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by Matt de Neef
April 15, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
The Cobbled Classics of Flanders and northern France are over for another year which means it’s time to turn our attention to the so-called Ardennes Classics. The first of three such races, the Amstel Gold Race, is now in its 51st edition and is the only one-day Dutch race on the WorldTour calendar. Here’s what you should know before sitting down to watch the 2016 edition.
The Amstel Gold Race is part of the Ardennes Classics but isn’t in the Ardennes
The Amstel Gold Race is held in the Dutch province of Limburg, the southernmost of The Netherlands’ 12 provinces. The Ardennes region, by contrast, is further south and includes parts of eastern Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and even Germany.
While not geographically linked to the other Ardennes Classics (Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege) Amstel Gold Race is just as hilly – The Netherlands as a whole might be famously flat, but Limburg certainly isn’t.
Like the Tour of Flanders, the Amstel Gold Race features an intricate and complicated route map
Starting in Maastricht, right near the Belgian border, the 2016 Amstel Gold Race will take riders on a 248.7km journey through Limburg, ending in the town of Valkenburg (the site of the 2012 Road World Championships). The course features a series of complex, intersecting circuits, all of which include a multitude of twists, turns and road furniture. As the map below and Michal Kwiatkowski’s Strava file from last year’s race show, the route is something of a mess.
The riders visit Valkenburg no fewer than three times before the final approach to the finish. The route is identical to last year’s apart from one minor deviation.
As with the Tour of Flanders, the main challenge of Amstel Gold is the race’s many short, sharp climbs
In all, there are 34 climbs for the riders to contend with in this year’s Amstel Gold Race — an average of one every 7km. Six climbs appear multiple times throughout the day — the Sibergrubbe (twice), the Geulhemmerberg (three times), the Loorberg (twice), the Gulpenerberg (twice), the Bemelerberg (twice) and, most importantly, the Cauberg.
The Cauberg appears a total of four times, peaking with 197.2km to go (climb #6), 89.2km to go (#22), 21.1km to go (#31) and as the final climb, just before the finish. The race used to end at the top of the Cauberg but in 2013 the finish was moved to Valkenburg, 1.8km away, mimicking the finish of the 2012 Road World Championships.
It’s normally the Cauberg that decides the Amstel Gold Race
In all, the Cauberg is 1.3km long at an average grade of 5% but at its steepest it’s a nasty 12%. It’s the sort of climb that suits the true puncheurs of the sport — riders like three-time winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC) who can maintain huge amounts of power for the two-and-a-bit minutes needed to conquer the climb.
In the three editions of Amstel Gold since the finish was moved from the top of the Cauberg to Valkenburg, two have been won solo. One was by Roman Kreuziger who attacked with 17km to go in 2013 and held his lead over the Cauberg and on to the finish. In 2014, Philippe Gilbert attacked on the Cauberg, got clear, and rode solo to the line.
Last year, despite Gilbert’s best efforts, it was a group of 18 that reached Valkenburg together with then-world champion Michal Kwiatkowski taking victory in the sprint.
Philippe Gilbert lights it up on the Cauberg in last year’s race as Michael Matthews battles to hang on.
As Kreuziger showed in 2013, it’s certainly possible to make your winning move at Amstel Gold before the Cauberg but that final climb remains the most likely venue for a race-winning attack.
Expect the day’s breakaway and any late attacks to be caught before the Cauberg and for the pace in the peloton to be extremely high on the approach. From there it will be a case of who’s strongest on the climb and how many riders will emerge at the top before flying into Valkenburg.
Philippe Gilbert always deserves to be among the favourites at Amstel Gold but it’s unclear what condition he’ll be in
Phil Gil loves the Cauberg and the Amstel Gold Race. As mentioned, he’s won the latter three times (putting him second on the list of most editions won, behind five-time winner Jan Ras) and he also won the 2012 Worlds road race which had the same finish as Amstel Gold Race.
Gilbert would go in as one of the big favourites this weekend were it not for a serious finger injury sustained in an altercation with a motorist last weekend. While the events surrounding the incident are a little unclear, what is clear is that Gilbert sat out Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday after surgery to insert metal rods in his broken finger.
That he’s even planning on taking the startline on Sunday is incredible. Whether he’ll be able to have any impact on the race remains to be seen.
Michal Kwiatkowski is the defending champion and among the men to beat
The former world champion has started the year in good form, his victory in E3 Harelbeke being an obvious highlight. The Pole has shown over and over again that he likes racing aggressively and that he likes getting away on short punchy climbs. He’s a chance to get clear of the bunch on the Cauberg on Sunday but equally, as he showed last year, if it’s a small group that comes to the line, he’ll be in the mix there too.
Arguably the biggest favourite for this year’s race though is last year’s third-place finisher Michael Matthews. Matthews already has three wins to his name in 2016 — despite only starting his season in March — and the Amstel Gold Race is one of his biggest goals of the season. As he showed last year by following Gilbert on the Cauberg, Matthews is among the best in the world on short, punchy climbs, and reduced bunch finishes are also among his greatest strengths.
If it comes to a reduced-bunch sprint on Sunday, Matthews will be hard to beat.
It will be fascinating to see how Orica-GreenEdge approaches the race given Simon Gerrans will also line up for the Australian-registered team. Gerrans is in good form (as shown at the Tour of the Basque Country last week) and, like Matthews, is well suited to this race (he’s finished third on three occasions). Matthews and Gerrans famously ended up sprinting against each other at the Road World Championships in Richmond last year, despite being teammates, and GreenEdge will be keen to avoid a repeat performance on Sunday.
According to a team press release Matthews and Gerrans go in as “joint leaders” which could mean just about anything when they reach the Cauberg for the final time. Assuming both are in good position and feeling strong, who gets the nod?
As ever, there’s an impressive list of riders that could challenge for the win on Sunday
In many ways, Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) was the revelation of last year’s Ardennes. The then-22-year-old was seventh at Amstel Gold and then second and both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He’s had an unremarkable start to 2016 but appears to be heading in the right direction with a strong supporting ride en route to eighth at Brabantse Bijl earlier this week. He’s one to watch come Sunday.
So too is his teammate Peter Vakoc. The 23-year old from the Czech Republic won Brabantse Pijl with an attack on the final climb — after being beautifully set up by Alaphilippe — and now has three wins for the year plus a bunch of other strong results. With Vakoc and Alaphilippe Etixx-QuickStep has some strong cards to play.
Petr Vakoc won Brabantse Pijl with an attack on the final climb.
Frenchman Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) could be in the mix after a bunch of top-10 finishes so far this year including an impressive third at Brabantse Pijl. Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo) has started the season in good form as well and could be worth watching, likewise with Australia’s Simon Clarke (Cannondale-Garmin) who was impressive off the front in last year’s race and can both climb and sprint well in a small group.
Edvald Boasson Hagen goes into the race as Dimension Data’s protected rider and with good reason. He rode very strongly at Paris-Roubaix last week to finish fifth, and while his best finish at Amstel Gold is 39th, he’s good on short punchy climbs and has a strong finish.
For other outside chances look to escape artist Peter Kennaugh (Sky), Ben Hermans (BMC), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff), Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo), Jan Bakelants (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), two-time runner-up Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Soudal) and Brabantse Pijl runner-up (not to mention 2012 Amstel Gold Race winner) Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert).
The race will be shown live on TV around the world
Viewers in Australia can catch the Amstel Gold Race live on SBS TV from 10:30pm AEST on Sunday night, or on Eurosport from 11pm AEST (Foxtel Channel 511).
Fans in the US should be able to stream the race online via the beIN Sports website. Eurosport will have live coverage in the UK and Europe. Check your local guides for specific broadcast times.
The race it also set to be streamed live around the world via the Amstel website.
So, who do you think will win the 2016 Amstel Gold Race? And how will they do it?