The inaugural women's Ardennes Classics triple - Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - was all the talk on the women's cycling circuit last year, and then even more so after Dutchwoman Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) won all three races.
The three events have returned and are once again part of the 2018 Women's WorldTour.
Amstel Gold Race, which returned to the calendar last year after a 14-year hiatus, will kick off the Ardennes racing in the Netherlands on April 15. Then there is the long-running La Flèche Wallonne and finally Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which made its debut on the women's circuit last year.
Van der Breggen, along with her Boels Dolmans team, will be on the start line for Amstel Gold Race, but the 'Queen of the Ardennes' says that it is unlikely that she can pull off the same success she had last year.
Amstel Gold Race is 120km, a fair bit shorter than some of the cobbled Classics earlier this spring, but what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in difficulty.
Starting at Markt in Maastricht, it's a hilly course with 17 climbs, but the race will likely be decided on the three local finishing circuits. The women will face punchy climbs over Geulhemmerberg (970m/8%), Bemelerberg (900m/7%) and Cauberg (800m/12%).
The Women's WorldTour leader's jersey has been passed from shoulder to shoulder this spring. Van der Breggen took the early lead after she won Strade Bianche, Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) wore it after she won Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Jolien D'hoore (Wiggle High5) had it after winning Driedaagse De Panne and then placing second at Gent-Wevelgem.
The jersey is currently on the back of Amy Pieters (Boels Dolmans), who won Ronde van Drenthe and placed fifth at Tour of Flanders. She also just won the Healthy Ageing Tour. She leads with a total of 440 points, while van der Breggen is second and D'hoore third, both with 405 points. Niewiadoma is in fourth with 390 points, and Gent-Wevelgem winner Marta Bastianelli (Ale Cipollini) is fifth with 370.
All are expected to be on the start line with their respective teams, except Bastianelli, who won Brabantse Pijl on Wedesnday.
Although van der Breggen has expressed the impossibility of completing the trifecta for a second consecutive year, there is no denying that she is the odds-on favourite to win Amstel Gold Race given her talent for climbing, time trialling and timely solo breakaways - on full display at Strade Bianche and Tour of Flanders. She lines up with Pieters, who was seventh last year, and world champion Chantal Blaak.
There are several riders in the field equipped with the strength and the team support to rival van der Breggen.
After placing third at Amstel Gold last year, Niewiadoma told Cyclingnews that she had targeted the Ardennes Classics, aiming to be in peak form on Sunday. She has had a strong season so far placing second at Strade Bianche, taking the win at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and although she was ninth at Tour of Flanders, she played a prominent role in the closing kilometres. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, eighth last year, will also be racing.
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo Bigla) also showed her strength at the Tour of Flanders, being the first rider to launch a solo chase after van der Breggen. She was later joined by a chase group and sprinted for fourth place. Most importantly, she showed the determination and capability needed to take on Boels Dolmans over hilly terrain. She was ninth last year.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) is strong enough to win Amstel Gold Race, but the question remains; is she healthy? The time trial world champion was third at Tour of Flanders despite crashing and separating her shoulder mid-race. She skipped Brabantse Pijl but is listed to start on Sunday. She was fourth last year.
Mitchelton-Scott will come prepared with a team of other potential winners that include Amanda Spratt, Gracie Elvin and D'hoore.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) is back to racing after taking some time off due to illness. Third at Strade Bianche and tenth at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, make her a contender for the podium. She was fifth last year.
Sunweb will have a couple of potential winners with Coryn Rivera, sixth last year, and Ellen Van Dijk. Although Rivera hasn't enjoyed the same early-season success this year, Van Dijk has won Omloop van het Hageland and Dwars door Vlaanderen, and she was seventh at Tour of Flanders.
Other riders to watch include Marianne Vos (Waowdeals), who was third at both Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Brabantse Pijl, Lauren Stephens (Cylance), Lauren Kitchen and Shara Gillow (FDJ), Janneke Ensing (Ale Cipollini) and Jasinska Malgorzata (Movistar).
After Amstel Gold Race, the Ardennes Classics will continue with La Flèche Wallonne on April 18 and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 22.
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.
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