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With the cobbled classics now over for another year our attention turns to the Ardennes Classics. First of the three races is the Amstel Gold Race, held this Sunday in the province of Limburg in the south of The Netherlands. Where the Tour of Flanders is defined by cobbled climbs and Paris-Roubaix is defined by its brutally tough cobbled sectors, the Amstel Gold Race is famous for its many short but steep climbs and a whole lot of road furniture. Mikkel Conde put together the following preview of Sunday’s race.
There haven’t been any major changes to the route in 2015. The race still consists of narrow roads and twisty bends with a total of 34 hills to overcome. The final one, the Cauberg (800m at an average of 12%), will be done four times.
Since the World Championships in 2012, the finishing line has been placed 1,800 metres after the top of the Cauberg. This means it’s not just enough to be a strong puncheur anymore, you also have to be able to keep a chase group behind you on the flat finish. The wind plays an important factor here. A tailwind will help a lone attacker, while a headwind will increase the chances of a sprint significantly. At this stage the weather forecast suggests there’ll be a light tailwind.
For the 2013 edition, the race organisers added an extra lap of 20km. This has really opened up the race, giving opportunistic riders a fair chance of striking from afar. Roman Kreuziger did so two years ago, when he attacked over the top of the Cauberg heading out on the final lap. The most likely scenario remains that it all comes down to the Cauberg but the riders now know there is a real possibility to take the favourites by surprise and keep the peloton at bay.
On the last lap, the riders face the Geulhemmerberg (1km at 5.8%) with 16.5km to go and then the Bemelerberg (900m at 7%) with just 7.8km left. Even though these climbs will definitely leave their mark in the legs of the riders before reaching the Cauberg for the last time, they won’t be crucial for the final outcome. Usually, the peloton flies up these ascents, taking back a lot of time on possible breakaways.
We may also see some attacks on the Bemelerberg by riders on teams who would be working in the peloton otherwise. If a team like BMC sends out a rider on the Bemelerberg, they can sit back and let the teams of the other favourites sacrifice their riders in order to catch the break. It will be extremely difficult to distance the peloton and keep a gap on the Cauberg though.
When you think of the Cauberg, Philippe Gilbert (BMC) should be the first name that comes to mind. Nobody in the peloton has been more successful on this climb than Gilbert. He has won Amstel Gold Race three times already (2010, 2011 and 2014) and he won the World Championships here in 2012 as well. Few can match his kick on these kinds of hills and since Gilbert is also very strong solo and fast on the line, he’s definitely the man to beat on Sunday.
In Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday he proved to be in very good condition and BMC sends a strong team to support him at Amstel Gold. Last year, Samuel Sanchez launched a furious attack at the bottom of the Cauberg. The other favourites chased him down immediately but they forgot to keep an eye on Gilbert. Big mistake! At the other side of the road, Gilbert easily went clear and soloed away to win.
The strong Belgian usually attacks at the same place on the Cauberg. Everybody knows this but somehow he never has anybody in his wheel when he moves. That’s something for the other favourites to think about …
Since the race organisers decided to move the finishing line, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has always been close to winning. He finished second in 2013, fourth in 2014 and third at the World Championships in 2012. Clearly, this finish suits the Spaniard. However, he still hasn’t found the right formula for how to win the race.
In theory, he shouldn’t have problems following the moves on Cauberg. Unfortunately, he always seems to start the climb too far down. It costs him too much energy to reach the front, which leaves him empty when it really counts. If Movistar can position Alejandro Valverde on the right wheel when starting the Cauberg, he should be able to follow the attacks and then use his fast finish to secure another podium place.
The same can be said for Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step). The strong Pole finished fourth in 2013 and fifth last year. He’s not as explosive as the best puncheurs but he’s not far off. If there is a moment of hesitation at the top of the Cauberg, Kwiatkowski will join the front — if he’s not there already — and most likely attack. He’s an excellent time trialist. If he gets even a tiny gap on the flat run-in, it will be extremely difficult to catch him before the line.
Despite a very good start to the season, Michal Kwiatkowski still hasn’t won wearing the rainbow jersey. Don’t be surprised if he does this Sunday!
Many might consider Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) an outsider for the Amstel Gold Race. Personally, I see him as one of the favourites. This is a very important race for the Australian. He’s leading Orica-GreenEdge this year and he’s in great shape.
Matthews has only done four races this year but he has either won or made the podium in all of them. He won a stage in Paris-Nice, finished third at Milan-San Remo, won the opening stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and finished second in Brabantse Pijl. He has worked hard to improve on the climbs and it’s paying off.
He followed Peter Sagan on the Poggio in Milan-San Remo and made it look like he was on an easy Sunday ride. The Cauberg is much steeper and this will be his biggest test so far. Last year, he started the climb in a perfect position but faded when the strong attacks begun.
In peak condition, his teammate Simon Gerrans is a strong contender as well (he finished third last year). However, Gerrans is unlikely to be strong enough to fight for the win after his injuries earlier this season and he’ll be on team duties on Sunday. Gerrans’ job is to make sure that Matthews starts the Cauberg in the best position and then hopefully chase down the attacks in order to set up Bling for the sprint. In this field, I don’t see anybody faster than Michael Matthews if it comes down to a sprint finish.
Given this is the biggest Dutch race on the calendar we should naturally keep an eye on the Dutch riders. To me, their best chance of success is Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin). At the Vuelta al Pais Vasco Dumoulin put in a very impressive performance in the final time trial. Despite an insanely steep finish, Dumoulin still managed to beat the best climbers. This proves that he’s in great shape.
Last year, Tom Dumoulin was my outsider pick at Amstel Gold. Instead of waiting for the Cauberg, Dumoulin joined one of the attacks on the last lap. This probably cost him his chances of a good result and he finished 20th.
It’s not an easy line to walk for the Giant-Alpecin captain though — he’s not explosive enough to follow the best puncheurs and, even though he’s fast on the line, he’s not fast enough to beat guys like Matthews and Valverde. He probably has to attack from afar, but it also means taking a big risk of getting caught and left high and dry when the top favourites start attacking on the Cauberg. It will be very interesting to see how Dumoulin balances this task.
For other Dutchmen with a chance of a good result on Sunday, look to Wout Poels (Sky) and Bauke Mollema (Trek).
Katusha has had a great run lately. The Russian team has won or made the podium in almost all the big races this spring. For this race, they have a very potent quartet of Alexandr Kolobnev, Giampaolo Caruso, Dani Moreno and Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. Purito was exceptional at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco last week, winning two stages and taking the overall win as well. Crashes have ruined his chances in Amstel in recent years. If he can avoid any bad luck, he’ll be a very dangerous outsider.
Purito is one of the best riders in the world on these short and steep hills. However, in a flat sprint he won’t stand a chance against Matthews, Gilbert, Valverde and Kwiatkowski. He has to make a gap on the Cauberg and then hope it’s enough to stay clear.
His good friend and loyal teammate Dani Moreno also has a fair chance of winning this race. Like Purito, Moreno is very strong on the punchy climbs. On his best days, nobody drops him. Furthermore, Moreno is very fast on the line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Purito setting up Moreno for the win this Sunday. Winning Amstel Gold Race is a big achievement but for Purito, the main goal this spring is Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
For other punchy riders who are fast on the line in a reduced sprint, look to Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal), Daniel Martin (Cannondale-Garmin), Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale-Garmin), Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), 2012 winner Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty – Groupe Gobert) and the in-shape Fabio Felline (Trek). I doubt Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) will be far off either.
In case a late breakaway manages to keep the peloton at bay, look to opportunistic riders like Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
My personal super joker for Amstel Gold Race this year is Michael Valgren. The Danish champion gets a rare chance to lead Tinkoff-Saxo in one of the big races. Former winner Roman Kreuziger is on the team as well but he’s mainly preparing himself for Liege-Bastogne-Liege. This means Valgren now has a unique opportunity to prove his incredible talent. He’s in a good shape right now and he knows this is a race that suits him very well.
Even though he’s young (23), the long distance (258km) is not a problem for him. Don’t forget that Valgren came very close to winning the rainbow jersey last year. He won’t be able to follow the big favourites if he waits for the final but he has proved that he’s not afraid of attacking.
Like Kreuziger did in 2013, Valgren has to take matters into his own hands and attack from afar. It’s a tall order, especially for a rider who’s only been on the WorldTour for one year. Still, I wouldn’t put it past Michael Valgren to win Amstel Gold Race this Sunday and give his team a much-needed success story.
How to watch the race
For Australian fans, tune in to SBS One (or the livestream on the Cycling Central website) from 10:30pm AEST on Sunday night for live coverage of the race. Pay TV subscribers can also catch the race on Eurosport (Foxtel channel 511) from 10pm AEST. Viewers outside of Australia should check their local guides.
To follow the conversation on Twitter be sure to use the hashtag #AGR2015.
Who’s your pick for the 2015 Amstel Gold Race?