Photo by Gruber Images
Given the fireworks of the cobbled monuments, 2016 has already been one of the best springs in memory for cycling fans. The only way it could have been better is if Cancellara had won his final De Ronde (arguable, given the winning performance from the new mascot of the peloton) and if Boonen had capped the greatest edition of Roubaix we’ve ever watched live with a record-setting win (inarguable, unless you’re Australian — and maybe not even then). And the season’s not over yet.
The classics campaign is closed out every year by the season’s penultimate monument, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which comes at the tail end of the three Ardennes races. Affectionately dubbed La Doyenne (The Old Lady) for its advanced age, Liège is only a little more than a decade younger than the Queen herself. It may lack the finishing spectacle of La Flèche Wallone’s Mur de Huy, but the profile’s final series of sharks’ teeth are still brutal enough to result in the kind of long, exhausted, slow-motion grind that replaces the traditional sprint in an Ardennes finale. And, if we’re lucky as viewers, LBL will occasionally award some freelancer privateer, whereas the looming Mur all but kills any initiative in La Flèche, virtually guaranteeing the slow-motion sprint.
Some of us live for these kinds of races. The favorites jealously guarding their powder, the strong teams lined up on the front to expose pretenders throwing themselves into suicide efforts, the way the climbs are checked off one by one with every upcoming obstacle tempering each rider’s willingness to put their nose in the wind — these are the signature elements of a contemporary Ardennes classic.
It may be the sepia tint of days gone by or just the post-prandial glow of the Flanders/Roubaix feast this year coloring our vision, but we feel like the Ardennes used to be a bit more chaotic and opportunistic. This was back when Paolo Bettini was regularly blowing LBL apart like a Cricket-shaped grenade on the Côte de La Redoute, or the likes of Alexander Vinokourov and Jens Voigt were making 50km attacks stick with all the brutal tenacity of cyclists raised in the former Soviet Bloc. Ditto the animating efforts of Davide Rebellin and Michael Boogerd, who were always prepared risk defeat for the chance of victory or, in Boogerd’s case, yet another podium place at Amstel Gold, the unofficial Dutch national championship.
Hell, even the Brothers Schleck — not typically celebrated for their attacking style — have tried their hands at moves that, just seven years on, would be either A) mercilessly swallowed up by deep teams of super domestiques riding on behalf of the other 10+ pre-race favorites, or B) never even attempted for fear of A. There are just too many strong specialists these days to risk a long attack, and the big teams’ pockets are too deep for today’s riders to climb out of, even if they demonstrate Bettini’s tactical acumen. When the peloton does arrive relatively intact at the finish, the Ardennes do produce some of the most spectacular finales in cycling.
Ardennes finishes tend to be crowded affairs these days, but Valverde has proven he knows how to manage them.
Those finishes can also inspire cyclists like us, who occasionally do well enough on the local scene, to imagine ourselves actually being able to win a monument. “Look how slowly they’re going,” we think, sipping Amstel Light while the final selection comes to a virtual standstill on the Mur or Cauberg or gradually atrophies on the series of côtes during the return to Liège. Of course, that’s nonsense, as our greatest possible contribution to the Ardennes races would be along the lines of a hastily scrawled “BALAVERDE” on the Mur’s fresh tarmac.
There is also a certain painfully Sisyphean beauty to the Ardennes’ profiles. Were we to indulge in tortured metaphor, we might read the races’ constant cycle of up and then down and then up again as a narrative in gradients that metaphorically describes our lives as elite recreationalists, cyclists who pay our own race fees and dream of simply riding — let alone winning — races like these. Even the most racy racers among us spend almost all of our rides beginning and ending at the same place, and each ride is an experience whose only justifiable utility is the fact of its own existence. For the non-professional, cycling is an eternal pattern of departures and returns where every departure is really just the coda to the previous return, every up is merely the beginning of the next down, and every bout of suffering on a mountain slope is part of a monomythical rebirth at the summit that leads, in turn, to a descent back to the valley floor. We’re always leaving but never arriving except at where we left. Finnegans Wake with a bicycle crank.
But we digress, and there’s racing afoot.
More than any of the other Ardennes races, Liège resembles a modern grand tour distilled to a single day. As alluded to above, the group plods along across a course that features the kind of man-with-the-hammer punishment we’d normally expect from a mid-mountain stage in a grand tour. The big favorites suffer behind a wall of domestiques, a few continental wild card teams send some sacrificial lambs up the road with whoever happens to be Astana’s captain — it’s all a very well-scripted affair. Again, just like a grand tour.
As it did when Bernard Hinault won the race by nearly ten minutes in 1980, uncooperative weather can occasionally play a role in upsetting the processional. The capricious Northern spring unloaded a bit of Roubaix-esque hell on the race, making it one for the hardmen. Naturally, Hinault won, but it cost him some serious frostbite on his fingers and, allegedly, some permanent damage to the afflicted digits. Fewer than two dozen cyclists finished that race, which is all the more remarkable considering that groups of that size regularly contest the finale today.
Bernard Hinault doing Bernard Hinault things in the uncharacteristically hellish 1980 edition of Liège.
For the 2016 Ardennes campaign, we suspect most of the peloton will be looking at Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) as the main protagonist, though his absence at Amstel Gold does open the door for the likes of Tom Dumoulin (Team Giant-Alpecin) or Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Soudal) to bring the win back to the Netherlands for the first time since Erik Dekker won it in 2001. It’ll also be interesting to see how soon Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) can bounce back from his broken finger following that bizarre encounter during a training ride. The Belgian was showing dangerous form, but his campaign may have been irredeemably derailed.
In the final two Ardennes races, Valverde will be the metric by which the other cyclists gauge their efforts. He’s building form towards the Giro and, though he’s played down his own chances by suggesting he won’t peak until May, we still expect him to dominate with his uncanny ability to control the slow-motion finales. Valverde’s wins in last year’s editions of La Flèche and Liège indicate that it’ll take something special to unseat him, and he’s already registered enough top 10 finishes in 2016 to suggest that he’s on target to repeat.
Last year, the young Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick-Step) showed that he may have that special something; however, he’s coming off of a mono diagnosis and we doubt he’ll be in the necessary form. Instead, we’re looking at his new teammate Dan Martin to be one of the key challengers. His early season has been solid, not dominant, but he has the added benefit of a gang of blue Belgian bullies (plus one token German) to shepherd him to the finale. Etixx-Quick-Step singlehandedly dispatched Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan on the road to Roubaix; we think they’ll have little trouble controlling the typically conservative peloton of the Ardennes. Unlike Tommeke in PR, Martin won’t have to manage the finale himself, but he still won’t get the win unless he demonstrates a top level that he hasn’t mustered for two years.
Martin has already demonstrated superb form this season.
Orica GreenEDGE is also threatening fireworks with Michael Matthews, whose promise to inherit the puncheur’s crown from teammate Simon Gerrans looks on track after some strong showings in early March. Gerrans has also shown some flashes of form, winning two stages, the sprint jersey, and the overall at this year’s Tour Down Under, but we’ve got a gut feeling that the annual Orica tug-of-war is going to tip Matthews’ way this year. The team seems to agree, as Matthews has been given 31 for Amstel Gold. Still, the wily Gerrans can never be counted out in a sprint, and we expect him to be a very present danger in Amstel Gold’s flat final meters. Over the course of the week, Matthews should shine brighter, but a strong finish for Gerrans at Amstel Gold could make for some interesting on-road team dynamics at the later races.
Though it’s difficult to limit the list in races like these, we have no choice. One final name worth mentioning is Michał Kwiatkowski (Team Sky). His win at this year’s E3 Harelbeke and the animating role he played in De Ronde are both signs of strong form, and he won the rainbow jersey two years ago with a cheeky attack on an Ardennes-esque worlds’ course. Over the final kilometers of that race, the 25-year-old managed to hold off the likes of Valverde, Gerrans, and Gilbert — a scenario he’d likely have to repeat in order to finish the week with one or more wins. And, with super domestiques Sergio Henao and Wout Poels casting a long shadow over the proceedings, he won’t have to do it alone. He won last year’s Amstel Gold, but he then disappointed in La Flèche and Liège, losing contact with the leaders fairly early in the finales; however, if his relocation to Sky was enough to shake-up his preparation, we may see Kwiatkowski add La Flèche and Liège to his palmares and effectively replace Valverde as the king of the Ardennes.
With the demise of Universal Sports, the list of races broadcast in North America has gotten thinner than The Chicken at race weight. We don’t condone illegal streaming, but finding a legitimate way to watch races live can feel like grinding up a steep hill. TV often falls short of meeting our needs, and when the choice is between pirating a sketchy live feed or waiting for a truncated recap that often broadcasts as much as a week later, even the most by-the-rules cycling fan can feel the pull of their inner Pantani.
We’ll try to post North American viewing information for races whenever available, but if you do take to the high seas in search of a live feed, we find that maximizing the window of some streams eliminates the pop-up ads. This makes for a less cluttered (but often grainier) viewing experience, and it reduces the chances of clicking on a decoy “X” while trying to close fake Flash Player updates and possible phishing scams.
March 19: Milano-San Remo, ITALY
March 25: E3 Harelbeke, BELGIUM
March 27: Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields, BELGIUM
April 3: Ronde van Vlaanderen/Tour des Flandres, BELGIUM
April 10: Paris-Roubaix, FRANCE
April 17: Amstel Gold Race, NETHERLANDS
April 20: La Flèche Wallonne, BELGIUM
April 24: Liège-Bastogne-Liège, BELGIUM