MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) — Spanish riders look poised to direct the action over the coming week as the peloton shifts gears into the Ardennes classics.
The natural-born climbers from south of the Pyrénées naturally shine on the short, but steep hills of the Ardennes and Limburg regions. And while a Spanish rider has never won on the cobbles at the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, Spanish riders have consistently made their mark over the past decade in the hilly classics.
This year sees relatively few Spaniards in the bunch — there are 16 starters in Sunday’s field of 200-plus at the Amstel Gold Race — but they are sure to be a factor.
Alejandro Valverde, Samuel Sánchez, Joaquim Rodríguez and three-time world champion Oscar Freire, racing in what is likely his final season, each bring real options for podium shots.
Rating the ‘Spanish armada’
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): AGR – 3rd 2008; FW – 1st 2006; LBL – 1st 2006, 2008
Valverde has been the most consistent Spanish performer in the Ardennes, twice winning Liège and taking Flèche atop the Mur de Huy once. Back from his two-year racing ban for links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal, Valverde has quickly confirmed that he is back to his former level with a string of blistering results in the opening months of the season.
Winning stages at Tour Down Under and Paris-Nice is one thing, but having the legs to withstand the 280km distance of Liège is something else.
“The real doubt will be if I have the depth to race for that long and still have the legs to try to win,” Valverde said. “These three races are the first real major goals for the season. I want to do well and I would be excited with a victory in any one of them.”
Valverde’s season was unfolding like a dream, with wins at his comeback tour at the Tour Down Under, then the overall at the Ruta del Sol, followed by a stage win and the podium at Paris-Nice. He crashed out of the Volta a Catalunya on March 20, however, and has only raced one day since then, finishing second behind Movistar teammate Giovanni Visconti at the Klasika Amorebieta in Spain.
Team strength: Movistar will give Valverde plenty of support throughout the week. Riders such as Visconti, Vasili Kiryienka and Ruben Plaza will have the legs to be there for Valverde when it comes crunch time.
Pros: A proven performer in the Ardennes, Valverde will be doubly motivated to do well on the roads where he used to shine during his pre-ban days. A strong ride this week would help Valverde turn the page.
Con: Valverde is still unproven at the longer distances of the classics. He’s ridden only a handful of race days of over 200km this spring, so adding an extra hour or so of intense effort could mean the difference between winning and not.