Liége-Bastogne-Liége-Spokenforks-2015

The Ardennes – Liége-Bastogne-Liége

The last week’s worth of Ardennes racing reaches its crescendo with the ‘Old Lady’ of racing; Liége-Bastogne-Liége. A testing 253.5km in the saddle, Liége is the last monument for the foreseeable as we enter the annual run of grand tours and all the preparation which builds up to the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España. Only once into the tail-end of the season in September will we have another monument to be contested by the professionals, the Giro di Lombardia drawing the year’s racing to a close. Focus in the meantime will be firmly centred upon a good showing at Liége, displaying good form here can warrant an unexpected berth at the Giro or Tour for example.

Course:

As with any monument, the history which runs through their core makes them the most desirable races to have on a rider’s palmares. While Paris-Roubaix has Arenberg, Milan-San Remo the Poggio; Liége-Bastogne-Liege has been synonymous with the climb of the Cote de la Redoute. In recent times the famous climb had seen its impact nullified somewhat by its placement within the race, but 2015 sees it moved 10km closer to the decisive finish in an attempt to revive the once unpredictable nature of this race. Redoute is only one part of a race which requires intense attention detail to avoid danger and stay at the head of affairs while expending the least amount of energy possible before the finale. In total, ten climbs are present upon the route’s profile and will ensure fatigue accumulates and begins sapping the legs ahead of the fuse being lit later on in the day

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Allowing the peloton time to limber up is prevalent throughout Spring’s difficult semi-classics, classics and monuments; Liége-Bastogne-Liége is no different here. Though the terrain is rolling from the off, the riders will not reach their first categorised climb until 79km of racing has passed. The Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne is 2.8km in length and will help to open the legs up as they rise over its average gradient of 6.2%; this being the sole climb en route to the turning point at Bastogne. After this, the return leg back to Liége is greatly contrasting to what they tackled having left the town earlier in the morning; nine climbs now remain between the peloton and finish. First comes the short 1km Cote de Saint-Roch and its maximum ramps which reach 11%, this is followed by an extended period with no recognised climbs before the remaining eight begin coming thick and fast.

At 169km worth of racing the more testing Cote de Wanne will need tackling, 2.7km long and and average of 7.4% will begin offering some insight as to who has a chance of being in the mix come the finish. From this point onwards it becomes a blood and thunder race, increasing pace and attrition as riders begin getting shelled out from the tail-end of the peloton. Like most one-day affairs, anxiety will be palpable as teams stress over keeping their leader’s out of danger and well positioned in the midst of the maelstrom. Though only 1km in length, the Cote de Stockeu will inflict a serious level of hurt upon the pack, its average gradient maintaing a bone aching 12.5% with six further climbs remaining. Next is the Cote de la Haute-Levee which is placed a couple of kilometres shy of 70km from the finish, this climb is 3.6km long and possesses an average gradient of 5.6%. The peloton will then pass through Stavelot on their way to the next climb; Col du Rosier. A surprisingly long 4.4km of ascending will see the riders haul themselves over its 5.9% average gradient and duck under the 60km remaining marker by the time they reach the summit. A predominately downhill section will then follow, comprising most of the racing to the base of the Col du Macquisard (2.5km, avg 5%).

Though the main bunch will have seen its numbers thinned already by this point, the real battle to remain in contention for the win only beings ratcheting up from here on in. A diverse range of tactical battles will be ignited during the remaining three categorised climbs, with teams asking one another to take up the chase as dangerous support men are sent up the road in anticipation of the bigger moves later on. In recent history this has proved a manageable task for the strongest teams present, but with a slightly altered race course to the one the majority of the peloton will have experienced previously, a miscalculation here could prove extremely costly. It is at this point in time we will see the historic Cote de la Redoute make its appearance, positioned at a more crucial point in the race than recent years, it will be interesting to see if this offers anything similar to its previously decisive past in this monument. The climb itself is 2km long and will see riders crack as the fatigue hits home upon its 8.9% slopes which tip upwards to 13%; some favourites might begin to feel isolated as they witness their support riders unable to follow the wheels ahead.

The biggest gap between climbs for sometime in the day now appears, a factor which should mean the chasing teams do not need to go too hard on Redoute in order to ensure the catch of any breakaway is made ahead of the penultimate climb. By the time the leading riders reach the summit of the Cote de la Roche-aux-Fauconx the battle will be well underway as the strongest riders become apparent with less than 20km remaining once its 1.5km climb (avg 9.3%) is summited. The climb itself has picked up the mantle from Cote de la Redoute as the foundations of a race winning move in its short history as part of Liége-Bastogne-Liége; its ramps providing the ideal launchpad has others are left short in the wake of a barnstorming solo attack.

If after the Cote de la Roche-aux-Fauconx no clear breakaway has formed, then the Cote de Saint-Nicolas is the last chance to shake the peloton off before the finish. The climb begins 5.5km from the line and lasts for 1.2km, with early slopes of 10.9% looking the likely scene of a major dig from a contender as they attempt to get away on the final climb. Overall, the average gradient of Cote de Saint-Nicolas is 8.6% and soothes more so as they make progress towards the summit; favourites might be caught out as nobody wishes to instigate the chase for an escapee from the base of the climb.

Only a downhill section into the finish of Ans remains now, it is after this where the leaders will have to fight for the win upon a road which pushes upwards under the flamme rouge with an average gradient of 4.6%. Having already contested over 250km worth of racing, any rider who shows the smallest cracks at this point will see a gulf open ahead of them to those who still have enough left in reserve to attack. Any group present at the start of this uphill section into the finish is likely to see its ranks decimated as it begins fracturing under the strain of those making their moves for the win. A final lefthand turn will remain, the one which saw Dan Martin fall hard on a patch of diesel last year, before the leading rider(s) muster everything left to drag themselves over the last hundred meters and onto the podium.

Contenders:

Yet again in the Ardennes, Alejandro Valverde finds himself the number one favourite and marked man for this race which he has already one on two occasions in 2006 and 2008. This year the Spaniard has looked in imperious form during both Amstel Gold and Fléche Wallonne; winning the latter for the the third time and only being beaten by a faster finishing Michal Kwaitkowski in Amstel Gold. During the final ascent of the Mur de Huy at Fléche Wallone, it was obvious that Valverde intended on cooly climbing the majority before driving to the line with less than 200m remaining and it was exactly what he was allowed to do. Should his rivals allow him to execute his desired plan once again, it is difficult to argue against Valverde given his form during this last week and historic form at Liége-Bastogne-Liége too. His focus will be to remain in contention throughout the day and follow the important wheels when it matters towards the final stages of the race; aiming for a finish which will set him up as the fastest in a select group.

It seemed that Dan Martin would be the favourite to take Liége in 2015 at the start of last week, but disaster struck during Fléche Wallonne when he was brought down by another rider. He hit the deck hard and required a lot of persuading to get back on his bike in an attempt to ride it off, but he eventually withdrew and is yet to make a comment about his condition. With Cannondale-Garmin keeping knowledge of Martin’s injuries to a minimum, it seems that things could be quite bad for the Irishmen; surely you would want to shout about being fine ahead of your year’s biggest target? Having won it in 2013 and only missed out on defending his title the following year when crashing on the final bend, there are no question marks surrounding whether or not this race suits him. Should he been seen to have called his rivals’ bluff by not commentating on the extent of his accident, Martin could be left unmarked due to assumptions surrounding his condition. The final climbs of Liége have previously demonstrated how well he rides in the latter stages of an arduous race such as this and that is why he still needs to be considered a threat until he is certain to have come unstuck.

Joaquim Rodriguez certainly has the ability on paper to win this race and seems to have played his cards close to his chest going into the final Ardennes classic. Amstel Gold and Fléche Wallone have offered little as to his condition beyond which he entered this week of races on after a solid showing at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Absent from the deciding group at Amstel Gold, he managed to finish with the best at Fléche Wallonne; though unable or unsure as to anticipate Valverde’s attack with one of his own. He suits the short and sharp nature of the terrain in this region, but the lack of a summit finish means he would have to attack earlier in order to be alone when making the final turn onto the finishing straight. He is likely to figure when it matters, but it is hard to see him getting the better of everyone on the day.

Lampre-Merida are far from synonymous for targeting this week of racing, but have a dark horse in the shape of former World Champion Rui Costa. Earning the rainbow stripes is confirmation of his ability to cope with long and arduous one day races and Liége-Bastogne-Liége should give him hope of adding an impressive win to this year’s palmares. He rode surprisingly well in Amstel Gold last weekend, being in the mix over the Cauberg and appeared to be a good bet for a podium place at one point during the finale; only just missing out when finishing 4th. Costa has a good ability to pick the right move when it matters most and will be a considerable threat judging by his recent performances. He will have to try and drop those faster than him in a sprint such as Valverde, but is likely to work as part of a group if he believes himself to be the fastest come the finish. The lack of attention focused upon him in recent months makes him out to be a dark horse, whereas in reality, he should be considered a contender.

Joaquim Rodriguez certainly has the ability on paper to win this race and seems to have played his cards close to his chest going into the final Ardennes classic. Amstel Gold and Fléche Wallone have offered little as to his condition beyond which he entered this week of races on after a solid showing at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Absent from the deciding group at Amstel Gold, he managed to finish with the best at Fléche Wallonne; though unable or unsure as to anticipate Valverde’s attack with one of his own. He suits the short and sharp nature of the terrain in this region, but the lack of a summit finish means he would have to attack earlier in order to be alone when making the final turn onto the finishing straight. He is likely to figure when it matters, but it is hard to see him getting the better of everyone on the day.

Vincenzo Nibali has been a protagonist at several one day races so far this spring, but Liége-Bastogne-Liége is likely to prove to be the first where he regains a grand tour level of control and becomes the leader once again. The race suits him the most in the Ardennes and has previously proven it when almost winning in 2012 after attacking solo on the penultimate climb. Nibali will ride aggressively in order to split the pack and reduce the size of any chasing group, he will have to attack solo if he wishes to win as chances of doing the same in a sprinting are greatly diminished. It would come as little surprise to see him attack on the steepest section of Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons and then drop like a stone down the other side in an attempt to stay clear.

The Ardennes are now famous for 2011’s dominance by Philippe Gilbert which saw him win all three in one week to become the first man to win this elusive triple crown in a single year. As a former World Champion and two time winner of the year’s final monument Il Lombardia, he clearly performs well when it comes to long races which slowly wear the riders down. Though many were unfortunate enough to crash during Fléche Wallonne, his accident appeared to be one of the more painful which occurred during the race. Despite a badly ripped kit and some nasty cuts, Gilbert did initially get back on his bike in order to finish the race, but only gingerly pedalled off to end up climbing into the team car sometime later. Appearances can be deceiving, but compared to Dan Martin’s crash, Gilbert’s look considerably more damaging to the Belgian classics specialist.

AG2R La Mondiale attend the race with a three pronged attack in the form of Domenico Pozzovivo, Romain Bardet and Carlos Betancur. The former showed ability in this race last year and will look to build upon this with another punchy rider in attempt to go clear late on. The young Frenchman Bardet could perhaps be the better bet though, he has looked in great form during the mountains stages of Trentino and is believed to have earmarked this as a big Spring effort. He has no qualms with aggressive attacks on short climbs and could be allowed too much freedom if he does so. The form of Carlos Betancur is often a mystery and nothing has changed that as of late, he is a dangerous man when he wants to be and finished 4th here in 2013.

Amstel Gold finally saw the crowning of a man who has come so close to taking an Ardenne’s victory in the last couple of years on several occasions; Michal Kwiatkowski. The young Pole is a diverse rider and has victories which have come in a variety of race formats and attacking styles, often making him a difficult man to disregard. Being the reigning World Champion proves how well he rides during a long day in the saddle, but he shall not be given the same opportunity which he benefited from in Ponferrada; the peloton having learnt this the hard way. He is a gutsy rider who can grit his teeth and perform even when feeling short on top fitness, though this is unlikely to be enough in Liége to take the win. He beat Valverde in Amstel Gold when it came down to the sprint convincingly, but it has to be assumed that the Spaniard will do everything to drop him before the final turn is made.

Roman Kreuziger is sure to be a protagonist during the day’s racing; he has a good record at Liége-Bastogne-Liége (having charted in the top ten previously) and clearly suits the terrain well. It is difficult so say how is best for the Czech rider to approach this race if he intends on winning, though a solo attack is viable, he might be better off working in a breakaway for the most part before going it alone nearer the finish. There is little form thus far to gauge his fitness, but he likes this Ardennes race the most, despite having previously won Amstel Gold in 2013 and has finished 4th and 7th here already.

During Amstel Gold, Jakob Fuglsang maintained that he felt he could have drive his breakaway to the line had he not been followed by Greg Van Avermaet. On this occasion, the terrain will play more so into the Dane’s hands as he offers a dangerous ‘one-two’ attack for Astana with teammate Nibali. Similar to the move Ryder Hesjedal made with Dan Martin in 2013, Fuglsang will need reeling back in if he does make a move, providing Nibali with a free ride amongst the pack as he then attempts a counterattack once his teammate is caught. If he is allowed to work solely for himself, then he will need to attack from far enough out to prevent a sprint finish as he can only win if arriving solo in Ans.

Tony Gallopin is continuing to grow well as a rider and has managed to put in some good showings at Liége-Bastogne-Liége previously. Though he is yet to stick with the favourites during the finale, he has finished amongst the main pack and should feel confident of building upon this in 2015. His performance at Amstel Gold was very impressive and probably should have finished higher given his finishing speed compared to that of those around him, but was badly position when it mattered the most. His condition looks good and a top ten finish should be an achievable target if he reads the moves well and follows the right wheels.

Having finished 3rd, 6th and 12th here before, Enrico Gasparotto will aim to gain a similar result at the very least here. Though 33 years of age, he is perhaps showing some of his best form of his career right now; with a 15th in Fléche Wallonne and 8th in Amstel Gold. He should be able to stick the pace and will certainly be a threat if he should manage to squirrel himself away as part of a group which has to sprint for the win. In 2013 he was the fastest of the main bunch after Maxim Iglinsky and Vincenzo Nibali went up the road and decided it out of reach of the faster men.

Tom Jelte-Slagter could prove to be a handy alternative for Cannondale-Garmin if Dan Martin is still suffering badly from his crash. The Dutchman comes into this race on the back of a 9th place finish at Fléche Wallonne and has already managed a 6th place in Liége-Bastogne-Liége last year.

Outcome: 1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Rui Costa 3rd Dan Martin

Solo: Vincenzo Nibali

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The Ardennes – Flèche Wallonne Preview

Flèche Wallonne comes sandwiched between Amstel Gold and Liége-Bastogne-Liége during this week of hectic and stressful racing through the Ardennes region. It takes more than a gutsy ride of sheer will power to win Flèche Wallonne, this race sees a small group of specialist riders earmarked to duke out the finish atop the infamous Mur de Huy. It is on these ruthless slopes where the real contenders are soon separated from the pretenders as they wrestle against the gradient and fight for position in order to make the final selection in this unique race. Placed anywhere else in the calendar would likely have made Flèche Wallonne a classic, but being bookended by the seemingly more prestigious Amstel Gold and the monument that is Liége-Bastogne-Liége has seen its profile diminished somewhat. Riders will hope to capitalise upon the previous weekend’s efforts and the distracting allure of the following Sunday’s eye-catching monument, as a way to cause a stir on this herculean finish and win against the odds.

Course:

From the start in Waremme, the peloton are tasked with completing a total of 205.5km in order to reach the summit of the race deciding Mur de Huy. Attention is suitably focused upon the Mur de Huy when planning the best method of attack in order to win here, the riders will have several opportunities to gauge the climb as it features twice on the race profile before acting as the backdrop to the race’s outcome. Like many one day races, the riding opens with several kilometres of gently rolling terrain as a warm up to the chaotic battle which is bound to ensue once the climbs begin getting ticked off by the pack. Only one climb is present during the first 92km of racing(Cote des 36 Tournants), allowing a breakaway to establish at the front of affairs before pressure begins ramping up as the remaining 9 climbs start approaching thick and fast.

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The true race opens up with the 1km Cote de Bellaire (avg 6.3%) at the 92km marker, followed swiftly by the longer Cote de Bohisseau which as a 5.5% average gradient over its 2.4km of ascending. By this point in the race, some within the peloton might believe they are gaining a level of insight as to their condition for the race; this will soon be tested as they hit the first ascent of the Mur de Huy after 118km of racing. If the legs are feeling ropey from the opening half of this race on the first pass of the Mur de Huy, the chances of them coming round to contest the finish is extremely unlikely. Acting as a mid-race reconnaissance, this opportunity will refresh the memory of the more experienced riders and see race favourites begin visualising their schemes for the finale.

Turning away from Huy onto an almost 6okm circuit will take the peloton on an excursion to discover three further climbs which they are expected to get the beating of en route to a possible Ardennes victory. First comes Cote d’Ereffe (2.1km, avg 5%), before heading into familiar territory with another pass of Cote de Bellaire and Cote de Bohisseau as they tick the mileage over to just shy of 160km at this point; with the second ascent of the Mur de Huy after 176.5km to be completed.

The remaining 29km is composed of only three climbs, including the final ascent of the decisive Mur de Huy. Though the favourites are still likely to be in contention at this point of the race, a clear amount of thinning will have occurred amongst the peloton by now; possibly leaving major names isolated from their teammates. Cote d’Ereffe is the first of the afore mentioned three climbs which remain, just over two kilometres long and averaging out at a gradient of 5%, it does not standout as an aspect which will impact upon the race greatly, but you never can tell in a one day race such as this. With only 5.5km remaining the new addition of the Cote de Cherave could certainly cause problems for a peloton intent on setting the finish up for a sprint amongst the puncheurs. The climb itself is 1.3km long and sees an increase in steepness compared to its predecessor, this time possessing an average gradient of 8.1% which needs surviving before the last climb of the Mur de Huy. Perhaps it is the subsequent descent from the Cote de Cherave which will be more dangerous than the ascent itself, offering any escapees a solid springboard in their attempts to rob the favourites of the finish they desire.

As we have already seen at Amstel Gold during the finale upon the Cauberg, the imperative for the major players will be staying safe and maintaing a strong position in order to defend or attack from. By now, the peloton will be all too aware of how hard life gets beyond the Mur de Huy’s average of 9.6%; in fact the win will be fought for on ramps hitting 25%. It is with this in mind that it becomes obvious how underrated a champion of Flèche Wallonne can be compared to the other races in the Ardennes this week. To win this at the death will require a canny rider to conserve energy and be smart enough to find daylight before striking for home with a monumental effort over the gruelling 25% section up to the line.

Contenders:

Once again Alejandro Valverde enters the day as race favourite after a great showing at Amstel Gold where he found only Michal Kwiatkowski in finer form than himself this year. As mentioned when analysing his hopes of taking Amstel Gold last week, Valverde has not come into this week of races with the level of victories many expected him to have by now; many of his missed opportunities thus far have been the result of misfortune rather than fitness however. He looked calm when boxed in at the base of the Cauberg on Sunday and smoothly worked his way into a better position before striking from the decisive group to take the young Pole to the line in the sprint. The uphill finish which maxes out at 25% suits Valverde nicely, a man who has form when it comes to securing one day and grand tour victories over similar terrain; let us not forget that he is the defending champion here. He has clearly raised a few eyebrows with his condition in the first race of the Ardennes and should be the man to beat on the Mur de Huy.

Last year saw Dan Martin beaten into second place by a deadly Valverde and there is no clear reason to suggest he cannot be the man to push the Spaniard to the line once again. He recorded a solid 15th placing in Amstel Gold and has the ability to flourish on this terrain as already witnessed at Flèche Wallonne last year. Not only will he like the finish, but Martin has a an enviable record in one day races and classics which will reenforce his claims here. Martin’s history at this race in particular is impressive, having previously finished 6th, 4th and 2nd in his previous three consecutive appearances. If he can stay out of trouble and find the right wheel to follow on the Mur de Huy, he has everything in his toolbox to dismantle the chnaes of Valverde and add another major one day race to his palmares.

Katusha arrive here with two previous winners in their ranks, the Spanish pairing of Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno; champions in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Rodriguez did not have a great time of it at Amstel Gold, finishing in the middle of the pack despite looking good in the latter stages of the race. His form at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco is an encouraging sign for him in the face of a disappointing Amstel Gold result and clearly copes with this finish as a former winner. Like his compatriot Valverde, Rodriguez seems to function best on the hellish gradients of a finale which leaves many withering in the wake of his big efforts. Such an ability has really only seen Valverde as his main rival in this type of uphill finish and will be well worth watching ahead of the final climb up the Mur de Huy. Katusha’s second former winner is Daniel Moreno, a man who currently appears bereft of the form which previously delivered him the title here. Given this factor, it will be expected of Moreno to help leader Rodriguez with his tilt at the win, but he will remain a positive backup plan if required. He goes well on this terrain and is certainly one of the faster finishers if he does not burn out too soon on the climb to the finish line.

Second to Moreno when he won in 2013 was Colombian Sergio Henao, the punchy finisher is riding as the best hope for Team Sky at Fléche Wallonne this year. He clearly has the ability to perform well upon the Mur de Huy, but possibly lacks the nous required to launch a race winning move from the right position. The Colombian looked far from his best during Amstel Gold, but this occasion suits him much better and he will benefit from a shorter and less stressful race for the most part. Timing will be everything for him; get it right and he could certainly podium at the minimum. Chris Froome is an interesting presence amongst the peloton at this race for Sky too, a dark horse who could step up and take leadership if required; no doubt causing a big stir amongst the major names if so. Though he lacks the ability to finish as fast as the likes of Valverde, Rodriguez or Martin on these 25% ramps; he could attack much earlier on the Mur de Huy in order to compensate. We have witnessed the incredible tempo Froome can set on an incline and his spiked efforts have the ability to open a large gap rapidly. If he did choose to attempt this, a gap which is too great to close on such a sharp finish would only require Froome to hold out until the line greets him atop the Mur de Huy.

Michal Kwiatkowski struck gold last weekend and finally took his first Ardennes win after having demonstrated amazing consistency at the races over the last couple of years. He stayed in contention during Amstel Gold’s final climb of the Cauberg and benefited from the regrouping which occurred after a hesitant attack by Philippe Gilbert and Michael Matthews. Though the Polish rider does have the attributes of a puncheur style rider, the finish of the Mur de Huy is probably a step too far for him; at this point in his career at least. Last year he managed a very impressive third place behind Valverde and Martin and a 5th place in 2013 too. Sunday’s performance would suggest that form is returning to Kwaitkowski and he should be part of the diminished group which begins the Mur de Huy for the last time, but he is probably destined to be distanced once 25% gradients hit home.

Yet another former winner which lines up at Flèche Wallonne is Ardennes specialist Philippe Gilbert, but he comes far down this preview for good reason. When he did win this race in 2011 it was a shock to both pundit and rider, as Flèche Wallonne was viewed as the race he was least likely to add to his palmares in this region. Obviously 2011 was incredible for the Belgian, as he won the Ardennes’ triple crown and went onwards to become World Champion upon the same Cauberg which also secured him Amstel Gold. In 2015 it seems a hard task to argue in favour of Gilbert taking his second win here, as the field offers a depth of talent which suits the concluding terrain much better than the Belgian rider.

A young face no doubt eager to make his presence felt here will be British rider Simon Yates who has been handed joint leadership (with Michael Albasini) in order to have a stab at this race. Vuelta al Pais Vasco proved that Yates is in fine condition heading into this race and probably should have walked away with a win on stage 4. His issue could be hesitating when he really needs to commit to a move wholeheartedly, waiting continuously for the ‘perfect moment’ can be an infinite affair, but if Yates gives everyone both barrels from a good position on the Mur de Huy it will take a strong effort to reel him back.

Bauke Mollema has a consistent recored here, finishing in the top ten or thereabouts on several occasions already. So far this year encouraging signs have been apparent when riding Tirreno-Adriatico and Vuelta al Pais Vasco, but he is yet to crown these showings with a win. He suits this race reasonably well and appears to be the best bet for Trek Factory Racing at this edition, but will find it very difficult to get the beating of the faster finishing men.

Outsiders are plentiful at this edition of the Flèche Wallone and one such man who could cause an upset is Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang. He was in a late move with Greg Van Avermaet during Amstel Gold which failed due to the Belgian’s presence, but the Dane walked away adamant that he could have taken it to the line had he not found Avermaet on his wheel. He evidently believes himself to be in good condition, but will struggle for freedom in a team which includes Vincenzo Nibal, Michele Scarponi and Rein Taaramäe to name a few. If he attacks early on the penultimate climb with approximately 5km remaining, he definitely has the guts to push such an effort to the limit in search of Ardennes glory.

One which few will tout as a contender is Rafael Valls, the Lampre-Merida rider who is likely to find his presence here at the disposal of team leader Rui Costa. Costa will take command after a solid finish at Amstel Gold, which is sure to have a detrimental effect upon the chances of the Spanish rider making a move. However, Valls has looked strong this season thus far, particularly on sharp uphill finishes which include winning atop Green Mountain in Oman and mixing it with the best climbers at Paris-Nice. Should he be allowed to get away by leader Costa, the peloton might regret letting him slip off the front late on in the race when realising they are then tasked with catching him upon the Mur de Huy.

Outcome: 1st Dan Martin 2nd Alejandro Valverde 3rd Bauke Mollema

Spokenforks-Amstel-Gold-Preview-2015

The Ardennes – Amstel Gold Preview

Attention shifts this weekend from the cobbled pavé and hellingen which set the scene for Paris-Roubax and Ronde Van Vlaanderen; riders will now face the soaring hills of the Ardennes region instead. Not only does the terrain alter for this triple header of races in one week, but the peloton will also see its cobblestone strongmen replaced by the lithe mountain men and puncheurs who excel on the steep slopes of the Dutch cycling heartland.

Course:

A compact route means the riders will often encounter the same hills and roads throughout the race, as organisers take advantage of this small region’s limited, yet arduous terrain. A possible contender will need to conquer 34 climbs in total; most of which lead almost immediately into the next due to the restricted choice of roads here. Overall, the peloton will cover 258km of riding from the start in Maastricht to the final climb over the Cauberg and onto the short finishing straight into Valkenburg. Similar to how the Tour of Flanders takes advantage of the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont by sending the riders up them more than once, the Cauberg is not just the finishing climb but is also present a further three times during the race.

Unlike the monuments we have already seen raced so far this year, Amstel Gold does not afford its riders an opportunity to warm up with several kilometres of rolling terrain. Instead, the day’s opening climb appears just past the 9km mark; the Slingerberg. Though the first climb does feature early in the day, only five hills will be summited en route to their first ascent of the Cauberg after 54km of riding. From this point onwards life for the peloton will begin getting hectic; the following 111.6km takes the form of a circuit which includes 16 further climbs and the second ascent of the Cauberg.

Spokenforks-Amstel-Gold-Preview-2015

Apart from the climbs, the main challenge is the constant stress of the narrow, twisting roads. Positioning at the bottom of the climbs is a key ingredient in any successful Amstel Gold bid and the role of team support in the constant battle for position on this course cannot be underestimated. Crashes are certain to occur and the race is certainly not won purely on brute strength; luck is necessary here as in any one-day race. This part of the race is usually not too aggressive, consisting more of a long, steady chase behind to the certain breakaway which will have cemented by now. However, the many climbs gradually take their toll on the legs, making life even harder as they navigate narrow roads and road furniture which require constant focus and attention; this race is extremely stressful throughout. Once this loop is completed, the bunch will be directed onto another circuit, this time 71.3km long and bolstering 9 further hills; including the Cauberg’s third cameo.

By this point in time, anxiety surrounding positioning of team leaders, keeping breakaways on a tight leash and preventing dangerous riders from vanishing up the road will all contribute towards an edgy atmosphere in the bunch. Significant efforts will be made to keep things under control as they ride over the Eyserbosweg, Fromberg and Keutenberg ahead of their last ascent of the Cauberg which forms the day’s finale. From here they start yet another circuit, but this time the last, an 18.5km lap which begins building the crescendo which we are likely to see from the favourites. Along this loop comes Geulhemmerweg and Bemelerberg with a little under 8km remaining; from these two hills the riders will head onwards to contest the win on the fourth pass of the Cauberg.

It is with only 2.5km remaining that the peloton will ride onto the lower slopes of the Cauberg, turning the approaching corner to suddenly see the tarmac road snaking skywards ahead of them. This 1200m long stretch will see the favourites attempt to inflict some final hurt over the average 5.8% gradient; big digs are expected where the maximum hits 12%. If this was not already enough to crown the day’s winner, 1800m still separates them from the finish once they summit the Cauberg. Anyone who has distanced themselves on the climb will need to dig yet further if they have any chance of staying clear of the pursers; many of which are likely to finish faster on the flat.

Contenders:

There is no doubt that Amstel Gold is going to be a testing race to control for the big teams aiming to set the finish up for their team leader. Whereas once it finished atop the Cauberg, the modern incarnation of the race leaves uncertainty as to who will be in the mix, even if delivered into perfect position by his teammates. Nowadays, the long flat section following the final climb means it is still possible to haul yourself into contention and possibly sprint past the lead man on the way to taking a win. This requires huge amounts of power after the energy sapping Cauberg and is made even harder by the difficulty of getting any sort of cohesive work rate from a small chasing group.

Once again upon heading into the Ardenne’s classics, Philippe Gilbert enters the race as the standout favourite; 2015 offering him the chance to win Amstel Gold for the fourth time. The Belgian has looked in good condition so far this year and obviously has enough history with this race to ensure he will be present at the front of affairs come the end. It appears his schedule has been intended to tailor his form so it peaks for this week in the Ardennes; one which he has previously dominated when winning all three races in 2011. Though Gilbert’s teammate Ben Hermans prevented him from winning Brabantse Pijl, his form was evident and would have been well fancied to win had he been given the chance. Assuming everything has gone swimmingly before turning onto the Cauberg, Gilbert is bound to be seen getting away from the remaining peloton, but whether he can stay clear on the finish’s concluding flat section remains to be seen.

Alejandro Valverde is equally fancied upon this type of finish, a man who has taken both Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Flèche Wallonne in recent history, but never Amstel Gold. The Spaniard has had a solid opening to the season, though one which lacks the same calibre of wins as last year when entering Amstel Gold. Many will point at Valverde’s failings when it came to winning the likes of Tour of Oman, Volta a Catalunya and Strade Bianche, but misfortune was often the architect of these missed opportunities. Though a gap in form is likely to have been formed between Gilbert and Valverde, it seems foolish to discount a rider with the ability of Valverde entirely because of another’s condition. As mentioned previously, this race is notoriously difficult to control and all it takes is Gilbert to be placed one too many wheels down on the Cauberg for Valverde to get the jump on him. If Valverde can anticipate others well enough to stay in contention by the time they reach the finishing straight, the Movistar rider is quick enough on paper to beat all other race favourites.

Nobody will wish to bring Michael Matthews to the line alongside them this year; the Australian looking in imperious form during 2015 so far. In the last year, Matthews has really begun to start living up to expectations, taking results which have long since been expected of him on the WorldTour. A man known for his sprinting, what makes Matthews such a threat to other’s however is his strength when it comes to hanging in with the climbers and being present at the finale to contest the win. Whether you cast your eye over his performance at Brabantse Pijl, Milan-San Remo, Paris-Nice or even Pais Vasco; it is clear that the Orica-GreenEDGE leader will be a major threat if he has not been dispatched with on the Cauberg. Should he be present in a group which enters onto the finishing straight together, it is difficult to envision anyone having the legs to beat the tough Australian.

Still finding what he is best suited to in the realm of professional bike racing is Michal Kwiatkowski, the reigning World Champion and burgeoning talent of the Ardennes. The last two years have proven that the young Pole has a certain affinity for this week of racing which encompasses Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Fléche Wallonne; along with Amstel Gold. He has placed either on the podium or in the top 5 at each of these races in the previous two years, but a win has eluded him thus far. In terms of skills required to win this race, Kwiatkowski possesses them all; puncheur efforts, strong in a sprint and even capable to hold off a chasing pack alone if required.

Amstel Gold will offer us an insight as to the current condition of one-day specialist Dan Martin; a rider who has already taken Liége-Bastogne-Liége & Lombardia. Martin reads a race well, confident enough to know where is best to attack and who to anticipate should anyone make a move before he gets to make his mark. Though he does not necessarily suit Amstel Gold on paper, the Irishman should be a likely face once the peloton make the final turn onto the Cauberg. He can sustain a solid tempo on this sort of terrain and could be underestimated by his rivals; allowing him to launch the sort of solo attacks which we saw from him at Volta a Catalunya last month. His ability to sprint is documented, but is not quite on the same level as that of Valverde and Kwiatkowski; he will have to be riding solo or part of a lesser group to benefit the most it would seem.

Jelle Vanendert had a great week at this series of Ardenne’s races last year; 2nd at Amstel Gold, 6th at Fléche Wallonne and 11th at Liége-Bastogne-Liége. He appears to pull form out of nowhere for these three races and cannot be discounted from featuring prominently as the race builds to a crescendo, but he does not suit the current finish as well as others nowadays. As the winner is no longer crowned atop the Cauberg, Vanendert would need a healthy margin to stay away on the last flat section after summating the climb; this seems a stretch too far for him. With Vanendert failing to suit Amstel Gold as much as he would like to think, Lotto-Soudal can switch focus to supporting Frenchman Tony Gallopin if so wished. He looks a real contender for these Ardennes races and it appears his career is building gradually to taking a win of this calibre soon. Though some suggest he is not in top shape, Brabantse Pijl displayed he is not far from it, taking fourth place behind Hermans, Matthews and Gilbert. He has the tenacity to attack hard uphill in order to remain in contention, but what really favours Gallopin against others in a reduced group is his fast finish; an outsider to watch.

BMC are another team which harbours a potent ‘Plan B’ if required; this coming in the shape of Greg Van Avermaet. Heading here on the back of two third places at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Avermaet is clearly in fantastic condition right now and will be a crucial lieutenant to Gilbert’s hopes of winning. If the opportunity does arise however, Avermaet can certainly climb with the best, and most dangerously of all, has a vicious sprint after such an arduous race.

It seems strange that few have mentioned Joaquim Rodriguez ahead of Amstel Gold; especially as the Spaniard looked tailor-made for this one-day race at one point in time. Runner-up in 2011, Rodriguez must have felt confident of adding this race to his palmares by now. Sadly for him, the recent alterations to the finale means he can no longer aim to win thanks to a summit finish atop the Cauberg. Though he has taken victories in the past which come after a final climb, these tend to offer a downhill run to the line, allowing him to maintain speed and keep away from those behind. Distancing the rest on the final climb is possible, but it would be an incredible achievement by Rodriguez to maintain it all the way into the finish.

Another man who has shown previous form here in the Ardennes is Colombian Sergio Henao; finishing second to Daniel Moreno in 2013’s Fléche Wallonne. As a climber, he certainly has a chance to mix it with the best on the Cauberg, but much like Rodriguez will be left in the dust of any possible sprint finish.

Quite bizarrely, the history books prove that the Italian Enrico Gasparotto has a real knack for finishing well in this race. Having won it in 2012, he has also finished within the top ten on four occasions alongside his unexpected win. Wanty will ride solely for him, so he shall have no qualms in regards to support, though it is unclear how much depth the squad around him will possess. Despite not showing a great deal of form in 2o15, Gasparotto does suit this terrain and should be a contender if he makes it into any front group which has to sprint for the win.

Outcome:

1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Michal Kwiatkowski 3rd Philippe Gilbert

 

Zdenek-Stybar-Paris-Roubaix-2015

Monument Three – Paris Roubaix Preview

Course:

This year’s Paris-Roubaix takes a familiar shape as previous editions; softening the riders up with 100km of flat racing before the cobbles appear on their radar. Overall, the peloton will need to tackle the 253.5km which leads to the historic finishing line at Roubaix’s velodrome; while also surviving the 27 sectors of bone rattling pavé. In order for favourite to succeed here, they will have to sustain their luck and strength over a total of 52.7km worth of race deciding cobblestones.

Like many crucial one day races, the desperation to be represented in the day’s early breakaway will result in a thundering pace until the peloton concedes and allows one to form. The aftermath of this will be a lull in tensions; this is probably the only time in the race the peloton will experience something resembling a breather. The first sector on the agenda strikes after 98.5km, igniting the fuse to every subsequent sectors hell for leather approach. The three star ranked Troisvilles is the first challenge; followed by Quievy (3700m), Saint-Python (1500m) and Verchain-Maugré (1600m). Ranked at 4 stars, Haveluy is a tough sector which will give some insight as to who is looking most nervous when jostling for position on the best part of the road.

As iconic as it is infamous, the next sector is Trouee d’Arenberg and its 5 star ranked cobblestones which can break a rider’s hopes of winning in Roubaix. The peloton’s approach to this sector is notorious for its speed and intensity; hitting the first row of cobblestones at speeds akin to a sprinter’s leadout. Chaotic crashes have often peppered the ride through Arenberg, instantly scuttling the chances of contenders; a simple puncture at this point would have the same outcome. Due to the nature of Arenberg, teams will attempt to keep their leaders’ at the front of affairs through sheer speed over the treacherous road, often resulting in an elite group being formed by the time they exit. By now it will be noticeable as to how heavily thinned the ranks will have become since finishing Arenberg, making it apparent as to who now lacks support from their team.

Next is Mons-en-Pevele (5 stars) with 49km to go, a sector which is likely to shape the composition of the eventual group from which we see the winner emerge. The final 30km to Roubaix require the riders to stay upright over Cysoing-Bourghelles, Bourghelles-Wannehain, Champhin-en-Pevele; all before entering the decisive 5 star Carrefour de l’Arbre. Over 2km long and coming only 17km from home, this has often been the site upon which the day’s winning attack has been forged. Once completed, the final pavé which separates them from the famouns velodrome are those of Gruson and Hem.

Outcome:

With Paris-Roubaix sitting as the third monument in the season, we have a vague idea of who are likely to be the major protagonists by now; having already seen the riders duel for the wins at Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders so far. Form is certainly able to be sustained across these successive weekends of classics racing, but each race offers attributes which lean towards the capabilities of certain riders in particular within the peloton. For curtain raising Milan-San Remo we had to cast an eye over the fastest finishing strongmen who were likely to still be present once they arrived on the Via Roma after over 6 hours of racing. In the fields of Flanders those who could cope with the repeated anaerobic efforts required to dominant the vicious hellingen were always going to be apparent and when it came to more than one rider contesting the finish, whoever seemed fastest on paper was sure to be the favourite.

The roads to Roubaix are another differing opportunity once again, but one which requires the least tangible and most transient of all race winning factors; luck. Perhaps because of this, Paris-Roubaix is seen has the crowning glory of the classics season for its ‘against the odds’ chances of winning. Lacking crucial climbs such as the Poggio or Paterberg as featured in Milan-San Remo and Flanders respectively; Paris-Roubaix has the ability to churn up contenders who have otherwise been absent during the campaign thus far. Perhaps the most tactically ridden of all the monuments, this cobbled juggernaut can see favourites’ chances wither rapidly after simply choosing the wrong wheel to follow over the pavé or digging too deep too soon in the race. This ensures a very anxious day where riders attempt to anticipate the moves of the day’s most fancied riders, in order to be one step ahead as the fireworks erupt dramatically in the peloton.

As ever it will be a difficult race to control, some of the major names here lack a team able to keep this occasion from boiling over and rosters which do display strength in numbers are subsequently lacking in a man convincing enough to win it come the end. The history books are perhaps a little overdue at present for an unexpected name to enter beneath the title of ‘monuments winners.’ There is no reason to exclude the possibility of a strong pack of well organised rouleurs making a bid for freedom and staying away with little cohesion from beyond the major names to chase. Underdogs will be much less inclined to play ‘cat and mouse’ in the later stages with any fellow escapees, as they will be all to aware how difficult it is to win this race; spurning the opportunity to contest the win due to silly games would be foolish.

The rider which nobody will wish to take all the way to the finish as either part of a small breakaway or bigger sized bunch is man of the moment Alexander Kristoff. Though his form has been clear already this season with dominant performances in the Middle East, De Panne and only being bettered by John Degenkolb when attempting to defend his Milan-San Remo title; it was still surprising when he added Tour of Flanders to his palmares recently too. His biggest benefit on that occasion was some surprisingly poor tactics from Dutchman Niki Terpstra, the Etixx-Quick Step man worked comfortably with the Norwegian danger man throughout; seemingly towing him to the finish in the absence of any meaningful attacks. With its flat terrain and arduous distance, Kristoff will view this as an opportunity to add another monument to his cabinet; a man who can absorb the efforts of others and be confident of being the fastest man at the finish should he be present in the leading group.

Finding such a surpsingly generous partner on his way to victory in Flanders must surely be the last time that will happen for a while given his form. Nobody will have the slightest interest in aiding Kristoff and, much like Geraint Thomas so far this season, is bound to find people missing their turns in a chase as they place everything on the Katusha man to close the gaps and hold the wheel. As mentioned earlier, some contenders come here with teams which are likely to see their support evaporate not long after Arenberg; meaning all the tactical nous will need using if he has the chance of winning as the most marked man here.

A man with an equal claim to being the fastest finisher in Roubaix is the German powerhouse John Degenkolb; the other monument winner so far in 2015. His build and mentality suit the testing cobblestones which so many fear and he seemed quite the revelation when taking the sprint for second place last year in the wake of Niki Terpstra’s astute race winning attack. It seems laughable to think Degenkolb could find himself squirrelled away in the group which reaches the line first, but many riders could be so eager to exploit an opportunity to distance Alexander Kristoff that they might allow the German’s presence in the meantime; rather than spurn the chance to crack Kristoff. With a team which includes Ramon Sinkledam and Bert De Backer, Degenkolb has a more fancied support team than his rival Kristoff; this should mean the need to ride aggressively becomes less apparent.

A man who may have previously been picked out as one of the main protagonists ahead of 2015’s Paris-Roubaix was Sep Vanmarcke; the talented Belgian prodigy still lacking a major title. Across his classics campaigns thus far, he has demonstrated a level of consistency which places him in similar regards as Fabian Cancellara. Though repeatedly entering these monuments as one of the strongest riders, Vanmarcke is plagued by misfortune and poor tactical decision making when it counts the most. He has also found Cancellara an indomitable foe despite a relatively short, yet prolific, role in the last few seasons on the cobbles alongside him. What makes it difficult to back Vanmarcke with absolute conviction is how stuttering his performances have been so far at Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Strade-Bianche and E3 Harelbeke. We have witnessed Herculean efforts against the odds at both Strade-Bianche and Flanders, ensuring that his conviction or desire to win these major races remains unquestioned. The queries which do surround Vanmarcke are predominantly based on his habit of expending too much energy when it is not necessary. During Gent-Wevelgem he mismanaged his finite resources and was unable to make the crucial moves in Flanders for, possibly, similar reasons. Of course, if he does arrive at the start in Compiegne on one of his good days, he will remain a man who cannot be allowed an inch during the final decisive kilometres on the approach to Roubaix.

Etixx-Quick Step will be confident of once again being the protagonists with the greatest numerical advantage during the crucial moments of the race, but have already squandered such advantages more than once this season. Niki Terpstra was beaten into second place by the ruthless Alexander Kristoff at Flanders, though it was still an ultimately impressive performance in terms of strength. However, as soon as it became apparent that these two were going to collaborate in an attempt to stay away, it was a given that Terpstra could not afford to simply tow the Norwegian into Oudenaarde when possessing such a potent sprint. This was just another page in the growing annals of Etixx-Quick Step’s incompetence when it comes to putting a race to bed in the face of golden opportunities. Terpstra is of course an extremely powerful ride to have onboard for a race such as Paris-Roubaix and comes here as the defending champion, but it seems more logical that they will back Czech road race champion Zdenek Stybar to lead their charge across the cobblestones instead. Stybar has been one of the most consistent riders in terms of performance; both physically and tactically. Featuring at the pivotal moments in E3-Harelbeke (when going clear with Peter Sagan and Geraint Thomas), Strade-Bianche (dispatching the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Greg Van Avermaet for the win) and played a solid team role during Flanders. Should both Terpstra and Stybar make it into the elite group, they surely have the majority of tactical outcomes covered and will feel confident of finally bring a classic home to Etixx-Quick Step this season.

Terpstra took the win last year after splintering off the front of the decisive breakaway and soon set about time trialling his way to the finish at Roubaix’s velodrome solo. One rider who will look to last year’s victory by the Dutchman as inspiration will surely be Bradley Wiggins; coming to the race with the intention of finishing his career with the famous cobblestone trophy held aloft his head. With the news that Wiggins has been timing the pavé sectors in order to gauge his efforts and the tempo of the peloton, no rider will have studied this race so meticulously as the British World Time Trial Champion. Many will argue that such a scientific approach to Paris-Roubaix is a waste of time, you need to be racing in the moment and reacting to the ever changing maelstrom which surrounds you. He might know how many watts to put out going through Arenberg, but does Wiggins have the ability to ‘read’ the cobblestones in order to stay upright and puncture free? The answer is a surprisingly positive one for the ageing Sky rider who has already contested this race on several occasions, dating back to his early days at Marc Madiot’s Francaise Des Jeux squad. His support will include the flying Welshman Geraint Thomas, strongman Ian Stannard, wiley lieutenant Berard Eisel and promising youngster Luke Rowe. These are all men who are happy to sacrifice themselves in order to ensure Wiggins a safer passage through the day and hopefully position him amongst the decisive riders towards the end of play.

For Wiggins, he will expect his teammates to soften up the other favourites for him, before attempting to breakaway solo and motor to the line with the huge engine he has. Something worth keeping mind is what could happen as a result of Geraint Thomas attacking; a man there to work for Wiggins. The bunch could try to call their bluff though and let Thomas get away, something which would need to be judged accurately to ensure he does not vanish up the road and takes the win for himself. Given that this is Wiggins final race and his last attempt at securing another palmares topping race win, would we perhaps even see him working to bring back his own teammate in desperation?

Horses for courses is a saying which perhaps serves cycling better than its intended sport, or any other sport for that matter. A sport where riders can pull  race winning performance out of thin air simply because they hold an affinity for the given terrain or course. Lars Boom is one such rider who should be included when summarising the danger men 2015’s Paris-Roubaix. He won the apocalyptic Tour de France stage which tackled the cobbles during last year’s race; taking the win in a rain soaked affair which saw the impressive efforts of Vincenzo Nibali triumphing over the treacherous stones while others faltered. This is not to say Boom’s claim to a Roubaix win is simply limited to that one day during Le Tour, a day where others have to measure their efforts for the next two weeks of further efforts. The Dutchman has appeared comfortable within the eye of the storm as the peloton hit crucial sectors at incredible speed and like Vanmarkce, is only bereft of a better showing here due to misfortune.

Greg Van Avermaet will have been disappointed to have no capitalised on the absence of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen during last week’s Tour of Flanders. Unable to bridge the gap to the leading pairing of Terpstra and Kristoff despite the assistance of Peter Sagan; Avaermaet finished third one a day where he really could have taken all the glory when looking so strong on the final ascent of the Paterberg. Despite Avermaet not necessarily appearing to be the typically styled rider to benefit in the cobbled classics, he has a fourth place at Paris-Roubaix and often ends up in the elite group during a arduous race. Though he might no have as great a level of depth in his support squad as other contenders here, he should have plenty of confidence with Daniel Oss as his key man; the Italian has appeared in superb condition this Spring so far.

A couple of seasons ago, many would not only have bet that Peter Sagan would have taken a monuments win by now, but probably had a small shelf dedicated solely to them. In reality however, Sagan has failed to kick on from the performances which first brought him centre stage on the WorldTour. As ever he remains a consistent finisher in anything from one day classics to three week grand tours and anything in between. Of the five annual monuments, Sagan has currently bagged two 4th place finishes at both Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders; leaving only Paris-Roubaix as a possible win as neither Liége-Bastogne-Liége or Giro di Lombardia favour his strengths. If Paris-Roubaix was 50km shorter, it would be easier to back his chances, but sadly for the Slovak rider, he often dwindles during these longer one day affairs. His overall form has been troublesome this year, during Strade-Bianche he went on the attack at one point, only to be caught and churned out the back as soon as he had been reeled in. During E3 Harelbeke he made the decisive move with Stybar and Thomas, but looked on the rivet during the last 20km; unable to take a turn and eventually bonked so hard after Thomas’ attack (and Stybar’s subsequent pursuit) he could not manage to hold on for third in the final few kilometres; instead finding his name plunged into the midsts of the chasing pack.

Another rider who seemed destined to become a major figure in the classics scene for the foreseeable future was Belgium’s Jurgen Roelandts. This year appears to be the best build-up he has ever had heading into Paris-Roubaix, stating throughout the media that he feels he can put in a solid performance on the cobbles. He appears to be feeling strong off the pack of encouraging showings at Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders; yet will not be that closely marked despite evident form. Like many dark horses at this race, their chances do not come when facing the major names head-to-head, but rather anticipating the moves and aiming to get ahead of the game before they make them. Roelandts remains one to watch and if he uses his head properly, could certainly be on the coattails of the elite group.

Reigning Belgian champion Jens Debusschere could be worth keeping an eye on for home fans too, with encouraging signs apparent heading into Paris-Roubaix. At Gent-Wevelgem he played his cards very close to his chest when making it into the decisive lead group and measured his efforts extremely closely when forcing the likes of Geraint Thomas and Niki Terpstra to close the gaps to the wheels ahead. Ultimately this possible unwillingness to chase blew up in his face as Luca Paolini capitalised on the cat and mouse to slip off the front and solo to victory. He has the capability to smuggle himself aboard a breakaway, but it will be another question as to whether or not he can cope with the subsequent attacks as riders aim to drop one another. If he is present in a group which makes it into Roubaix first, he is fast enough to be a key threat to the hopes of the strongmen with lesser finishing speeds after such a long race.

Outcome: 1st Zdenek Stybar 2nd Geraint Thomas 3rd Jens Debusschere 

Ronde-Van-Vlaanderen-Tour-Of-Flanders-2015-Spokenforks-Preview

Monument Two – Tour of Flanders Preview

Brugge will play host to the start of the Flemish calendar’s most beloved race on Sunday; the Tour of Flanders or Ronde Van Vlaanderen for the more continentally inclined. Legs have been firmly stretched in preparation for this second monument of the year; Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke and Dwars Door Vlaanderen having all played host to the build-up of this classic race. No longer can a rider rue his hesitation with the reassurance of another day on the horizon, by the time Flanders is upon the contenders, nobody can afford to leave an ounce of energy or desire jettisoned wastefully between the cobblestones. Perhaps the biggest contrast to previous years’ editions will be the absence of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen; two men who have inflicted much hurt upon the peloton en route to their combined six wins. Most interestingly of all, Stijn Devolder (twice a winner) will be the sole previous winner amongst the pack upon leaving Brugge; making the crowning of a debut champion a seeming certainty.

Course:

Though the course may not be one which pleases the purists, this year’s route will be one to encourage brutal attacks and prevent many from catching a breath before attempting to reel breakaways back. Those with a knowledge of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen will be aware of its historic finish which previously used the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg as the stage for the day’s final showdown. Nowadays however, a greater leg breaking affair seems to have replaced this old duo, the race now set to be decided upon a final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. But this is only one aspect to fret about during the 264.2km ride from Brugge to Oudenaarde. Opening with flat open roads will give the riders a chance to build up a head of steam before having to concern themselves with the first climb of the day; this being the Tiegemberg after 87.3km of Belgian roads. At 750m long with an average gradient of 5.6% (max 9%), it will alert the pack to the imminent livening up of their day as they enter into the tumultuous terrain of this region. What follows is the Oude Kwaremont approximately 25km later, this will be the first of the day’s three ascents and is the opening salvo of what will comprise the day’s war of attrition. A contrast to say the least, this partially cobbled climb reaches 2200m in distance and possesses an average gradient of 4% which tops out at 11.6% in parts. From this point onwards there will be no clear cut opportunities during their expedition through the region’s draining hellingen; most of the day’s climbs are separated by less than 10km.

Three climbs now appear within 10km; these are the 1km Kortekeer (avg 6.6% max 17%), the 1200m Eikenberg (avg 5.2% max 10%) and the Wolvenberg which is only 645m long but hits 17.3% during the 7.9% average. A couple of cobbled sectors will then follow before the short Molenberg needs tackling; resulting in a 32m gain in just 463m of riding. The Molenberg is cobbled for the most part, is 7% in terms of average gradient and doubles this number as it tops out at 14.2% on its steepest ramps; making it a climb where position will certainly be fought for early on. After here there is a break from the relentless hellingen, instead requiring the peloton to focus upon the cobbled sections which now occupy their attention in the meantime. Fatigue will have started to accumulate by now, riders shall have been discarded from the back and some are likely to have succumbed to the expected crashes and collisions during the chaotic climbs. It is the reasonably relaxed Leberg which will return the peloton back to climbing once again, one which includes no cobbles across the 950m of riding upwards; the average gradient here is 4.2% (max 13.8%). The rapidity of these hills picks up keenly once again after the Leberg, hitting the 171km mark will result in a passage of racing which includes four hellingen in the space of 26km. Berendries is the first within this run of climbs, 940m long with an average of 7% and a relatively modest maximum of 12.3% compared to its fellow challenges of the day. Next comes the Valkenberg, only 540m in length but has an average of 8.1% which is stretched to the maximum of 12.8%. Kaperij follows at an average of 5.5% over the 1km and does hit a maximum of 9% to help ratchet up the fatigue once again.

It is then another 10km before they ride onto the 1km Kanarieberg (avg 7.7% max 14%), which then offers the biggest break from the climbing since the day’s ascents started once over the top. It is the next and 12th hellingen of the day where we are likely to see the first real confirmation of who will have the legs to contest the race victory all the way into Oudenaarde; this is Oude Kwaremont part two. By this point in time just over 54km will remain for the favourites to duke it out over and the pressure increases another notch, as on this occasion the Kwaremont leads into the diabolical Paterberg. Though only 360m in length, its 12.9% gradient will wear the legs rapidly ahead of the rocketing incline which eventually pushes the cobbles up to 20.3%. Though it will be difficult to process everything which is going on around the riders, it will be worth staying alert on these two climbs as they form the decisive double header of hellingen which shall decide the finale of Ronde Van Vlaanderen 2015.

Adding to their woes will be the cobbled Koppenberg (avg 11.6% max 22%), this is the third of three devastating climbs which follow into one another in only 10km of racing. A heavy shelling of contenders shall have occurred by now and the true favourites will now take their rightful position at the front of affairs. Mariaborrestraat is a cobbled sector which follows on from this and lasts 2km, linking directly to the Steenbeekdries; it is 700m long and has an average of 5.3% (max 6.7%). This combination ensures that there will be no moment to take breath or to establish a more comfortable rhythm. The historic Taaienberg (avg 6.6% max 15.8%) then appears 36.8km from the finish, a cobbled climb of just over 5oom which has been the backdrop to many Tom Boonen attacks during his spring campaigns’ over the years. We should have a strong indication at this point of which riders have the energy to cling on to any lead group and have enough left in reserve to battle for the win.

The Kruisberg (2500m, avg 5% max 9%) is next, a climb which is long enough to cause trouble despite its less intense gradients to those which have proceeded it this far. Positioning here will be crucial in order to react to anyone attempting to make a break for it with less than 15km remaining of the race by this point. Depending on the composition of the lead group which hits the Kruisberg first, a real explosion of attacks could occur in order to try and dislodge hanger-ons or rivals showing signs of weakness. This will now only leave us with the leg breaking Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg doubleheader with which to see the champion come to fruition. The Kwaremont begins with just under 17km left and the Paterberg just over 13km, having already appeared during the race, spectators will have an idea of who looks the more comfortable when approaching the climbs once again. Whoever remains at this point will look to ditch any further wheel suckers on either hellingen, so a decisive move is likely to appear on either the longer Kwaremont or the steeper Paterberg. Approximately 13km will separate the first over the Paterberg from the finish in Oudenaarde, the resulting flat run home meaning that the tempo will need to stay high to keep any chase at bay. Anyone present in a select group who is notoriously fast in a finish is likely to be faced with the challenge of enduring several attempts to ditch them; in contrast anyone who feels the weakest in a possible sprint will need to take off solo to keep any hopes of winning alive.

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Contenders:

With neither Tom Boonen nor Fabian Cancellara present to cause a stir, this appears to be the most open Tour of Flanders in considerable memory. Favourites here will be those who have demonstrated convincing form so far this year at races such as Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem for example. As a result of this, Geraint Thomas enters the day as one of the most watched men in the peloton, coming to Flanders on the back of an E3 victory and a 3rd place at Gent-Wevelgem. The Sky rider perhaps lacks the level of team support which he is likely to witness exhibited by some of his rivals on the day, but should feel confident of coping once life becomes a more mano a mano style affair later on. His most encouraging factor is perhaps his performance on some of the same pavé which brought him victory at E3 Harelbeke most recently; looking comfortable and convincing when attacking on the Kwaremont for example. Thomas was perhaps robbed of a better placing at Gent-Wevelgem due to the abysmal work ethic present in his group, one which leaned on the Welshman to do most of the chasing before he refused to commit any further and the group subsequently disintegrated allowing Luca Paolini to take the win instead. Ultimately his current form might just work against him, making it difficult for him to make a solo move as nobody will want him to escape, nor work in a group with him knowing his ability to get away. Should he come to the end as part of a small group, Thomas will be one of the least fancied in the sprint, as many other favourites for Ronde Van Vlaanderen possess a more clinical finish.

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A man who has greater form amongst the classics, but is still missing a win, is Sep Vanmarcke. The Belgian has looked good so far this season; though misfortune has perhaps prevented him from picking up a win ahead of Flanders. In the absence of Boonen and Cancellara, Vanmarcke is perhaps the most talented classics specialist in the race on the day and will be hungry to make the most of a more open race. Even in the face of misfortune he still manages to maintain a level of consistency which would turn many riders green with envy, there is no doubt at all that he will fight to the end in order to stay in contention for the win. Similarly to Thomas, Vanmarcke is probably likely to find himself short on teammates by the time the pressure reaches breaking point, meaning he will have to rely on his own ability to stay out of danger and know which wheels to follow. He has more options available to him in order to win, being one of the quickest finishers amongst the favourites and could attempt a longer attack if required also.

Another man who has been prevalent in one day races this year is Zdenek Stybar, finishing second only to Thomas in E3 and finishing champion ahead of Greg Van Avermaet at Strade Bianche. His team is stuffed full of talent, so much so, that it could possibly be a negative asset as tactical decision making becomes muddied and complicated late on. He is incredibly talented in both technical ability honed on the cyclocross scene, as well as his ability to put out huge amounts of power when required. It seems likely that Stybar will be part of a group which splinters off from the peloton and works efficiently until they feel the need to begin attacking one another on the final climbs. There is no reason to think the Czech rider could not ditch his rivals on the Paterberg for example and solo onwards, but he would feel equally confident in a decisive bunch sprint given his finishing speed.

Greg Van Avermaet and Daniel Oss are sure to fly the colours of BMC proudly throughout the day; both having displayed strong form ahead of this second monument. Oss has looked particularly strong as of late, especially when leading the chase to the Thomas, Sagan and Stybar group in E3 Harelbeke towards the end. That however ended up being a redundant effort as leader Greg Van Avermaet spectacularly dismounted from his bike when sailing over his bars and landing heavily on his back. Since then much speculation has been made as to the condition of Avermaet, most diminishing his chances of winning Flanders because of it. The Belgian looked just as strong in Milan-San Remo, but has failed to chart anywhere near the podium in a one day classic excluding Italy’s Strade Bianche where he finished second. It seems foolish to rule him out totally considering his career’s form at this race – Avermaet has finished 2nd, 7th and 4th in the last three editions. If doubts remain during the race, Oss is a strong alternative to have up the sleeve of BMC and would relish the chance to be allowed off the leash at last. Often the Italian rider finds himself sent up the road in anticipation of an Avermaet attack, or to force a group to chase which contains his teammate. If Oss finds himself in a elite group late on, it would be fascinating to see how he seizes upon the opportunity to lead the team’s charge and is likely to be one of the most able to attack without being followed. Possessing the skill to go it alone if necessary, as well as dangerous in a sprint finish, Oss could be dangerously underrated on the day.

Two men who would really relish a sprint finish are John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff, riders capable of hanging in long enough to contest the finish in Oudenaarde. The former won Milan-San Remo this year and is probably still riding the high from winning his first classics monument. He is thought of predominantly as a sprinter, but the German has a certain affinity for the cobbles which has seen him finish high already in similar races; most notably 2nd in Paris-Roubaix. Despite seeming unlikely to go on the offensive during the day, he will be a difficult man to jettison on the hellingen and will benefit from the flat run into Oudenaarde if required to bridge back to a group. Similarly to Kristoff, Degenkolb has demonstrated that he is often the fastest man remaining at the end of a long race, making him favourite for a sprint finish. Much of the above can be said similarly of Alexander Kristoff too, a man equally fancied to capitalise if taken to the finish by a select group. He has been winning with relative ease it would seem, becoming the first man to win three stages in one edition of the Three Days of De Panne last week. Ultimately for the Norwegian, it seems difficult to imagine a scenario where he makes it to the finish in the lead group in order to fight for the sprint. Few riders will wish to work with him and the 17 hellingen in total are surely too great a task for this man to conquer while holding enough in reserve to win come the finish.

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One of the first outsiders who could find himself in the mix once again is Niki Terpstra, a teammate of Stybar who has looked confident during the decisive moments of Gent-Wevelgem. With attention focused more upon his fellow Etixx-Quick Step rider, Terpstra cold find a chance to attack with great effect. Poor tactical nous from his directeur sportifs has cost him already this season, but the Dutchman has still managed to accumulate several good performances despite missing a win. No doubt he would like to attack solo near the end and aim to time trial his way to the finish, if in a select group with Stybar, Etixx would be confident of taking the win. Terpstra could attack solo and being known for his ability to win from these positions would mean a group would have to close him down, but bringing him back would simultaneously tow Stybar towards the sprint finish he desires. If Etixx can finally grasp the correct set of tactics, Ronde Van Vlaanderen has a great chance of ending up in their hands.

It seems amazing that it is now possible to talk this much about contenders for a classics race and not even begin mentioning Peter Sagan. His form up to this point in time has left a lot to be desired, often failing to make it into the crucial move and (even when he does) is simply found out for not having the legs required to react effectively to attacks. From a man seemingly destined to win this race at one point, to a rider who has already done so twice, Stijn Devolder will be the leader for Trek while Fabian Cancellara recovers from several broken bones. The 35 year old Belgian has displayed an increase of form at both E3 and De Panne as of late and should be involved to a certain extent during the day. However, it is difficult to fancy Devolder in presence of riders in better form and many years younger than him.

Jurgen Roelandts is a very talented rider who will be worth keeping a close eye on having already finished second here in 2013. Despite this, the general feeling is that he is yet to show much of an indication of ability to compete at the same level as some of the best men for these kinds of races. He finished 7th in both Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke; the latter being contested upon some of the same climbs as Flanders. Encouraging signs are certainly apparent and if he times an attack from a small group well, he might just find that the favourites spend too long looking at one another to chase and he crosses the line alone in Oudenaarde.

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Others which are likely to comprise some of the day’s key moves include Stijn Vandenbergh, Bjorn LeukemansSylvain ChavanelJens Keukeleire and Jack Bauer.

Outcome:

Making the assumption that Greg Van Avermaet has made a recovery since his nasty crash at E3 Harelbeke, he could well be the man most likely to benefit from the no-show of both Cancellara and Boonen. Bolstering a strong team and the perfect lieutenant in Daniel Oss, Avermaet should cope with what Ronde Van Vlaanderen has to throw at him; hoping to sprint to the win from a select group. Alongside him is likely to be Zdenek Stybar, strong enough to hang in with the best and more than capable to run a man such as Greg Van Avermaet close in a sprint for the finish. Sep Vanmarcke needs luck to stay on his side in Flanders, but should feel confident of being a danger man upon the cobbled climbs throughout the day and should place high in Oudenaarde. Beyond these two, Geraint Thomas and Niki Terpstra are sure to make it into the elite bunch which shall aim to make it all the way to the finish uncontested by the likes of John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff. The dark horse most likely be worth watching is represented here by Jurgen Roelandts.

Sprint: 1st Greg Van Avermaet 2nd Zdenek Stybar 3rd Sep Vanmarcke

Solo: Geraint Thomas