The Irish in the Ardennes

Coming up this Sunday is the first of the Ardennes classics, the Amstel Gold Race. Although it doesn’t quite take place in the Ardennes region of Belgium, it is still considered to be one of the Ardennes classics along with Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége. Amstel Gold is a hilly race with a total of 31 climbs to get over before the finish. The finish line itself is atop the Cauberg which has a leg aching average gradient of 12%.

The classics that have been raced already this year are usually the domain of sprinters, rouleurs and the so-called classics specialists. While there are also classics specialists present at the Ardennes races, due to their hilly nature, they also attract plenty of Grand Tour contenders. For instance, previous winners of Amstel Gold include Damiano Cunego, Frank Schleck, Danilo Di Luca and Bjarne Riis. In fact Riis is the last rider to have won a classic as reigning Tour champion (although he has since admitted to EPO use during this period). Even Lance Armstrong, notorious for focusing solely on the Tour de France, used to try and win the Amstel Gold race. During the first few years of his Tour reign, the Texan managed to finish 8th, 4th and 2nd twice.

Apart from the Tour of Flanders, this is the biggest race on the cycling calendar which has never been won by an Irishman. The best Irish result came in 1982 when Stephen Roche finished 2nd and Seán Kelly finished 4th. The winner that year was the Dutchman Jan Raas, his 5th victory which remains the record for the Amstel Gold Race. This Sunday, another two Irishmen will be taking to the startline, Philip Deignan and Nicolas Roche.

I mentioned in a previous post that Deignan’s Cervelo Test Team lost their out and out leader for the Ardennes classics, Simon Gerrans, to Team Sky over the winter. The only other rider on the Cervelo team that seems capable of challenging for these races is Carlos Sastre. However the Spaniard may find himself woefully short of form having only completed seven days of racing so far this year.

In a recent interview with, Deignan stated that he doesn’t think he quite has the form to make the final selection and that the team’s best hopes lie with Xavier Tondo and Xavier Florencio. Tondo has shown great form so far this year winning stages in Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya but he has never before ridden the Amstel Gold race. Florencio’s best result so far this year has been a third place finish on a stage of the Circuit de la Sarthe, unlike Tondo, he has raced Amstel Gold once before, finishing 40th in 2007. Perhaps the leadership will be decided by who feels they have better legs on the day.

To digress slightly, the aforementioned is a fantastic new website for Irish cycling fans. It’s like a version of that caters solely for Irish interest with great photos provided by the one and only Graham Watson. Although, like, annoylingly there is no RSS feed, but ’tis a minor complaint in the scheme of things.

Nicolas Roche’s AG2R are without their leader for the Ardennes classics, Rinaldo Nocentini, who unfortunately broke his leg at the GP dell’Insubria-Lugano back in February. The Italian had finished the Amstel Gold race in 22nd, 13th and 24th over the last three years. His absence leaves the leadership of the team for the race wide open. None of the eight riders listed to start for AG2R have ever finished in the top 50 of the race. Alexander Efimkin has finished in the top 20 of Fléche Wallonne a couple of times but has never figured in Amstel Gold. Last year, David Le Lay took 12th place at Fléche Wallonne and 21st in Liége-Bastogne-Liége, but like Efimkin has never been a contender for Amstel Gold. The rider with the highest finish to his name in this race is in fact Roche, who finished a modest 57th in 2008. Roche has proved his worth already this season racking up ten top 10 places in races like Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya. His early season form, along with the misfortune of Nocentini should see Roche assume the role of leader this Sunday. He’s even being tipped by some as a potential winner of the race.

Dan Martin is not down to start on Sunday, however he will be racing in the remaining two Ardennes classics later in the week. In this month’s Cycle Sport magazine, Martin is listed amongst the list of possible contenders for the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia. This is a fantastic vote of confidence for the Irish climber but I was under the impression, as was Martin himself, that the Giro was not part of his racing schedule this year. He had this to say in the same magazine back in February:

Being on the Tour de France shortlist means I won’t be riding the Giro. That’s a pity, but in this case I’m happy to do what I’m told. It would have been nice to ride the Giro – I’d have loved a shot at the Plan de Corones mountain time trial, but I’m happy to ride the Tour and help Christian Vande Velde go for the overall. That takes the pressure off me to get results but will allow me to really learn what the Tour is all about. That’s my big goal for 2010.

Perhaps this month’s Cycle Sport has gotten things slightly wrong or perhaps Martin has changed his racing schedule to include the Giro. If it’s the latter, I hope this isn’t a sign that he is no longer being considered for a Tour spot as it seems unlikely that he would be asked to ride both the Giro and the Tour. His early season form has been solid, taking 14th in the Criterium International and 15th in the Tour of the Basque Country, he also finished 25th on the final day time trial in the Basque Country. Nicolas Roche seems to be a certainty for the Tour, as does Philip Deignan. While it would be nice to see three Irish guys take part in the Tour, it would also be great if Daniel Martin was given free reign in the Giro to see what he could do with a team at his disposal. I’m torn.

But first things first, Amstel Gold on Sunday. For those that will be watching it on Eurosport or on the various Internet streams available, Roche will be wearing number 18 although he’ll be uber-recognisable anyway in his Irish champions jersey. Deignan will be wearing number 192. For what it’s worth, my money is on Joaquim Rodriguez. Hope everybody enjoys the race!

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