Maastricht > Berg en Terblijt 253km
One week full of all Ardennes joy. This is the 57th edition of the race, one that is always challenging for the riders. With a massive 33 climbs on the menu, and 3465m of climbing, this is a tough day in the saddle. We always see a selective race; this year will be no different.
Grey, not very warm and a chance of rain.
This is the final 45km of the race, where the riders face the following climbs:
Gulperbergweg – 1000m at 5.1%, max 17.9%. Super steep at the foot. Positioning is key.
Kruisberg – 800m at 6.5%, max 14.8%. Steep at the foot.
Eyserbosweg – 1100m at 8.1%, max 16%. Seems to go on forever.
Fromberg – 1600m at 4.6%, max 10%. Straightforward, but long.
Keutenberg – 1700m at 5.6%, max 22%. The hardest hill, one for the climbers. Wide open over the top and it’s going to be tailwind at this point.
Cauberg – 1500m at 5.8%, max 13%. It should be closer to the finish, where it belongs.
Geulhemmerberg – 900m at 6.1%, max 7.7%. The final launchpad.
Bemelerberg – 1200m at 4%, max 6%. There’s a problem if you’re getting dropped here.
With all eyes on Pogačar, we’ll have to see how the race develops. The recent top races have had the big 3 all present, but with only Pogačar here, the door is open for others to try and take the win. Beating him will be incredibly hard, but the good news for those wanting to win the race is that the climbs are all short, it won’t be easy for Pogačar to attack and solo home. Saying that, this is exactly what he’ll try.
To “anticipate” or “get ahead of the race” are the new buzz words/phrases in professional cycling (I will shoulder some of the blame for this), thanks to the strength of the favourites. If riders leave it too long before attacking, they won’t be able to follow the big moves. However, if riders attack too early, there will be domestiques to chase them down. The timing of the move is everything, and there’s a small window of success. A lot of riders will want to be ahead of the peloton before Pogačar attacks, it gives them a fighting chance of success. It’s a risky tactic, if you go too soon and get chased down, it’s goodbye to any type of result in the race. If you wait and don’t attack, it’s possible to finish on the podium. Would you risk it all with an early move? It’s easy for us fans to say yes, it’s much harder for the professionals as a top 10 in this race is a big deal, and it keeps the sponsors happy.
Being the big favourite isn’t easy in this race. We’ve seen breakaways get a big gap, if it happens again, UAE will have to burn through two or three riders in the opening 150km of the race, leaving them shorthanded for the final 100km. They have a strong team to support Pogačar, but I don’t think they’ll have many riders left in the final 50km. This means Pogačar risks being isolated unless he attacks before this happens, which is what he’ll probably do. He’s been in fantastic form this season, but there’s no guarantee he’ll still be at his very best, at some point he’ll start to get tired.
If he does falter, who has the quality to take advantage? Not many arrive with recent wins, the form guide isn’t screaming upset. We do have some riders who always seem to go well here, and they have the experience required to know when to attack. However, beating Pogačar is obviously going to be incredibly difficult, but I would say you have a better chance in this race compared to Liège.
Tadej Pogačar – starts as the overwhelming favourite, will he continue to live up to the hype? Favourites don’t have a great record here in recent years, but this is Pogačar we’re talking about. The key thing for him is not to get blocked in the peloton when someone attacks off the front. As the big favourite, all eyes will be on him to chase down attacks, it would be a very stupid rider to do this for him. Say we get to the final 30km with a group of 10, and he doesn’t have teammate, his life will be very difficult as everyone will look to attack him. The obvious response to this is to use the earlier climbs to attack and ensure the group is a more manageable number. I’d be amazed if he doesn’t attack on the Eyserbosweg or Keutenberg, this is where he can drop most of his rivals and take a small group away with him. The smaller group, the better it is for him. He’s the deserved favourite, but this isn’t going to be a procession.
Tom Pidcock – was up there in Flanders and then blew his doors off. This season was built around the classics, but his crash in Tirreno seems to have derailed his hopes. His win in Strade Bianche means this period has been a success, but he’ll be wanting more. He was second here in 2021 and a big part of Kwiatkowski’s win last year, it’s a race that suits him. Ineos do not have same level of team strength they had in 2022, they must approach the race with a different plan. Pidcock is the type of rider who could win or finish 50th, and it’s hard to work out which we’ll get on Sunday.
Tiesj Benoot – he’s been training on Mount Ventoux in preparation for this race, it’s the first time I’ve ever been able to write that about any race! He’s already got one big win this year, thanks to his brilliant success in Kuurne, but he’d love another one. Tiesj has long held an ambition to win this race, and last year’s third place was a sign that it’s possible. Unlike previous races, Jumbo-Visma don’t have the strongest team, but that also means there’s no pressure on them to work. Valter and Tiesj were strong together in Strade Bianche, I wouldn’t go underestimating them.
Benoît Cosnefroy – was ridiculously close to winning last year. His third place in De Brabantse Pijl shows that the legs are good, and this is a race he likes. Cosnefroy isn’t afraid to attack early, but he needs to be careful in a race like this. This is his best shot at a win in the Ardennes, hopefully he has a good day.
Sergio Higuita – left the Basque Country in good shape, he’ll hope to be in the mix for the win. The route is a good one for the Colombian, he copes well with the types of climbs in this race, and he’s got a fast sprint. I don’t think he’s one who’ll risk an early attack, I think he’ll try and follow Pogačar.
David Gaudu – good in the Basque Country, but not great. He’s coming here with the expectation of taking a win in one of the Ardennes races, why not here. The good news for the team is that they have two of the strongest ten riders in the race, it gives them options in the finale, if both have good days. He was able to follow Pogačar in some of Paris-Nice, Gaudu will have confidence in his chances of taking the win.
Valentin Madouas – co-leader with Gaudu, which gives them a good chance of upsetting Pogačar. He was strong in Paris-Camembert, which was an important test for him ahead of this race. He finished in the front group in 2019, I expect him to be one of the men challenging for the win.
Neilson Powless – he’s been riding at a high level since the beginning of the season, can he squeeze one more good result out over the next week? The form is still good, he finished top 10 in Sanremo, Dwars door Vlaanderen and Flanders, but will he start to feel tired? Powless normally excels in long races, when it goes over 250km, he always seems to go well.
Alexey Lutsenko – has he timed his peak to perfection? His win in Sicily was impressive, he’ll arrive here full of confidence, and it’s a race that Astana have a good record in. Winning will be tough, but good form cannot be ignored.
Soudal – Quick Step – the cobbled classics didn’t go well. They arrive here with a team I like, but without of the big favourites. Schmid, Bagioli and Knox all rode well in the Basque Country, I hope they can fly under the radar and cause a surprise.
To beat Pogačar will require a perfect tactical display, brilliant legs, and for him to make a mistake or two. Will this happen?
I don’t think so. It’s going to be another win for Tadej Pogačar.
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