Conclusions after the Ardennes Classics
Alejandro Valverde came out of the Ardennes as the king of these races, after finishing second in Amstel Gold Race and winning both Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. By doing this, he entered the history books as only the second ever cyclist – after Ferdi Kübler – to make this memorable double. In both races, the Spaniard was very powerful and had a flawless tactic, two things which helped him control the other contenders and eventually outsprint them. Although he remains a controversial figure because of his dodgy past, one can’t overlook the fact that the 35-year-old remains one of the best riders in the peloton, one who has every chance – considering that he looks to be living a second youth – to win other Ardennes Classics in the following seasons and equal or even break some more records.
Julian Alaphilippe stunned the big stars of the peloton by coming second in Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, showing not only that he has the skills, but also the mindset to be a protagonist here in the years to come. A pro since 2014, he has had a low key start of the season, but then hit top form just in time for the Ardennes week, where he proved that Brian Holm wasn’t wrong when he said that the Frenchman can be Etixx-Quick Step’s revelation in 2015. What’s even more important is that Alaphilippe – a 22-years-old who notched France’s first podium Monument since 1998 – has a killer instinct and considerable room for improvement, which can make him the finest Ardennes specialist of his generation. As expected, Patrick Lefevere came quickly with a two-year extension, which will keep Julian Alaphilippe with the Belgian team until the end of the 2017 season.
The Frenchman wasn’t the only young rider to impress in the Ardennes. Amstel Gold Race showed once again that Michael Matthews – who finished third – is not just a punchy sprinter, but a rider with a huge potential, which even now remains unknown and can be developed in the years to come. In the same Dutch Classic, Michael Valgren was 22nd and proved that he can be back here one day as a big favorite to take the win. A couple of days later, in Flèche Wallonne, Alexis Vuillermoz (6th) and Dylan Teuns (13th) came at the forefront, with the latter confirming that he can follow in the footsteps of his more famous countryman, Philippe Gilbert. Finally, “La Doyenne” brought Louis Meintjes to the spotlight, the talented South African mixing it up with the main protagonists all day long, before taking a well-deserved 11th place.
Joaquim Rodriguez came at the start of the Ardennes Classics as one of the big contenders, especially after scoring an impressive overall win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, in the first half of April. But Katusha’s Spaniard was off-pace and after finishing just outside the podium in Flèche Wallonne, he was determined to change his luck in Liège–Bastogne–Liège, a race he dreams of winning for some years now. Unfortunately for “Purito” Rodriguez, he didn’t perform well at all and lacked the power he needed to get away from his rivals, settling in the end with a third place. Most likely, giving that he’ll soon turn 36, this was Rodriguez’s last opportunity to add “La Doyenne” to his palmares.
There’s a long list of disappointments after this campaign, and it includes some big names, one of which was Philippe Gilbert, although the former world champion – who put on a fierce attack on the Cauberg, which unfortunately for him didn’t shake off all his opponents – has an excuse: the crash in which he was involved in Flèche Wallonne, that made his ride in Liège–Bastogne–Liège a real painful one. The Italians had big hopes from Vincenzo Nibali, but the Tour de France champion failed to impress and was unable to follow the favorites as the race neared its conclusion. Finally, Bauke Mollema had hoped for a solid week in the Ardennes, but couldn’t find his rhythm in any of the races and was left empty-handed, so his best result was a top 20, far from his expectations.