Professional cycling’s fabled cobbled classics come pretty thick and fast between the end of February and the first weekend of April. The big spectacle of the final week, which includes the two Monuments the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, is one of the most thrilling seven day periods of the year. Not long after, the peloton heads south-east for Ardennes week when the punchier climbing specialists join the fun. Here are our favourites for some of the biggest races of the season.
It’s difficult to know where to begin when picking from the men’s peloton. The moment one surges to dominance, another rises to the top to join him a few days later. World champion, Peter Sagan, is a good bet to animate the cobbled races. After concerns over his form at E3-Harelbeke, he well and truly shut down the doubters with a lightning fast sprint at Gent-Wevelgem.
The depth of the Quick-Step Floors team is well-known; a squad packed with talent for any one-day race. With Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert and Philippe Gilbert padding out the formidable team, Niki Terpstra has been front and centre already this spring, and by taking Le Samyn and E3-Harelbeke, has demonstrated form to rival that of 2014 when he was crowned Paris-Roubaix champion after a characteristic solo attack.One wild card we’ll be keeping an eye on is Jasper Stuyven. The Belgian rider, who looks every bit the classics man, has ridden himself into four top-10s this season after last year coming agonisingly close to the podium at Paris-Roubaix. Filled with raw power and Flandrian passion, you can bet Stuyven will be there or thereabouts. Ardennes Classics
If anyone can get past Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde, it’s surely the turn of Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe who is always brimming with emotion and ambition. It seems like only yesterday that he found himself bridesmaid to Valverde twice in a row in the Ardennes of 2015. After a knee injury ruled him out of most of the classics last year, he’ll be back with a vengeance for 2018.Presumably taking joint leadership at Quick-Step Floors with Alaphilippe, Philippe Gilbert is a four-time winner of the Amstel Gold Race and he also has Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his name. He only needs La Flèche-Wallonne to complete the Ardennes Week set, and while we’re on that subject, keep an eye on him at Paris-Roubaix, which he so desperately covets on his way to collecting all five Monuments.
One or two riders who might just upset the party would be Bauke Mollema at Trek-Segafredo and Rafal Majka of Bora-Hansgrohe, racing all Ardennes races or just Liège-Bastogne-Liège respectively. Both huge climbing talents, Mollema has already scooped a win this season and has performed well in the Ardennes before.Women’s World Tour
Anna van der Breggen was the uncontested Queen of the Ardennes last year, but thanks to the depth of her Boels-Dolmans team, there are plenty of other options in orange. The world champion, Chantal Blaak, is never to be ruled out, and Luxembourg national champ Christine Majerus has more than enough cyclocross and bike handling skills to triumph when the terrain takes a turn for the lumpy. Meanwhile, on the cobbles, Amy Pieters has already snagged Ronde van Drenthe in a spectacularly canny display of race craft and sprinting prowess. Can she do it twice?Elsewhere, we’ll be keeping at least one eye on the Trek-Drops team wrapped in their striking ‘Miami green’ and pastel stripes. Though they’ve not claimed any number 1 spots so far, their young squad has shown immense strength and maturity, proving it is not just their attractive kit that makes them stand out.
So, what about the bikes they’ll be riding? Trek riders will choose from the Madone for flat-out and fast, the Domane for rough terrain and the featherweight Emonda for races like those in the Ardennes. While for many of the classics, Specialized-supported teams will field the new disc-equipped Tarmac, the pioneering Roubaix will help the men glide comfortably over the cobbles at the Hell of the North.