The first two Ardennes Classics produced a surprising winner and with the new change of course in the final of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we might as well see another outsider winning this Sunday.
Still, I think one of the favorites will win this race and to me the biggest favorite is Alejandro Valverde. He did fine in Flèche Wallonne on a finish that doesn’t suit him and he showed in Amstel Gold Race that he is in great shape right now. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is Valverde’s biggest goal this spring and with his fast finish, he will be very difficult to beat. Furthermore, Movistar have a great line up to support Valverde. Rui Costa, Quintana and Visconti all have the strength to end on the podium in this race, but this Sunday they are all riding in support of Valverde.
One of the reasons why I see Alejandro Valverde as biggest favorite is the lack of Roche-aux-Faucons. The little steep climb is closed due to roadwork, and therefore the organizers have replaced it with Côte de Colonster. Colonster is longer than Roche-aux-Faucons but it’s not nearly as steep. The 2,4 km have an average gradient of 6% and on open roads it is now a lot easier for a big group to keep the race together. The biggest threat of Côte de Colonster is probably the fight for positions on the way to the climb. Right before it starts, the peloton crossed a narrow bridge and after that a railroad crossing. If it rains, this will be very dangerous with everybody wanting to be in front when starting the climb.
As always Saint-Nicolas will be a key point in the race with its top just 5,5 km from the line. The chances of the big group starting this climb together are very high, the way I see it, and it won’t be easy for climbers like Sergio Henao to get away. I think Movistar and Katusha will have enough manpower to keep it together if needed and then set up Valverde and Moreno/Purito for a final sprint.
Purito didn’t have the legs to make a difference in Flèche Wallonne, but there is no doubt about his shape right now. He came to Amstel Gold Race in “better condition than last year” (according to himself) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège has been his big target ever since last year. He even decided to skip Vuelta Pais Vasco - a stage race tailor-made for him - in order to prepare for the Ardennes and arrive more fresh than last year. The morale is great after his teammate and loyal helper Dani Moreno won Flèche Wallonne, and even though it won’t be easy for Purito to win, I think he’ll have a great chance of making podium.
|The bridge & railroad crossing just before starting
on Côte de Colonster - Click for larger view!
As always, I have a few jokers too. The first one is Bauke Mollema, the bookmakers don’t seem to count on him, but I’ve seen Mollema getting better and the better the last week. He finished 10th in Amstel Gold Race and managed to end 9th in Flèche Wallonne despite being boxed in on Mur de Huy. I’m sure we haven’t seen the best of Mollema in the Ardennes yet and he’s a good candidate for breakaway attempt in the final. Don’t forget Mollema is also fast on the line, should it come to a sprint. Last Wednesday, my joker Dan Martin was only centimeters away from taking the podium in Flèche Wallonne - maybe Mollema will have more luck this Sunday?
My second joker is Björn Leukemans. His spring season has been solid without being great. Must riders would probably be pleased with making Top20 in Dwaars Door Vlaanderen, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, but I doubt Leukemans is very happy. The cobblestone races didn’t really go as planned, but luckily for Leuki, he has another chance in the Ardennes. He showed great shape when he took 3rd place in Brabantse Pijl behing Peter Sagan and Phillipe Gilbert, and last Sunday he sprinted to 7th place in Amstel Gold Race. Björn Leukeman decided to skip Flèche Wallonne in order to relax and prepare for Liège-Bastogne-Liège and I wouldn’t be surprised if he improves his 9th place from 2011 this Sunday.
Winner pick: Alejandro Valverde
Podium pick: Purito Rodriguez
Jokers: Bauke Mollema & Björn Leukemans
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