Julian Alaphilippe is back at the Ardennes Classics, riding Brabantse Pijl as a warm-up for a shot at a fourth La Flèche Wallonne title and a first Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory after several near misses at La Doyenne.
The Frenchman is the headline name at Wednesday's race, which this year occupies a unique position in the calendar. It follows Amstel Gold Race but comes before Paris-Roubaix due to the French Presidential election. Alaphilippe will not ride Paris-Roubaix, his spring campaign is focused on the hilly Ardennes.
Alaphilippe headlines a QuickStep-AlphaVinyl squad desperate for a taste of Classics success having so far failed to make an impact or even take a podium spot during the recent Flanders Classics. He's in fine form, though, and has stayed free of the illnesses that have hit his teammates through the spring.
Remco Evenepoel is also racing, though he's expected to take a support role for Alaphilippe – as he did several times in Itzulia. Young climber Mauri Vansevenant also lines up for QuickStep-AlphaVinyl.
Over the 25 hills of the Flemish Brabant south of Leuven, Alaphilippe is expected to face the sternest competition in the form of Tom Pidcock, Ineos Grenadiers leader and reigning champion. The Briton beat Wout van Aert to victory last year in a result that would be reversed days later at Amstel.
This time around, Pidcock comes into Brabantse Pijl off an 11th place at the Dutch race, a result which on the face of it doesn't reveal the form he showed during the race, putting in attacks and then working on behalf of teammate Michał Kwiatkowski, who took a memorable victory.
Pidcock has suffered with stomach issues through the spring but now looks to be somewhere near his best once more as he gears up for Flèche and Liège.
He already has a podium spot to his name this spring – third place at Dwars door Vlaanderen – and a fight against Alaphilippe, who is fresh off a win and two second places at Itzulia Basque Country, looks set to be a perfect test ahead of his main spring goals that lie ahead.
A 205.1km route that straddles the Flanders-Wallonia border to the south and east of Brussels will host the battle of Brabantse Pijl.
The main challenges are backloaded, with the initial 120km featuring just five of the hills that mark the race. Instead, four laps of a finishing circuit around Overijse will host the decisive moments.
There, the peloton will tackle Hagaard (300m at 10 per cent), the paved Hertstraat (700m at 3.9 per cent) and Moskesstraat (500m at 7 per cent), Holstheide (1km at 5 per cent), and the climb to the finish at Brussesteenweg in Overijse (1km at 3 per cent).
It's not the hardest of the hilly Classics, but the finishing circuits are tough enough to usually whittle the front of the race down to just a handful of elite contenders by the finale and the climb to the finish line.
While Alaphilippe and Pidcock are set to be the most watched names on the start list on Wednesday, there are plenty of other contenders lining up in Leuven, too, with Amstel runner-up Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R Citroën) chief among them.
The Frenchman was centimetres away from victory at the weekend, having showed his strength by bridging across to Kwiatkowski and then doing plenty of the work to keep the pair away from the chasers. Cosnefroy has raced here twice before, taking a podium two years ago behind Alaphilippe.
Kwiatkowski will also be in action for Ineos, racing alongside Pidcock once more as part of a stacked team which will once again hope for success via the numbers game. Jhonatan Narváez returns to action, while the versatile Ethan Hayter is also in the squad following a win and the points jersey at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali.
There are notable absences from the race, too, with Van Aert (still unfit following his COVID-19 infection) and Mathieu van der Poel (focusing on Paris-Roubaix) not lining up.
In fact, Jumbo-Visma aren't racing at all, while Astana Qazaqstan, Groupama-FDJ, Movistar, and Team DSM also give the race a miss. Amstel podium finisher Tiesj Benoot isn't racing then, with Stefan Küng, Valentin Madouas, Søren Kragh Andersen, and Matej Mohorič among the other major absentees.
As well as Kwiatkowski, Cosnefroy, and Pidcock, several of the other men who were at the head of the race at Amstel will be back. Michael Matthews leads BikeExchange-Jayco following his seventh-place finish, with the Australian in solid form ahead of Paris-Roubaix.
Marc Hirschi heads up the UAE Team Emirates selection. The Swiss youngster was ninth at the weekend, continuing a strong start to his season following hip surgery. From nine race days so far, he's taken top 10s on six occasions and should be a major threat between now and Liège.
Bahrain Victorious' Dylan Teuns is another man on form, having taken 10th place at Flanders and sixth at Amstel. These hilly races suit him well and he'll have the promising Fred Wright (seventh at Flanders) to help out even if no Mohorič and Jan Tratnik means his team aren't quite as powerful as they have been in recent outings.
In addition to Teuns, the Belgian fans will be looking towards a clutch of other big names. Tim Wellens looks to be the leader of a Lotto Soudal squad which also includes Philippe Gilbert and Victor Campenaerts, though a top result isn't particularly on the cards from the trio leading Belgium's second team.
Looking elsewhere, Warren Barguil (Arkèa-Samsic) is worth a watch following his GP Indurain victory to start the month, as is Michael Valgren (EF Education-EasyPost), who seems to be approaching some good form after taking 15th at Amstel.
His compatriot Alexander Kamp is another to keep an eye on after the Trek-Segafredo rider finished fifth at the weekend.
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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