What’s happening in April?

Welcome to our preview of what’s happening in the world of road cycling in April. With the first of this year’s three Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia, just around the corner, this is a busy month for the professional peloton, featuring no fewer than seven WorldTour events – five one-day Classics (including three of the five ‘monuments’) and two six-day stage races – comprising exactly a quarter of the 28 WorldTour races for 2012.

It is a month which will focus prominently on the Classics hard men but will also give us an indication of who is building their form nicely for the Grand Tours. Last April Philippe Gilbert completed the hat-trick of Ardennes Classics – Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege – and added Brabantse Pilj for good measure.

Tour of Flanders/Ronde van Vlaanderen (1st)

After March’s Milan-San Remo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen is the second of European cycling’s five ‘monuments’, and one of the most difficult strong-man challenges on the calendar. This year sees a slightly altered route – controversially, the iconic Muur-Kappelmuur has been dropped – which takes in eight sections of flat cobbles and a total of 16 climbs during its 255km, including the Koppenberg (which features ramps of 22%) and three ascents each of the Oude-Kwaremont and Paterberg hills. The former will soften up the riders with a 4.2% gradient over its 1,500m length ahead of the latter’s short, sharp 350 metres at a lactic acid-inducing 12.5%. The Paterberg provides the perfect platform for a killer attack, with just 13km of descent and flat between its third passage and the finish.

Saxo Bank’s Nick Nuyens is the defending champion, but the race is widely expected to revolve around a battle for supremacy between Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan). The pair have won on three previous occasions between them – you can read Jack and Kitty’s take on this head-to-head battle here. Watch out also for other fast men with the power to negotiate the climbs, such as Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Serre Italia).

Link: Official website

Tour of the Basque Country/Vuelta a Pais Vasco (2nd-7th)

The 52nd Tour of the Basque Country promises once again to be the playground of some of the peloton’s best climbers on a parcours packed with medium-altitude mountains but extremely steep gradients. After two initial medium mountain days, stages three and four will sort out those who already in form from those who are still riding into it, with a pair of cat. 1 summit finishes. Another medium climbing stage precedes a concluding 18.9km individual time trial which features a nasty uncategorised climb inside the final 3km.

The last two editions of the race have been won by the RadioShack-Nissan pair of Chris Horner (2010) and Andreas Kloden (2011), with Alberto Contador victorious in the two preceding years. Other notable champions include a pair of Vuelta a Espana winners: Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar) and Denis Menchov (Katusha), both of whom were teammates last year on the now defunct Geox-TMC squad.

Link: Official website

Scheldeprijs (4th)

Wednesday sees the 100th running of this Flanders semi-classic, which starts in the marketplace in Antwerp and finishes in nearby Schoten after completing a clockwise loop of 202km. Unlike the other Flandrian Classics, this is a straightforward sprinters’ race – no steep hills or long, cobbled sections here – which generally concludes in a bunch finish.

Tom Boonen (twice), Alessandro Petacchi and Tyler Farrar have all won the Scheldeprijs, but Mark Cavendish has been the dominant force here in recent years, completing a hat-trick of victories last year. However, the Manx Missile will not be present to defend his crown, skipping the race to prepare for the impending birth of his first child.

Link: Official website

Paris-Roubaix (8th)

It is not called the ‘Hell of the North’ without good reason. Paris-Roubaix covers 257.5km of hard racing north towards the Belgian border. The first 95km or so is a relatively straightforward loosener, but then there are 27 cobbled sections totalling 51.5km of the final 160km. Counting down from 27, the most difficult sectors – and therefore the ones most likely to influence the outcome of the race – are numbers 16 (Trouée d’Arenberg), ten (Mons-en-Pévèle) and four (Le Carrefour de l’Arbre). But in truth any of the 27 can spell disaster for any rider as they jostle for position on the approach to each and the peloton ramps up to full speed. Crashes, punctures and other mechanical problems are commonplace, and decisive splits can easily occur. Only the strongest riders will survive this attritional six-hour race.

Last year Garmin-Cervelo’s Johan Vansummeren took advantage of the fact that most of the favourites were focussed on negating 2010 winner Fabian Cancellara. As with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, most eyes will again be focussed on two-time winner Cancellara and three-time champion Tom Boonen. But others will also fancy their chances, not least Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha, who has previously finished second, third (twice) and fourth, and has finished in the top ten in six of the past seven years.

Link: Official website

Brabantse Pijl (11th)

The least prominent of the Flanders Classics, the Brabantse Pijl includes a number of big-name winners among a varied winners’ list. Oscar Freire took three victories in a row between 2005 and 2007, while more recently Sylvain Chavanel (2008) and Philippe Gilbert (last year) have added the race to their palmares.

Brabantse Pijl is notable for being constantly undulating throughout its 194.9km length. The parcours features 28 small hills in total, with 20 coming in the final 61km. This provides the perfect battleground for adventurous puncheurs to launch constant attacks and counter-attacks on the never-ending gradients.

Link: Official website

Amstel Gold (15th)

Amstel Gold is a relatively young race – this year marks only its 47th running – but as the first leg of Ardennes Classics week it never fails to provide a thrilling finale. This year’s route starts as usual in the market-place in Maastricht and finishes at the summit of the Cauberg in Valkenburg 255.1km and 31 climbs later. However, the closing section has been tweaked slightly, reducing the distance between the penultimate Keutenberg climb and the Cauberg by nearly 3km to encourage attackers.

Notwithstanding the adjustment to the route, the parcours continues to favour punchy climbers. Philippe Gilbert, who has had a quiet start to 2012, will be seeking his third consecutive win, and previous winners include Damiano Cunego and Alexandre Vinokourov. Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, second last year, is also likely to feature in the final selection.

Link: Official website

La Fleche Wallonne (18th)

The second of the three Ardennes Classics, Fleche Wallonne (the ‘Walloon arrow’) is relatively short for a Classic (around 200km) but is a typically hilly race which starts in Charleroi and finishes in Huy after three closing circuits, each of which concludes on top of the fabled Mur de Huy, a 1.3km, 9.3% beast which includes a number of sections of over 15%.

This was the second leg of Philippe Gilbert‘s Ardennes hat-trick last year, but no rider has successfully defended his crown here since Moreno Argentin in 1991. Recent winners include Cadel Evans (2010), Alejandro Valverde (2006) and, a little further back, a young pre-cancer Lance Armstrong (1996).

Link: Official website

Liege-Bastogne-Liege (22nd)

First run in 1892, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the oldest one-day Classic and the fourth of the five European monuments. The race is a 250km-plus out-and-back blast from Liege to Bastogne and back, finishing in Ans. The outward leg is largely flat, with the second half featuring nine taxing climbs, all averaging at least 5% gradient and taking a cumulative toll on the legs, from the eye-watering 12.2% average of the punchy 1km Cote de Stockeu to the 1.2km, 8.3% Cote de Saint-Nicolas 5km from the finish. And if that isn’t enough, the final 1.5km is on a gradual incline.

A pair of Alexes, Alejandro Valverde and Alexandre Vinokourov, have each won twice in the last decade. Last year, of course, the race heralded the coronation of Philippe Gilbert, who won his third Ardennes Classic in the space of eight days. Fittingly, Gilbert comes from the small village of Remouchamps near the bottom of the Cote de la Redoute, the antepenultimate climb, so this is very much his ‘local’ race.

Link: Official website

Tour de Romandie (24th-29th)

As the name suggests, this six-day stage race is run in the Romandie region of Switzerland. Won last year by Cadel Evans en route to his victory at July’s Tour de France, the race is traditionally book-ended by a pair of time trials.

An opening 3.3km prologue in Lausanne is followed by a mix of medium mountains and flatter stages. However, the general classification will only really take shape on the final two days, with stage four featuring three first-category climbs before a concluding 16.2m time trial at Crans-Montana.

Link: Official website

Look out for full previews in advance of each race here on VeloVoices.

This month’s birthdays

A selection of the more notable birthdays in the peloton this month:

Frank Schleck celebrates his birthday on the same day as Amstel Gold, a race he won in 2006

15th: Frank Schleck, RadioShack-Nissan (32 years old). He may be overshadowed by younger brother Andy, but Frank remains a fine rider in his own right. His palmares includes four top-five finishes at Grand Tours, including third at the Tour de France just behind his brother last year. He can also claim overall wins at the Criterium International last year, the Tour de Suisse (2010) and Tour de Luxembourg (2009), as well as several top-three finishes in one-day Classics, including his breakthrough win at Amstel Gold in 2006.

22nd: John Gadret, AG2R La Mondiale (33). A former French cyclo-cross champion, Gadret has quietly built a solid road palmares as a climbing specialist. 2011 was his best year yet, winning a stage en route to a fourth-place finish at the Giro, which became third following Alberto Contador’s suspension.

23rd: Tony Martin, Omega Pharma-Quick Step (27). The reigning world time trial champion has had a quiet start with his new team, finishing second at the Volta ao Algarve (which he won in 2011). However, he should come to life over the second half of the season as we build towards the Grand Tours, the Olympics and then the World Championships.

24th: Rein Taaramae, Cofidis (25). The young Estonian all-rounder had a breakthrough season in 2011, finishing fourth at Paris-Nice and third at the Criterium International. He also enjoyed success at the Grand Tours, riding consistently to 11th at the Tour and winning the mountain stage at Lagos de Samiedo at the Vuelta.

28th: Bradley Wiggins, Sky (32). The triple Olympic gold-medallist crashed out of last year’s Tour after winning the previous month’s Criterium du Dauphine, denying him a potential podium finish. However, he has since added an impressive overall victory at last month’s Paris-Nice as he builds towards another tilt at one of the top three spots in Paris this year on a parcours which offers him greater opportunity to build an advantage in his time trial specialism than in recent years.

Also on the blog

We’ll be focussing primarily on the racing this month, with full race previews and reviews from April’s seven WorldTour events and other selected races.

Of course, we’ll still be doing our regular weekly features. Tweets of the Week will hit the blog each and every Tuesday. And we will still have our usual Friday Features, where you can be sure we’ll be reflecting back on the Classics in greater detail along with other topical thoughts.

Whether serious or light-hearted, VeloVoices is the place to come for all the latest cycling news and views!

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