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by Shane Stokes
April 17, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos
Digging deep to reel in Michal Kwiatkowski after the Team Sky rider gapped him in the final sprint, Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors) overhauled the Pole and captured his fourth Amstel Gold race.
The Belgian rider’s victory in the two-man sprint continued his resurgence this spring, adding to his stage win and overall victory in the Three Days of De Panne plus his triumph in the Tour of Flanders.
It further rewarded QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere’s decision to sign the Belgian, although he must now wonder if he would have been better to have given Gilbert a place in last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix lineup.
Gilbert had been kept out of the team, with all backing given to Tom Boonen in his attempt to take a record fifth title. In the end that didn’t work out, and Gilbert’s absence meant the team’s options were limited.
Ten seconds after Gilbert’s win, third place went to Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott), who beat Nathan Haas (Team Dimension Data), JJ Rojas (Movistar) and Sergio Luis Henao (Sky) in their four-man sprint.
Ion Izaguirre (Bahrain Merida) was four seconds further back in seventh, while Michael Gogl (Trek-Segafredo) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) were next best, over one minute down.
Gilbert was highly satisfied at the finish.
“It was a hard day, a hard final,” he said. “We went from the Kruisberg and it was a long move. I think all of us deserved the win today because we really worked together. We did really nice work in the last 40 kilometres.”
The crucial move was sparked off by Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) on the Kruisberg, and saw him, Gilbert, Kwiatkowski, Henao, Haas, Albasini and Bert Jan Lindeman (LottoNL-Jumbo) get clear.
They were joined by Izaguirre and Rojas, but Benoot suffered mechanical issues and slipped back.
On the day’s final climb, that of the Bemelerberg, Kwiatkowski attacked hard and gapped everyone bar Gilbert. The others remained close, but Gilbert kicked hard before the top and snapped the elastic, leaving it two out front with just under six kilometres left.
“In the end with Kwiatkowski we went hard,” he said. “When he went, I saw the guys were on the limit behind. I was also on the limit, but I knew if I could dig a little deeper it could work.”
Kwiatkowski forced Gilbert to lead into the final kilometre and then caught him by surprised when he opened the sprint early. However although he got a tactical advantage, it proved not to be enough.
“He surprised me a little bit in the sprint, but I knew it was a headwind,” said Gilbert. “I didn’t panic, I got back up to him and then I passed him right before the end. It was perfect for me.
“My goals every season are to win a Classic, Now it is already two. That is maybe for the years I didn’t win one.”
After the cobbles and chaos of the Northern Classics, the attention shifted to hillier terrain with the first of three so-called Ardennes Classics, the Amstel Gold Race.
Although the event is located in the Netherlands and not the Belgian Ardennes, the slopes of the Dutch event sees it put in the same category as next Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The WorldTour event began in Maastrict and ended in Valkenburg, although the traditional climb of the Cauberg was absent from the finale. The organisers wanted to try to stimulate less predictable racing, although time will tell how successful the rejigged format will be.
The modification didn’t make things any easier for the riders; a total of 35 climbs lurked along the 264.4 kilometre route, providing plenty of opportunity for attacks. However the last of those, the Bemelerberg, would come just inside the final six kilometres and so a vastly different finale to other years was in store.
Very early on three riders sprang clear and were soon joined by another three. This sextet in turn doubled in number, and twelve riders set about building a big lead.
Those present were Stijn Vandenbergh (AG2R-La Mondiale), Brendan Canty (Cannondale-Drapac), Mads Wurtz Schmidt (Katusha-Alpecin), Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo), Johann Van Zyl (Dimension Data), Nikita Stalnov (Astana), Pieter Van Speybrouck (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Fabien Grellier (Direct Energie).Vincenzo Albanese (Bardiani-CSF), Kenneth Van Rooy (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Michal Paluta (CCC Sprandi Polkowice) and Tim Ariesen (Roompot).
This group worked well together and shortly after the first ascent of the Cauberg (km. 55), they crossed the finish line for the first time with an eight-minute lead.
This advantage remained constant for some time, but then began to dwindle. With 100 kilometres covered it was down to seven minutes, and with just under 120 kilometres left it was five and a half minutes.
Several crashes had taken place in the bunch, including a spill involving Tour of Flanders winner Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors) and Astana’s Michael Valgren, who was second in Amstel 12 months ago. Both riders were fortunately unharmed and quickly remounted.
Inside the final 100 kilometres, the leaders were a shade over four minutes clear. They scaled the Cauberg and then crossed the finish line, with the peloton subsequently passing the same point three minutes and 45 seconds back.
With 74 kilometres left on the clock, the BMC Racing Team squad of Greg Van Avermaet hit the front and began chasing hard. The Belgian rider has been one of the best riders this spring and won Paris-Roubaix last Sunday. He was keen to try to add the Amstel Gold Race to his haul.
The increase in pace hacked the gap down to two minutes as the break and bunch climbed the Bemelerberg climb, then headed for the Loorberg ascent. Just before the latter Greillier jumped away, conscious that the break’s chances were fading, while those behind were gobbled up by the bunch soon afterwards.
The lone leader reached the Gulpenberg climb with an advantage of just 13 seconds and while he increased this to 20 seconds by the top, he was hauled back with 40 kilometres to go.
Very soon afterwards the bunch turned onto the Kruisberg climb, and almost immediately Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) attacked. He was followed by Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors) and Sergio Henao (Team Sky), with Nathan Haas (Team Dimension Data), Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) and Bert Jan Lindeman (LottoNL-Jumbo) bridging.
Ion Izaguirre (Bahrain-Merida) and JJ Rojas (Movistar) then also got across, making it eight leaders. They had 20 seconds starting the Eyserbosweg, with Van Avermaet and others chasing furiously behind.
Benoot suffered a mechanical issue and slipped back from the lead group, while Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) tried to return the number out front to eight with a big chase.
With just over 30 kilometres left, 2016 champion Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty Groupe Goubert) and the 2013 champion Roman Kreuziger (Bahrain Merida) both fell and looked unable to continue.
On the Keutenberg, Gilbert led and pushed the pace. He was tracked by Henao, while behind Wellens was still giving his all to try to get across.
Wellens was caught and passed by the chasing group, with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) leading Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and several others. However most impressive of all was former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski, who leaped clear and hurtled across the gap alone. At the same time, Lindeman cracked and lost his place out front.
Inside the final 25 kilometres Van Avermaet, Valverde, Wellens and Felline represented the chase group, and were soon caught by Warren Barguil, Rui Costa and Bob Jungels. Further back, Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and others were in the main bunch.
The break climbed the Cauberg and crested the summit with a 40 second advantage over the chasers. The peloton with Matthews and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) was just over a minute back and seemed to be out of the picture.
With ten kilometres left, the leaders had 42 seconds over the Van Avermaet group. They sensed that the win would go to one of them provided they didn’t mess around and give the chasers the opportunity to bridge. Because of this, they continued to work hard.
They hurtled onwards towards the day’s final climb, that of the Bemelerberg. Gilbert led onto the slopes, then Haas took over. Kwiatkowski attacked almost immediately, but Gilbert clawed his way back up to him. Haas and the others were also close and managed – just about – to keep in contact.
Gilbert attacked hard over the top and was marked by Kwiatkowski. This final dig snapped the elastic and that left two leaders with 5.8 kilometres left.
Izagirre jumped to try to get across but the others marked him. Haas then clipped away and got a gap, but faded and was hauled back.
With four kilometres left Gilbert and Kwiatkowski were 15 seconds ahead of their former breakaway companions and this increased to 22 seconds with two kilometres left. The chase was disorganised, giving them the perfect opportunity to build their lead, and they reached the final kilometre with an additional three seconds to their credit.
Gilbert led into the final 900 metres and then began looking back and freewheeling, trying to get Kwiatkowski to come through. The Sky rider refused to do so, however, and Gilbert was forced to stay on the front inside the final 300 metres.
Kwiatkowski then launched, opening a gap, but Gilbert dug in, dug deep and got back up to the Pole’s back wheel, then came around to win.
In doing so, he followed up earlier successes in the 2010, 2011 and 2014 editions of the race, and underlined his favourite status for the two remaining Ardennes Classics.