Friday, April 18, 2008


The Migration

In the week between Paris-Roubaix and the Amstel Gold Race, a strange migration occurs in northern Europe as the stout masters of cobblestones and rain gradually disappear from the countryside. We catch our final glimpses of them at races like the Scheldeprijs, and then they’re off to sunnier climes to rest and retool for a second, warmer season as Giro and Tour stage hunters.

But as the familiar plumage of the past few weeks departs, the peloton seems to grow tanner and thinner as its ranks swell with different subspecies, many from more southern countries. The narrow, better paved roads of the Netherlands’ Limburg region and southeast Belgium attract riders who perhaps lack the more solid constitutions necessary for the jarring, muddy roads of Flanders, but who boast physiques that find a more compatible habitat in this region’s frequent, choppy hills.

Some of the native Belgians are replaced by migrating Spaniards, like Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), who has tuned his classics form with a win this week in Paris-Camembert, and Igor Astarloa (Milram), who will try again to find the magic that won him Fleche Wallonne in 2003. Sunny Italy, of course, produces subspecies that can thrive in both environments, but they are distinct from one another, with riders like the proven Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and young Ricardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) replacing the likes of Alessandro Ballan and Fabio Baldato (Lampre).

This yearly migration also marks an anomaly in cycling – that singular time of the year when grand tour riders cross the lines of specialization to participate in one-day races. The winners lists of Amstel, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are dotted with those who have been successful in the three week tours –DiLuca, Armstrong, Kelly, Berzin, Zoetemelk, and Hinault to name a few. And of course, Merckx, but that’s a given. Those same lists are also marked by those who have tried and failed to master both disciplines – Hamilton, Bartoli, and the aforementioned Rebellin. This year, there are several participants who could yet hope to be durable enough for both – Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Frank Schleck (CSC), and, of course, Valverde.

As with any migration, there are always the outliers – the early arrivals and those who trail behind their departed flocks. Some riders who favor these wooded hills, like Quick.Step’s Carlos Barredo and Cofidis’ Sylvain Chavanel, arrived in time to endure and thrive on the cobbles of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, but will now seek to make good on their form in a more suitable environment. Others, stars of the flatter roads like Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto) will ride at least through Amstel, hoping to salvage their spring seasons with a better result despite the increasingly unfavorable courses. And still others, mostly domestiques like Bram Tankink (Quick.Step), more suited to the stones than the asphalt, will hang around a bit longer before giving way to more specialized squads for the hills of the Walloon Ardennes.

Finally, of course, there are the rare local birds, like Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux), Maxime Monfort (Cofidis), and Christophe Brandt (Silence-Lotto), who come home to roost just once per year and will look for success in front of the home crowds.

It’s a strange flock, this mashup of worn out Flandriens, wiry Spaniards, and stage race hopefuls. But somehow, it works. Each year, Amstel, Fleche, and Liege serve up some of the most riveting racing of the season, and perhaps the only chance to catch a glimpse of professional cycling that is not so sliced, diced, specialized, analyzed and weighed for maximum performance. After all, when else could you see Leif Hoste battle Damiano Cunego for a win? How often would Oscar Freire face off with Frank Schleck? Like many things in cycling, Ardennes week comes but once a year. Enjoy it while you can.

The Schedule
Amstel Gold Race: Sunday, April 20
Fleche Wallonne: Wednesday, April 23
Liege-Bastogne-Liege: Sunday, April 27

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