I’ve never really been a “season” person. You know – some people are “winter people,” full of talk about snow and brisk air and the smell of wood smoke, and others are “summer people,” constantly pining for warmth, long days, and short sleeves. Not me. By the time the end of any given season is near, I’m ready for it to be over – tired of freezing, tired of sweating, or tired of being in between the two. I’m not sure what that says about me, or my ability to dress properly for the conditions, but that’s how it is.
And as it is with the calendar year, so it is with the cycling year. I love the cobbled classics with all my heart, but after the crescendo of the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, it’s time for something else. Something a little less bleak. Something to appeal to the other parts of our psyche and that, when it’s done its turn in the limelight, will leave us yearning for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad again come February. After all, even Christmas would lose its appeal if we had it all year round. So, I don’t mourn the yearly passing of the cobbles.
That said, we can’t just leap straight from the cold, flattish, and brutal affairs we’ve just witnessed to warm Italian sunshine, rolled-up jersey sleeves, and grand tour stages barreling up winding mountain roads. That would be far too jarring a change for any normal person, and perhaps more so for those with fragile cyclist sensibilities. So to ease us gently into the days to come, professional cycling, too, has its transitional period – its own weeklong spring – the Ardennes classics.
The grand tour riders start to pop out at the Amstel Gold Race like the first buds on barren trees, lending a bit of fresh foliage to the last damp remnants of the cobbled classics squads and creating hybrid lineups that likely won’t been seen again until this time next year. Rabobank, for instance, adds the willowy Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam to tiring Flanders mainstays Boom, Langeveld, Nuyens, and Tankink. While some team’s grand tour squads will just be showing their first green shoots at Amstel, Saxo Bank will almost be in full bloom, replacing its entire cobbled roster with a fresh one that contains at least half of their likely Tour de France lineup, complete with two Schlecks, a Voigt, and a Fuglsang. As the week wears on into Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and the next Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the last dried out husks of the cobbled specialists will fall away, replaced with riders more suited to the longer côtes of Wallonia than the sharp cobbled bergs of Flanders. And once that’s done, there we’ll be, staring squarely at the first grand tour of the season. Though they’ve already ridden myriad weeklong stage races since January, the GC riders’ appearance in Belgium is as sure a sign of the approaching Giro d’Italia as the replacement of Nemesis rims with deep section carbon.
All of that isn’t to say that the coming Ardennes classics – in which we’re including the Amstel Gold for convenience sake – are simply some temporal bridge to be crossed between Roubaix and the Giro d’Italia. Far from it.
For whatever reasons, the Ardennes classics just don’t get the respect the cobbled ones do in the United States. Maybe it’s because the cobblestones deal out much more obvious and dramatic punishment than their more evenly tarmac-ed brethren to the east. Maybe it’s because of the extent to which the fetishized Flemish cycling culture seems to dominate one-day racing, or it could be some lingering cross-cultural confusion over why they speak French in Liege, even though it’s only a half-hour drive from Maastricht and in the same country as Gent. Or maybe it’s because, as we discussed above, the Ardennes classics draw so many of those faces we hear about all through July. And with so many familiar players, maybe the Ardennes just don’t feel as special or different as the cobbled races, so they don’t attract quite the same cult following. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not totally off the radar here – I’m sure there are Americans who have made special pilgrimages to visit the Ardennes classics. But I also bet those who do have already been to see the Ronde or Roubaix.
Not getting respect and not deserving it are two different things, though. A look at the saw-tooth profile of Amstel’s 31 climbs, one drive up Flèche Wallonne’s iconic Muur de Huy, or a read down the list of men who have won the 95 editions of Liege will show that, though the roads may not be quite so endearingly crappy as those in Flanders, the Ardennes hold their own unique spot in cycling history, present their own unique challenges, and create their own champions. And they are very, very hard. So, classics lovers, I say, rather than lamenting the passing of early spring cobbles, look forward to this week's soft transition to the pursuits of summer.
- Ronde/Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) politely declined director Bjarne Riis’s public invitation to try to stretch his scorching form through Liege. Did you hear the giant sigh of relief coming out of Luxembourg?
- Sebastian Rosseler (Radio Shack) salvaged a small bit of Belgian pride by winning Wednesday’s Brabanste Pijl, held on the smooth roads just south of Brussels. After a rough classics season for the home public, it’s no Ronde win, but it’s something. Of course, that’s still no consolation for his former team, Quick Step, or the still scoreless Omega Pharma. In fact, it may just make things worse.
- Speaking of Rosseler, he’s about to get to race on his home turf as one of a rare breed of riders – the non-Flemish Belgian professional cyclist. Rosseler hails from Verviers, just a bit southeast of Liege, as does Omega Pharma’s big hope for the week, Philippe Gilbert. Gilbert will get support from Liege-born veteran Christophe Brandt; meanwhile, HTC-Columbia’s Maxime Monfort hails from the southern turnaround of the LBL course, Bastogne. Be on the lookout for inspired -- if not ultimately victorious -- rides from the locals in Flèche and Liege.
- And speaking of Gilbert, together with 2009 Amstel winner Sergei Ivanov, he’s one of a select few riders with good chances in both the cobbled and tarmac classics. (Ben Delaney has a piece on just that in the most recent VeloNews, so I was fairly and squarely beaten to the punch on that. Damn you, Delaney.) To that list of potential pave-to-pavement crossovers, I’d add Ivanov’s teammate Filippo Pozzato, who may have some form to use after sitting out the Ronde due to illness; Oscar Freire, who sat out Roubaix due to common sense, and who is always a threat at Amstel for home-team Rabobank; and Quick Step’s Carlos Barredo, who does donkey work for Boonen and co. in March before getting more of a free hand for himself in the Ardennes.
- It’s a matter of alphabetical fate that Lars Boom as been assigned the 121 number plate for Rabobank in the preliminary Amstel start list, but it could just as easily be the cosmos pointing Rabobank towards its future. With memories of Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker factoring in seemingly every Amstel finale fading fast, the Netherlands’ defacto national team needed a new homegrown hope for its homebrewed classic, and Boom seems to be making the transition from ‘cross just in time to step into the role. While everyone tends to assume cyclocross riders will make great cobbled classics riders, Boom’s early successes on the road could indicate that he’ll be more of a threat in the Ardennes than in Flanders. It’ll be hard to tell for a few more years, but with his ample and flexible talents, could Boom be the next Adri van der Poel – winning on the cobbles, on tarmac, and in the mud? The Dutch have to be hoping so.
- Finally, in a nod to our namesake, here’s a link to cyclingnews.com’s tour of the Team Sky service course in Mechelen, Belgium. The photo gallery will be interesting to bike geeks and fans of luxury motorcoaches, as well as Nutella fetishists such as myself.