‘Spanish armada’ locked and loaded for Ardennes

Andrew Hood runs down the chances of the four Spanish favorites for the Ardennes classics

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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.

Read also:

Valverde, Gerrans square off again at Amstel Gold Race

and Valverde looks forward to ‘beautiful duel’ with Gilbert

Rating the ‘Spanish armada’

Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha): AGR – 2nd 2011; FW – 2nd 2010, 2011; LBL – 2nd 2009

Rodríguez has finished second in all three Ardennes classics but has never stepped on the top spot on the podium. On paper, “Purito” is made for this type of course. Many of his biggest wins, including stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de France, have come in similar finales on short, but steep uphill finishes.

Rodríguez will share leadership duties with three-time world champion Oscar Freire, but it’s hard not to believe that Katusha will rally around Rodríguez when the dice are thrown late in the race.

“I have been close before to all of them, so if I could win just one, that would just incredible,” Rodríguez said earlier this year. “All three races are well adapted for me, but it seems that Flèche is the one that is made for me.”

Last year, Rodríguez had the form of his career, but ran into an even better Philippe Gilbert, who swept the Ardennes week. This year, Rodríguez looks to be back in top shape, with wins at Tirreno and the Vuelta al País Vasco to prove it, while Gilbert has all but waved the white flag on the classics.

This could be the year that Rodríguez gets that elusive big win.

Team strength: Katusha brings a deep squad that not only incudes Rodríguez and Freire, but Luca Paolini as well. Dani Moreno could deliver a long-distance attack to take the pressure off the team while Alberto Losada, Xavier Florencio and Giampaolo Caruso will be working hard for the leaders.

Pros: Among the best on the short, steep uphill finales featured in the Ardennes. Tenacious and more experienced than ever, Rodríguez is hitting his peak just in time.

Cons: Just doesn’t have the top-end speed to fend off quick finishers like Gilbert. He will need to open a small gap to be able to win comfortably.

Rating the ‘Spanish armada’

Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi): AGR – 13th 2009; FW – 2nd 2006; LBL – 4th 2004

Like Rodríguez, Sánchez has some unfinished business with the Ardennes. While never quite as close to victory as his compatriot, especially at Amstel Gold, Sánchez has been a consistent performer at Flèche and Liège throughout his career.

Of all of the Spanish riders, Sánchez looks the fleetest right now, coming off an impressive overall win at País Vasco. That victory was huge for his Euskaltel team and settled a long-standing score with the race for the 2008 Olympic champion.

“After the Basque Country tour, I am extra-motivated this year for the Ardennes,” Sánchez said. “It seems to be my year to be settling the accounts with certain races. A win, especially at Flèche, would take the spine out of my back after having been close before.”

Indeed, Sánchez has done best at Flèche, second in 2006 behind Valverde and third last year behind Gilbert. The nervous racing at Amstel Gold doesn’t suit his style of riding while Liège seems perfect for Sánchez, but he has had difficulty finding the podium.

Team strength: Igor Antón is steering clear of the Ardennes, but Euskaltel brings solid workers with Egoi Martinez, Gorka Izaguirre, Ruben Perez and Romain Sicard.

Pros: On great form and motivated to finally get an Ardennes win after years of knocking on the door.

Cons: Doesn’t have the top-end speed to match the fastest climbers at the end of seven hours of racing.

Rating the ‘Spanish armada’

Oscar Freire (Katusha): AGR – 5th 2002; FW – 5th 2005; LBL – 11th 2008

It is somewhat surprising that Freire doesn’t have an Amstel Gold Race trophy sitting on his mantelpiece. The Spanish “gato” rode nine years for Rabobank, the Dutch team that lives and breaths for winning Holland’s most important race.

Rabobank nor a Dutch have won since Erik Dekker in 2001, and Freire would have seemed the next in line. But in 2004, organizers moved the finish line from the flats south of Maastricht to the top of the Cauberg, severely handicapping Freire’s chances for victory.

It’s not surprise that his career-best at Amstel Gold came in 2002, before the Cauberg finish line was introduced. Fifth at Flèche Wallonne and 11th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège prove that Freire is in with a shot when he’s on his best form, which the cobbled classics showed he was.

Team: Freire will share leadership duty with Rodríguez and Paolini in a solid Katusha squad.

Pros: A move to Katusha this year has motivated Freire to up the ante and prove his worth to Rabobank brass. With Rodríguez a favorite all week, Freire will be able to play the role of free agent, perhaps opening up some space for him to make a move.

Cons: Slowing down at 36, Freire’s best Ardennes efforts could well be in the rearview mirror.

Read also: Freire sees Amstel Gold opportunities to cap strong spring

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