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The cobbled classics of Belgium and northern France are already ancient history in the ever-changing cycling calendar. And, come Sunday, the peloton attacks a whole other world of classics racing—the hilly classics of Limburg and the Ardennes. These three timeless races—the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and, the oldest classic of them all, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, take place in the southeastern Netherlands and eastern Belgium. Few of the riders who master the northern cobbles are present, because the long, steep hills found here are often detrimental to the powerful riders that tackle the cobbles. But there are a few exceptions, like Tour of Flanders winner Philippe Gilbert and Paris-Roubaix winner Greg Van Avermaet. Here are just a few of the riders to watch in the upcoming classics.
Words and Images by James Startt
Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
Belgian national champion Philippe Gilbert is primarily an Ardennes specialist, having won the Amstel Gold Race on three occasions as well as Flèche and Liège back in 2011. Gilbert has raced tremendously all season and he is obviously flying after winning Flanders with an impressive solo breakaway. But how has he recovered, and does he have the punch necessary to make the difference on these southern hills? Gilbert, however, is a native of Remouchamps, the town that sits at the foot of the mythic La Redoute climb in Liège. He has a definite home-court advantage.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet just won the second-biggest race of his life Paris–Roubaix, his first monument. But he loves racing in the hills as well, and has a house in southern Belgium so that he can adapt to the longer climbs found there. Versatility is his strength. But can he possibly have recovered from the fastest Roubaix in history, when most riders are still coughing the dust out of their lungs, to be a factor in the Amstel Gold Race?
Michal Kwiatowski (Team Sky)
The 26-year-old Polish rider already has two big wins to his name this year at Italy’s Strade Bianche and Milan–San Remo. Foregoing the big northern classics, he should be fresh for Amstel on Sunday, a race he won in 2015. But he has also finished on the podium in both Flèche and Liège and will be the hands-down leader of Team Sky now that his teammate Wout Poels—defending champ in Liège—is on the injured list.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Alejandro Valverde is the overwhelming favorite in all three races, especially Flèche and Liège, both of which he has won repeatedly. But Amstel has proved evasive. That could change this year as the finish line has been moved some 10 kilometers from the final Cauberg climb. Valverde is flying this year, with no less than four stage races already under his belt. If Amstel ends in a small group sprint, he will be hard to beat.
Rui Costa (UAE-Emirates)
The Portugese is a proven winner as a stage hunter or single-day racer. And he got off to a great start in 2017, winning a stage in the Tour of San Juan and taking the overall at the Tour of Abu Dhabi. Quiet in the last couple of months, Rui Costa will be dangerous, especially in Liège where he finished fourth in 2015 and third in 2016.
Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors)
The amiable Irishman lives for these races and is always a threat. Winner of Liège in 2013, he could well have repeated if he hadn’t crashed while leading into the final corner in 2014. But he is always a factor in these hilly classics and a constant podium finisher. And riding with Gilbert on the mighty Quick-Step Floors team, can only increase his chances this coming week.