Cobblestones done, on to the Ardennes. What have we on the favorites menu?
Peter Sagan is riding Amstel and without exaggeration, he is hungry for a big win. He got dropped from the front group in Flanders and way dropped from the front group at Paris-Roubaix. His coach insists his form is getting better and better and like I said, the man is famished for a win because losing is no way to boost your book sales.
I don’t know what to think about Sagan’s chances. When he was one of six front riders in Paris-Roubaix with 15 kilometers to go, I thought his sprint victory was a foregone conclusion. Wowza, was I wrong. He crawled onto the velodrome and was so exhausted he didn’t even bother to race for a top ten. Is a rebound in order? Can he re-invigorate the legend of Peter the Great? No idea.
Apparently the ageless wonder Alejandro Valverde will be back in action in Amstel. Have to say he was damn impressive at Flanders but it’s always hard for me to get excited about an alumni from Operation Puerto winning a race. (Yes, I know, I carry grudges a long time.) But he’s back, he can climb and we know what kind of lethal sprint he carries. Put him down as a maybe.
A man with absolutely zero pressure on him is the new winner of Paris-Roubaix, Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck–Quick-Step). So yes, form, obviously, and tons of confidence — and a nice bonus for winning PR, that’s he’d written into his contract. Ya gotta like that kind of self-belief. But here’s the thing — to win Paris-Roubaix, he’s gradually become more diesel and less puncheur. We’re not expecting to see him anywhere near the podium.
Mister Consistency, Greg Van Avermaet has been in the top ten in practically every race this season but no big wins. Consistency is nice but there’s no champagne in that. He says he still has the legs to do something, and like Sagan, he is dying for a win. I expect we’ll see him playing a role but he won’t be climbing any steps up the podium.
People are talking up the cyclocross kids Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. Who wouldn’t. Unless you’re a hardcore cross fan (I’m not) it would seem like these two literally exploded on the WorldTour road scene. They’re confident, aggressive and nothing seems to faze them. Van Aert’s ride in PR — filled with flats, mechanicals and crashes — was beyond impressive — he simply never gave up. I get the sense he’s the better climber while Van der Poel might be a bit faster in a sprint? It wouldn’t’ be a surprise to see them up front. I like the way these guys shake up a race with their never-say-die attitude.
Michael Valgren (Dimension Data) won Amstel last year from a two man break. He’s been invisible this season so far and everyone is waiting for his talent to kick in. Only maybe it’s not going to kick in because Dimension Data is currently suffering under a cloud of bad juju. Apparently all those good works giving bikes to people in Africa is not winning them any points with the Cycling Gods.
Now, Michael Matthew (Sunweb) is a guy we could see doing well in a sorta-overdue kinda way. Sometimes he just feels a but snake-bit but there’s no doubting that he’s fast and should the race come down to a sprint and he’s still hanging around, well, we might have our winner. Besides, how can you root against a rider nicknamed Bling?
All my money is one Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck–Quick-Step.) I know that’s not exactly a risky bet but this guy has been red-hot all year and just oozes class. He’s won Strade Bianche and Milan San-Remo and just picked up second at Brabantse Pijl. And he has the backing of the entire Deceuninck–Quick-Step Wolfpack. Wonder if he has a little win bonus in his contract like Gilbert?
My best podium guess: Alaphilippe, first, Sagan, second, surprise rider, third — maybe Bling. That’s the first three guys lining up for the beer.