Anna van der Breggen headed into the Ardennes Classics - Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - as the defending champion and the overwhelming favourite to repeat that success. To everyone's surprise, the Dutchwoman was more than willing to a take on a support role this year so that her Boels Dolmans teammates could enjoy success.
She was elated after her teammate Chantal Blaak won Amstel Gold Race last Sunday. She also hoped that she could help another teammate, breakaway rider Megan Guarnier, win Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday. As the final played out, however, the breakaway was caught at the bottom of the Mur de Huy. Van der Breggen was there to sprint ahead of Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo Bigla) and win her fourth consecutive title. Guarnier showed her strength by finishing on the podium.
As the riders head into the third and final event in the Ardennes, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Van der Breggen is once again the most prominent rider to beat, even if she would rather see her teammates win.
Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the newest of the three races after making its debut last year. The course, from Bastogne to Liège, is unchanged at 136 kilometres. The first half of the race is undulating with 900m of elevation. The last half features four significant climbs: the Côte de la Vecquée, La Redoute, Roche-aux-Faucons, and Saint-Nicolas, and then the last 1.5km to the finish line is 5% in Ans.
"There are climbs in it, but it does not go flat for even a moment," Van der Breggen said of the Liège route. "If you start climbing after 60 kilometres, and if it does not stop any more from then on, it is a very heavy race. We have these kinds of courses on the calendar nowadays."
Van der Breggen won the inaugural event after attacking a select group over the top of Saint-Nicolas and then time trialling the final seven kilometres to the finish line in Ans. Her teammate Lizzie Deignan was second and Kasia Niewiadoma (now Canyon-SRAM) was third.
Deignan, who was second behind Van der Breggen in all three events last year, announced that she was pregnant and on temporary leave. Boels Dolmans have continued to prove that they have the strength to put multiple riders on the podium, notably after Blaak won Amstel, and Guarnier was third at Flèche behind winner Van der Breggen. All three will be on the start line in Bastogne.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège marks the ninth round of the Women's WorldTour. Van der Breggen won Strade Bianche and Tour of Flanders, and after her win at Flèche, she moved into the series lead with 608 point. Blaak is in second with 538 points and their teammate Amy Pieters is third with 455 points.
There are notable climbers further down the ranking who could make an impact on the race at Liège. Notably, Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and Ashleigh Moolman-Paiso (Cervelo Bigla).
Winner of Trofeo Alfredo Binda this year, Niewiadoma was third last year in Ans and could be the team's best chance at a podium again. She was an unexpected 21st place at Flèche, however, and might be starting to feel the fatigue of the Classics season.
Her teammate Ferrand-Prévot, on the other hand, forced a decisive breakaway at Fléche that almost made it to the finish line had the peloton not caught them with under one kilometre to go on the Mur de Huy. Look for her to animate Liège.
"The day went well and the team raced as planned up until the final kilometre of Flèche Wallonne. The Mur de Huy is unforgiving, and we didn't have anything left to be in the final mix. We will need to learn from it and try again, in a different way," Canyon-SRAM director Ronny Lauke said of the team's performance at Flèche, but he is confident the riders will bounce back with a good performance at Liège.
"To use the words of Billie Jean King, 'Champions keep playing until they get it right.' I believe our riders are champions, so we will stand up and will do our best to be an uncomfortable opponent and aim to take a win from this week."
Liège is touted as being the toughest of the three Ardennes events and will likely suit the better climbers in the field. Cervelo Bigla's Moolman-Pasio was so close to victory at Flèche, finishing second behind Van der Breggen in a sprint to the line in Huy. She's just one step away from a big win this season. Moolman-Pasio was sixth last year, and her teammate Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig was tenth - also one to watch.
Mitchelton-Scott have been fighting for a victory at the Ardennes but have come up short. Van Vleuten was probably the team's best chance, but she crashed at Tour of Flanders, and even though she finished third, she has been racing with a sore shoulder ever since. She crashed again at Flèche, but managed to finish fourth place, which means that she could be healthy enough to win on Sunday.
The team also have Amanda Spratt, who fought her way into the decisive breakaways at both Amstel and Flèche, where she finished third and fifth, respectively.
Van Vleuten spoke about the team's chances on Sunday. "I feel good going into Liège; the course suits me a little bit better than Flèche Wallonne and with Spratty being in such amazing form - which she showed again on Wednesday, which gives us a lot of confidence to go together in the final.
"We did a solid recon of the route, and I really like this final and am very focused on Sunday, it's the last of the spring Classics, and I can't believe that it's over already."
Shara Gillow (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) had a string of success last year with fifth at Flèche and seventh at Liège. She's was sixth on Wednesday and will want to improve on that performance.
Movistar have a couple of strong contenders in Mavi Garcia and Malgorzata Jasinska, and both are capable of top-10 finishes in Ans.
Astana's Sofia Bertizzolo is leading the Women's WorldTour youth classification. She was eighth at Flèche, which was her strongest performance yet.
Sunweb have two contenders with Ellen Van Dijk, who was fourth last year, and Lucinda Brand, who was recently second at Amstel Gold Race, and they can never be discounted for victory.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) has been returning to full strength after battling illness this spring. Look for her to be aggressive on the climbs. Waowdeals lines out with Sabrina Stultiens, Marianne Vos, Jeanne Korevaar and Reijanne Markus.
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