Ardennes Classics on the horizon
RadioShack's Sebastien Rosseler will be out to defend his title in the Belgian semi-classic Fleche Brananconne on Wednesday as the peloton say a weary goodbye to the cobbles in anticipation of the hillier 'Ardennes classics'.
The Fleche Brabanconne – or 'Brabantse Pijl' as it is known to Flemish speakers – is held over 200km from Louvain to Overijse and in spite of its undulating profile has been won by sprinters and one-day specialists alike.
Although respected in it's own right, the 'Fleche' is likely to be on the radar of those looking to shake the cobwebs off their climbing legs in anticipation of the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne and ultimately, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
All three races make up the Ardennes Classics - so-called because they take place around the hilly, forested Ardennes region which borders France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The Amstel Gold Race, held in the Limburg region of the Netherlands, features over 20 'bergs' (climbs) over its 260 km course, finishing on the imposing Cauberg.
Last year's edition was won by Philippe Gilbert of Omega-Pharma Lotto, and this year the French-speaking Belgian is hoping for a similar result as he focuses on his bigger objective at Liege.
"The Amstel Gold Race remains one of the most important races in my programme," he told organisers.
"What's more, it gives me extra motivation. I always think that if you can finish in the top ten at Amstel this is a good sign for Liege-Bastogne-Liege."
The Fleche Wallonne, held over 198 km from Charleroi in Belgium to Huy, is another climbers' favourite. It features 10 climbs in total, three of which will be on the steep 'Muur de Huy' which has an average gradient of 9.3km for 1.3km.
Last year organisers of the 75th edition were delighted by the victory of then world champion Cadel Evans, the Australian coming over the finish line in his rainbow jersey following a well-timed final burst on the Muur.
This year Andy Schleck, Ivan Basso, Samuel Sanchez, Joaquin Rodriguez, runner-up last year, and Damiano Cunego will be among the riders looking to succeed Evans.
Four days later, the difficulty factor will be pushed up a notch as the peloton saddle up for the oldest classic of them all at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The 'Doyenne', as the French-speaking cycling community like to call it, was first raced in 1892 when Leon Houa claimed the first in a hat-trick of wins.
Last year's edition was won, some say controversially, by Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov, who returned to the scene of his 2005 victory to rubber stamp his return to the peloton following a two-year ban for doping.
Eyebrows were raised after Vinokourov's performance, but the Kazakh –who was kicked off the Tour de France in 2007 for blood doping, then banned for two years – claims his win was clean.
"I've moved on. What I want to show from now on is that I can win even without doping. 'Vino' is a class act. And this is all down to hard work," said Vinokourov.
Gilbert, who grew up in a village on the race circuit, finished fourth in 2010 and will be hoping he is competing on a level field as he seeks to finally land victory in his dream race.