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After more than six and a half hours of racing in the Dutch province of Limburg yesterday, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) emerged as the winner of the 2015 Amstel Gold Race.
The 24-year-old Pole had the strongest sprint from a group of 18 riders that came together after the decisive final ascent of the famous Cauberg climb.
The race featured no fewer than 34 climbs in its 258km but none of them more decisive than the fourth time up the Cauberg, a 700m rise that averages 8% but peaks at 12%. This climb has been a happy hunting ground for Philippe Gilbert (BMC) who has won the Amstel Gold Race three times and also the 2012 World Championships which featured the Cauberg no fewer than 10 times.
As with any WorldTour race there’s plenty to discuss in the wash-up. Here are seven things we’ll take from the 2015 Amstel Gold Race, in no particular order.
Michael Matthews did everything he could
Almost nobody has been able to match the acceleration of Philippe Gilbert on the Cauberg in recent years, and on Sunday only one rider was up to the task: Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).
Matthews timed his run perfectly — he didn’t react when Ben Hermans (BMC) was the first to attack, softening things up for Gilbert. Instead the Australian waited, and was straight on Gilbert’s wheel when the Belgian made his move. Matthews stayed with Gilbert, just, the pair summiting the climb together.
It was the right move to make — Gilbert would probably have ridden away solo had Matthews not followed him; but ironically it probably cost Matthews the win. Kwiatkowski, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and 14 others were able to make it across to the leading duo to contest the finish. And when it came time to sprint, Matthews’ exertions on the climb meant he didn’t have the legs to win when, on paper, he probably should have.
That’s not to be critical of Matthews though — he made the right move at the right time and was incredibly impressive in doing so. He was probably just a little unlucky. If it wasn’t already, the future is extremely bright for the 24-year-old Australian.
The curse of the rainbow bands is over … for now
The curse of the rainbow bands is a cherished aspect of road cycling mythology. The theory goes that the winner of the road world championships often struggles to win races during their tenure in the coveted rainbow jersey, for reasons that aren’t quite understood.
Until yesterday Michal Kwiatkowski was yet to win a race after nearly seven months in the rainbow bands. He did win the prologue time trial at Paris-Nice but the perception is that victory doesn’t count given because was wearing the red and white colours of the Polish national time trial champion (Bradley Wiggins is the reigning world time trial champion).
Here’s a stat to consider: by the same time last year (i.e. before winning at Worlds), Kwiatkowski already had four wins for the season (including Strade Bianche plus a stage and the overall at the Volta ao Algarve). Also worth considering: it took Rui Costa nine months to get his first win as 2013 World Champion (a stage and the overall at the 2014 Tour de Suisse – his only wins for the year) and Philippe Gilbert got his only win in the rainbow bands just three weeks before he had to give them up (stage 12 of the 2013 Vuelta a Espana).
Does the curse of the rainbow bands exist? Who knows, but there’s no doubt Kwiatkowski will be relieved to have notched up his first road race win of the year, particularly after five podium finishes to this point.
The course probably needs a shake-up
A break got up the road, they built a lead of nearly 10 minutes, the big teams started working to reduce the deficit. It was a pretty standard script and even having 34 climbs on the route couldn’t make the first four-fifths of the race particularly exciting.
Sure, the length of the race is important — only the strongest riders are able to dash up the Cauberg at speed with more than 250 hilly kilometres in their legs — but the Amstel Gold Race, in simple terms, is a race that basically comes down to the last 10km (a fight for position into the Cauberg, the Cauberg itself and then the 1.8km to the finish).
Granted, we did see some great action on approach to the Cauberg yesterday with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) at his aggressive best and Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge – more on him below) putting on a great show. But as The Inner Ring writes, the wide and often-wind-affected roads on approach to the Cauberg do little to reward riders who are willing to try a last-minute escape.
Don’t get me wrong — the selective nature of the Cauberg makes for a thrilling finale, as yesterday’s race showed, but changing up the course a little might keep things a little more interesting.
Simon Clarke is an underrated rider
As an Australian, it was terrific to see two Aussies — David Tanner (IAM) and Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) — lead as the closing stages of the race unfolded yesterday. And when Clarke attacked solo from a group of three a short time later — Vincenzo Nibali and Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step) had come across — there were more than a few Australian cycling fans hoping the Victorian would hold on to win.
While a victory was certainly unlikely, and Clarke was eventually caught with 8km to go, the work he did out front was invaluable. It meant Orica-GreenEdge didn’t have to contribute to the chase, leaving them fresh to lead Matthews into the final ascent of the Cauberg, a job that Pieter Weening and Simon Gerrans did beautifully.
For non-Australian fans Simon Clarke probably remains an underrated rider and a rider often overshadowed by the likes of Simon Gerrans and now Michael Matthews. But within the team he is highly respected for the work he does for his teammates.
He’s without a contract for 2016 as yet but it’s hard to see him being overlooked after yesterday’s performance, among others. In the more immediate future, he’ll be worth keeping an eye on at Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege this week and then at the Giro d’Italia come May.
BMC rode an almost perfect race
When you go into the Amstel Gold Race with Philippe Gilbert as your leader you have every reason to ride well. Gilbert is a proven performer at this race and he knows the Cauberg as well as anyone, not least because he trains in the region during winter.
BMC supported Gilbert perfectly. When it came time to chase the breakaway, BMC was there, largely in the form of Marcus Burghardt. And when a few smaller groups went up the road later, Damiano Caruso was there playing policeman (until he crashed, anyway).
Greg van Avermaet followed a dangerous move from Jakob Fugslang in the closing stages and then it was Brabantse Pijl winner Ben Hermans who did what Sammy Sanchez did last year, lighting up the Cauberg to soften things up for Gilbert.
The only difference in 2015 was that Gilbert wasn’t able to gap everyone and ride away to victory. Knowing that he had the fast-finishing Matthews for company arguably took some of the impetus out of Gilbert’s efforts in the final 1.8km to the line. Thankfully, Greg Van Avermaet was just behind and would go on to join the lead group and finish fifth in the small bunch kick.
It wasn’t the result BMC was looking for but they could hardly be disappointed with their performance — it was a quintessential team effort in support of a proven finisher and it’s hard to see how they could have done anything more.
It’s always entertaining watching cyclists remonstrate with one another
With 52km to go in the race a typically narrow climb created a compression in the main field with many riders at the back forced to unclip and come to a standstill. Vicente Reynes (IAM) was one of those riders and he seemed to take particular exception to how Roy Curvers (Giant-Alpecin) handled the slowing down.
It looked like it might descend into one of those videos you see on YouTube but before a shove in the face could escalate to something more serious, Roy Curvers decided (wisely) to take flight.
For connoisseurs of old-fashioned fisticuffs it was a disappointing outcome; for the rest of it us was a good if expletive-laden reminder that English very much is the language of the peloton these days.
UPDATE: Check out this video of the lead up to the confrontation. No wonder Reynes wasn’t happy!
Etixx-Quick-Step finally has a WorldTour victory in 2015
It’s become a running joke that Etixx-Quick-Step, despite tremendous strength and depth when it comes to its Spring Classics line-up, has managed to find a way to miss out on a big victory so far this year. Sure, Zdenek Stybar won Strade Bianche but it’s been slim pickings since then.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was the most obvious example with EQS having three of the four riders in the winning move, before being beaten by Sky’s Ian Stannard. The team came back similarly empty-handed at E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Of course, just about every team came back empty-handed from all of these races too, but the expectations on EQS are far greater than just about any other team, not least because of Tom Boonen’s dominance in the Spring Classics throughout the past decade.
But with Boonen sidelined with a shoulder injury, the team has been unable to hit the winners list in a meaningful way … until yesterday. Kwiatkowski’s perfectly timed run on the Cauberg, combined with a wonderfully patient sprint, delivered the team’s biggest victory of the year so far.
And while EQS mightn’t have been the all-conquering Spring Classics force in 2015 that many were expecting, don’t feel too sorry for them — their consistency throughout the year so far means they lead the UCI WorldTour team rankings.
So, what memorable moments from the 2015 Amstel Gold Race did we miss? What will you take a way from this race?