have to take it step by step."
Lutsenko came into the Tour of Oman as a de facto favourite for the title given he was the winner last year, but his victory on stage 2 confirms his form and cements that status.
Twelve months ago, he finished third on a carbon copy of the finale, in which the late climb of Al Jissah - 1.4km at 9 per cent - topped out 5km from the line. This year, instead of waiting for a reduced group sprint, he took the initiative on the climb and went solo over the top.
"It's a really good victory for me and my team. Last year I was third on this stage, and this year I won it, so I'm really happy," Lutsenko said.
"I attacked on the final climb, and then just went fast the last 5km. I looked around 2km from the finish line and had a little bit more motivation from my sports directors."
Lutsenko now lies second overall, three seconds behind Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) but 13 seconds ahead of any other overall contenders. Green Mountain, where he finished second last year, will once again be decisive on stage 5, but Lutsenko is also interested in Monday's uphill finish at Qurayyat (2.8kmm at 6.5 per cent).
"Green Mountain is really hard climb, and I want to try again this year. But today was just the second stage in a one-week race. Tomorrow also is a good stage for me, and for other riders like Greg Van Avermaet and Sonny Colbrelli.
"I like the people in Oman," he added, "and also being every day in 30 degrees. In Europe it's really cold, and this I good training for the next races and for my goal of the Ardennes Classics."
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.